Some consternation on the Interwebs today, as a certain prominent Jesuit is suggesting that in today’s Gospel, Jesus’ family, including the Blessed Virgin Mary, thought Jesus was “crazy.” What’s really going on? My answer here, adapted from Loosing the Lion, is that Mary is seeking Jesus out of care and concern; that Mark’s presentation tracks with Luke’s idea that Mary grew in her understanding; and that Mark presents Mary’s motherhood as a model of discipleship:
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is misunderstood by all men (demons, as we have seen, understand perfectly-and shudder). In two places, characters identify Jesus correctly with regard to form but fundamentally miss the significance. At the crucifixion, the centurion rightly calls Jesus “Son of God” but does not mean it. At Caesarea Philippi, Peter rightly calls Jesus the Christ but rejects the necessity of his suffering. Reacting to the stilling of the storm, the perplexed, confused disciples had earlier asked, “Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?” (4:41).
Misunderstanding Jesus’s identity is a major Markan theme. And we see it in this pair of passages, which most commentators recognize as the first Markan sandwich. In the A section, Mark 3:19-21, Jesus is again crushed by a crowd, this time at his home. Jesus’s friends or associates (“those with him,” hoi par’ autou) come to seize him, fearing he’s gone insane. The B section is 3:22-30, in which the scribes claim Jesus is possessed by Beelzebul, no minor thing, considering that they’re from Jerusalem and, thus, representing the religious leadership. The A’ section is then 3:31-35, in which Jesus’s mother and brothers seek him from outside the house.
Given the link between demon possession and insanity assumed in the ancient world, Jesus’s scribal opponents and friends think the same fundamental thing about him and, thus, get his identity precisely backwards. And, yet, Mark also distinguishes the groups. The scribes come in for heavy fire, being accused of blasphemy of the Holy Spirit (3:29), while Jesus’s friends and family are not described negatively in any way. Further, Mark distinguishes the “friends” or “associates” in the A section from Jesus’s mother and brothers in the A’ section. Not only are “friends” and “associates” simply different from family, but it’s only the former that Mark describes as thinking Jesus is insane.
In response to rumors of his possession, in the B section (3:22-30), Jesus both shows the scribal claim is itself insane and ,then, positively, hints at the apocalyptic war he is waging and winning. Note how Mark tells the story: the scribes are spreading rumors that Jesus is (1) possessed and (2) casts out demons by the prince of demons. Jesus confronts them directly about it, calling them to him (3:23). Jesus will then respond in reverse order, dealing with the question of the power by which he casts out demons (2) and then the charge that he is possessed (1).
Now Mark tells us Jesus responded by speaking to them in parables, the first time the word, or the phenomenon, of “parable” appears in Mark’s Gospel. Thanks to older, Enlightenment-influenced scholarship, most people think Jesus teaches in parables to use the commonalities of the culture to be clear and make a simple point. Mark, living before Descartes decided everything needed to be clear and distinct, employs parables in the opposite way. They’re meant not to enlighten, but to darken and harden: “For those outside everything comes in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven” (4:11-12; see the following section on 4:1-20).
Jesus has here quoted Isaiah 6:9, from Isaiah’s commission of hardening, in which Isaiah is called to proclaim judgment and destruction to the people. Parables thus concern judgment, and Jesus says they are for outsiders, not insiders, to whom revelation and explanation is given directly (4:10-11, 13-20). And so it’s interesting here in 3:23-30 that Mark describes Jesus speaking in parables to exemplary outsiders: the scribes who think Jesus is possessed by Beelzebul, Satan himself.
Jesus first responds to the charge of possession. He implies it’s insane (note the paradox, as the passage concerns whether Jesus is insane) to think that Satan would work against his own purposes by exorcising his own demons; it’d be like deliberately raining artillery on one’s own infantry. Jesus says Satan’s house and kingdom would be divided, like Jesus’s friends have come to believe he has a divided mind. Through the sandwich, Mark is showing the scribes are insane, not Jesus.
But Jesus suggests the scribes are also more right than they know: “And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end” (3:26). Jesus has set up what we might call the “Parable of the Strong Man”: “But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man; then indeed he may plunder his house” (3:27). Jesus has mentioned Satan’s own “house” and “kingdom,” which Jesus intends to end as he himself advances the kingdom of God (1:15). Satan is the strong man whose house Jesus will plunder and destroy.
