Getting on the Right Side of God: Reflections on Mark 3:20-35

Lectionary Reflections on Mark 3:20-35
Sunday, June 10, 2012

I've been watching the PBS series Sherlock recently. Instead of being set in London in the 1880s, it takes place in present-day London. Instead of sending telegrams, Sherlock sends texts. Instead of serving with the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers in India, Dr. Watson is just returning from the War in Afghanistan. Dr. Watson doesn't publish books about their exploits; he blogs about them. But one thing remains the same across the decades: the villain. He is Professor James Moriarity and is described as "the most diabolical criminal mind the world has ever seen." His minions are manifold and malevolent. While most people never see the link between the violent criminal activity in their world and this master villain, Sherlock does. He and Moriarity are locked in a contest of wills, each committed to the annihilation of the other. As he examines a crime scene, Holmes always knows instinctively when Moriarity is behind it all.

As Moriarity himself says, "Every good fairy tale needs a villain."

In the ministry of Jesus, that villain is referred to as Satan, or, in our passage this week from Mark 3, Beelzebul. Beelzebul is a Semitic deity worshipped by the Philistines. The name literally means "Lord of the Flies." In later Christian sources, it becomes another name for Satan.

Satan tempts Jesus in Mark 1:12 and parallels (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-11). Called Satan in Hebrew and the Devil (diabolos) in Greek, this figure stalks the pages of the Bible growing in hostility and power against God. The Hebrew faith attributed both good and evil to God's agency. Satan (adversary) makes cameo appearances as an agent of God in the Old Testament. His primary role was to uncover the weaknesses of humans who were highly regarded by God, allegedly to preserve God's honor. (Job 1:6-12; Zechariah 3:1-2) Satan becomes increasingly hostile and harmful in later Jewish views of his identity and role. He disrupts the relationship between God and Israel by temptation (1 Chronicles 21:1), by accusation before God (Zech 3:1), and by interference in Israel's history. He may be resisted by good decisions, human merit, external aid, or by God himself. (Bromiley, 151)

Gradually, Satan's identity shifts from divine employee to God's chief competitor. This is in part the result of Persian influence on Judaism. The Persian belief system viewed world history as a struggle between forces of good and light and forces of evil and darkness. Each was represented by various angelic and demonic beings. Satan becomes the force of evil in the world. All sorts of extant legends and images about evil stick to him as if he were a snowball rolling down a hill. These include the serpent of paradise, an ancient dragon, an exalted angel expelled from heaven, and the evil impulse which resides within each of us (Genesis 4:7).

By the time Jesus meets him in the wilderness, he is still up to his old tempter tricks. However, he is no longer working for God by testing Jesus to make sure he is worthy of the messianic mission. He is working for himself by seeking to persuade Jesus to betray that mission and side with the kingdom of this world. The Gospels view it as a showdown between God's rule as inaugurated by Jesus and that of Satan.

In our scene from Mark 3, critics who are lobbing accusations at Jesus. In Mark's Gospel, Satan is always behind the opposition to Jesus regardless of who or what the vehicle may be. In this case, it is his own family and a delegation of scribes from Jerusalem.

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.