Satan, Sabbath, and Original Sin

Gospel: Mark 3:20-35

Then he went home; 20and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. 21When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’ 22And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.’ 23And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, ‘How can satan cast out satan? 24If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26And if satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. 27But 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; 29but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’— 30for 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. 32A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.’ 33And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’34And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! 35Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’ 

Satan, Sabbath, and Original Sin

Last week, I wrote about our desire for holiness; that is, our love for God.

There is something deeply healthy in seeing God as holy.  It is to recognise our failings and limitations. To have a sense of the holy is to be human; Homo sapiens with no sense of something other and beyond us, would be mere animal. The holiness traditions of my denomination witness to a great desire to live in harmony with God; to "live up to" the goodness God has shown us.

Whether or not we are "religious," the best of our humanity senses we are on the edge of something profound, and we long to enter into it. And whether or not we are religious, we all know the impossibility of living up to our aspirations. Things always seem to fall apart, and we live a lesser life than we hoped. The beginning of Mark Chapter 3 shows human aspirations to holiness, and to a deeper life, going sour,

For the very Pharisees who long for holiness and submission to God's law, go out and create an unholy alliance to kill with the Herodians; the collaborators with Empire. What starts as the desire to love and honour God, degenerates into the preservation of privilege and political power at the cost of human life. (Ibid)

In that specific event

6The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. (Mark 3:6)

This event mirrors the endless failure of humanity's desire to transcend itself. Obviously, it is a foreshadowing of Jesus' crucifixion. But it is not some isolated foretelling. Chapter Three is in many ways an analysis of our humanity and our failed aspirations. It links together sabbath, satan, and sin.

As I was working on Mark 2:23 – 3:6 last week, Rev Nathan Nettleton was taking a different tack as he traversed the same text. (Nathan shared his brilliant draft sermon on a preaching discussion list. I hope it will eventually arrive here.)

Sabbath keeping mattered because it was one of the most powerful practices that helped the people maintain their Jewish identity. Jewish identity has proved itself to be the most resilient group identity on earth … and the two main identity markers that helped them to maintain their distinctive identity were Sabbath-keeping and Kosher food … So when Jesus starts playing fast and loose with the accepted rules about what you can and can’t do on the Sabbath and what you can and can’t eat, the stakes could not have been higher. The very identity of the people of God was at stake.

With this analysis he undercuts any attempt to pit Jesus against Judaism. This is not a "Jewish problem" versus us superior Christians, because the development and maintenance of a group identity is a universal issue. We cannot be human without community, and we cannot be community without some shared sense of identity. And our shared identity is the environment which forms us from the moment we are born.

As Nathan shows, this goes far beyond being a "religious" issue.

In our world today, the community pressure to conform to a set of expectations will not usually be expressed in religious terms. In the churches it may be, but in this country there is no community consensus around even the existence of God, let alone what God might expect of us … But there are still very strong social pressures to regulate our behaviour and get us all to conform to particular views of right and wrong. And these standards are still policed in much the same way they were in Jesus’s day, by the threat of ostracism and public shaming if you fail to measure up. We’ve … removed the god-language, but otherwise it works much the same.

The text this week (3:20-35) follows Jesus' disruption of the normal patterns of life. On top of breaking the sabbath, he has healed multitudes. He has chosen disciples. (3:13-19) And chosen a highly symbolic number of disciples; twelve disciples might symbolise a new Israel.  He is the new celebrity which the 'powers that be' must assess, for the elites are also subject to the consternation everyone else feels. Is he simply another Kardashian, apparently vacuous but really a financially astute clone and imitator of themselves, playing the same game, and whose moments in the sun helpfully shield the elite from scrutiny? Or is he a challenge to them?  The words of Mark 1 are not, first of all, admiration. They are consternation and anxiety:

27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’

By verse six of Chapter three, the Pharisees have decided that Jesus is indeed a challenge, and a challenge which must be eliminated. And in this week's text, the scribes are now set to inflame the disruption and consternation over Jesus into outrage and, hopefully, to direct that outrage against Jesus. Nathan says, of crowds then and now,

By joining in with the outrage, we seek to reassure both ourselves and everyone else that we are on the right side, that we are part of the right group, that we are fully converted to the current orthodoxy. The group identity is strong, and we are on the right side of the line.

