Genesis 3.8-15; Psalm 130; 2 Corinthians 4.13-5.1; Mark 3.20-end
IN THIS Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus uses an image of insurgency to describe his mission. He comes as a thief and has to “bind the strong man” before he can “plunder his goods”. Jesus is identifying himself as the fulfilment of God’s promise to liberate the “prey of the strong and rescue the captives of tyrants” (Isaiah 49.24).
He deploys this metaphor as a riposte to the accusation that he is casting out demons in the power of Beelzebul, pointing out that Satan will hardly exorcise himself, but is in fact being bound and plundered by another.
As St Augustine writes, the saying looks forward to Jesus’s battle (with both the religious and political authorities and with Satan) on the cross: “He conquered the devil first by righteousness, because he who had no sin was slain by him most unjustly. But then by power, because having been dead he lived again, never afterwards to die.”
At the start of the passage, some of Jesus’s family appear, “to restrain him”. Then, at the end of the reading, Jesus’s mother and brothers send for him. As Mary Healy notes, one of St Mark’s “signature techniques” is to sandwich one story within another so that each sheds light on the other (The Gospel of Mark).
The desire to “restrain” Jesus may have been protective. It comes as the crowds are pressing in so much that Jesus and his disciples cannot even eat. But Mark also tells us that “people” were saying that Jesus was “out of his mind”. As Healy observes, “Since mental illness was often associated with demonic influence, these suspicions could be seen as a lesser version of the charge levelled by the scribes in the next episode.”
After the conflict with the scribes, Jesus’s family reappear “outside”. When they send for Jesus, his response is to say that those “inside” are also his “mothers and brothers”, because they do the will of God.
Here — as when Jesus is left in the Temple (Luke 2.41-52), and when she asks him to intervene at the wedding at Cana (John 2.4) — the Blessed Virgin Mary has to recognise the growing independence of the child that she has borne.
As Hans Urs von Balthasar notes, this is something that every Christian must learn about the works that God brings to birth in them: “Something similar holds for all our works, especially for those that are most spiritual, most personal, most unselfserving and therefore most fruitful. Once they have been realized they no longer belong to us; they have been handed over to God’s providence for him to administer them” (The Threefold Garland: The world’s salvation in Mary’s prayer).
Jesus’s confrontation with the scribes ends with his warning that those who say that he “has an unclean spirit” are “blaspheming against the Holy Spirit”. This rejection stands in contrast to tension within Jesus’s family, which serves to extend and deepen the concept of kinship from the purely biological to the wider body of disciples. As Healy notes, Jesus is not rejecting biological kin but “establishing a new basis for their claim on him”. The active presence of Jesus’s brothers in the Early Church shows that they ultimately embrace this new basis.
For Mary, there is a unique intertwining of kinship and discipleship: she is Jesus’s mother precisely because of her response of courageous faith at the annunciation. It is significant that Jesus says that he will have other “mothers” as well as “brothers and sisters”. Whoever brings Christ into the world, being obedient to the will of the Father, stands with Mary in the closest relationship to our Lord. And the whole Church is called to do this.
Our epistle is written to give the Corinthians hope in another situation of conflict. It sets such struggle in the wider context of the ultimate victory of faith. As Frances Young and David Ford observe, the passage describes the “paradoxical double existence” of every believer. The new “life-giving covenant” is given to believers even as they continue to live “in enemy territory”.
Like our Lord, we are insurgents in a “death-dealing and destructive environment” (Meaning and Truth in 2 Corinthians). The binding of the strong man is the source of our hope, because “we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence.”