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Third Sunday after Pentecost — June 9, 2024

John Wurster notes the difference between Jesus' portrayal in John vs. Mark.

Mark 3:20-35
Year B

For nearly four months, lectionary preachers have had heaping helpings of the Gospel of John. Now with Lent and Easter, Pentecost and Trinity Sundays past, we have returned to ordinary time, and, beginning last week, we have returned to a steady diet of readings from the Gospel of Mark. The contrast between John and Mark is notable. The recent lessons from John set before us the confident and wise Jesus, certain of his purpose and profound in his teaching. He is calm, capable and in control. Through sustained discourses and long prayers that are unique to John, we have also glimpsed the mystery of Jesus’s intimate relationship with the Father and the continuation of Jesus’ ministry through the Advocate, the Holy Spirit. The divine nature of Jesus is on full display in the Gospel of John in all of its depth and complexity and wonder.

Mark presents Jesus differently. In contrast to John’s cool and composed Jesus, the Jesus in this week’s passage from Mark is volatile and, to some, erratic. The scene in this week’s passage follows a fast-paced opening sequence in Mark where in the space of just a couple of chapters, Jesus performs an impressive list of healings and exorcisms, generating astonishment and amazement from an ever-growing crowd. “We have never seen anything like this” (Mark 2:12) typifies the response to Jesus in the early part of Mark. In addition to the great crowds, Jesus also draws the ire of the religious authorities who already seek to “destroy him” (3:6). The dividing lines are quickly drawn.

Accordingly, emotions are high and the situation is tense as our passage begins. A multitude gathers again around the charismatic Jesus, even while others decide he has gone too far. Is he too popular, too powerful, too “outside the box?” Have too many outsiders been included, too many sinners welcomed, too many norms violated? There is something about this Jesus that attracts and repels. Great numbers crowd around him; but others, even his own family, conclude he needs to be restrained. “He has gone out of his mind” some say (3:21), which is perhaps really a way of saying that he has gone beyond our minds. He has surpassed what we might expect or imagine. The boundlessness, the inclusiveness, the unwillingness to be limited by regulation or convention, the unrestrained mercy and grace – all of it is beyond what we can grasp – and well beyond our control.

He doesn’t conform to polite society, and he seemingly has little interest in decency and order. What kind of Presbyterian is he?

Is he insane? Is he demon-possessed? Jesus deflects the swirling accusations with a couple of parables that retain their significance. His observation that a house divided against itself cannot stand not only gave Abraham Lincoln a moral foundation for healing the nation in the 1860s, it also serves as an indictment of the growing divisions in our common life. From immigration to reproductive rights, from education to the environment, from the conduct of elections to economic policy dissension deepens in our life together. From legislatures to school boards, from Congress to city council, how much more division can we endure before the house falls and crushes everyone?

In the connected parable, Jesus points to “the strong man” who must be dealt with, “tied up,” before anything else can definitively happen (4:27). The strong man is the root cause that must be addressed for meaningful progress and lasting change. The strong man can be a structure or a stereotype, a prejudice or a falsehood, a memory or a regret. The strong man is what holds us captive, continually exerting influence and accumulating power. Whatever form it may take, tying up the strong man requires persistent courage and committed truth-telling, following the example of Jesus himself.

As these provocative words and those that follow related to forgiveness settle, Jesus’ mother and brothers come (4:31). They stand outside calling to him. Convention and expectation indicate that Jesus should draw them inside, giving them a privileged place among those who have circled around him. They are family, after all. Instead, Jesus again pushes against and beyond accepted categories, suggesting that family intimacy is defined by spiritual companionship instead of biological connection. The family of Jesus is comprised of those who join him in seeking to do God’s will. It is a new creation, a new humanity, a new way of being intimately related to one another.

This passage puts before us the radical Jesus, reminding us again that he is beyond our control. This is Jesus defying assumptions, living abundantly, loving recklessly, undeterred by opposition, willing to accept that his words and deeds will provoke and irritate, even as they surprise and convict. He is focused on bearing witness to the reign of God, a reality that threatens the powerful and shatters the familiar, while touching the untouchable and gathering those otherwise cast out. Those thought to be privileged are left standing outside, while those previously looked over and left out are drawn into the circle.

This Jesus sees the limits of our arrangements, procedures and polity. Pursuing God’s will is what matter most to him. God’s intents are healing and forgiveness, mending the wounded, binding up the broken-hearted, and lifting the lowly. These are also the goals of Jesus’ life. Whatever the cost, however many the accusations, whatever the outrage, however many will be shocked or confused or disappointed, Jesus resolutely embraces what God has set before him. Then, in perhaps the most radical move of all, he invites us to join him in this holy work, which is to say he invites us to join his family, even as he bids us to eat at the family table.

Maybe he is out of his mind. Maybe our salvation requires nothing less.

Questions for reflection

  1. While many seek to be near Jesus, he seems to antagonize others. What are his qualities that attract and repel?
  2. What does Jesus’ statement about a house divided against itself bring to mind? When does disagreement become division?
  3. What is challenging and what is promising in the ways Jesus speaks about family?

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