I feel a lot of sympathy for Jesus’ family in our gospel reading for today. Jesus has been wandering all over Galilee, doing God-knows-what (literally, God knows what!). But then reports start to reach his family from other people that Jesus has lost his mind. And not only that, but that massive crowds of people have started to follow him around everywhere, just waiting to see what he will say or do next! And on top of all that, whatever it is he’s been doing has made the religious leaders of the people absolutely furious. So, naturally, Jesus’ family rushed off to check on Jesus, hoping to reason with him and bring him home.
His family arrives just as Jesus is getting into it with the scribes. We’re only in the third chapter of Mark and already Jesus has been busy. He’s been healing people on the sabbath, cleansing lepers and paralytics, eating with tax collectors and sinners, and casting out demons by the dozens. But the scribes refuse to recognize him as a real religious leader, and so they come to the only conclusion they can: He’s a witch! I mean, he’s possessed!
Jesus calls out the faulty logic here with a couple of parables. He says that a kingdom or a house divided against itself cannot stand. Why would demonic powers give him the ability to cast out demons?? It doesn’t make any sense. Satan isn’t going to be in the business of being Satan very long if he’s actively working against his own interests.
Instead, Jesus likens Satan to a strong man. No one is going to wander into a strong man’s house and try to steal from him, says Jesus. No, first you have to tie up the strong man! Then you can steal his stuff. That’s what I’m doing here.
You can almost hear Mary’s eyes rolling from the back of the room. “Really? That’s your defense? ‘I’m not crazy or possessed; I’m a thief who assaults strong men so I can take their stuff!’”
But taken in the context in which Mark was writing, this parable makes a lot more sense. Mark wrote his gospel for a community living in very tumultuous times. Most historians date his gospel to a little bit before 70 AD, right in the thick of the Jewish-Roman war. The Jewish people were attempting to rebel against the tyranny of the Roman Empire, but in just a few short years, the rebellion was crushed and the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. The Roman Emperor Nero was particularly not a fan of Christians, and they faced cruel and relentless persecution at the hands of his administration.
The early Christians to whom Mark was writing knew very well what it was like to be at the mercy of a strongman. And they had seen firsthand the consequences of someone trying to march into a strongman’s house to take something from him. So this parable from Jesus almost certainly would have resonated with them very deeply. Mark showed that Jesus was not only brave enough to take on the strongman; he was strong enough to take on the strongman and win!
This struggle between the power of God and the power of evil is at the heart of Mark’s gospel. Again and again, Jesus goes head to head with demonic forces. He faces temptation in the desert. He is taunted by demons who torment the people he is trying to save. He is rejected and despised by his own people and aggressively pursued by the same authorities who brutally beheaded John the Baptist. And finally, he himself is tortured and executed. And yet, every single time, Jesus emerges victorious. He resists temptation and casts out demons, and he finally breaks the power of death itself. Jesus’ power over evil is the ultimate good news of the gospel.
Now, for those of us living in the 21stcentury, some of this language about demons and evil and Satan can be hard to relate to, or even off-putting. I know for me personally, the idea of Satan conjures up red horns and Halloween costumes – and I recognize that people living in the first century who were said to be demon-possessed would now probably be diagnosed with some kind of mental illness. The kind of cosmic evil that Mark writes about isn’t typically something we worry about in our day-to-day lives.
But there are modern day “demons” that many of us have to wrestle with daily. These demons have names like addiction, loneliness, greed, anxiety, and apathy. And our struggle against them can be deeply painful and difficult. Just this week, two prominent people – Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain – lost their struggles with a demon named depression. Many of us gathered here have probably known others who fought this battle and lost. Everyone is wrestling with some kind of demon.
And evil definitely exists in our world on a broader scale. There may or may not be some devil figure sitting somewhere behind the scenes, gleefully cackling as he pulls the strings. But whether he exists or not, systemic evil is very real, and a very real problem. This is evil much larger and more pervasive than any one individual, and so it is even harder to fight. These are strongmen like poverty, racism, sexism, environmental destruction, and xenophobia. Just this week, the evil of systemic racism was on full display back in Chicago, where police detained and handcuffed a ten-year-old black boy because they thought he might have a gun. And I’m sure we have all watched with horror as this administration has begun to implement its barbaric new immigration policies: separating children from their parents at the border – ripping families apart right in our own backyard.
We each carry the weight of the everyday demons that plague us – and we can easily feel hopeless and helpless in the face of the evil “strongmen” that hold so much power in this world. And in the midst of that grief and despair, this passage from Mark’s gospel starts to feel like really, really good news again. Because Jesus didn’t just triumph over some vague, nebulous evil in a Halloween costume. Jesus is victorious over our demons. Jesus is victorious over depression, over addiction, over racism, over homophobia and transphobia, over violence and hatred, and even over sickness and death.
Jesus is a thief. He comes to tie up the evils of this world, and to steal us all from under the powers of sin and death that hold us captive. Jesus ties up the strongmen – because he is stronger than the strongmen. And because of this, even when we are feeling discouraged, we can take hope knowing that we are not fighting our battles in vain. Jesus is beside us in the struggle, breaking and entering the world and stealing it back for the kingdom, piece by piece. Amen.