As a kid, this text scared the pants off of me. Whenever I would come across this passage a pang of fear would accompany it. Had I committed a sin that was unforgivable? I really had no notion of what it meant to blaspheme the Holy Spirit, but I was afraid that it might be something I would stumble into and do by accident. Oops, blasphemed the Holy Spirit, do not pass Go, do not collect eternal reward, proceed straight to hell and smolder for eternity. Fortunately, this is not the kind of sin one stumbles into. It is far more insidious than that.
So far in Mark whenever Jesus comes home there seems to be trouble. In Mark 2:1, “When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home.” Crowds gather. Public safety codes are violated as a roof is destroyed so a paralyzed man can be lowered into proximity to Jesus. Healing happens. Sins are forgiven. Local leaders take umbrage and in Mark 2:6-7 the accusations fly. “Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
As Jesus’ ministry moves forward, crowds continue to gather. Jesus eats with sinners and tax collectors. He defies fasting and sabbath scruples. Jesus heals on the sabbath and gives his disciples the authority to dive out demons. Such behavior does not go unquestioned by Jesus’ family, the common folk and the Pharisees alike. The work Jesus is doing has moved beyond some good and challenging sermons in the synagogue. Jesus is beginning to gain notoriety. Now wherever he goes he draws a crowd and in First Century Palestine, crowds were dangerous.
“The Roman historian Tacitus (History 5:9) reports that in Judea under the Emperor Tiberius (AD 14-37) “Things were quiet.” For an oppressed people whose land is occupied and who do not have any earthly power to shake loose their oppressor, quiet is good. Crowds are not quiet. Crowds threaten the status quo. Crowds draw attention and often ire.
Beginning at verse 20 of the Gospel text for this week, Jesus goes home and as before the crowds come together again. In Mark especially, words and details matter because of the brevity and pace of the text. Here Mark takes the time to tell us that they could not even eat. From the outside looking in, it appears that Jesus’ ministry had become a kind of mania that kept him from even caring for himself in the most basic way. When his family hears of this they go to Jesus to put a stop to what he is doing. Their worst fears are confirmed when even other people were saying that Jesus had gone out of his mind. The only thing left to do was to restrain Jesus. They came to exert the power of family over him and arrest him with their love and care in order to keep him from hurting himself.
Next, Mark tells us about the scribes who had come down from Jerusalem, also with the desire to restrain and arrest the ministry of Jesus. “It is possible that they were official emissaries from the Great Sanhedrin who came to examine Jesus’ miracles and to determine whether Capernaum should be declared a “seduced city,” the prey of an apostate preacher.” The scribes were not concerned with Jesus mental and physical well being, they were concerned with his social and spiritual effect. Deducing that he needed to be stopped they sought to arrest Jesus ministry not with loving restraints but with two very acerbic accusations.
The first accusation was that Jesus was possessed by Beelzebul. There is a great deal of speculation as to who Beelzebul is as the name does not appear in other Judaic literature. The name means ‘lord of the flies’ and this demonic person is associated with the “Philistine god of Accaron (Ekron).” It is quite possible that this name was nothing more than a colloquialism that referred to anything demonic or Satanic. That said, “There were Jewish legends about flies such as that there were none in the temple.” Other legends were that Beelzebul held power over flies and would keep them away from things sacrificed to the pagan gods. It is possible that this power to drive away is what leads to the second accusation of the scribes that ‘by the ruler of demons he casts out demons.’
Jesus meets their inflammatory accusations with cool reason. “If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.” If indeed Satan was attacking his own work then most certainly, “his end has come.” After showing that the assertion that Jesus is casting out demons by some demonic power is absurd, Jesus goes on to offer an alternative explanation. “But 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.” If as the scribes have acknowledged Jesus has been powerfully casting out demons, the only conclusion can be that it is because Jesus himself, by the power of God, has bound the strong man and plundered his house.
