Sunday Readings: Genesis 3:8-15 Psalm 130 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1 Mark 3:20-33
When we first read about Jesus in the book of Mark, it says that Jesus came into Galilee after the arrest of John the Baptist and his message was: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” John the Baptist had preached repentance, but he was not able to give people the good news that Jesus brought. It was good news to suffering people, but it was not good news to Satan. Jesus’ words announced that the war between good and evil, a clash between kingdoms battling for universal triumph, was on.
The kingdoms first clashed in the Garden of Eden. In that battle, Satan appeared to win. He deceived Eve. She lured Adam to join her. God’s supreme creation chose to reject his wisdom and do what felt good to them. It looked good, because Satan made it look good. Even as God pronounced judgment on his rebellious children, however, he served notice on Satan. In today’s Old Testament reading God says, “I will put enmity … between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head.” Those few little words were God’s promise of hope for humankind.
When Jesus showed up with his message that “the kingdom of God has come near,” Satan knew that his days were numbered. In fact, the image of Satan hearing Christ speak for the first time, recalls to us the image in the book of Revelation where the great dragon lashes out with his tail and stars fall.
In the Revelation story, the terrible dragon stood waiting for a son to be born, and as he waited, he twitched his tail, seemingly destroying stars as he did so. To be able to drag stars out of the sky made him appear powerful, but his seeming power was short-lived. The child escaped. Instead of devouring the child, the dragon was confronted with an army of angels, and soon he was utterly defeated. In the Revelation story, the dragon was thrown down to the earth. Ultimately the story says that he “went off to make war on … those who keep the commandments of God.” Using the imagery from that dragon story, it is easy to imagine that great dragon raging and lashing out with his tale when he hears Jesus speaking to people saying, “The kingdom of God has come near.” The clash of kingdoms had begun.
In Galilee, people who suffered mental illness, incurable diseases, social ostracism, fear, hunger, and hopelessness heard those words, and they came running to Jesus. Families and friends brought people who could not bring themselves. The excitement mounted. The crowds surged around Jesus, crowds of people who wanted to be healed, crowds of people who wanted to observe the healings, and crowds of people who wanted to figure out how this charlatan was pulling off such a masterful show. In the last category were quasi-religious leaders who could read and write for hire, who accused Jesus of complete fakery, of trying to lure people away from God to himself by working in cooperation with Satan.
When Jesus heard the accusation, he famously replied, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Yet this dramatic moment is sandwiched between the hints of some family conflict that raises a confusing image. The crowds drawn by the spectacle of healings and exorcisms were so huge Jesus could hardly get a moment to eat. His family made early attempts to rescue him, because people were starting to talk as if Jesus were the madman, not those he had healed. And the religious leadership joined in the fray. The family understandably wanted him to be safe and to take time for a little R&R. It is hard to know if they stood outside because they could not push through the crowd, or if they stood outside, because they were actually afraid to get too close to such a controversial figure, but whatever the reason, they remained at a distance. They sent a message to Jesus asking him to come to them, but Jesus responded by dismissing them. His earthly family was, therefore, immediately divided.
As if the obvious division were not enough, Jesus went one step further. He looked around at the people crowded close, watching his every move, listening intently to his every word. He looked at the people who needed healing, and he looked at the people who had brought patients for him to help. Mark doesn’t try to read his mind, but when I read his words, I conclude that his mind was thinking, “The kingdom of God has come near. I can’t take it away from those who need it.” Aloud Jesus said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother,” These are shocking words. His family only wanted what was best for him – some rest, some food, some quiet, maybe even some sleep. How harsh those words must have sounded.
Yet this is not the only time Jesus said such things. When Jesus was calling people to serve him, some made excuses. They had work to finish. They had parents to take care of. They wanted to get their rest and their sleep and just a little bite to eat before they headed out to follow Jesus. Jesus told them, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” In another place, Jesus said, “one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” In today’s story, and in all these other instances, Jesus was talking about priorities. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is more important than doing the work God gives us to do. Jesus said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.” We must put Christ above everything. He summed up this teaching one day when someone asked him what the most important commandment was. Jesus answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The Christ who tenderly looked down from the cross and made sure his mother would be cared for after his death, looked up from the center of a needy crowd and dismissed that same mother. Priorities.
So when Jesus’ mother and siblings showed up in the middle of his work, he wasn’t being petulant and egotistical. He was showing us where our priorities must lie. He was not rescinding the commandment to love and honor our parents. He had not lost his mind. He was busy fighting the battle with the kingdom of evil on behalf of people who needed to know that God’s kingdom was more important than anything else. It really was the pearl of great price. It really was worth more than life itself.
Because a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand.
That is the real message. When we work for the kingdom of God, everything else is secondary, maybe even less than that. We must do the work God gives us and fill our place in the kingdom. We can’t be partly committed to the kingdom and partly devoted to our own comfort or to pleasing our parents or our children. The battle between good and evil demands full commitment. Jesus said it very simply, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
The kingdom of God has come near. God will not permit his kingdom to be weakened by half-hearted promises. If you want to be part of it, you must commit yourself to God alone.