He continues

What does this have to do with the gospel of Jesus? Everything actually. Because as Jesus was pointing out, these systems of identity politics keep us all cowered in fear by generating endless victims, and we all know that we could be next. Being good can’t always save us. Some of the victims are Harvey Weinsteins who thoroughly deserve it, but many of them are just like the man with the withered hand, innocent unfortunates who can be written off and left to their fate because preserving our group identity is more precious to us than the likes of them. 

Jesus came precisely to save us from such a deathly culture, but in the process of shining the light on it and exposing it for what was, he had to reveal and face what it will do to anyone who tries to love it back to life and health. No sooner did we see a little glimpse of life in a withered hand restored, but “the Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”

What Nathan shows me is that in our humanity where things keep falling apart, the keeping of the sabbath defaults to identity politics, the preservation of our group.  The problem with human society is that we overwhelmingly define ourselves by excluding the outsider. We define ourselves by the outsider; we are not them, we are not this! Our aspiration to holiness— our seeking to love God with all our heart and mind and strength— degenerates into the exclusion of scapegoats. Each outrage of the current moment has the same shape as the incidents of Mark 3.

This is the way the scribes seek to kindle outrage in the anxious mob and, hopefully, to direct it against Jesus.

22And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.’ … 23And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, ‘How can satan cast out satan? 24If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.

I have been caught in three 'on the ground' mobs during  my life, and each time was terrifying. I recognise the developing rage of those events in the wildfire, instantaneous outrage which is frequently channelled to us by social media. The reason any wise person reads the comments below tabloid press articles or incendiary Facebook posts with reluctance, is because to read on is to walk into a terrifying and terrified mob seeking to find an identity so that it may feel safe again. Its identity has been threatened and unsettled, and it is casting around for a victim to stabilise itself.  In their accusation, the scribes are offering Jesus as a victim.

The scribes' accusation against Jesus does not reflect an archaic worldview which we have outgrown. Rather, "Our anthropology can be summarized by the phrase Satan casting out Satan."  What Paul Nuechterlein is saying here is that the way we have become human, and the way we are human "can be summarised by the phrase Satan casting out Satan." The 'person' of satan describes the dynamic of the mob and the methodology of exclusion which undoes all our aspirations to deeper humanity.

Paul's introduction to his post this week is a superb condensed summary of both Girardian theory and Original Sin.

According to Mimetic Theory, [the theory of imitation and rivalry] our species survived because the satanic accusation and expulsion kept the peace when hominid groups were imploding in intra-community violence. The dominance hierarchies of other mammals were no longer keeping the peace among our ancestors. We were too embroiled in mimetic rivalries, and we were learning to use weapons (clubs, rocks, etc.). The mechanism that entered the void is a scapegoating mechanism, an accusation turned into collective violence against an accused. The all-against-one violence brings peace to the majority. And the superhuman aura surrounding the victim (who was both blamed for the conflict and appears to have caused the peace) becomes the beginning of the experience of the sacred. The ensuing hierarchies of human culture are based on the dualism of sacred and profane and were religious from the very beginning. [Which is what James Alison means when he says, "We didn't invent sacrifice, sacrifice invented us."]

From earliest ancient near east sources, Satan is the Accuser. Subsequently, “Satan” also became a general name for the Evil One whom we want to cast out. So Satan the Accuser seeks to accuse and cast out Satan the Evil One. In short, “Satan casts out Satan” is the briefest description of a gospel anthropology unveiling the mechanism which has ordered human community since its beginnings. It describes the sinful ordering of our origins; it names our Original Sin. (Ibid. The italics are mine.)

The scribes, by seeking to exclude Jesus and make him outsider, are part of this loop of accusation. The text this week

 … is a classic instance of Satan casting out Satan. The scribes from Jerusalem are accusing Jesus of being in league with Beelzebul. They, of course, think they are doing God’s work of accusing an evil one and then working to cast him out (which they will eventually succeed in doing). But Jesus’ riddle ["he spoke to them in parables"] names them as doing satanic work by virtue of their accusing.

