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Binding the Strong Man

Mark 3:20-35: Then he went home; 20 and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. 21 When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’ 22 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.’ 23 And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, ‘How can Satan cast out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26 And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. 27 But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

28 ‘Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’— 30 for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’

31 Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.’ 33 And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ 34 And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’

Last week, we heard this story about Jesus arguing with some religious authorities about how to interpret the Law—they’re in this argument about whether it’s OK for Jesus to heal someone on the Sabbath, and Jesus, like a good, very traditional Rabbi, says that it’s always legal to preserve life on the Sabbath. One of the things we took away from that story was that sometimes the Spirit of God meets us in our intuitions, and this isn’t that complicated because the Spirit bears fruit. We will be known by the fruit we bear, and so we don’t have to be afraid of people who try to confuse us, who try to say, “Oh no, you actually shouldn’t preserve life,” those people who try to say, “Actually harming someone is loving them.” Jesus wants us to say, “No,” back to that kind of confusion.

As we discussed last week, there are these forces in our world, sometimes they speak to us through social media clips or news articles or particularly loud relatives, other times they’re doubts whispering in our inner voices, but there are these forces telling us that not only are we wrong about what’s good, we’re wrong about how to love ourselves and our neighbors, but we also would be crazy to think otherwise. We have hopes and dreams for how our lives could be, and there are always those voices saying, “That’s just irresponsible; that’s not how things really work; how naive; who’s gonna pay for that?” Fair pay for city workers? Crazy. Meet and confer for teachers? Crazy. Universal healthcare? Crazy. Whatever dream you can think of, have you ever noticed there’s often some vice principal in your head or in your mentions telling you how crazy it is?

This is a dynamic our story this morning also brings up. Jesus has just called his disciples, he’s started his ministry, he’s going around preaching that the reality of God’s kingdom is at hand, and now he’s back home with his close circle, but a crowd gathers around their house. And his family is holding him back from going out to the crowd, because people in the crowd are saying, “He’s out of his mind.” So Jesus has begun preaching the kingdom of God at hand, another world is possible, and there are some people there responding, “He’s crazy.”

And it turns out, there are a handful of religious teachers present, some “scribes from Jerusalem,” who are egging the crowd on. Now, again, the issue here is not that these people are Jewish, that they’re legalistic or anything like that. The issue, for Mark, is that these particular religious leaders think they have to collaborate with the Empire that’s occupying their homes. These teachers hear the crowd saying, “He’s out of his mind,” and they say, “Yeah, look he’s been casting out demons. But why do the demons listen to him? He must be tight with them, he must be under the influence of demons himself. Maybe he’s even possessed by the ruler of demons.”

So Jesus has begun his ministry preaching another world is possible. He’s been healing people, he’s been casting out these voices of accusation and shame that have taken hold of so many peoples’ imaginations, which seem like objectively good things, but these scribes are there to delegitimize his project. They are trying to confuse people and make it sound like Jesus is actually there to do the very opposite of the things he’s saying he’s come to do. And Jesus has come to do the work of the Lord and inaugurate the Kingdom of God on earth, a world where everyone has what they need, where there are no rich and poor, every ditch is raised up and every valley laid low, every captive released, every debt forgiven. Jesus’ project puts him in direct conflict with the Roman Empire and the Spiritual forces of domination and shame that work through the Empire to bring people low. So by delegitimizing Jesus, by saying that Jesus is actually the one working for the Spiritual forces of evil, the scribes are trying to maintain the way things already are.

Does this maybe sound familiar? I can’t help but hear resonances within American Christianity, where 20th century robber barons, upset about their tax burdens under the New Deal, started funding radio preachers and Bible studies to get working class Christians to vote against their own interests in the name of “freedom” from “big government.” And we know that especially in the South, that kind of “freedom,” was explicitly designed to reinforce segregation, we know that “Right to Work” laws were designed to undercut the Civil Rights work that Labor Unions were orchestrating. But those forces created a kind of Christianity, recast as a sort of Western, where the individual pulling themself up by their bootstraps was the rugged hero and the masses, the hordes at the borders and in the cities were always threatening that dream.

