by Paul Hooker
A sermon preached in Shelton Chapel of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary on 9 June 2015. The poem, Beside Himself, which appears toward the end of the sermon, is the same one published on this blog last week.
This is a bizarre and unsettling passage. I think I understand, but understanding is a bit like holding a tiger by the tail: now that I’ve got it, what do I do?
Let’s start with the understandable parts. The writer of the gospel of Mark uses a literary structuring device called inclusio –or at least that’s the name I learned for it; others call it “bracketing.” Regardless of the name, the device works like this: Mark begins telling a story—in this case, the story that the family of Jesus is concerned about Jesus’ mental health and come to “restrain him,” as the text says—but then interrupts that story to tell another one—in this case, the exchange of remarks between the scribes and Jesus over whether Jesus uses magical powers in casting out demons—and then returns to complete the first story—in this case Jesus’ redefinition of his family as “whoever does the will of God.” The two family stories are the bracket, and the dispute with the scribes is the center.
The family of Jesus heard of Jesus’ arrival “at home.” They “went out ” to him—a curious verb; one wonders why the family would have “gone out” to meet Jesus if he were “at home”—but cannot get to him because so great a crowd of listeners surrounds him that “no one can eat.” Mark says the family came to “restrain” him; the verb here is a form of krateo, which in its gentlest form means something like “to hold” or “take by the hand” and in its more vigorous form means “arrest” or “sieze”—eiher way, it’s clear they intended to exert some power over Jesus The family came because they have heard that he was “out of his mind.” That’s strong language, too, which may be why older versions used to translate, “beside himself.” I have to confess that I like those older translations. It seems to me they get closer to the meaning of Greek phrase—a form of ex istemi, meaning “to stand outside.” It’s the word from which we get our word, ecstatic, which originally meant “to be in an ‘out of body’ state.” From the family’s perspective, Jesus was in a fugue state. He’d gotten out of his head, out of control, and needed to be corralled and brought to heel.
Before that can happen, however, Mark inserts the center story of Jesus’ dispute with the scribes. Trying to discredit his healings and exorcisms, the scribes accused Jesus of sorcery, of “having” Beelzebul—basically, using the satanic Lord of Demons to conjure and control demonic forces. Jesus’ reply pointed out the logical fallacy in their argument: that demonic power does not defeat itself, but is bested only by a stronger power. And then he told this short parable: one cannot break into the house of a strong man and steal his possessions without first tying up the strong man and rendering him incapable of defending his home and property. And finally he offered up, without any explanation, this strange and troubling saying about unforgiveable sin.
And now Mark takes us back to the story of the family’s seeking to take Jesus home. Mark is careful to note here that Jesus’ mother and brothers were “standing outside, ” using the same words as those he uses to describe Jesus’ mental state a few verses before. Mark is also careful to note that “a crowd was sitting around him,” so that the family has to “send to him” in order to call him. It’s almost as if Mark is underlining the fact that those who thought Jesus was “outside himself” in the first part of the narrative now understand that they are the ones left “standing outside” while Jesus is now on the inside. As if to underscore the point, when told that his mother and brothers are seeking him, Mark tells us that Jesus asked “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Then “looking at those who sat around him,” said “Here are my mother and brothers.” It’s worth noting that the phrase the NRSV translates as “those who sat around him,” might be more literally rendered, “those sitting around him in a circle.” In these last verses, Jesus has moved to the geometric center of the circle in the center of the story.
What fascinates me is the ironic reversal in the text. Those who think of themselves as on the “inside” of the family, and who thereby think they have a prior claim on Jesus, are distressed when they find him “outside himself” and outside their control. Yet throughout the story, it is they who are “standing outside” unable to get in, and he who is at the center of the circle. Those who begin the story as family by the story’s end have lost that status, and Jesus has replaced them an entirely new family: those who share the circle with him, and those who “do the will of God.”
But let’s go back to the strange saying at the center of all this. In the midst of Jesus’ reply to the scribes, he says this:
Indeed, I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sin and the blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can have no forgiveness eternally, for that one is guilty of an eternal sin.
This statement seems to serve as a kind of separating device between those who side with Jesus, and those who oppose him. Those who oppose him, who say of him that he is possessed or in league with Beelzebul, place themselves forever outside the circle, outside the community of the faithful, and in this stark statement, outside the reaches of the forgiveness of God. Those who respond to Jesus, who receive the gospel in the Spirit in which he offers it, are within the circle, sheltered and secure in the fellowship of grace. In other words, it’s all about accepting Jesus and the Spirit in which he comes. You either do or you don’t. And if you don’t, you’re outside the reach of forgiveness. Nothing else matters: no familial relationship, no prior claims, no standing in the religious community.