The truth that Jesus means us to see, then, is in the stated consequences: a house divided against itself cannot stand. The human way of trying to keep a house together will never ultimately work because it always relies on expelling someone, or being over against someone. (Ibid)

What we are seeing in this understanding satan is a way of talking about a reality. The reality is the endless cycle of violence and exclusion which means things fall apart, whether it be empires or personal relationships. But instead of projecting the satan onto some quasi-deity which is in opposition to God, Girard and those who have followed him, see that satan is a way of describing our behaviour. Nuechterlein quotes Girard's I See satan Fall Like Lightning and adds some comments.

Even if Satan’s transcendence is false, totally without reality in a religious sense, on the worldly plane his works are undeniable and formidable. Satan is the absent subject of structures of disorder and order, which stem from rivalistic relations among humans. When it’s all said and done, these rivalries both organize and disorganize human relations.

Satan is mimetic contagion as its most secret power, the creation of the false gods out of the midst of which Christianity emerged. (Girard pp. 69-70)

Girard is saying that Satan has no real substance outside of our human relations. He is the name ancient peoples gave to those structures of human relations themselves. So when modern people declare the gods of ancient peoples to be unreal they throw the baby out with the bathwater. We no longer name those real structures as satanic, as having to do fundamentally with accusing and expelling. Jesus in this passage shows that he understood the anthropology behind the name Satan and continued to use the name in order to speak to the thinking of his time. We may choose to use other nomenclatures for the anthropological reality, but we must not throw out the anthropological insight or we risk perpetuating the perpetrators’ mythic version of reality. (Ibid. The emphasis has been added by me.)

There is a certain genius in seeing satan as a 'being' or a 'person' even though 'he' is not. It recognises the power of the group over each of us as individuals. To take a word from elsewhere in the Gospels, satan is Legion.

The text this week starts with a crowd on the verge of eruption. The boat from which Jesus preaches, a symbol of the church—  the nave is named from here— is also a defence against being crushed by the crowd. This is not the irenic sandy beach painted in children's bibles, but more akin to the city crowds of New Year's Eve, always only a moment away from violence, even in what appears to be celebration.

The crowd around Jesus is an anxious society, like the one of which we are a part, where everything is being disturbed. Demons are being cast out, and the settled way of doing things is being challenge. The unclean spirits, which include our own deep but unwelcome instincts, recognise who he is: "You are the Son of God." (3:11) So all who know their status and security is enhanced by the current system of elites sense they are under threat as the kingdom comes near. And the rest of the crowd is confused, not yet sure if Jesus is good news or threat, and if they should seek a scapegoat around whom to coalesce and expel. And the scribes "came down from Jerusalem," as the seat of power moves to restore order.

The restoration of order is the reassertion of identity. When the boundaries are threatened, which is the same as saying, when the way things are done is challenged, everything defaults to identity politics. Everything becomes an argument over the sabbath, for all people have a sabbath— a defining way of being.

As the turmoil grew, Jesus went to his home, which suggests that what is being described in this text is a problem for all of us. It goes to the heart of our being, the place of our being formed; the home is the basic unit of organisation of our society. And we immediately see Jesus' family seeking to "restrain" him which means to control and stop him. It is not so much for his own good, as it is for their own preservation. We see the same thing today, when fathers join in the condemnation of their children.

"He has gone out of his mind" is the word of the crowd, and it becomes the excuse for a family who knows it will pay them well to be seen to stop him, rather than support him. They are positioning themselves so that they can join the crowd instead of having the crowd turn on them. His blood family is listening to the crowd, not to him.

Robert Hamerton-Kelly suggests that in the flow of the story the crowd in verse 20 has been changed by verse 32— or at least, some of them have.