And Jesus will do so in the power of Holy Spirit. The scribal charge of possession is not only insane; readers of Mark, insiders, know that it’s flat wrong. Jesus is possessed not by Satan, but by the Holy Spirit, who came directly “into him” at his Baptism (1:10). And so, the scribes are guilty of blasphemy of the Holy Spirit (3:28-30). In their hatred of Jesus Christ, they have become so twisted that they look upon Jesus’s works, done by the very power of the Holy Spirit who possesses him, and attribute them to Satan. It’s a total confusion of the satanic and the holy, perfect evil and pluperfect good. There is no return from that point, and so forgiveness is impossible.
But again, the way Mark tells the story, Jesus’s friends and family are in a different situation than the scribes, and also in a different situation from each other. While insanity and possession are linked, Jesus’s friends, and then family, show concern for him-and justified concern, given what often happened to those in the ancient world thought insane and possessed.
Further, in most Markan sandwiches and intercalations, there’s simple equivalence of characters and settings in the A-A’ sections, such as “ruler” and “daughter” in both Mark 5:22-23 and 35, or “Jesus” and “the chief priests” in 14:53 and 55, the A-A’ sections of Peter’s denial, and “Peter,” “courtyard,” and “fire” in 14:54 and 66, the B-B’ sections. But, in this sandwich here in 3:19-30, there’s a shift from Jesus’s “friends” or “associates” in the A section (3:21) to “mother and brethren” in the corresponding A’ section (3:31). It’s the former, Jesus’s friends, who think he’s insane. Mark does not attribute the assumption of insanity to Jesus’s mother and brothers. Is Mark protecting Jesus’s family? Is he protecting Mary, the mother of Jesus, the Mother of God? Possibly.
And it’s also possible here to see Jesus’s tender mother reaching out in concerned love for her Son. Yet, Mark uses her and Jesus’s brothers as the first example in his Gospel of outsiders: they are “standing outside” the house (3:31) while Jesus is inside with the crowd sitting “about him” (peri auton, 3:32) in his very presence, so important in Mark’s Gospel. Informed his mother and brothers are outside, Jesus then redefines family. He asks, “Who are my mother and my brethren?” (3:33). Mark tells us Jesus looked at those who sat “about him” (peri auton, 3:34) and declared, “Here are my mother and my brethren! Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother” (3:34-35).
In Mark’s story, the division between insiders and outsiders occurs first here and precisely here, not only after the Pharisees’ conspiracy with the Herodians to kill Jesus (3:6), but especially after the scribes from Jerusalem, representing the highest religious authority, accuse him of possession by Satan. But there are outsiders and then there are outsiders. Not all outsiders are hostile or confused; some are simply curious. Again, the boundary between insiders and outsiders is permeable: those who persist in seeking Jesus in faith can come into his presence and receive healing, often metaphorical for spiritual revelation, as in the case with the blind men (see 8:22-26 and 10:46-52).
In this sandwich, then, there are actually three groups: (1) those inside the house with Jesus “about him,” (2) the scribes from far away Jerusalem, so twisted that there’s no hope for them, and (3) Jesus’s mother and brothers, who, though outside, are near him and, indeed, seeking him. They come, send to him, and call him, seeking him (3:31-32). They are not far from the kingdom of God because they’re reaching out to Jesus.
And yet the passage might make Catholics uncomfortable, for it implies the Blessed Virgin Mary was an outsider. A few considerations are important. First, as mentioned, she’s seeking Jesus, coming to him, calling him, sending to him, just outside the house. Second, another Gospel, Luke, presumes that Mary grew in her understanding of her Son’s person and work. In Luke 1:29, Gabriel’s greeting troubles Mary and she reflects on what it might mean. In Luke 1:34, Mary asks an honest question about how she might bear the Savior when she’s to remain a virgin. In Luke 2:19, Mary ponders the shepherd’s report. In Luke 2:51, Mary keeps all things she’s encountered in her heart. Mary (like Jesus, on an honest reading of the Synoptic Gospels, if not John) didn’t know everything out of the gate. She had to learn the deeper significance of her Son and her role in his life. Maybe Mark portrays Mary as desiring to encounter her Son and understand him more deeply.
Third, Jesus presents motherhood as the model of discipleship: “Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother” (3:35). “Mother” remains an example here-indeed, by position at the end of the sequence, the term of greatest consequence-of one who does the will of God, and thus the true Mary of the Church’s Scripture and Tradition remains the ultimate model of a disciple who does the will of God.
That said, Mark’s depiction of Jesus’s mother and brothers standing outside is radical. But it’s of a piece with his portrayal of the disciples, whom he paints so darkly. Anyone who surrenders to fear and withdraws from Jesus’s presence can become an outsider and fall away. The Blessed Virgin Mary, by her free, lifelong, and perfect cooperation with divine grace, did not.