Tuesday, March 2, 2010

How can Satan cast out Satan?

And they went into a house. Then the multitude came together again, so that they could not so much as eat bread. But when his own people heard about this, they went out to lay hold of him, for they said, "He is out of his mind." And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, "He has Beelzebub," and"By the ruler of the demons he casts out the demons." So he called them to himself and said to them in parables: "How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself, and is divided, he cannot stand, but has an end. No one can enter a strong man's house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. And then he will plunder his house.

"Assuredly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they may utter, but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is subject to eternal condemnation" -- because they said, "He has an unclean spirit."

Then his brothers and his mother came, and standing outside they sent to him, calling him. And a multitude was sitting around him; and they said to him, "Look, your mother and your brothers are outside seeking you." But he answered them, saying, "Who is my mother, or my brothers?" And he looked around in a circle at those who sat about him, and said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God is my brother and my sister and mother."

- Mark 3:19b-35

Jesus has just come down from the mountain, where he has appointed his twelve apostles (see yesterday's reading and commentary). Yesterday, we also read of his needing a possible escape from the crowds that pressed around him. Today he is back in his home country, among friends and relatives, and - again, as we were told in yesterday's reading - people from all over Galilee who've heard about his ministry have come to see him. So much so that there is no room in the house where he is preaching and teaching.

And they went into a house. Then the multitude came together again, so that they could not so much as eat bread. But when his own people heard about this, they went out to lay hold of him, for they said, "He is out of his mind." His own relatives apparently do not believe in this ministry; they have not yet grasped who he is. So, Jesus faces unbelief, despite his popularity, from a number of places in which relationship plays a part. Today's reading teaches us more about the nature of relationship in spiritual terms. And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, "He has Beelzebub," and"By the ruler of the demons he casts out the demons." We have already been told that the Pharisees and Herodians are out to destroy Jesus after he healed a man's withered hand on the Sabbath, and in today's reading the scribes have come down from Jerusalem to make a particular accusation. Jesus is casting out demons by the power of Beelzebub, here called "the ruler of the demons." So, opposition comes from another source of nominal relationship, here in the form of the scribes from Jerusalem. He who has called himself Son of Man, and the bridegroom, the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets, is most vehemently opposed by those who are the guardians of the Scriptures and therefore the record of the work of the Spirit through Jewish spiritual history. Beelzebub or Baal was the prince possibly of the "the dung heap" or "the flies." My study bible notes that this was a god worshiped by the Philistines. Here he is called the "ruler of the demons."

So he called them to himself and said to them in parables: "How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself, and is divided, he cannot stand, but has an end. No one can enter a strong man's house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. And then he will plunder his house. Jesus decides to respond directly to his accusers among the authority in Jerusalem, the scribes. "How can Satan cast out Satan?" Can demons be cast out by other demons - or is it the Holy Spirit that engages in this spiritual battle against the demons? Even the demons apparently know that "their house cannot stand" if it is "divided against itself." Under the rule of Satan, Satan cannot fight himself or his rule is over. Only God's work through the Spirit can "bind the strong man" and "plunder his house." The demons are cast out through the power of the Spirit; the scribes are not seeing clearly the nature of this "battle in heaven" that is being waged in front of them on spiritual terms. My study bible says, "Demons do not fight against themselves, but are cast out by God's power through the Holy Spirit, whose action signals the present reality of the kingdom." I think this note is very powerful, because, regardless of one's feeling about the existence of demons or the work of evil in the world, we are told that the action of the Spirit signals "the present reality of the kingdom." I feel that this is a very important understanding of the nature of the kingdom and its present reality in the world. "The kingdom of heaven has come near" will be the phrase Jesus teaches his apostles to use as they are sent out on their mission.

"Assuredly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they may utter, but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is subject to eternal condemnation" -- because they said, "He has an unclean spirit." Because of the blasphemy of the work of the Spirit in the world, we come to an important understanding of sin and how it works. All manner of things will be forgiven - but the failure to acknowledge the work of the Spirit falls into a particular category of deliberate or willfull hardness of heart. My study bible notes that, as Jesus has not yet revealed himself as Messiah, there are many who know nothing of him personally. But the work of the Spirit in the world is a different matter; the scribes are those who keep the records and are experts on the work of the Spirit in the world, forming and shaping Jewish spiritual history -- and it is this blasphemy, this attack on the work of the Spirit, that Jesus is condemning. It is the action of the Spirit in the world that those who witness are responsible for responding to in some way; in this case, the scribes are those who should know better.

Then his brothers and his mother came, and standing outside they sent to him, calling him. And a multitude was sitting around him; and they said to him, "Look, your mother and your brothers are outside seeking you." But he answered them, saying, "Who is my mother, or my brothers?" And he looked around in a circle at those who sat about him, and said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God is my brother and my sister and mother." And finally we have his closest relatives, calling to him from outside. We can't particularly know why they call to him; we've been told a few sentences earlier that Jesus' own people are saying that he is out of his mind and trying to get to him. But Jesus' statement is not a refutation of his mother and brothers; it's an important statement about relationship - which is the theme underlying this passage about demons and the Spirit, and the work of the Spirit in the world. How are we related? Who is his mother and sister and brother? In a spiritual sense, relationship takes place in the heart, which is the central perceiving organ of the spiritual life of an individual. "Hardness of heart" denotes a failure to develop spiritual eyes and ears for perception of spiritual things. So, relationship for Jesus comes in the form of those who can hear what he has to say, who perceive what he is doing, and who can "read the signs" of the origin of his work. His accusers are those who blaspheme the Spirit's work, who call him guilty of working through Beelzebub, or the "ruler of the demons." But this failure to perceive, and the deliberate hardness of heart about his healings and the work of the Spirit, denotes a failure to establish right relationship in spiritual terms. So, Jesus is pointing out what it is to be his "mother and sister and brother." And he has also pointed out what it is to fail in that spiritual relationship, to fail to properly perceive or "hear and see" with the heart.

So, where do we take this discussion for today? In the midst of Lent, we must consider what it is to be responsible for our choices. And forgiveness - the all important ingredient we are to receive through this perception - cannot be left out of this equation. If salvation and redemption depend upon this love and forgiveness, then we must see a hardness of heart as a barrier to its receipt. So, relationship comes full circle with this question of the realization of forgiveness and the restoration of "right relatedness." It is not a question of barring some and admitting others. This becomes a question of our own willingness to perceive, and what we hold dear before that reception, that causes the hardness of heart. It is also important to understand forgiveness in terms of "all manner of blasphemy" that may be forgiven. The blasphemy of the Spirit is not just the run-of-the-mill, everyday tit for tat of awful things we do to one another in this world, and the ways in which we treat each other badly. But the work of the Spirit may take many forms and we must be on our guard to know it when we see it, to perceive it with our hearts, to be right-related. We begin and end with forgiveness and what it means -- and especially what it means to refuse to honor the hand of forgiveness when it is offered. How do we know when Spirit is playing its role in our lives, holding out this hand, creating opportunities for our hearts to be "inflamed" with love? How do we guard against hardness of heart, the failure to change what we need to change, to see what we need to see - and cast out the things (like clinging to our own power) that stand in the way of our perception? How do we know when "the kingdom has come near?"