Healing the Family Sandwich

Week of Sunday June 7
Gospel: Mark 3:20-35

Then he went home; and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’

 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.’

And he 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. And 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. 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.

 ‘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.’

(In some ways this is a companion piece to last week)

This reading is a Markan sandwich. It begins with Jesus family coming to "restrain" him, but the story is interrupted by the "scribes who came down from Jerusalem," and must wait for Jesus to deal with them before it comes to its conclusion. The sandwich structure is important. We can take a lesson from the words on family, and we can take a lesson from the words about Beelzebul, but Mark's intent is to be found in the relationship of the two.

I notice that Jesus does not merely reply to the Scribes. Instead, it says he called them and spoke to them in parables. Mark is giving us a signal: Jesus is making an important pronouncement which needs discernment.

Of course it is the case that "If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand." But what else is hidden in the parable, that story form which at first hides its meaning and then gives a much bigger picture? This is what Mark means us to look for.

I think Mark and Jesus present us with two different ways of being in this story.

The first way of being is "family." Family was the organizing social unit of Jesus' times.

In antiquity, the extended family meant everything. It not only was the source of one's status in the community but also functioned as the primary economic, religious, educational, and social network. Loss of connection to the family meant the loss of these vital networks as well as loss of connection to the land. (Malina and Rohrbaugh Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels,   Section on Mark 3:31-35 I only have a Kindle version without page numbers.)

To leave family was dangerous. Not only did you leave behind your key social support, you left behind your key social obligation. To leave family was to shame them. When his family comes "to restrain him, for people were saying, 'He has gone out of his mind'" it is as much to protect themselves as it is to protect him, and perhaps more so! When the group is in self-protection mode we are in a dangerous place where mob instincts can take over.

So Jesus could be seen as inviting us to join his surrogate family: "And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!" The surrogate family, according to Malina and Rohrbaugh (ibid) is the family structure that those who had to leave the family would join; a new group in which to have an identity and location.

But Jesus' new family has its values, just as our blood family has theirs: 'Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.' The potential for trouble is clear: "Not only did he walk off the farm," the family might spit out, "he went and worked for Monsanto! He betrayed all our values."

What the group does when people go against the grain is validate itself. So Malina and Rohrbaugh talk of 'deviance labelling.' (Reading Scenarios: Mark 3:20-30)

Negative labeling, what anthropologists call "deviance accusations," could, if made to stick, seriously undermine a person's place and role in the community. In our society labels like "pinko," "extremist," "wimp," "psycho," or "gay" can seriously damage a person's career or place in society. In the Mediterranean world of the first century labels such as "sinner," "unclean," or "barren" could be equally devastating. Most serious of all were accusations of sorcery, that is, being possessed by and having the power of "the prince of demons," Beelzebul (Mark 3:22). Such labels not only marked one as deviant (outside accepted norms or states) but, once acquired, could be nearly impossible to shake… Labels and counter-labels are thus potent social weapons…. Jesus' opponents acknowledge that he casts out demons, but accuse him of being a deviant and seek to shame him publicly in order to ostracize him from the community. If the label could be made to stick, implying that Jesus was an evil deceiver in the guise of good, his credibility with his audience would have been irreparably damaged….

Has anything changed? It sounds much the same as life now.

The need for a group to validate itself— assure itself that it is right— means that by the time we have read the first few verses of this week's reading, the situation is ripe for violence:

Then he went home; and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’ And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.’

The crowd is in place, the family (the group) is aggrieved, and the religious authorities are weighing in. Everything is ready to explode and we are brought to the meat of the sandwich. Our time-honoured human response is to defuse the violence by finding someone expendable to carry the blame; in short, a scapegoat.

When Jesus asks "How can Satan cast out Satan?" Rene Girard replies, "It happens all the time. In fact, that's what human culture is founded on. Our anthropology can be summarized by the phrase Satan casting out Satan."

What he means is that the human family's way of maintaining itself when violence threatens to destroy our cohesion is to find 'a satan' on whom we can pin the blame and then drive them out, or kill them. Then our own social solidarity and stability can be restored. This is how the world works. We cast out the deviants; they become 'a satan' to us.

The problem is that they never are the problem. The scapegoat is always innocent. The Old Testament recognised this in its way; animals used for sacrifice were to be without blemish. Jesus on the cross was innocent; even the Roman Centurion said so. (Luke 23:47) So when we scapegoat we cast out that which we say is 'a satan,' but in fact, we are being the satan who is attacking the innocent to shield ourselves from our sin.

The truth that Jesus means us to see, then, is in the stated consequences: a house divided against itself cannot stand. The human way of trying to keep a house together will never ultimately work because it always relies on expelling someone, or being over against someone. Jesus comes proclaiming the kingdom, the household, of God which will build a household on the stone the builders rejected. Jesus will let himself be cast out under the satanic accusation and build God's household on forgiveness. Jesus concludes, "And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come." Satan's reign is at an end precisely because his age-old game is that of Satan casting out Satan, resulting in a house divided that cannot stand. (Paul Nuechterlein)

Jesus is not merely asking us to "swap families." The Scribes in the story were certain they too, were doing God's will. That is why they label him as the deviant satan to get rid of him. He is threatening their whole view of God and how to be faithful to God.

