Getting on the Right Side of God: Reflections on Mark 3:20-35
Criticisms of Jesus:
1. "He has gone out of his mind." (3:21)
Jesus' family appears at the beginning and end of this passage (3:22 and 3:31-35). We learn in 3:22 that they have heard stories of his Capernaum ministry and have come "to restrain him, for people were saying, 'He has gone out of his mind.'" Neither Matthew nor Luke includes what one commentator calls "this brief and potentially embarrassing notice." (R.T. France, 164) Various commentators have tried to soften this harsh verse, but its obvious meaning stands: His family has heard reports of chaotic scenes in Capernaum, and they have come to retrieve him and check him into a sanatorium for an extended period of rest and reality therapy. Before they get a chance to, however, another group pushes in ahead of them with an even more serious criticism.
2. "He has Beelzebul and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons." (3:22)
A delegation of scribes from Jerusalem arrives on a campaign of defamation. They level a critique of Jesus, which is exactly the kind of thing his family had hoped to avert by taking him home. These scribes question his spiritual allegiance (178). They attempt to label Jesus as a messenger of Satan rather than of God. They have come from Jerusalem foreshadowing that city as the scene of Jesus' eventual humiliation and death. A similar delegation from Jerusalem is mentioned again in 7:1 mounting another critique at Jesus and his followers. Jesus' exorcisms have been a prominent part of his Galilean ministry. The demons have given him repeated "shout outs" (1:24-25, 34; 3:11-12) despite his repeated attempts to shut them up. The perception is now widespread that Jesus has authority over unclean spirits. These scribes attribute that authority to his being in league with their master, Beelzebub. This is a term Mark uses as a name for Satan.
Jesus' response to the scribal delegation from Jerusalem (3:23-28):
1. Your accusation is illogical. Jesus' response is to point out the nonsensical character of the charge. Why would Satan cooperate with Jesus' attempts to destroy him?
2. Your accusation is unforgivable. The ministry of Jesus marks "the decisive turning point in the contest between good and evil for the control of the world and its people" (France, 169). In their accusation, the Jerusalem scribes are calling good evil and evil good. They are confusing the Spirit of God with the spirit of darkness. Furthermore, not only are they attributing Jesus' power to Satan, but they are accusing him of being demon possessed. This is the charge that lies behind the terrible saying about unforgiveable sin in verses 28-30. (168)
Jesus' response to his family (3:31-35)
Jesus is brusque to the point of rudeness. Never mind the fifth commandment. Never mind what we learn elsewhere in the N.T. that Mary and James were prominent in the Christian movement. Never mind Jesus' attention to his duty as a son in John 19:25-27. Mark's context made family affection a luxury. Mark 13:12 pictures persecution of disciples from their own families. Mark 10:28: "If doing the will of God (verse 35) involves the incomprehension and even hostility of one's family this is a price worth paying." (France, 178)
We aren't told how this scene ends. We assume his words were relayed to his family and they turned around and returned to Nazareth. He went on to teach and heal and exorcize and feed and forgive. He went on to match his will and power against Satan.
This passage doesn't boil down to a simple moral, but it does contain a strong command to give God the glory when we see demons exorcized and evil thwarted. It contains a strong command to get out of the way of Jesus' outrageous and gracious power. Those who impede God's attempts to heal our world are the ones who are out of their (our) minds. Those who stand in the way of God's attempts to redeem relationships are the one with unclean spirits.
As we all know, truth is stranger than fiction. In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's world, Moriarity dies and Holmes survives despite appearances to the contrary. In the Gospels, Jesus dies and the Satan appears to survive and thrive. Until the great reversal of the resurrection, when we discover that it is the resurrected Jesus who lives and that the power of evil has been mortally wounded.
I know life isn't always cut-and-dried and easy to decipher. But this text in Mark is not focused on life's complexities. It is saying, simply, now is the time to get on the side that will be victorious.
Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, edited by Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
R.T. France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002.
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.
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