If I stand back from that statement, take a breath, and think about it, I’m shocked by its vehemence. We hold tight to the notion that nothing—no act of human depravity, no depth of disbelief—lies outside the reach of the sovereign mercy and grace of God. Yet here, Jesus seems to be suggesting nothing less than that: “…no forgiveness eternally, for that one is guilty of an eternal sin.” I struggle to find a place for that in my theology. In the end, I don’t know what to do with this all-or-nothing Jesus. Talk about a tiger by the tail!
Here’s what I know: it’s all about the house, and who’s in and who’s outside it. This passage is about separating insiders from outsiders, those who have control from those who can only pretend to what they do not possess. And the irony of this passage is that those who think they are on the inside are actually on the outside, and those who by all rights should be on the outside are on the inside. Those who think they are in charge are really powerless, and those with no claim to power find themselves gathered most closely around it.
And at the heart of that irony are these two sayings about the strong man and the unforgiveable sin. In the strong man saying, Jesus breaks into the house of the “Lord of Demons” and overpowers him, “putting an end to him.” Jesus is making an apocalyptic claim, asserting that in him, the reign of God has broken in, the impregnable house of the demonic is broken into, and the power of Lord of Demons is forever broken and bound. And anyone who cannot see that, anyone who thinks that Jesus is crazy—anyone who thinks that the Spirit of Jesus is an unclean spirit—is not only wrong, but is fighting for the wrong side. This is an all-or-nothing moment—as indeed, for Mark, is the whole gospel—and there is no room for indecision. Either you are in the circle with him, or you’re outside.
We are accustomed to treating Mark’s apocalyptic urgency with a sort of genteel and clinical reserve. Perhaps the passage of too many years has inured us to the possibility that things-as-they-are will one day give way to things-as-they-will-be. Perhaps we’ve seen too many self-convinced crazies willing to consign the rest of the world to hell for the sake of their own righteousness. Perhaps we’ve endured so much heartache that we’ve learned to protect ourselves from the rash promises of hope. Whatever the reason, now-or-never apocalypticism doesn’t sell well in the mainstream market.
All the same, there is something in us that can’t quite let go of the dream that the strong man’s house will at last be plundered and evil led away in chains. There is something in us that stirs whenever we say “thy kingdom come” or hear pronounced from the Table that “whenever we eat this bread and drink this cup, we show forth the Lord’s death until he comes again.” There is, I think, a little apocalyptic in us all. The only real question is how seriously are we prepared to take it.
Here’s a poem about what it feels like to be the family of Jesus in this text. It seems to me to get at this apocalyptic tension between being on the inside and being on the outside.
He was beside himself. That’s being kind;
the scribes called him demonic, blasphemous,
the sycophantic crowd was wonderstruck,
but to us it was clear he had just
lost his mind.
He was beside himself. It’s what we dreaded—
this apocalyptic proclamation
this all-too-public defamation—
given the mental state he’s in
who knows where he is headed?
He was inside the house. We heard him say
the strong man’s hold has no defense,
one sin is without recompense—
what further need of evidence
had we to find him fey?
He was inside the house, and we were not;
that was the problem in a nutshell;
the walls weren’t thick, but a well
built wall is stronger than hell,
can keep you in—or out.
They were beside him, they and not we
who were family, who would claim him
and in our solicitude tame him
and if not, then shame them
for being where we could not be.
They were beside him. We stood apart.
Their circle met his inspection,
their obedience his question;
they offered no rejection of
the Spirit in his heart.
They were beside him. Suddenly it was plain:
will he not transgress the respectable
and sit at the less appropriate table
and speak his truth in harder parable
and lead us to a cross again?
We should have been beside him. We are his family.
Do we not say his prayer to bring
the kingdom in? Of what king
do we imagine we might be speaking,
or when? We were his family.
The great temptation the Church always faces is the temptation to believe it has proprietary control over the kingdom Jesus brings, that we can agree with the comfortable parts and ignore the unpleasant ones. Here’s the truth, friends: we don’t, and we can’t. There is no in-between in this, no installment plan where the apocalypse comes in manageable bits. We either pray for the reign of God, or we work for the Lord of Demons. We’re either inside the circle, or outside the door. In the apocalypse, it always looks like Jesus is beside himself. In the end, though, which side are we on?