June 6, 2015
First Lutheran Church
Mark is the earliest and least detailed Gospel in the New Testament. It is only half as long as the other gospels, dispensing with birth narratives and many parables and sayings of Jesus. It begins with the baptism of Jesus and quickly delves into his travels and teachings.
Mark immediately establishes the sides that are being drawn around the person of Jesus. The followers of Jesus are juxtapositioned to the enemies of Jesus. In the middle, as always, is the great multitude, following him, pushing him into the sea, crushing him and interfering with each other to the point that they cannot even take care of their basic needs, such as eating. And Jesus, who is at the center of all this, submits himself to the will of God and the judgment of the crowds, his disciples and his enemies, knowing that he will be misunderstood, something that happens twice in the passage. Both his family and teachers of the law, the two groups who might be expected to recognize him, are the ones most blinded to his true identity.
Jesus goes home and is mobbed by the crowd. His family arrives, literally to take charge of him because they think he has gone out of his mind. The phrase in verse 21 literally means they perceived that he is standing outside of himself, or in colloquial English, he is out of his mind. While that is going on the scribes, who followed him from Jerusalem continue their attack. They accuse Jesus of being demon-possessed, even as he frees people from demon possession. Jesus effectively reputes their argument with logic and authority.
Logically, he points out that no house, even the house of Satan, can stand if it fights against itself. And with authority, Jesus demonstrates that he has power over Satan.
Jesus then turns his attention to his family who anxiously hover, looking for a chance to move in and take control of the situation. But Jesus remains in control, sweeping his gaze across the crowd as he talks about what it truly means to be his family. He is not repudiating his biological family here. He knows who his mother and brothers are. But spiritual, in Christ, family is not based not on genetics or heritage but on faith and discipleship. It is in doing the will of God that we discover we are Jesus’ siblings and heirs to the kingdom of God. Family is everything in Judaism, which makes his teaching offensive to the scribes and Pharisees. But they are not listening to what he is actually saying here. As God is the center of the Jewish biological family, God is the center of the followers of Jesus. This is a holy paradox, and when we get close to the heart of the paradox we get close to the heart of the truth. When God is truly at the heart of human life, all others concerns, including family, are drawn into the circle and fall into place. It is there that we find life, in its deepest and fullest expression, as children of the One True God, and heirs with Jesus the Christ.
But there is also something troubling in this passage, in verses 28-30. Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin— for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’ What in the world is that all about? This is one of those sayings of Jesus that gets misquoted, misunderstood, misused and abused as much as anything in the Bible.
There are some sensitive souls in this world who are truly afraid of committing some unpardonable sin. And there are always snake oil sellers who will take advantage of that. But Jesus is not drawing lines around particular sins and saying these can be forgiven but those cannot. As good Lutherans you know that sin is not primarily located in what we do but in who we are. The human condition is separation from God, but human obstinance can exacerbate the existential condition in which we find ourselves. The only bridge across the chasm that separates us from God is Jesus. Mark centers his Gospel around the question, who, then is this? It is the most fundamental question of Christian faith, that which will decide whether we are Jesus’ followers, enemies or just in the great fan club. True followers know that the only road through sin to God is in knowing how to answer that question.
As he is talking about the unpardonable sin, the scribes, who are watching Jesus cast out demons, perceive that he has some sort of otherworldly power. But in their pride and obstinance, they can only indentify it as the power of evil. They do not have the ears to hear and the eyes to see the power of the One True God at work in the words and works of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The parsing of the Greek is important here, because it indicates a hardened and repeated position, which is not apparent in the translation of verse 30. It says, they were saying ‘he has an unclean spirit’. This is the attitude of the enemies of Jesus, who can only see him through the narrow and clouded prism of hardened hearts. And let me say here that this is different from honest doubt and grappling with the question of who Jesus is. Even those who are working out the grace of God in their heart of hearts have doubts. And God does not gratuitously condemn us for being human. But these Pharisees are representative of those who have turned their back on the very power that is sent to redeem and save them. It is unforgiveable in the sense that God seeks to persuade but not to compel people to faith—the choice is always ours. Mark’s presentation of the gospel is very clear on that. How you perceive who Jesus is affects the very state of your soul, because those with hearts of stone cannot recognize the saving grace of the Lord at work in their lives.
There is another paradox. Jesus is reassuring those who believe they are in danger of this unpardonable. He knows that those who wonder are those with open hearts, not hearts of stone. Those who wonder are open to the leading of the Holy Spirit. And to them, Jesus says, Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter. Forgiveness is there for those who seek it, but for those who do not, it will not be forced upon them.
Who, then is this Jesus? Is he someone you actively work against? Is he someone you like, but only from a distance? Or is the Son of the One True God, the Second person of the Trinity, who brings forgiveness and eternal life to those who confess their faith in him.
My friends, choose wisely.
To God be the glory. Amen.