Sin and Salvation: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Third Week after Pentecost
1) Jesus’ ministry is just getting up and running - and tensions are already palpable. Crowds of people seeking healing and wisdom are pursuing and pressing in on him, so much so that “he could no longer go into a town openly” (Mark 1:45). The atmosphere is a hectic mix of devotion and desperation: people from Idumea (Mark 3:8), for example, would have had to have traveled from 150 miles away! Perhaps in part because of this frenzy, local authorities are already plotting to discredit or destroy Jesus (Mark 3:6), and even his own family now doubts his sanity, and has come to restrain him.
2) Mark’s world is full of shadows and menace, riddled with demons who distort creation and overwhelm hearts and minds. Human beings are cast as porous creatures open to spiritual influences: Jesus himself is driven deep into the desert by the Holy Spirit, and many people are possessed by unholy ones. On first glance, this way of understanding the world can seem archaic and foreign. But after all, when we read the Bible we engage ancient texts from halfway around the world; it's only natural that they’ll feel cross-cultural and unfamiliar at first. Think of this as a kind of travel through time and space. The opportunity is to stay open to how another way of thinking and living can shed new light on our own.
3) For example, any number of death-dealing forces today are often experienced as "possession" or being "caught up" in dynamics that far exceed our intentions or control. Think of how addiction overwhelms individuals and families; how racism shape-shifts over time between explicit and implicit forms; how anger consumes; how envy devours; or how sexist attitudes create pervasive cultures of degradation. We may or may not call addiction or racism or the objectification of women “demons,” but they are most certainly demonic. They move through the world as though by a kind of cunning. They seem to resist our best attempts to overcome them. And as we make those attempts, the experience can be less like figuring out an equation and more like wrestling with a beast.
4) The story of humanity’s “fall” into sin (Genesis 2-4) is often framed as a story of disobedience, of Adam and Eve eating a forbidden fruit. And so it is - but it’s also a great deal more than that. The story begins with humanity’s creation and call, including a portrait of remarkable intimacy between God and humankind; then human anxiety arises, along with ambiguity, mistrust, and that illicit meal; and then comes this week’s passage, an account of the first couple’s subsequent encounter with God in the garden, full of evasion, blame, and denial. Only by attending to each of these stages in the story (culminating in the final stage, humanity’s turn to violence in Genesis 4) can we fully explore sin’s breadth and depth in human life. And that exploration lays the groundwork for exploring salvation’s corresponding breadth and depth, the good news declared in the Gospel.
1) Mark has mentioned crowds at Jesus’ house before (Mark 2:1-12), but this throng seems even more intense, so packed in shoulder-to-shoulder that “they could not even eat” (Mark 3:20). Jesus’ family has come to restrain him, apparently concerned about rumors that he has “gone out of his mind” - a phrase that likely refers to extreme fervor or spirit possession. Scribes from Jerusalem (that is, experts in religious law) pick up on this same idea, raising the stakes into a devastating charge: not only is he possessed, they declare, he’s possessed by “the ruler of demons” - and that’s why the demons listen to him! Jesus responds with a pithy analogy: a house divided cannot stand. He’s no member of Satan’s house; rather, he’s an intruder breaking into it. His ability to cast out demons demonstrates that he has bound “the strong man” himself, and so that the spirit indwelling Jesus - “the Holy Spirit” - opposes Satan outright (Mark 3:27-30). Mark frames all of this as speaking in “parables” or figures, but the overall message is clear: Jesus has come into the world as a healing liberator in direct, authoritative opposition to the death-dealing forces of evil and ruin in the world.
2) What’s more, Jesus pushes back directly against his critics: to reject the Holy Spirit as an “unclean spirit” - indeed as Beelzebul, “the ruler of demons” - is consummate blasphemy, a point Jesus underlines by calling it “an eternal sin,” a stunning, enigmatic phrase. For Mark’s storytelling purposes, this exchange puts Jesus’ mission into sharp relief: accused of being in league with death-dealing forces, he’s actually at work defeating them, thereby fostering the salvation (from the Latin salvus, “health”) of the world.