The meat in this Markan sandwich is a call to a whole new way of being human. It is not merely a sort of surface call to allegiance to Jesus; not merely leaving the Methodists to join the Catholics because you married a Catholic boy—and that was explosive enough. It is a call to a life which says retaliation, violence, scapegoating are off the table for negotiating the life journey. It is not simply leaving our family but, in fact, repudiating their way of being.

In the common course of events Mark is the sadly too true gospel. At the cross

There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. 41These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem. (Mark 15)

His family is absent. In Mark's view they stand among the mob who cry, "Crucify him!" or, at best, are among those who have deserted him.

John's gospel changes this in chapter 19:25-27, as does Luke in 23:39-45.  Mark Fry highlights this beautifully. He begins at our reading in Mark:

They wanted to restrain him and send him to the asylum. It was too hard to bear, too dissonant a voice. The cry of the living God was inviting people to shed the burden of self-concern, to let go with complete abandon, and to venture out into the wilds of God’s kingdom armed with nothing but a passionate vision of life lived fully awake in love.

They eventually did restrain Jesus, on a cross, and when he asked his Abba to forgive the men who were executing him, they were stunned. “He really is crazy,” they thought. But the experience of the crucified Jesus left them marked, and they would never be the same again. No one walks away from that vision unscathed. Even restrained on the cross Jesus was widening the circle of his mothers, sisters, and brothers.

•••

Beyond the Rhetoric

As we left an inspiring church service and rousing preacher one night, my friend John Peters said to me, "I always feel about now, 'That was great! But how do I actually do it?!'"

I think we underestimate— let me say, I have under estimated evil. I am deciding that in my fortunate life I am indeed quite naïve about evil. And is the church, too often. In some notes as I tried to clarify my thinking on this, I wrote

I think we suppress, reject, avoid… [evil]
but we don't deal with it.
A person wreaks havoc in a congregation for 40 years— crisis after crisis is found to have them near its centre— minister after minister scarred or destroyed, not to mention the locals... and nothing effective is ever done… except the damage… how many times have I heard this story?

We preach the rhetoric, we know the words, we can even see things are going wrong, but something is lacking. Evil seems untouched.

The reading asks an ethical question of our preaching.

How seriously do we take Jesus when he equates the learned and faithful scribes of his nation/religion with Beelzebul, and says they are committing an unforgiveable sin? They are so committed to their way of being that they can only see Jesus as the embodiment of evil. If we are serious about this we are saying that the way of the scapegoat, the way of the "deviance accusation" is the way of death. And therefore our family, that little local group who gives us our life and being is often, when un-renewed, also a dealer of death.

An over-statement? Two women are killed by their partners or ex partners each week in Australia. If we don't rock the family boat everything is fine. True, the holders of power may be beating the life out of us on a regular basis, but the balance of power is unthreatened. Change that, and all hell can break loose.

Those two women are the tip of an appalling cesspool of violence. If as clergy we are not deluged with tales of violence it severely questions the level of our compassion and conversion. What do women— and men— perceive, or not find in us, that they are not sharing one of the most prevalent ills of our society with us? Or is it that they think the  church has nothing to say or offer?

With family, we are dealing with forces which have a life of their own. My wife and I did our premarital counselling by mail— we lived 300 miles from the nearest town! Nairn Kerr, our minister, asked us on one sheet, how we would deal with the influence of our families. I, innocent babe in the desert that I was, scribbled in, "Not a problem. They are twelve hundred miles away!"

What a joke. We were soon banging into ideas and forces that were outside of or beyond us in some way, and were originating in our families of origin. I had, as my sister said in Dad's eulogy, "a blessedly sane and secure upbringing – one that I now give daily thanks for." But that early banging into each other's family, I now begin to see, included— and still includes— stuff that was invisible in my childhood home, but came down from the grandparents… or beyond.

The love of money may be the root of all evil, but the family is too often where evil makes its first home.

What am I doing if I preach that you should leave your family and join the family of Christ? In my notes last night I scribbled down: Nothing is more sure to get the family and its complexes hostile than to go the way of Jesus. This provoked even his family! How will we deal with the 'Beelzebub' influences in the family when they are aroused by our change of allegiance… ?

I find Jung and Girard helpful guides in my thinking about the Faith, but here they seem to clash.

I see truth in what Girard says (quoted by Nuechterlein)

Satan's power is anthropological -- that is, it derives from the ways in which human beings organize themselves into community and culture. If we were to organize differently, Satan's power would disappear. Jesus came inaugurating that different way of organizing, around forgiveness rather than accusation, and his unveiling of the satanic powers has dealt them a death blow. Satan is losing his transcendent powers; he has fallen from heaven like lightning.

