Mark 3:22 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” 23 And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26 And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. 27 But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.
28 “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— 30 for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”
31 Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters[a] are outside, asking for you.” 33 And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34 And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
It seems I have my work cut out for me. In this passage Jesus makes four very loaded statements. First, he says, “If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand” (v.24), which is a sermon on its own. One thinks of Abraham Lincoln quoting these words during the Civil War.
Then Jesus says, “no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered” (v.27)—a most intriguing statement, one I could preach sermons about all day given its revolutionary undertones.
Then Jesus says perhaps the most frightening thing he ever said: “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” (v.29).
And, finally, when his family calls for him, Jesus disrespects them by ignoring their call and saying, “Who are my mother and my brothers? … Here are my mother and my brothers!” (v.34).
And I have to preach on all this!
First, we have the issue of Satan, or, more ominously, “Beelzebul.” Beelzebul most likely refers to the Hebrew words “Baal” and “zebul,” meaning “Baal the Prince.” Baal is the quintessential opponent of the God of Israelites in the Hebrew Bible, and so it makes sense that he would equated with Satan.
It also makes sense that the name Beelzebul, “Baal the Prince,” is used here, since “ruler of the demons” could also be translated “prince of the demons.”
Now, I want to hold the discussion of the “kingdom divided against itself” statement for later. For now, I want to go straight to the “strong man” line.
“No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man.”
Okay, who is the strong man, and what is his house?
Well, from context, the strong man is Satan and the house is Satan’s house. And in the version of this story found in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus precedes this statement by saying, “if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matt. 12:28). The Spirit is thus the one that enters the strong man’s house and plunders his property, and this happens when demons among us are cast out. So, Satan’s house is among us, on earth.
Saying so goes along with other parts of scripture, for the Gospel of John calls Satan “the prince of this world [who] will be driven out” (John 12:31); and Ephesians speaks of “the ruler of the kingdom of the air.”
Satan is among us.
Saying this, I am obviously saying something very troubling, but I’m not saying anything you don’t already know. The news shows it to us every day. The world is undeniably subjected to the worst injustices, and evil’s pervasiveness and prevalence are all too apparent to us.
The strange statement is not that Satan is president, but that Satan will be driven out! That the kingdom of God comes upon us through the Spirit! That the Spirit enters the house and ties up the strong man! That the kingdom comes upon us here and now! That the Spirit is among us, driving out Satan here and now! These are the strange statements. This is the good news, the gospel, which you don’t often see in the newspaper.
So, what we are dealing with in the Gospel, with Jesus Christ, is the deposing and driving out of Satan’s rule on the earth. As Walter Benjamin wrote just before he died under Hitler’s conquest of Europe, “The Messiah comes not only as the redeemer, but comes as the subduer of Antichrist.”
For we don’t want to escape to another world. We don’t want to abandon ship and go somewhere else. We want justice here on earth! We want wrongs to be made right. We want wounds healed. We want evil rulers overcome, and righteous judgment for the wicked. We want justice to flow down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
I think of refugees. Uprooted, displaced, homeless, and yet in a certain sense “saved,” delivered from oppression. Is this the salvation for which we are to hope? With our home overcome by tyranny and our salvation found in displacement and homelessness?
No, of course not. True salvation could only be the restoration of home, the reinstatement of the homestead, the security of our livelihood and well-being, and the removal of the threat of hegemony.
This is also the case in personal situations. I think of my family. I could tell you some crazy stories about my family. In fact, you could collect the worst horror stories from ten other families, and I bet they would still be difficult to compare to the witch’s cauldron that is my own family history!
There have been many days where I’ve ended up sitting on a couch, after some fight between family members, or after some shocking family, where I have felt so at a loss for how to help, and so disillusioned, and so dumbstruck, that I have seriously wanted to leave them and not deal with it anymore.
But, ultimately, I don’t just want out. I don’t just want to relief, to be released from the situation. No, I want restoration, wholeness and peace for my family.
The Gospel would be insufficient were it only a promise of escape. It might be good news, but it wouldn’t be the best news. The Gospel of Jesus Christ, however, is the best news, because it is not just about relief and escape, but it is also about transformation, revolution, redemption, healing, and resurrection.
This is what we are promised in Christ, through the Holy Spirit. The Spirit comes not only as deliverance from the tyranny of Satan, but as destruction of Satan’s tyrannical order, and as the inauguration of a wholly new order of love and peace.
And I think this is why…
blaspheming the Holy Spirit is the only unforgiveable sin.
Now, I should say that this is a most contested statement. No one knows what Jesus really meant by it—which is troubling since it seems incredibly important! It is among the most enigmatic and troubling statements of Jesus that were recorded, and the interpretations of it abound. That said, one interpretation that I am particularly compelled by comes from—and this will surprise no one—Karl Barth.