Our pericope concludes with Jesus putting forward a stern warning to the scribes. Jesus tells us that people will be forgiven of all sins, even “the blasphemies they utter.” But those who ascribe works done in the power of the Holy Spirit to the demonic are blaspheming in a way that is simply unforgivable. About this eternal sin Wesley writes,
“Can any words declare more plainly, that it is “the ascribing those miracles to the power of the devil which Christ wrought by the power of the Holy Ghost?” How easily may a man of learning elude the strongest proof of a work of God! How readily can he account for every incident without ever taking God into the question.”
The fearful question this text poses in our souls is whether there are any ways in which we as followers of Jesus come to arrest and restrain his work. I dare say not many of us would be so brazen as the scribes and declare that works wrought by God’s Spirit are somehow demonic. We are much more likely to echo the voices of the crowds or Jesus’ family.
When Spirit initiated ministry interferes with self-care we tend to cry foul. Often these moments are said to be the result of ministers who are workaholics, or ministers who do not have proper margins or boundaries. Sometimes we ascribe the work of the Spirit to nothing more than human strength, stamina and vanity. If ministry causes us to miss a meal it is called unhealthy because as we all know the Spirit keeps strict office hours and never wanders beyond the confines of our comfort or schedules. Like Jesus own family, sometimes we come to arrest and restrain Jesus when God’s work begins to cost us our comfort and our worldly well-being.
As anyone in ministry can attest, there are seasons when ministry work leads to long strings of missed meals. There are times when ministry feels more like mania. The crowds observed that Jesus was becoming a ministry maniac. Crowds pressed in, interrupting his sabbath and yet Jesus never seemed to quit. Such behavior could only be due to mental illness. To the crowds ministry had caused Jesus to go “out of his mind.” The crowd does not seem to pick up on the reality that if Jesus is out of his mind it is because the crowds have driven him there. We arrest the work of Jesus when we assume that stressful seasons are result of the mental illness of the minister and not somehow works of Spirit-empowered, divine compassion wherein the minister is called to empty herself or himself.
Whenever we try to arrest or restrain the sacrificial work of Jesus and his mad compassion for the lost and the broken, we blaspheme. We have mistakenly come to believe that the Holy Spirit never leads those doing ministry to places of discomfort or sacrifice. It is misguided to believe that the Spirit does not lead his people to take on tasks and works for a season that are beyond their strength alone. I say for a season because I don’t think this passage is teaching that we should not care for ourselves or enter into seasons of Sabbath rest. Jesus models rest for us as well as how to let divine compassion get the best of us by causing us to miss meals and let the crowds interrupt. For Jesus, family consists of more than his immediate relatives at the verses following our passage demonstrate. For Jesus embracing interruption and caring for the crowds to the point of self-sacrifice is not mental illness, it is the kingdom of God drawing nigh. God’s house is not divided between our well-being and our calling. The same God that calls us to seasons of sacrifice and seeming madness in the name of compassion also leads us to still waters of rest and nourishes our souls with sabbath. This passage does not sanctify foolish and prideful fatigue. Neither does it condone arresting the work God by well-meaning calls to think of self or by invoking the stigma of mental illness.
So put your pants back on if they have ever been scared off by this text. Unless of course you are seeking to arrest and restrain the work of Jesus by intentionally ascribing the redemptive work of the Holy Spirit to the demonic. Mark challenges us to attend to the ways in which we try to arrest Jesus. Do we ever arrest the work of Jesus by believing that it should be comfortable and not costly? Do we ever mistake true Spirit inspired ministry for mania or mental illness? If so it is possible that we have engaged in a type of forgivable blasphemy of which we still need to repent.
 Brown, Raymond E. (1997). An Introduction To The New Testament. New York: Doubleday Publishing. Pg. 61.
 Lane, William L. (1974). The Gospel of Mark: The New International Commentary On the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing. Pg. 141.
 Hastings, James (1911). Beelzebub. Dictionary of Christ and Gospels. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. Pg. 181.