But Nuechterlein also  says

Girard is saying that Satan has no real substance outside of our human relations. He is the name ancient peoples gave to those structures of human relations themselves. So when modern people declare the gods of ancient peoples to be unreal they throw the baby out with the bathwater. We no longer name those real structures as satanic, as having to do fundamentally with accusing and expelling. Jesus in this passage shows that he understood the anthropology behind the name Satan and continued to use the name in order to speak to the thinking of his time. We may choose to use other nomenclatures for the anthropological reality, but we must not throw out the anthropological insight or we risk perpetuating the perpetrators' mythic version of reality.

Did Jesus think Satan was not "real?" I've added the emphasis in the quotation above; it makes Jesus sound like an early 20th century anthropologist adjusting his language for the natives.

Jung might find much to agree with in the statement that "when modern people declare the gods of ancient peoples to be unreal they throw the baby out with the bathwater." But he would say that what is really happening is that they no longer see the gods and so are at their mercy. He seems to say there is a "real substance outside of our human relations". The archetypes forms, those shadowy half glimpsed forces below the surface of our material egos have a reality of their own. Dealing with them is not just a matter of changing how we do things, or getting our thinking straight.

Where does the humble minister go in all of this!?

Stealing from Nuechterlein, "We may choose to use other nomenclatures for the anthropological reality, but we must not throw out the … insight…" This sandwich where Mark has Jesus place Beezebul squarely between the pieces of his family is no mere point of doctrine. It deals with dangerous, even evil forces.

One blogger who does not like Jung nonetheless says of his ideas: "as a wise man once said, just because you don't believe in ghosts doesn't mean you shouldn't or won't be afraid of them walking in the dark."

Which is all a long path back to John Peters' comment about sermons which never quite get to "the how" of things. I wonder if the lack of "how" which John and I felt that night reflected the lack of power the church has to work with the dangerous forces within families, and wider society, and to be some kind of healing agent.

This lack of power is real. It is evidenced by the fact that most people find us irrelevant. We are of no use to them, despite the fact that all people have to deal with loss, grief, and fear in their lives, and many people also live through quite horrifying trauma. Is our irrelevance and powerlessness due the fact that we no longer deal with evil? And is that non-dealing because we have stopped believing in it as a real force?

Have we concentrated on doctrine— right belief— but not then gone on to live out that belief in the seat of our social existence, and the place where people often suffer most, which is the family?

I understand us wanting to avoid simplistic reifying theologies that engage in foolish (and foolhardy) exorcisms which border on entertainment, and which often manipulate people. Which pretend to deal with a force which is perhaps generations old in its development by the utterance of a formula. But surely there's a lot of room between that sort of behaviour, and saying there is nothing we can do. I struggle enough to survive the forces I find loose in my fortunate life. The stories I hear across the table at church make me wonder how people are still alive and functioning! Is there nothing we can do, or be?

My friend, a good man who I liked and admired, tried to kill his wife. This was not frustration. This was a real force. We say he "lost it." And he did! He was not in control. We use the metaphor of an-other power to describe what happens again and again. If the metaphor of the other power has such descriptive and explicative truth perhaps we should trust its reality! 

The reality of the forces clustered around the illness of another friend made me physically sick as I tried to support them. Why would I deny their reality!?

Well, I underestimate the programming and indoctrination of the world in which I have grown up. "With mother's milk" I learned the world is explicable and, essentially, in the end, under our control. To learn otherwise is a big task which is no less than to reconstruct my understanding of reality. That is frightening in itself.

But it is also frightening to accept that life does contain the terror of forces beyond our control and even our comprehension. Some of those things under the bed may have been real.

It is much easier to live in a reality where the illness and family trauma of another person is not our responsibility. Even as the physician, we can identify an abusive parent and then, essentially, tell the person to deal with it and move on. You know what is wrong, so think differently and get over it. Am I being unfair? How often has someone shared their pain— perhaps even their trauma and shame— in church, and we have told them God loves them and then, as quickly as we can, changed the subject?

But joining the ever widening family of Jesus makes that pain our responsibility! The new family has to deal with it if it is to love its neighbour as itself.

In the popular Australian vernacular, Deal with it! means: Your problem, you fix it, don't come back until you have. No help here, mate.

But at its linguistic base dealing with something means interacting with it. It means negotiating, which means, communicating, understanding, and coming to terms with it. Coming to terms with it is a phrase which implies some kind of contract or relationship. l'm not talking about relationship with the person here, but with the force / thing / ailment they bring out of their family and into the family of Jesus.

If I won't believe in its reality, and honour that reality with my attention, I will let it have free rein— and reign— in my new family. I will be no agent of healing. Or if I let my (sometimes very wise) fear of it paralyse me, I will again be no agent of healing. My preaching will be nothing but rhetoric.

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!


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