The mob is now transformed into the circle around Jesus (3:31-35) and recognized as those who do the will of God and thus as the new family of Jesus. The dramatic contrast between the mob in 3:21, which is 'out of its mind' and has to be restrained by Jesus' attendants, and the crowd now sitting in a circle around him and listening to his teaching (3:32-34), makes the point that those who become disciples cease from being the mob that gives sacred violence its authority. (The Gospel and the Sacred, pp. 81-84 quoted by Nuechterlein)

We see the recognition of satan in that statement: it is actually the mob which is out of its mind while accusing Jesus of being out of his mind.

The passage from rival to disciple is the passage from the lynch mob to the confraternity of the kingdom. Within this new context, the traditional family is an anachronism. The new radical fatherhood of God relativizes the claims of earthly parents and family obligations, which were in any case organized for the most part according to the forms of sacred violence.  (Ibid. ) [And which are still often organised in this way.]

In the house, which I take also to be a reference to the early house church, Jesus says that "Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother." People are not being defined by exclusion, but are freed in their relationality to God. (In the Greek text, not able to eat is actually μηδὲ ἄρτον φαγεῖν. ἄρτον  is bread. If the house is not in order, could we wonder if the Eucharist is not able to be eaten?) Indeed, "if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand." (3:25) He offers a way of 'being a house' which is not divided.

How does all this work out in the real world?

First of all, satan is put in his place. Nuechterlein says "The way in which to avoid giving evil an ontological status that rivals God is to give it an anthropological one." (Ibid) This understanding rescues us from being the kind of church where satan is almost an equal to God. We never say this is the case, but it is implied in the fact that the struggle against satan is taking so long. Satan really must be close to God in power, or all the souring of creation would long ago have been healed. Seeing the source of the satan as us means that satan is demythologised.

The danger is if we think satan is therefore nothing at all. Satan is real, and remains present.  Nuechterlein can say

Satan has no firm ontology. Satan disappears if human beings come to organize themselves in another way — for example, the alternative way that Jesus has come to offer us by letting himself become the one accused and cast out. Jesus is the Forgiving Victim who is now the new basis for human community and culture.

But this only happens if we disciple ourselves to Jesus. If we do not focus on forgiveness, nonviolence, compassion and service, which are the way Jesus lived, and which open us to the presence of Jesus now, then we will be subject to the same old rivalries, and fall under the power of satan nonetheless. And no longer believing in 'him,' we will be the more subject to 'him' in our unconsciousness.

It is here that the enormity of discipleship becomes clear.  Formed by rivalry and violence which uses violence to maintain order, we are seeking to learn a completely new way of being. We are seeking to imitate Jesus in a way of being which does not rival, which does not compete, but which gives and cares and sustains the ones around us. A way of being which, as James Alison says somewhere, dares to lose, and even dares to lose life. Nathan Nettleton's sermon expressed the challenge of all this.

it is actually a lot easier to jump on the outrage bandwagon than it is to do the hard work of understanding ourselves and properly evaluating and reconfiguring the ways that we negotiate the complexities of human relationships. 

It is much easier to hope God will somehow just fix things, and to retreat into a kind of magic faith where we do not have to change. We fail to recognise we are being invited into being created and made whole, invited into imitation of the Christ. Richard Beck recently called this kind of formation kenotic; that is, it empties us of our privilege, and we being to learn again how to be human. In this context, the "unforgiveable sin" might be the mindset  which refuses the invitation to be remade. It sees Jesus as just one more player in the power stakes—  as having the same unclean spirit as itself, and being just one more rival. Such a mindset cannot enter the joy of forgiveness. Lack of forgiveness in this text is not about God's rejection of us,  πάντα — all will be forgiven. Lack of forgiveness is about our rejection of the way of Jesus, which means we remain blind to what is going on, and unable to enter it. Like the Pharisees, we watch intently, but do not see what is happening. (3:2)

The promise is that those who do his will, who seek to follow him into a new way of being human, will be family. They will discover relationships like the best of all families, and better.

Andrew Prior (2018)

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

I think that the reading of this post will be enriched by reading it in conjunction with the post from last week, Galilean sabbaths.
Also on One Man's Web
Healing the Family Sandwich (2015)
Mark 3:20-35 - A Most Uncomfortable Invitation (2012)
Mark 3:13-30 (2006)



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