Reflections on Mark 3:20-35 … Jesus, Family and the Will of God

In the three year Lectionary cycle there are a number of Bible passages which provide an excellent opportunity for preachers to speak directly of intergenerational and household ministry. This Sunday’s (7 June 2015, Second Sunday after Pentecost) Gospel reading – Mark 3:20-35 – is one such text.  Mark 3:20 tells us that Jesus entered a house and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat.  We are not told the location of  the house, but it is presumably in the vicinity of the home of Jesus’ extended family, for they receive word of what is taking place.  When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”  It is possible that their concern was not merely for Jesus, but for family honor! Jesus had become a social embarrassment, a source of shame, and needed to be restrained. Or perhaps they felt that Jesus was not fulfilling his social responsibilities, as the eldest son, to care for his now widowed mother (the omission of Joseph in 3:31 and 6:3 suggests that he has already died). Whatever the case, the reference to Jesus’ state of mind provides a neat segue into next verse, in which the teachers of the law declare Jesus to be demon-possessed. And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons. The linkage of these two verses suggests that both Jesus’ family and the teachers of the law are in spiritual opposition to Jesus and his ministry (see also John 7:5). Francis Moloney writes, ‘The members of [Jesus’] blood family are unable to understand the urgency that drives Jesus in his task of proclaiming the kingdom, and the powerful attraction which this exercises upon those who are sick, and in need of the physician (see 2:17). They are “outside” the kingdom preached by Jesus.’ (The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary, p. 82).

Verse 23 tells us that Jesus called the teachers of the law over to himself (his family members were not on the scene as yet, see verse 31) and began to speak to them in parables.  In reference to his expulsion of evil spirits (e.g. Mark 1:21-28), Jesus asks, “How can Satan drive out Satan?”  He further declares, “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand” (verse 25). I am somewhat intrigued by this statement of Jesus. It is a rephrasing of verse 24 and adds little to the thought development within the passage. Jesus, of course, had no desire for the “house of Satan” to remain standing. I wonder if the the use of the word “house” (oikos) here – the word that in the Greek New Testament that best approximates to the English word “family” – invites the reader/hearer to make wider associations. In the Gospel of Mark, oikos is used elsewhere to refer to homes or household dwellings and to the temple. In the light of 3:24 and 3:31-32, perhaps Jesus is making a point about the effect of spiritual disunity within both familial households and the wider household of God. A household that is spiritually divided will struggle to stand in the face of temptation and attack.

Jesus then goes on to speak of a “strong man’s house” (verses 27-28).  Once a “strong man” is tied up, his house can be plundered.  Jesus is the one who is stronger than Satan. He has come to tie up the strong man through his ministry, so that the house of Satan can then be plundered.

In verses 31-35 the focus on the passage switches back to Jesus’ family:

Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.” “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”

In the first place, these words of Jesus uphold the primacy of the will of God in family life. Jesus is not denigrating the family or diminishing the value and significance of family. Rather, he is teaching us that family loyalty is secondary to loyalty and obedience to the word of God. Family life, as wonderful as it can sometimes be, is not to be “worshiped” or served in place of God. In Diana Garland’s words, ‘Jesus is not doing away with family loyalty but transforming its meaning and putting it in its rightful place.’ (Family Ministry: A Comprehensive Guide, p. 317).

Secondly, Jesus’ words radically widen the concept of “family” for Christian believers. The loyalty, love and service that is properly given to one another in family life is also due to one another in the wider “family” of believers. In Christian community our relationships are reconfigured in and through Christ. In and through him we are brothers, sisters, mothers and children to and for one another. Jesus’ words evoke a vision of intergenerational life in which people of all ages and family backgrounds care for one another physically and spiritually. Spiritual parenting and child-rearing is broadly shared in the doing of the will of God.  Preaching on this passage, William Willimon said,

Your human family, for any of its virtues, is just too small, too closely circumscribed. … Thus, when someone steps up and answers Jesus’ call to follow him, the church washes that person in water – baptism – which says, among other things, that the person has been reborn, started over, and has been adopted into a new God-formed family. It is as if the person gets a new name, “Christian,” that takes precedence over that person’s family name. It is as if the person has already died to old attachments and former relationships and has already been raised to new life. And the church is that fresh, new family that is composed of those who have heard Jesus’ “Follow me” and have stepped forward and said “Yes.” … Thus, when parents bring a child forward for baptism, Christian initiation, the pastor takes the child from them and says, in effect, “You are two wonderful people, but you are not knowledgeable enough, not skilled enough on your own, to raise a Christian. Therefore, we’ll adopt your child, we’ll take responsibility for this baby, we will help you raise a Christian.” In a world of grandparents without grandchildren close by, and single-parent families, and grandchildren growing up without grandparents, and marriages under stress, you need a bigger family than the one you were born into. You must be born again into a new, far flung family, a family as large as the love of God in Jesus Christ.

As a parent, I am acutely aware that I need the “wider circle” of the household of believers to support me in sharing Christ with my daughters. I need them to have spiritual brothers, sisters, mothers and children within the Christian community in order for God’s will to be done in their lives. One of the most significant things I can do as a Christian parent is to see that the spiritual lives of my daughters transcends their family life. A rich, vibrant intergenerational Christian community is a wonderful gift to children, youth and their families, drawing them more deeply and fully into the will of God. Moreover, a family that is caught up in the web of the wider household of God is more likely to be characterised by a unity of spirit and able to stand strong in the things of God.

So, in proclaiming this text, here are some potential applications to intergenerational and household ministry:

  • In the kingdom of God, family life is intended to be an instrument of God’s will and secondary to it.
  • Spiritual unity in families is vital for resisting temptation and the attacks of the evil One. A house that is divided is susceptible to falling away.
  • In Christ, God creates a new “family” which transcends blood ties. In Christian community the children are everyone’s children. We are called to share together in the privilege and blessing of caring for one another beyond the circle of immediate family life.
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