3) Those who seek to follow Jesus, then, can only do so by taking part in this life-giving mission as well. His “family” will be constituted not by those who seek to “restrain” his healing work, he insists, but rather by “whoever does the will of God” (Mark 3:21,35). Neither kinship nor doctrine will do: what matters most is participating in God's mission of healing, hope, and restoration.
4) In the Genesis story, Adam and Eve, at the serpent’s suggestion, have just disobeyed God - and now they make matters even worse. Hearing God approaching in the garden, they hide, resulting in God’s question, “Where are you?” As the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber and others have argued, the question isn’t for God’s benefit (since God knows very well where they are) but rather for humanity’s benefit: like its counterpart, “Where is your brother Abel?” (Gen 4:9), the question is a call for the first couple to reorient themselves, to regain their bearings - for they have lost their way. But instead up stepping up into dignified responsibility, they fall further into blame, evasion, and denial (three good synonyms for sin!). Loss compounds loss. Adam blames both God and his wife (You gave me this woman, and she gave me the fruit!), and the woman blames the serpent (He tricked me!). By failing to take responsibility for their actions (another good definition of sin), they alienate themselves even farther from God, from one another, and from their own individual integrity. Now they will physically leave the garden - but their exile has already begun, from God and from each other.
1) Jesus’ ministry involves courage and confrontation - not for its own sake, but rather for the sake of the health and life of the world. And so this week is a perfect time to challenge ourselves, as individuals and as congregations: How can we more boldly and effectively stand against the world’s death-dealing forces, in ourselves and in our neighborhoods? Are we following Jesus, filled with the Spirit, into the fray? Where is “the strong man” still at work today, and how are we called to take part in God’s mission of hope, healing, and liberation? In short, how are we “doing the will of God,” not just thinking about it or talking about it, and thereby becoming Jesus’ “brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:35)?
2) These are not idle questions. This passage in Mark is also a candid testimony to the difficulties of ministry and discipleship: the needs of the world may overwhelm; authorities may oppose the work of restoration; and even our families (sometimes especially our families) may “restrain” rather than encourage. These are extremely delicate topics, and should be explored with care; Mark doesn’t seek to justify recklessness! But on the other hand, naming the difficulties of discipleship can be liberating, cathartic, and ultimately heartening. The struggle is real, as are the stakes - and naming the struggle is an important first step toward supporting each other through it.
3) Taken together, this week’s passages provide an opportunity to reflect on the nature of sin and salvation. Sin can mean being “caught up” - personally or collectively - in dynamics of ruin (addiction, racism, anger, envy, degradation, and so on). And it also can mean being caught up in patterns of denial and recrimination, blaming God or others rather than taking responsibility with dignity and grace. The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed by the Nazis, once argued that the decisive, heart-breaking “fall” away from God isn’t the point in the story when humanity eats the forbidden fruit, but rather when they hide from God afterwards, in effect turning away from their Creator and at the same time from their true identity. “Where are you, Humanity?” (The Hebrew word, ‘adam, means “humanity.”) From this angle, “sin” may be framed as less about “disobedience” and more about alienation, a debilitating separation from God and from our true selves that requires healing and reconciliation.
4) The interdependent concepts of “sin” and “salvation” are foundational for Christian life, and there’s a wide range of scriptural and theological approaches for understanding them - much wider, it turns out, than many realize. Disobedience-Forgiveness is one way of framing the Sin-Salvation relationship, but there are others: Affliction-Healing, for example, as these early chapters of Mark would suggest; or Separation-Reconciliation, as Genesis 3 would have it. How we conceive this crucial pair of ideas will move our thoughts and practices in quite different, fruitful directions - and most important of all, our participation in God’s mission will be enriched accordingly. For Mark, when Jesus says, “Follow me,” he means follow him into the fray, into the shadows, into the house of menace itself. He means follow him into the good-and-difficult work of building up from ruins, of freeing the captives, of living with dignified responsibility - in short, the work of salvation (health!) in our hearts, in our homes, and in our neighborhoods. The good news of the Gospel is that this life-giving mission is already underway, and God calls us to take part, each in our own way, in the beautiful struggle of restoration.