We are halfway through the third chapter of the Gospel of Mark, and already there are crowds mobbing Jesus; religious officials sent out from Jerusalem to inspect him, and rumors circulating that he’s out of his mind. How did we get here?
Mark is the oldest and the shortest of the four Gospels, the books of the Bible that tell about the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus. Mark is also my favorite Gospel. I’m drawn in by his skillful and efficient storytelling. In the Revised Common Lectionary, the three-year cycle of Sunday readings that we follow, we’ll be in Mark’s Gospel for much of this summer and fall. So it’s a good moment to pause and introduce Mark, get a sense of the voice that will be telling us the Good News of God in Christ in the weeks ahead.
Today’s lesson starts 92 verses into Mark’s Gospel, but a LOT has already happened. Mark’s introduction to his Gospel is famously brief, compared to the other three: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Then he introduces John the Baptist, with a quotation from the prophet Isaiah. John appears in the wilderness, oddly dressed and preaching an odd message of repentance and ritual washing. And then Jesus appears – “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan River.” The Spirit of God descends upon Jesus and calls him Son and Beloved. He fasts in the desert for forty days, and is tempted by Satan, and tended by angels. Then he comes back to Galilee and begins proclaiming that the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near, and calls people to change their hearts and trust the good news.
He calls his first disciples, Simon, Andrew, James and John – four fishermen he finds on the shores of the sea of Galilee, who think, Well, following this guy seems more interesting than mending nets for my dad. The little group heads to the town of Capernaum – where in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus seems to have a home base of some sort. Maybe it’s a home of his own – he was thirty years old, after all; maybe it’s Simon and Andrew’s home, where Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law from a fever, so she could make them dinner.
Jesus is teaching in the synagogue when a man who is possessed with an unclean spirit cries out and names him as the Holy One of God. Jesus sends out the spirit, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” People are amazed and start talking about Jesus: “What is this? A new teaching – and this man doesn’t just have words; he also has power and authority!” And his fame begins to spread.
That evening, people gather at the house where he’s staying – practically the whole city. They bring him the sick and the demon-possessed, and he heals them. Early in the morning, he sneaks out to go pray by himself. But his friends soon track him down and say, “Everyone is looking for you!” And Jesus says, Let’s go on to the neighboring towns. We need to spread the message around.
So they travel around Galilee, proclaiming the message and casting out demons. In one town, he cures a man afflicted by leprosy, and asks him please not to say anything to anyone, but the man is so joyful about his healing that he tells EVERYONE about it. The crowds become so great that Jesus can’t even go into towns anymore. He stays out in the countryside, and crowds come to him, from all over the place.
That’s chapter 1.
After this healing tour, Jesus goes home to Capernaum for a break – but people hear that he’s back, and quickly a crowd gathers again, packed in front of the house. Jesus stands in the doorway, teaching them. Some people bring a man who is paralyzed, carrying him on his mat; they can’t get through the crowd so they somehow get themselves, and the paralyzed man, onto the roof of the house, break through the roof tiles and beams, and lower the man down to Jesus. Jesus tells the paralyzed man, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
Now, some scribes are among the crowd – maybe even towards the front, either as recognition of their status or because they were chumming it up and talking Scripture with Jesus. These scribes were probably the local Scripture scholars, people who had studied the Torah and taught at the local synagogue. Jesus scandalizes them when he says this man’s sins are forgiven, because in Judaism, that’s not something people can do; that’s something only God can do. Jesus perceives their doubt and indignation – and demonstrates his power by giving the paralyzed man healing of body as well as spirit. Stand up, take your mat and go home, he says; and the man does.
The people are amazed and glorify God. But the scribes start to worry about whether Jesus’ teachings are compatible with their faith as they understand it. Is he a prophet – or a problem?
Then Jesus makes things worse by starting to keep notably bad company. He calls a tax-collector to join his followers. Everyone knows those guys collaborate with the Romans, the despised foreign power that controls Judea; and they line their own pockets by taking too much from people already desperately poor. Jesus goes to dinner at this man’s house, sitting among tax collectors and sinners. No doubt it was a wonderful meal, paid for by the wages of the penniless!
