Of all the things said about Jesus in the Bible, only once was his mental stability openly questioned. When we look at what led up to that, his actions and statements, maybe there was good reason to wonder about it!
Mark 3 begins with Jesus healing a man in the synagogue. So far, so good. However, he does this on the sabbath, and according to the law, the Torah, that constitutes work. The authorities start plotting against him.
Jesus goes to the lakeside, and the crowd follows him. He heals many people, and he commands the unclean spirits who would identify him to shut up. Later, we see him going up the mountain and calling twelve of his followers to him, he gives them the name “apostle.” The word means “one who is sent.”
We pick up the reading with verse 20, which has Jesus going home to Nazareth. As fate would have it, he draws another crowd. Word has gotten out about this Jesus.
So often when we read the scriptures, we fail to envision the scene. We don’t hear the sounds; we don’t smell the smells. When this throng of humanity comes flooding down the street, it draws some attention, to say the least. Just when you think too many people are already there, here come some more! The mob keeps pressing closer and closer. More and more bodies keep getting crammed together. (This might be a good time to imagine those smells.)
It gets so bad Jesus and his friends don’t even have enough room to enjoy a decent meal.
Meanwhile inside the house, Jesus’ family is frantic. They call out to him, “Why are all these people here?” “Why are you embarrassing us?” “What will the neighbors think?” Indeed, what will the neighbors think? With his behavior, Jesus is drawing unwanted attention to his family. Things might get out of hand, which the Romans no doubt would take as their cue to crash the party. The Bible says, “they went out to restrain him.” The Greek word (κρατεω, krateō) is a forceful one. It means “to grab” or “to seize.” They want to yank him inside.
Here’s where we get to the point of wondering if Jesus actually does have a screw loose.
Let me pause for a moment and take notice of the saying, “Every family has one.” For example, that could be the uncouth uncle who makes inappropriate comments. Maybe some of us fit into that category of “every family has one.” Maybe we were (or still are) the rebel, the snob, the perfectionist, or something else altogether. With Jesus, I imagine his family isn’t quite sure what to make of him. That probably had been always the case.
We learn what people are saying: “He has gone out of his mind” (v. 21). The word is εξιστημι (existēmi), which means “to throw out of position,” “to be beside oneself,” “to displace.” Jesus’ mind has been displaced; he has gone insane. By the way, it’s possible his family is included in the folks saying that.
If they are, they might feel the need to protect Jesus. Scribes from Jerusalem have heard some stories, and when they see what’s happening, they conclude, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons” (v. 22).
If this were simply their own opinion, it would be bad enough. But it’s probably more. These scribes have laid a legal charge. When he is accused of demonic practices, he is accused of practicing magic, sorcery. If that’s true, he would be breaking the law. Deuteronomy 18, among other places, condemns one “who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead” (vv. 10-11). This is a serious indictment.
They accuse him of trafficking with Beelzebul. Who in the world is that? The word comes from the Philistine god who was “lord of the heavenly dwelling.” The Israelites had some fun and called him “Beelzebub,” which meant “lord of dung.” There are a number of places in the Old Testament where a slight altering in spelling resulted in a change from the sublime to the ridiculous. They turned something revered by their enemies into a laughing stock.
Actually, it sounds like something an elementary school student would have thought up: “lord of poop.” And going along with the insects attracted to such a substance, he became known as “lord of the flies.” However, over time, he morphed into something truly evil.
Very quickly, Jesus responds by saying if Satan is divided against himself, how can his kingdom stand? It would surely fall. How could that possibly describe Jesus? Furthermore, to rob a strong man’s house, he has to be bound. Jesus is indirectly saying he is stronger than Satan.
He has one more thing to say to the scribes and the people packed together. This has caused no end of consternation and confusion down through the ages. I will quote it at length: “‘Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’—for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit’” (vv. 28-30).
People will be forgiven their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter. I think we understand the “sins” part, but what about the “blasphemies”? Can we recognize blasphemy as an insult or curse against God or that which is holy? Sorry folks, I will not give you an example! That last word, “utter,” is key. A blasphemy which is spoken, or even written, can be forgiven.
But what about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? It doesn’t seem like we’re dealing with something uttered, something said. After all, it is “an eternal sin.” It can never be forgiven. What could it possibly be?
