I will date myself today in noting that Jesus has become Backstreet Boy famous. Yes, I did grow up in the 90’s, and I’m not ashamed to admit it! In the first passage of today’s reading, people are flocking to Jesus from the far north (Tyre and Sidon) and the far south (Idumea). More than this, the crowds are becoming so intense that Jesus instructs his disciples to have a boat ready in case things get too crowded. In yesterday’s reading, the Pharisees rejected Jesus and began to plot his death. Jesus’ reception in the general population is far different. They come from afar to see and hear this new teacher and healer. Jesus is making waves.
Jesus’ choosing of the twelve was the subject of my last newsletter article. Feel free to follow this link if you’d like to see my thoughts on that part of today’s reading.
And now we come to the part of the reading that catches my attention today. In verses 20-34, we see our first example of a “Markan Sandwich” (I picked up this term in seminary and can’t claim it as my own), a storytelling tool that Mark uses several times in his gospel. The idea with the Markan Sandwich is that one story is sandwiched in another. In effect, Story A is interrupted by a Story B and then is revisited after Story B concludes. When you see something like this in Mark’s gospel, expect the stories to be related. One will shed light on how to intrepret the other and visa versa.
In this case, the story of Jesus’ family coming to “take charge of him” is interrupted by the story of the accusation leveled by the teachers of the law. In regard to Jesus’ family, we’re not sure of their motives. Maybe they are truly concerned about him. On the other hand, maybe they are concerned with their own reputations. The fact that this story is tied to what follows, though, paints Jesus’ family in a poor light. In a moment, teachers from Jerusalem will seek to discredit Jesus’ ministry by accusing him of being demon possesed. Jesus’ family doesn’t go this far and is not this malicious, but they are nevertheless in route with the intention of putting a stop to Jesus’ activity. After Jesus discredits the teachers from Jerusalem, we are told that his family arrives, asking to see him. At this point, Jesus does something dramatic; he redefines family around the will of God.
In his wonderful commentary on Mark, David Garland notes that this would not make a very good text for Mothers’ Day or Fathers’ Day. Surely he is right! Jesus seems grossly insensitive to his family! Remember the situation, though. Jesus’ family has come with intent similar to the teachers of the law; they are looking to put a stop to his activity and therefore to his ministry. In response, Jesus points to a new familial bond that has been formed around the will of God. Rather than a biological family, this is a spiritual family. Also note that Jesus’ biological family is not necessarily excluded from this fellowship. Should they rally around God’s will like the others, they too will be included. In this instance, they stand in opposition to God’s will. And also note that Jesus does not magically cease to be his mother’s son when he utters these words. The biological bond and years together still exist. Perhaps a helpful way of understanding this passage is to say that Jesus’ family has been extended to include spiritual members as well. Moreover, when the biological family stands in opposition to God’s will, the spiritual family becomes that much more important. In saying these words, Jesus offers comfort to those who have been rejected to some degree by their families because of their allegiance to him. These are not left alone. Instead, a new, spiritual family rises to love and support them.
In light of an ever more connected world, I sometimes wonder about this extension of family. For instance, it is certain that many brothers and sisters in Christ around the world suffer from poverty. Others suffer from oppression. Still others from persecution. What is my responsibility to these members of my spiritual family? I know that I would seek to act on behalf of members of my biological family who suffered similar fates. Can I do less for my spiritual family? In asking this, I do not wish to paralyze anyone with the weight of these problems. This would only lead to despair! Instead, I point to a spiritual familial reality that can work itself out in practical ways. At the very least, we can pray, and I wonder where that prayer might lead. Could this be the question that helps us face not only the suffering of our brothers and sisters in Christ but also all of God’s image-bearers around the world?
And one final thought before closing. Today’s passage includes a hard saying about an unpardonable sin that can throw some of us into a tailspin of doubt and insecurity concerning our standing with God. Here are two points for thought. First, Jesus is not vague in naming this sin as if anything and everything might fit the bill. Instead, he is very clear in identifying the unpardonable sin as blaspheming against the Holy Spirit (assigning the work of the Spirit to the devil). Second, even a blasphemer is not without hope. David Garland notes that the Apostle Paul calls himself a former blasphemer (1 Timothy 1:13). Yet Paul was indeed pardoned by God in Christ and used in mighty ways. In this light, we should not lose the seriousness of Jesus’ words and tone, but we should also not walk in the shadow of fear. Our confession is that Jesus saves those who call on his name, and this is cause for joy and confidence.