A Cat Among the Pigeons

Jun 10, 2018 by

Sermon by Garry Blinch

 

Mark 3:20-35

*Some wording changed from NRSV to better reflect the Greek words and phrases

 

The crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When His own people heard of this, they went out to take custody of Him; for they said, “He has gone out of his mind.”

The scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.”

Jesus called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.

However, 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.

“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.”

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him.

A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”

And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

 

“A Cat among the Pigeons”

 

The gospel today presents us with a picture of chaos. The cat is among the pigeons, which is a British figure of speech used to describe a disturbance caused by an undesirable person from the perspective of a group.

Another use of the term is to “cause an enormous fight or flap, or to do something suddenly or unexpectedly which leaves the people worried or angry.”

We see both in our story today; family is worried and Judean leaders are angry. There are also people who are quite happy and enjoying the one who is responsible for all the flap, but it is a crowd, and crowds are not quiet and orderly. In Matthew 12, the parallel passage beginning at verse 22, we are told there was a demon-possessed man that Jesus healed, enabling this man to see and talk. That kind of thing has a way of causing everyone watching to begin to talk rather excitedly. It was this healing, that Mark leaves out, that prompted the scribes to accuse Jesus of being in league with the prince of demons.

So, if you were picturing a nice, calm, orderly gathering around Jesus, let me disabuse you of that notion. To add to this chaos the family shows up wanting to take their family member into protective custody.

So, these facts help to set the scene as we consider what happens next.

First though, why did his family think he was out of his mind?

The original word used here means to throw out of position, to throw one out of their mind, to amaze, to astonish, to throw into wonderment. In other words, his family believed that the Jesus experience of being followed and revered and praised by large crowds of people had thrown Jesus, had so amazed him that he was caught up in the wonder and excitement of it and was not even taking time to eat. That is not normal. When we think of how Mary and Joseph were just  simple, hard-working people, with a simple daily routine, it is not surprising that they would reach this conclusion. Their other children were probably just like their parents in their daily lives…and then…there’s Jesus. Even knowing the miraculous circumstances of his birth and the prophecies made about him, nothing could prepare them for this. And, as far as we know, they had lived as a family for twenty years in that simple life of working hard with nothing like this taking place.

As we read this account it is also good to have in mind that the family traveled from their hometown of Nazareth, and Jesus is currently in Galilee, so it would have taken maybe a day and a half or two days to get to him- depending on where in Galilee he was. Time is often hard to imagine in these stories that seem to flow without a break; as if Mary, Joseph and the kids hopped in a car and turned up in an hour.

While the family is on their way Jesus hears this accusation from scribes who have come from Jerusalem. The scribes were the theological heavyweights of their day. They represent the authority and theological wisdom of the temple establishment — the same establishment whose leaders will ensure that Pilate crushes Jesus at the end of the book. Their  credentials are impeccable. Their pronouncement, that Jesus is a satanic agent and not a divine one, recognizes power at work in him. He is no charlatan or illusionist- but he’s working for the wrong side.

Now, I think this accusation is brilliant, in an evil, dirty trick kind of way. It’s like Donald Trump. Accuse someone of something that you know will really upset those listening; even if it is not even remotely true, it has a way of making people look for the bogey man you have suggested is there. The accused then has to work doubly hard to prove they are not the bogey man; they are thrown into a defensive position.

What the scribes have done here is to issue and honor challenge. You may remember that I and other Preaching Team members have talked about honor in that culture, how honor was like currency. Your honor, or status, and that of your family determined how well you did in life, economically and socially.

Thus, it is called an honor-shame society. Gaining and

maintaining honor is a central activity in such communities, and rules of honor and shame are

essential in maintaining the society’s social roles and values. Honor is defined as a claim to worth that is publicly recognized by a person’s social group. In other words, honor is a person’s public reputation that in turn

forms the person’s own self-identity. A person is honored if they follow the social expectations of their group.

An honor challenge is designed to reduce one person’s honor and elevate the other. Jesus not only turns the tables on the scribes- as he does time and time again- but he uses the content of the challenge as a springboard to go in an entirely different direction. The scribes have introduced the topic of Beelzebul- Satan- the prince of demons- and Jesus adds a surprising parable/proverb about his real relationship to personal evil in the world.

First, the challenge. They cannot deny an incredible miracle has taken place so the only thing left to do is to attack the source- to claim it is the very devil himself who produced it. Jesus quickly reveals the holes in this challenge. He says three times how absurd this is, using three slightly different pictures (Mark called them ‘parables” but he was using that word in a different way meaning comparisons, or to speak proverbially): a kingdom divided against itself, a house divided against itself, and Satan rising up against himself. All saying the same thing but spiraling closer to the center with each new word: Kingdom-house-Satan.

Then Jesus changes the picture and tells a parable (or makes a proverbial statement) that “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”.

