Progressive reflections on the lectionary #21

Mark 3:20-35 - Resisting violence while denying shame and honour

Progressive reflections on the lectionary #21

The Gospel reading this week is one of the more obscure, and even dense, parts of ‘Mark’ - it takes a typically concentric shape, beginning with Jesus’ family who are convinced he has gone out of his mind.

In a society bound up in codes of shame and honour, for an eldest son to be a locus of public ridicule was a big problem, so of course the family set out to do something about it, planning to ‘grab him’ - the word kratēsai comes from a word meaning ‘strength’ - they were going to have to use force to retain the family honour.

From this rather soap opera like beginning, the story unfolds. Because in a pincer movement, just as his family were trying to catch him to preserve his and their honour, so the people who were seeking to shame Jesus, ‘the Scribes’ - which means the legal scholars - are also moving in on him. Honour and shame collide as they claim that he is afflicted by an evil spirit: Beelzebul or Beelzebub (what this means is a really interesting thing to think about, but that will have to be another time) - seeking to discredit both him and his reformist message.

So at the centre of the story Jesus launches into some parabolic chat about binding strongmen - and here we get to a nitty gritty, complex, piece of text. To whom is Jesus referring in this passage? Is it the ‘Satan’ (the adversary or accuser) who is ἰσχυροῦ (strong, powerful, forceful)? Or is the binding of the strong actually a reference to himself?

An argument can be made for both, I think, and usually the former prevails (maybe primarily because that was the interpretation that the writer of ‘Luke’ chose to favour). But even if that is the ‘right’ (or ‘best’) way to read this passage, then there is very little critical engagement with what Jesus means by ‘the Satan’ (two slightly different versions of the same word are used in the Greek in this passage). After all, he is, in fact, being accused - by his adversaries, the Scribes who have libelled him and described him as being the servant of a foreign god. In the minds of normal ‘readers’ there’s often an implicit assumption about the nature of ‘Satan’, that owes a lot to a dualistic view of the world (and perhaps Augustine’s Manichean heritage), which we read in to the text even though it’s not necessarily there.

It’s more interesting, I think, to take the other path, and ask whether Jesus here is referring to himself. Saying, perhaps, that the infighting and name calling within Judaism itself will be the cause of it’s own downfall. Saying that accusers have risen up from within, and are seeking to bind up those who call them out. After all - that is precisely what is happening here.

If that’s a good reading, then what we have here is an instance of Jesus standing up against, and calling out, the authorities who will, ultimately, get him killed. Highly relatable for people in that situation across the world. If we read more of Jesus’ speeches like this then we might find ourselves making common cause, more readily, with oppressed people who try to stand up against their oppressors.

In any case, whichever way you want to take it, what Jesus does in all this is subvert the paradigm that the whole of their honour/shame based society is centred upon. Rather than leaning back into the respectability of his own Jewish lineage to defend himself against false accusations he casts that aside, declaring that he is at home with “whoever does the will of God". He denies shame by refusing to rely on honour.

Like a piece of soap between two forceful hands, Jesus slips free, refusing the constrictions of social pressures that centre upon respectability, and the attempts by the authorities to shut down his reformist teaching. No wonder they ended up killing him.

This blog is taken from Simon's Substack email series, to subscribe please go to https://simonjcross.substack.c...

Image: "Burdened by shame" by built4love.hain is licensed under CC BY 2.0.


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