This time Mark names the people questioning Jesus as Pharisees. The Pharisees were a movement within Judaism at this time. They wanted all Jews to return to faithful practice of the laws and traditions of Judaism, rather than losing their distinctive identity and faith and assimilating to the Greco-Roman cultural context. In the Book of Acts, the apostle Paul talks about being a Pharisee before he became a Christian and calls it, “The most exacting sect of our religion.”
For the Pharisees, things like food purity practices and Sabbath observance – keeping Saturdays as a day of rest, as commanded by God – were really important. Not because they were superficial or legalistic but because they believed that the heart of Judaism was faithfulness to a distinctive way of life that God had given them through Moses. For the Pharisees, if you are a rabbi, a teacher of God’s ways, you’ve go to walk the talk, and that means you do NOT share a meal with a tax collectors. And you observe certain days of fasting – which Jesus and his disciples did not do. And you don’t do any work on the Sabbath, including picking grain – which Jesus and his disciples did.
Jesus’ perspective is that the Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath. Sabbath-keeping is a tool to help us rest and re-center on God. This difference of perspectives on Sabbath-keeping is an honest disagreement between people of faith. But at the beginning of chapter 3, things come to a head on another Sabbath.
Jesus is again at the synagogue. And a man approaches him who has a withered hand – an old injury or a birth defect. And the Pharisees watch him to see what he’ll do.
This is a bit of an edge case in terms of Sabbath-keeping. Jewish law has a robust and ancient teaching that preserving life is always the overriding value. For example: If a wall collapses on a child on the Sabbath, of course you do the work of lifting the bricks to save the child. However, by the same teaching, if the situation is not life-threatening, then Sabbath observance should prevail. This withered hand isn’t life-threatening, so Jesus is actually stretching the law here – from saving life to alleviating suffering. You can be sympathetic to that move – I am – but the Pharisees see it as a slippery slope. Jesus heals this man’s hand today, on the Sabbath, when he could just as well have healed it tomorrow. In their eyes, he’s undercutting the ancient, holy patterns of life that they’re trying to renew.
Mark tells us, The Pharisees went out and immediately began to conspire against Jesus with the Herodians – those in the inner circle of King Herod, the ruling class who were collaborating with Roman colonial rule of Judea. The Herodians and the Pharisees do not have a lot of interests in common. But Mark wants us to understand that Jesus was becoming a threat to people who were invested in the status quo in many different ways.
Jesus leaves town with his disciples but a crowd follows – and others gather from all over the place, even as far as Jerusalem, Tyre and Sidon. He has his disciples have a boat ready, in case he needs them to take him out on the lake so he can preach without being crushed. And he continues to heal people and send out demons, who frequently shout out, “You are the Son of God!” He sternly orders them not to talk about him – but we can see how well that’s working.
After preaching by the lake, he somehow escapes up a hill and calls his closest friends and followers to join him there. He names twelve of them to be sent out to proclaim and send out demons, in his name – a way to try and spread the ministry around and manage the crowds! But it doesn’t work; everybody wants Jesus. He comes home to Capernaum and a crowd gathers AGAIN – so packed that they can’t even eat.
That brings us to today’s Gospel. Jesus’ family hears that he’s back in town. And they go out to try and restrain him – that’s a physical word: to take hold of him, to seize him. Because he’s in danger. People are saying he’s out of his mind. He’s disrespecting the community’s religious leaders. And look at these crowds! Things could go wrong in an instant.
Now, as his mother and brothers and sisters are marching across town to fetch him, Jesus gets into a lively little dispute with some scribes, Scripture scholars, who have come down from Jerusalem, the Holy City, to evaluate his teaching. Their assessment? He certainly can cast out demons – but they think he’s doing it by using the power of a stronger demon. Namely Beelzebul, who was thought to be a prince of demons, second only to Satan himself.