So, rather than in the employ of Satan Jesus declares himself more powerful. He characterizes himself as the one able to overwhelm Satan’s reign by “tying up the strong man” and plundering the things the “man” has taken as his own. This parable/proverb may be taken as Jesus’ mission statement in Mark. We can interpret the rest of the gospel guided by this image. The whole Gospel is a story about the reign of God coming to displace another reign, and that other one will not relinquish its power without a fight.

Jesus has dealt with the challenge, added a whole new picture as to his mission, and now he utters a warning that has eternal consequences.

There has been lots of rhetoric about “the unforgivable sin”. The context helps us to understand what the Lord means. Jesus has just set a man free from an affliction that made him deaf and dumb. Mark tell us that he was delivered from an evil spirit. A wonderful, life-giving miracle has taken place. A child of God is able to enter more fully into life. And the scribes relegate this healing to the work of the lord of all evil.

That’s what Jesus is warning about. It’s not a single sin, or a statement, a blasphemy uttered by a person like a magic spell that curses them for all time. It’s about a settled mindset that sees the work of God as something evil. It’s about witnessing healing, and deliverance and new life and rejecting it. If a person’s mind and heart are set to reject God’s redemptive work then they shut themselves off from it. Like Satan himself, they only want to stay in control and the way to God is to relinquish control; to give up oneself.

The scribes in this story may have only wanted to discredit (shame) Jesus in the moment, to try to stop this upstart rabbi from leading crowds of adoring people while his ministry was in its infancy. But Jesus knows that the kind of mindset he is talking about is real and he seizes the opportunity to warn all who are listening.

The first part of what he said would not have sit well with the scribes or other Judean leaders: “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter…” That is, all these people that the leadership despised, treated as inferiors and called them ‘rabble’, they would be forgiven because their hearts were open to the work of God. They recognized and got close to what Jesus was doing. The woman at the well, Matthew the tax-collector, the woman caught in adultery, the Roman centurion who sought Jesus out- all these would receive forgiveness for whatever sins they had or would yet commit. But a heart closed to God, one that sees good happening for others and wants to stop it, curse it and denigrate it will not know forgiveness.

The final scene of this drama shows the family standing outside the house where Jesus is, probably unable to walk in because the place is packed. The crowd obligingly passes the message that they are there.

The family was the central social institution in biblical times. Family ties shaped economic relations: a

son would typically take the trade of his father. Family ties were central to religion. Families strongly influenced politics. Sons followed their fathers as kings, and the Roman Senate was open to a few powerful, aristocratic

families only. Loyalty to one’s family was the essential value in first-century Palestinian cultures.

“Although Jesus was a caring and obedient son his vision of the Kingdom of God was a challenge to first-century family-centered social values. Jesus insisted that loyalty to God and God’s Kingdom was the highest value: if there was a conflict between loyalty to God

and loyalty to the family, one’s loyalty to God was more important. Consider his hyperbolic statement about ‘hating’ one’s father and mother (Luke 14:26). Jesus’ point was not that a person should actively hate his own family, but rather that not even family ties and obligations should prevent a person from doing God’s will (see also 9:59–62).

Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God was a radical challenge to this family-centered value system.”[1]

In that culture, in which responsibility, identity, stability, and opportunity were so bound up with kinship structures, Jesus’ pronouncement of a new family might elicit gasps. But it could also have brought great joy to some, especially those followers who found themselves estranged from their own families of origin.

 

Conclusion

 

Things get messy around Jesus because he refuses to go along with the status quo. He refuses to “go along to get along”. He challenges the power structures and institutions that bar the way to healing and which enforce a hierarchy that seems ‘safe’ but only benefits the few and oppresses the many.

Even good, decent, well-meaning people will resist the change He brings because it doesn’t feel safe.

In the Tales of Narnia, the character Susan learns that she is to meet the King who is a lion. Aslan the Lion, the Christ-figure in these classic stories. She expresses that she feels very nervous about meeting a Lion and asks if he is safe. Beaver replies, “Safe?”…”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

As those who claim to follow the Lion who is also the Lamb that was slain, may we challenge in our generation the same oppressive structures that he challenged. Technology has changed so much but humankind is still the same on the inside. We have not changed. Injustice and disparity are still everywhere.

When women rise up, such as in the “Me, too” movement let the church be there. When LGBTQ are discriminated against, let the church be there. When power seeks to keep the status quo, colluding with other power brokers to guard their disproportionate piece of the “pie”, let the church be there speaking truth to power. When leaders put aside environmental accords and clear scientific evidence of imminent catastrophic change, let the church speak on behalf of our stewardship responsibilities. When things get messy in the struggle for equality and for healing, let the church be there.

Let the church be as ‘unsafe’ as her leader, her head. Let us speak truth to power.

 

[1] Source: The Life and Times of First-Century Palestine Page | 3

© 2010 by Saint Mary’s Press

Living in Christ Series Document #: TX001246

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