Barth says that by calling the Holy Spirit “an unclean spirit,” the scribes were calling, “the clean unclean, the holy unholy, the good bad, life death, the kingdom of God the Kingdom of Satan. … And in so doing they had automatically excluded themselves from liberation, from the new aeon, from the proclamation of forgiveness and salvation and the reception of both, [they had excluded themselves] from all hope.” (Barth, CD IV.2, 231f.)
If you close off reality, if you shut out any possibility of something totally other than what you see, if you look at the person driving out the old and bringing in the new and say, “He’s out of his mind” (Mark 3:21), then you have accepted, dignified, and justified the status quo. To do that is to become the enemy of the Gospel, because it is the status quo that Jesus sought to transform. It is the prince of the status quo that needs to be driven out and tied up.
To refuse to let the Spirit drive out demons, to reject the new in favor of the old, is to reject transformation and healing, redemption and forgiveness, and so to give yourself up to evil and injustice. What could be worse? What could be more hopeless?
Now, practically speaking, what does it mean to close off reality, and how do we not do that?
Well, let me give you an historical example.
In Nazi Germany, so-called German Christians defended Naziism by appealing to a Lutheran doctrine of “orders of creation,” which states that God instituted several orders that separated society into different facets: the church, the state, and the household.
They used this doctrine to say that the German Volk, meaning people, and their race were orders of creation, divinely instituted by God, and meant to be protected as such.
They said, God put me in this nation, with this people, this “blood and soil,” and that means I should be able to act in the best interest of my people, my race, my nation—even over against the interests of other people, other races, other nations.
In other words, the German Christians gave themselves a divine sanction to say that they and their people were more important than others. Other people could now become their enemies, and fighting them became the will of God.
So let me break it down:
First, the status quo was justified. They said, this people, as it is, was divinely instituted by God.
Second, they shut themselves off from other people, saying, I am not responsible for them, but rather, for my own people first.
Third, they were now free to make other people their enemies, whom they had to fight in order to protect their own Volk.
When Barth was writing theology, he made it a special point to critique the German Christian theology, saying that no one could tie God’s will to their particular people, their blood and soil.
For Jesus, he said, “all human orders are [old garments] or old [wineskins], which are … quite incompatible with the new cloth and the new wine of the kingdom of God.” (CD IV.2, 177)
He said that those who give divine favoritism to their own people confuse the status quo “with some necessity of nature,” and he said, “this is in truth a demonic caricature” of God’s will. (The Epistle to the Romans, 50)
And what’s more, he says Jesus, in passages like ours, practically subverted the present order instead of justifying it. When the crowd tells Jesus, “your mother and your brothers and your sisters are calling you,” Jesus’ response speaks volumes: “Who are my mother and my brothers? … Here are my mother and my brothers!” (v.34).
He implies that his natural family ties, his flesh and blood, are not ultimate; they do not make a decisive claim on him. Rather, the people before him are his mother and his brothers and his sisters.
In other words, you are not just accountable for your family, your people, your blood. Jesus certainly wasn’t. He came for the sick, for the outcasts, for the rejected and the neglected, not simply for his own people. And he told us to love our enemies.
And, here, I will now discuss the statement about a divided kingdom.
“If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.” Our world cannot flourish if we are divided, if we stick only to our people and stand against “them” and “people like them.” And I’m not just referring to our particular families. In truth, our families are often the ones we are estranged from.
No, I am referring to our friends, our comrades, those to whom we attach ourselves because we share political views, theology, preferences, likes, dislikes, etc. I am talking about the allegiances we form, and the people we reject.
Luther criticized works righteousness, but a friend of mine at Union criticizes the tendency among progressive toward what he calls, “woke-righteousness.” Because we are “woke” and “they” are not, we feel justified in shutting them out, or shutting them up. We justify ourselves, as we are, and stand against those, who Jesus says, are our brothers and sisters.
Now, I’ll be honest, I really struggle with this. I have family members who I can’t talk to about certain things, particularly about politics, because they say things that are, in my mind, wrong at best, and ugly and hateful at worst. And so I often find myself thinking that they’re not even worth talking to.
And I have to say, I don’t know exactly what crossing that divide is going to look like. At St. Lydia’s, we’re starting to explore that as we try to make connections with more conservative congregations, but I don’t know what exactly it is going to look like.
But I will say, I have been convicted by the Gospel, convicted by passages like these, where I am told who my brothers and sisters are, and that we cannot be divided, or else we face certain destruction.
Faced with this crisis, we cannot justify ourselves. To justify ourselves would be to risk shutting off the world and dignifying the status quo—it would be to risk rejecting the Holy Spirit.
We must let ourselves be troubled by Jesus’ example, and troubled by the Spirit’s call to embrace not just our people, but our larger family, the family of the world.
Only as troubled Christians can we open ourselves up to the Spirit, who challenges us and casts out our demons.
And only by opening ourselves up to the world can we invite the Spirit to enter the house and bring to destruction the tyranny of the devil, so that God’s new world may come.
Preached at St. Lydia's Dinner Church