Saturday, October 28, 2006

Mark 3, Layer 1

Mark 3 begins with an outstanding miracle. While casting demons out of people might be dismissed as psychological rather than divine, Jesus evidently (for we are not explicitly told) cures a man's crippled hand.

Much more interesting than the miracle is the context. People (we are later told they are Pharisees) who want to accuse Jesus of breaking the Sabbath watch him closely. So He
performs the miracle of healing without any ceremony at all. He just tells the crippled man to
stand up and stretch out his hand (imagine the Pharisee's difficulty in turning that into a charge that would stick).

Also interesting is how He phrases His question to the spies: How should we observe the Sabbath-- by doing good or by doing evil? By killing or by preserving life? The spies answer
Him not in words, but by going from the synagogue directly to Herod's clique, whose hands will later be stained red with the blood of John the Baptist. There they will plot to kill. Jesus responds with anger to their stubborness.

Mark 3 then describes Jesus's withdrawal from people and their energy in pursuing Him, and Jesus's decision to appoint apostles to handle the increased traffic. The appointing of the apostles is a small point of interest: Jesus went onto a mountainside and called to those He wished to appoint. He didn't ask them to accompany Him or have a public apostleship ceremony. He called and they came.

The final section of the chapter is one of the most powerful chapters of the gospels. It contains three lessons. The first is that Jesus's family, learning that He is teaching so intently that He is not eating, declares Him to be insane. When they show up and send someone to call Him out from the house where He is teaching, He claims the people sitting around Him as his mother and his brothers. There are several ways to take this. The usual interpretation is that He is disowning His family allegiances in favor of the community of believers. But perhaps He is making a metaphysical statement, that human beings are all one, that whoever we stand before have as much claim to kinship with us as our biological kin.

The second lesson of this chapter (a house divided against itself cannot stand) was made famous by Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln used it to explain why he could not allow the South to secede. For Jews, the meaning of "a house divided" would be especially poignant, since the decline of Israel and the roots of its enslavement by the Romans began with the civil war between the northern and southern kingdoms.

But Jesus is using it both to justify His own works as divine and also to describe evil as a unity. The teachers of the law accuse Him of being possessed by Beelzebub and so having the power to drive out demons. He makes a small joke by shifting the name of the evil one, "Beelzebub" (the lord of the flies) to "Satan". Since the meaning of "Satan" is obstacle, He is asking how can the obstacle drive out the obstacle.

But He is deadly serious. The teachers of the law have committed the one sin for which there is no forgiveness, namely inverting the meaning of good and evil. To grasp the full meaning of this, one must understand that the ancients had a simpler understanding of "good" and "evil" than moderns do. Moderns conceive of "good" and "evil" as states of mind, reflecting the intention made manifest in deeds. But the ancients saw "good" to be identical to "helping" and "evil" to be identical to "harming."

Healing someone was, by definition, doing good. By saying that Jesus was healing by means of an evil (injurious) spirit, he teachers of the law were calling "aid" "injury." And there is no mystery as to why this sin, as opposed to all others, cannot be forgiven. A person who calls "light" "darkness" and "darkness" "light" cannot be guided to the light. Instead, the more that they are offered light, the farther into darkness they will flee. God would have to overrule free will to save such people and, by so doing, would destroy their humanity.

By Jesus's words, we understand what the Holy Spirit is. Just as gravity is the tendency by which one mass falls toward another, the Holy Spirit is the tendency by which Truth emerges from falsehood. And so calling "darkness" "light" or calling "healing" "injury" denies the Holy Spirit.

Jesus reinforces the meaning of the parable with what would seem to be a weak simile. He says that to rob the house of a strong man, one must first tie up the strong man up. It has been noted by other commentators that He is referring to the work of salvation as stealing from the devil, that by doing evil to evil, one does good.

And so we are left with a number of questions:
1. How exactly does God call us?
2. How does Jesus's anger square with His warning about anger?
3. Is the one unforgivable sin described elsewhere in the Bible or is this original to Jesus?
4. How does this description of the Holy Spirit square with other descriptions of it?
5. Why is the simile of the strong man thrown in? It seems unnecessary and distracting.
6. How is Mark's telling of this event different from the telling of Matthew 12 and Luke 11?


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