Presbyterian minister James Ayers has some helpful comments. “Here is the rope to pull you out of the quicksand; the rope holds no grudge if you reject it, but you cannot be rescued without it. Here are the paramedics to extricate you from the wreck in which you are trapped; if you shout curses and slap their hands away, you will be unable to escape on your own. They will not be offended, but will think you must be in shock and will go on trying to rescue you.”
It seems that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is an action, not an utterance. Perhaps we could say it is a lack of action, an inaction. It is a refusal; it is indeed a rejection. Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is a continual turning away from the liberty, from the salvation, conveyed by the Spirit. That’s why it is eternal. It’s a never-ending state of freely chosen slavery. At some point, slavery simply takes control.
For the boys accusing Jesus, their slavery has them truly believing that something holy is actually evil.
Here’s a word of comfort: if you are concerned—if you wonder—about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, then you haven’t committed it!
Just as he began the passage with Jesus’ family, Mark ends it on the same note. They decide to come outside and send someone to go fetch him. They tell Jesus, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you” (v. 32). He says something rather unexpected. He doesn’t say, “Tell them to hold on. I’ll be there soon.” Jesus doesn’t want to assure them that he’ll be fine. Don’t worry.
Rather, he redefines, he reimagines, he expands, the definition of family. “‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!’” (vv. 33-34).
Jesus’ family wants him to come home. He has found a new home. This speaks to those who have taken a decisive step on the spiritual path. It’s not necessarily the case their old home was bad. Perhaps it was wonderful. But they have found a new truth, a better truth.
Those who have had a dramatic, or sudden, conversion experience probably can relate to this. However, it’s not necessary to point to a particular moment in time to see oneself pictured here. Many of you have been in the church your entire life. It might be you look back and think, “Yes, that’s when it really clicked for me.”
There has been that sense of repentance, of μετανοια (metanoia), literally a “change of mind,” a revolution of mind, leading to a change of path, a turning around.
Having said that stuff about family, I quickly add that those who would manipulate others love this scripture. We can think of cults and churches with cult-like behavior. Followers are told, “We’ll do the thinking for you. Welcome to the family!” That isn’t the freedom of the gospel, the good news; it’s the slavery of the bad news.
I have a quick story to tell. I’ll leave out some pertinent details to speed things along. A few days after arriving at seminary in Philadelphia, I decided to go for a walk and explore the area. I came upon a group having a car wash. It turned out to be a church group, and they invited me to worship. I went for a couple of weeks, but decided it wasn’t for me.
One night before I decided to leave, we were at somebody’s house and having a Bible study. It was the strangest one I ever attended. I was literally in the middle of a circle; people were sitting on chairs and couches around me. They kept directing questions to me—no one else—about what it meant to be a disciple. I was talking about following Jesus, etc., etc. At some point, I decided to have some fun with them; I asked, “Am I giving the right answers?”
A couple of weeks after that, two guys showed up one night at my seminary room. I had met one of them; the other one I had never seen before. This was at 11:00. They said they were wondering what happened to me. I said I had found another church. (It was the Presbyterian Church across the street from the school.) The one I had previously met looked around the room and said, “Just because you’re in seminary doesn’t mean you’re a disciple.” I replied, “I think you guys are a cult.” They took off, and I never saw them again.
If you hadn’t figured this out already, their definition of disciple was joining their creepy family-like church.
Jesus gave this response to those asking about his family: “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (v. 35). Jesus never employed mind games. He didn’t coerce people. In fact, when someone decided they weren’t ready to commit, he sent them on their way.
One thing I find interesting about Mark when talking about Jesus’ family is that he doesn’t mention Mary. I imagine if there were one person in the family who understood Jesus, it would be his mother. Still, it’s also likely at times he was a puzzle even to her.
Whatever the case, it’s okay to be puzzled. We’re not expected to understand it all at once. Actually, we’re not expected to ever understand it all. There is room for all in the family of Jesus. “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” If you love God, I’m with you.
["Embraced" by Banu Moore]
Call me crazy, but I believe Jesus says to me there’s room for the creepy family crew. There’s room for those who disagree with me politically… who disagree with me theologically… those who would shame and exclude me… those I don’t like… those who don’t like me… those who love onions… Jesus welcomes you and me into his family!
Call me crazy, but I believe there’s room for all of us.
 James Ayers, “Mark 3:20-35,” Interpretation 51:2 (Apr 1997), 182.