And in more polite circles, those masses threaten from all sides, mirroring each other, so that the real issue in our world seems like polarization. “Ah yes, Jesus casts out Beelzebub. Does that not make him the mirror image of Beelzebub? Better to avoid both of them.” Here’s the scribes giving us the first recorded instance of Horseshoe Theory. The worst thing you can do is be too extreme. Opposing evil too directly is itself evil when preserving the status quo is the greatest good (never mind what the status quo preserves). The real way forward is compromise, baby steps, such tiny little baby steps, such incremental little steps that you can barely see their movement.

So the Scribes come and build a whole system around the idea of Jesus’ insanity, a whole story of how things that seem good are actually bad, so you just have to accept bad things as they are because maybe one day if you don’t disrupt them, they’ll become good. This is why I think it’s so helpful to be able to say, “No, we can just judge things by their fruit.” And that’s exactly how Jesus responds here. “How can Satan cast out Satan? The problem with your very fancy, pretty, clever logic, is that it’s actually not logical at all. No, casting out evil does not put you in league with evil. It’s how you accomplish good things.”

And then Jesus gives what I think is one of his funnier parables: “No one can rob a strong man’s house unless he first binds the strong man.” He’s basically saying, “You think I’m in league with the evil one? No no no no. I’m here to tie up the evil one and take away all his toys.” The kingdom of God being at hand means that we’re not going to exploit each other anymore. So this empire that’s been robbing you, that’s got you all tied up in debt and prison and shame and fear, I’m gonna tie them up so we’ll all be free. All those stockpiles of food that keep us hungry, we’re gonna pass those out. Jesus is a little bit sassy here. The scribes want to say, he’s the mirror image of evil and that makes him evil and Jesus is like, guys, no it’s not that complicated, stop getting people all tied up knots. Evil is evil and good is good. Pick a side. The problem’s not polarization. You can’t love too much. You can’t be too courageous. There’s no such thing as too much justice. You don’t want to moderate the fruits of the Spirit, we want them to overflow with abundance.

And this is when Jesus gives his famous line about the unforgivable sin. I knew so many kids who were haunted by this idea of the unforgivable sin, something we could do that even the cross didn’t atone for. But Jesus tells us what it is right here. The unforgivable sin is saying that he’s possessed by evil when he’s so clearly caught up in the Spirit of God. The “unforgivable sin” is denying that the obvious good things Jesus has come to do, healing, feeding, calling, are good things because of some allegiance to the world as it is. That’s it. It’s not so mysterious. You don’t need some secret knowledge to figure it out, you don’t have to turn yourself in knots because no matter what you do you’re probably wrong, you don’t have to hold back from joining in to some imperfect community or movement because you’re afraid that the imperfection there is more important than the good that people are trying to work for.

Part of what’s so insidious about what the scribes are saying here, and what fears about “polarization” do in our world today, is that they create just enough discomfort, just enough self-doubt, to keep people from joining in with each other. If a movement, or if a community isn’t perfect, if it doesn’t perfectly balance all of our various, and at times contradictory, senses of how things should be, then it’s better just to steer clear, hold back. Better not be in league with anyone than risk being in league with Beelzebul—that’s what the scribes are saying. And that’ll allow for a lot of atomized, opinionated people, but not the social cohesion to build another world together.

But Jesus, wants us to join in together. Jesus wants us to risk making mistakes for the sake of building something good together. This is why in that very moment, when even his friends want him to stay inside, Jesus goes out to those who are calling him crazy, those who are saying he’s possessed by the king of demons. And when someone tells him, “Hey, your family needs you,” his answer is, “My family is whoever does the will of God.” I’m in this with whoever wants to try to love as if a different world is possible. I’m not crazy, and you’re not crazy either, and we need each other to remember that and if enough of us join together maybe people will start to see that it’s this world that’s crazy and we can build different kinds of communities.

Friends, that’s what we’re trying to do here, and I think Jesus’ message in this story is part of why church is so important. Some people get tired and need to take a step back and others have been so hurt by churches, they have a really hard time imagining themselves coming back, and I get that. But a church like this is a place where people can join in, where we can practice putting off the superiority of the neutral observer and throw our lot in together. We can come together and say, “No, you’re not crazy to want more, from life, from church, from God.” You’re not too extreme in your desires, there’s no such thing as “too much” love and that’s why we keep loving each other day after day, week after week, year after year by praying for each other, singing with each other, feeding each other, and casting out each voice of shame and fear that haunts any one of us. Amen.

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