Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 7, 2015
Mark 3:20-35 Commentary
There is an old saying that sometimes a person “can’t see the forest for the trees.” The idea is that sometimes we become so wrapped up in one thing that we lose sight of the larger picture. Sometimes this can be humorous. So on a TV show you may see a man who is obsessed with getting his tie knotted just so. Hence, he spends an inordinate amount of time in front of the mirror until the tie is perfect and he has achieved that small crease just below the knot. Satisfied that he now looks good, he walks out of the house totally oblivious to the fact that his pants have a big rip right on his backside!
Viewed from the right angle, something like this has happened when it comes to Mark 3. Many people have walked away from this chapter fretting to the depths of their soul the so-called “unpardonable sin.” We worry what the precise contours of that sin may be. We worry that someone we know may have been guilty of it. We worry that we may have accidentally committed this very sin. So in the past we preachers have tried to address this matter very often through the traditional line, “If you are worried about this sin, then you didn’t commit it.” Others of us have suggested that this most perilous of sins isn’t a one-time lapse. For the consequences to be this eternally dire, the person in question must be a hardcore anti-God figure who never accepts the Lord’s work even for a moment.
But however we deal with this pastorally and theologically as preachers, the point is that we need to remember that many people have become obsessed with this particular part of the chapter very nearly to the exclusion of all else. Hence, what we sometimes come close to forgetting is that there are two rejections of Jesus in Mark 3. But when we become obsessed with the ins and outs of the unpardonable sin, we tend to ignore the fact that Mark 3 shows us also another unhappy way to view Jesus and that we need to avoid that attitude, too. For this we look at Jesus’ family and the role it plays here.
Jesus’ mother and brothers have apparently not yet become members of Jesus’ band of disciples. They have been following Jesus in a literal sense but not in the more important sense of discipleship. They have followed Jesus to check up on him, to observe what he has been up to. But the result of that kind of following is a dire conclusion: Jesus is off his rocker! He has become something of a family embarrassment, a public spectacle that they are eager to whisk out of sight. They want to take Jesus home, put him to bed, keep him quiet for a while, and then see if all this talk about casting out demons and the kingdom of his Father abates.
As some commentators have pointed out, it appears that it was particularly Jesus’ engagement with the demonic that was causing Mary and Jesus’ brothers to arch their eyebrows the sharpest. It all seemed a little bizarre to them. In verse 21 they say literally that they had to get him on home because Jesus was exeste, a word meaning to stand outside of yourself. Even today we may refer to a person who is an emotional wreck as being “beside himself” with grief. The idea is that someone has taken leave of his senses (or his senses have taken leave of him) and so what remains for the time being is a person whose emotions are unchecked and unregulated. This is the family’s assessment of Jesus.
Apparently all Jesus’ talk about invisible kingdoms of God and the casting out of demons led members of his own family to the conclusion that Jesus was seeing things that no one else could see and the reason was simple: he was out of his everloving mind!
We probably can give the family a break—no one in history, after all, had ever before had to deal with having the Son of God as a close family member. Still, to look at Jesus and chalk up his words as delusional, incorrect, incoherent—that is a pretty bad thing to do, too. It’s maybe not an unpardonable sin but it may well be a sin in which we sometimes participate. Whenever we pick and choose from among our Savior’s words, deciding on our own which to take seriously and which to chalk up as no more than metaphor or something that doesn’t apply to us in the modern age, aren’t we essentially saying that sometimes Jesus said things that no one can take seriously? Mark 3 shows us that there is indeed more than one way to reject Jesus. We do well to pay attention to the lesser one sometimes and not let undue worries about the big one eclipse this for us.
Questions to Ponder / Issues to Address:
The key question in Mark 3 is easy to spy: what is the so-called unpardonable sin? The religious leaders in this chapter had crossed a vital line and Jesus responds in dire terms. Certainly it is true that what they said was laughable and easy to refute, as Jesus ably does. But here is a piece of folly that is not just dumb, it’s blasphemously heinous. Across the spectrum of life there are any number of things that people may say or do that are flat out stupid. People make foolish choices all the time. People mount specious arguments that can’t hold water for two seconds. They make illogical statements that are self-defeating. They face a choice of actions and, with clear eyes, choose the one thing that will hurt them the most. Folly happens and it happens all the time. But Mark 3 shows us the ultimate example of what counts as culpable folly, a form of foolishness that is so dire that it cannot be chalked up as a mere mistake or a momentary lapse of judgment.
