· Vatican City ·

Commentary on Mark 3:20-25

Jesus’ true family

07 June 2024

It is in the nature of a “gospel” to pronounce — for an audience — what is unquestionably true; something a listener or reader can rely on as her or his life goes on; words that will not lead one astray, but rather savingly away from crippling doubt and even danger. This is a gospel’s “service.” Jesus’s followers are like all people — tossed this way and that by conflicting assertions of truth with which the world surrounds us. Earlier in Mark 3, Jesus — in the synagogue — goes about healing a man with a withered arm. Possibly we think of this affliction as the emblem of a withered spirit. The day is the Sabbath, and Jesus’s detractors, the Pharisees, complain that to perform an act of healing on the Sabbath is a sinful trick of the devil — to actually expunge the devil himself by healing. Jesus, the Pharisees say, is a minion of the devil and must be killed.

Following this, Jesus leads his followers to the seaside, where truth apparently is more at home, and turns the Pharisees’ devious accusation — we would say in contemporary parlance — into a teaching moment, and also into a promise with which to draw his followers nearer to him, dispelling their confusion about what is a sin and what’s not. The devil, Jesus says to his followers, cannot cast out the devil without destroying himself. Therefore, to heal the man with the withered arm on the Sabbath, in the Synagogue, is not a sin, in as much as here I am still with you. If I were the devil or his minion, I would destroy myself.

Jesus’s rather circular parable — that Satan cannot harmlessly abolish Satan — is frankly far from obvious to a skeptic such as I am, and even less foregone about a practiced trickster such as Satan — which makes Satan such an incessantly difficult adversary. But the neatness and seeming inevitability of Jesus’s maxim of a house divided against itself, combined with his followers’ fear and confusion about his safety, and combined as well with Jesus’s promise of the dire consequences should his followers not believe him (“…whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness”) make his followers’ act of faith all the more irresistible. And as if to enhance the allure of what he’s preaching, Jesus extends to his followers the privilege of his extended family. “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” This is Jesus’s deal, the service he offers the faithful.

By Richard Ford