Jesus overhears – or reads their minds – and says, “Really? Satan is casting out Satan, now? Well, I guess our work here is finished, because if Satan’s realm is divided and fighting itself, then his end has come. But we all know that’s not what’s going on here. Look, if you want to plunder goods from the home of a strong man, the first thing you have to do is tie up the strong man himself. Then you can can take whatever you want. That’s what I’m doing: stealing from Satan’s house, freeing people whom Satan has held in bondage. You have said that I’m possessed by an unclean spirit, that it’s by demonic power that I heal and cast out demons. Listen: I assure you that human beings will be forgiven for everything, for all sins and insults of every kind. But whoever insults the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven. That person is guilty of a sin with consequences that last forever.”
Jesus tells these experts in Jewish law from the Great Temple in the Holy City that they are so blind to God’s presence that they see the Holy Spirit of God at work and they name it as a demon… and God is not amused.
Then his mother and his brothers and sisters show up. They can’t get through the crowd but they stand at the edge and call his name. Jesus! JESUS! Jesus BarJoseph, YOU COME OUT HERE RIGHT NOW! Word passes through the crowd, as it does, and the people near him tell him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside asking for you.” And he replies, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And he looks around at them and says, ‘You are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’ This would have been an even bigger insult in Jesus’ time and place, where family loyalty was core cultural value.
I find that there’s a duck/rabbit quality to this scene for me. Sometimes it just sounds like some archetypal cult leader smarminess. “All of you are my family now!” … But then I look at again and see something hopeful and liberative: We are not bound by who we have been in the past. If where you came from doesn’t fit who you are, you’re not lost. You don’t have to be alone. We can choose new families, when we need to.
That’s the first three chapters of Mark’s Gospel, friends. Many of the things that scholars name as characteristic of Mark have shown up already in the text. It’s a text that marches at a breakneck pace towards the Cross. Mark’s Gospel is only sixteen chapters long, and by the beginning of the third chapter, people are already plotting to have Jesus killed. There’s a sense of urgency in the text- “immediately” is one of Mark’s keywords; listen for it in the weeks ahead.
Another hallmark of this Gospel is what scholars call the “Messianic secret”: Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, but he keeps telling people (and demons) NOT TO TALK ABOUT IT – whether because the time for full revelation has not yet come, or because he’s just tired of dealing with the crowds. Mark’s narrative style is direct and simple – but not simplistic. People thought of Mark as the least sophisticated Gospel for a long time – but Biblical scholars have come to recognize that there is a LOT going on here, narratively and theologically. That’s one of the things I really like about Mark’s Gospel – he’ll tell you the story and leave you to think about what it means, instead of trying to explain it to you.
This is, by many standards, a terrible sermon. I’m supposed to draw something out from the assigned text that we can apply to our lives in the contemporary world. But I looked at this Gospel and I thought, I just want us to receive this story. To understand how it fits into Mark’s fast-building narrative, and what it tells us about Jesus.
Because I like Jesus. I’m drawn to him. That’s one of the touchstones of my faith: I find Jesus compelling. I find Mark’s portrayal of Jesus compelling.
In our Godly Play classroom downstairs, the Jesus stories begin, Once there was a man who said such amazing things and did such wonderful things that people followed him. That’s what we see here, in these first chapters of Mark. And it still happens. I know because I’m one of those people. Amazed, and wondering, and following.
Our Godly Play stories end with questions, like: I wonder where you are in this story? I love that wherever I place myself in this story, Jesus has something for me. When I’m coming to him with pain, my own or that of a loved one, he sees and offers the touch of healing love. When I’m facing him as a religious leader who feels defensive of my understanding and my way of doing things, he’s there to challenge and liberate me. If I’m feeling anxious about respectability and order and not being too “out there,” he’s there to remind me that the movement of the Spirit and the will of God matter more than human expectations. And when I’m just one of the crowd, showing up to see and hear and talk about it with friends, well, I’m in the story too. Showing up to hear – once more, and always – that the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.