Jesus says that the religious leaders have shown that they live in a morally inverted, spiritually upside-down world. By their own choice they have made darkness their light and have rejected the true Light as the worst form of darkness. What can be done for people who insist on looking at the world that way? This is the essence of blasphemy. Blasphemy is at bottom a form of theft. Blasphemers steal holy language and symbols, associate them then with ugly and awful things, and so rob God of the chance to get through to us via his chosen form of revelation. So if the KKK can take the symbol of the cross and transform it into a symbol of racial hatred instead of what it really is (namely, a sign of reconciliation among all races and between God and the entire world), then God loses a key piece of how he wants to convey his love to us.
Seen this way, it’s clear that most churchgoing, devout folks really need NOT worry that they somewhere along the line inadvertently committed this sin as though it were a single act, a one-time lapse. In reality, this sin ties in with a larger (blasphemous) view of life that is almost certainly never the situation that applies to Christian people.
But some of the religious leaders were at the very least dancing on this perilous line (Jesus does not say they had committed the sin but only that if they do, there’s nothing for it). In the opinion of the scribes, Jesus was himself a devil. If Jesus seemed to have inside information as to the goings-on in the demonic realm, the explanation was simple and obvious: pulling a page from the old “it takes one to know one” playbook, the religious leaders lambaste Jesus as being himself a demon incognito.
It was a ridiculous thing to say, and finally completely foolish, too. Why would the devil be shooting himself in the foot? What kind of military commander blows up his own tanks? No, if Jesus seems to be plundering the realm of the devil, it’s because he had already bound and gagged the devil himself and so now his lesser hosts were easy targets for Jesus. Jesus did his work not because he had the power of the devil but because he had already demonstrated power over the devil.
That seems obvious enough unless . . . you live in that morally inverted realm to which I just referred. In that case it’s quite possible that nothing is going to get through to you.
Not even, apparently, the grace of God.
How easily we preachers can sometimes miss the wider context in our narrow focus on the lection at hand. In the case of this passage in Mark 3, it is vital to notice the frame Mark placed around this incident (Mark does this a lot, after all). Just prior to this in Mark 3:13-19, we find Jesus appointing the twelve disciples as Apostles, as the “sent ones” who would one day become his heralds in bringing the gospel to the world. Then, immediately following this incident, we encounter the well-known “Parable of the Sower” in Mark 4 that reminds us that the seed of the gospel will inevitably fall on many kinds of soil, the majority of which (alas) will prove to be not receptive to the subsequent growth and flourishing of that seed. Plunked down in between those two incidents is this scene of terrible rejection of Jesus by both his family and, less surprisingly, by the religious leaders. If the disciples-cum-apostles want a preview of what will face them in the future as they go forth to sow the seed of the gospel, they need look no further than how their Lord and Master is treated here! We ought expect no less today.
In Mark 3, those who try to turn the work of God into the work of the devil show by so doing that they are so far gone, so deeply enmeshed in a spiritually inverted reality, that there is no reaching them. Some of you will recall the dwarves as depicted by C.S. Lewis in the last book of the Narnia series. The dwarves had been brought by Aslan the Lion into the glories of the New Narnia, which stood for heaven or the kingdom of God. These stubborn dwarves sat smack in the middle of a sunlit meadow full of wildflowers and were being fed fruit and vegetables more exquisitely flavorful and fresh than anyone had ever before imagined was possible.
Yet their minds were darkened, their hearts were cold. And so they were convinced they were sitting in the middle of a stinky old stable being fed moldy bread and cow manure. When one of the other characters asks Aslan what can be done for these hapless figures, the answer comes back that nothing can be done. When black becomes white and white becomes black, when evil is good and good is evil, people are gone. God can’t get through to them. The reason the unpardonable sin can never be forgiven is because it will never, ever be recognized as a sin. Even if God came to such people bearing the sweet fragrance of his grace, all these people would smell would be the stink of a rotting corpse. They won’t be forgiven because they cannot be forgiven and they cannot be forgiven because they have come to believe that the gospel’s elixir of life is strychnine: pure poison.
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