Sentence: For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure (2 Corinthians 4:17)
Christ our Redeemer,
you have crushed the serpent's head;
you have freed us from our sin;
rescue all your suffering world from the evil
that attracts us still. Amen.
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
When we meet in the gospel reading the scribes who are accusing Jesus of being Beelzebub/Satan, and we find Jesus rebutting their accusations with talk about Satan not working against Satan, we are connecting with a strand through the Bible in which an individual figure (the serpent, Satan, the devil, Beelzebub) antagonises both God and humanity.
In this passage we read of God consigning the serpent who has deceived Adam and Eve to a position of being 'cursed' and at 'enmity' with humanity (14-15). A prophesied result of this enmity is that an offspring of the woman 'will strike your head, and you will strike his heal' (15), a prophecy Christians understand to have been fulfilled in the death of Jesus on the cross, an event in which the 'Christus Victor', though killed (the striking of the heel) defeats Satan (the striking of the head).
The psalmist expresses a theology of hope, in keeping with our epistle reading!
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
Paul's theological writing hits a purple patch in 2 Corinthians 4-5. He uses metaphors rich in emotional warmth and eternal vision. He lays open the gracious, reconciling heart of God. He recounts the utter privilege of being a servant of the lovely and loving Lord of all.
Our verses here express the centre of Christian hope, 'because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence' (14). That is the gospel! But Paul goes on to make a further point about the goodness of the gospel: it is not for a select group but for 'more and more people' (15).
What Paul then says, from his heart, as one who has suffered for the gospel, both through beatings and deprivations such as imprisonment, speaks to all of us, even those who live a safe life but find our bodies weakening with age and infirmity. 'Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day' (16).
Elaborating on this theme in verses 17 and 18, also 5:1, Paul lays out a theology of suffering: what happens in this life to us is a 'slight momentary affliction' which prepares us 'for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure' (17). This theology of suffering is simultaneously a theology of hope (especially verse 18, see also 5:2-5). The best is yet to be and that best is our hope (since we cannot yet see it and experience it), a hope which enables us to live with our afflictions.
This passage is framed (i.e. beginning and ending) by references to Jesus' family. In the middle is some tricky material about Satan and the Holy Spirit. Jesus may even be mad. Fasten your seatbelts, the exegetical ride could be wild!
If we remember that each gospel writer needs to explain why the good Jesus dies the death of a criminal, the larger story in Mark 3 is of signs of opposition to the ministry of the good Jesus. (These signs begin earlier, as we saw in last week's reading from Mark 2). He heals a man, but its timing, the Sabbath, excites controversy (1-6). The ministry continues (7-12) and Jesus chooses his team of key potential leaders (13-19).
'Then he went home' (19b). As we begin this week's reading at v. 20, we might expect a bit of R & R for Jesus, but the crowd presses in (20) and his family, perhaps hearing of strange incidents such as reported in verse 11, seek him out 'to restrain him, for people were saying, "He has gone out of his mind".' (21) (This statement may reflect an insight often found when we meet a 'mad genius': we think them mad, later recognition of their achievements makes them a genius in everyone's eyes. But it may also simply reflect people's surprise that the ordinary Jesus of Nazareth they had known for 30 odd years was now doing extraordinary things).
To this mix of support and opposition from his own family, we now find added the deprecatory criticism of 'the scribes who came down from Jerusalem' (22) in which they allege that "He had Beelzebub ..." (22).
Jesus responds to this criticism (and, by implication, also to the views influencing his family at this time). To the scribes he offers parables in reply (23-27), all of which are variations on the theme "How can Satan cast out Satan?" (23). (By implication he is saying to his family, "How can a mad man speak so much sense?)
Verses 28-30 are challenging. Jesus appears to engage in a (form of) counter-attack against the scribes: what you are saying is unforgivable! The challenge is at least twofold. First, what is a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? Secondly, why can this sin not be forgiven? (Especially when Jesus has just said that blasphemies generally speaking can be forgiven and sins generally speaking are forgiven).
The words in verses 30 certainly imply something about the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, that wrongly discerning the spirit at work in Jesus and wrongly naming that spirit is an attack on the Holy Spirit.
What have the scribes actually done? They have failed to discern the work of God in and through Jesus. Their ascription of this work to Satan is 'an eternal sin' (29) in at least this sense: their minds are closed to who God is and what God does and thus they have shut themselves off from God for ever. This sin can never be forgiven because it is not repented of.
Finally, in verses 31-35, we return to the framing narratives of the passage,* as Jesus' family reappears. His mother and his brothers are near at hand and ask for him to step outside the crowd around him to speak with them.
Jesus takes the opportunity to make a point - a teachable moment - and asks the crowd who his mother and brothers really are. The answer: 'Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother' (35).
This is challenging teaching, whichever way we look at it. First, Jesus relativises the importance of family. The kingdom family, the doers of the will of God, is more important to him than his natural family. (When Christians today yearn for 'family values', what do we mean?) Secondly, Jesus absolutizes the importance of doing God's will. There are no options here such as doing God's will when it suits us, let alone doing God's will providing it doesn't clash with Grandad's birthday. What value do we place on doing God's will?
Across the whole of the passage Mark is driving forward his understanding of who Jesus Christ is: the Son of God, the Antagonist of Satan, the Interrupter of Jerusalem based religious power.
*Another way of describing the sequence in this passage of family-scribal debate-family is to talk of Markan sandwiches, or, if we want a word of more than three syllables, intercalation. When reading through Mark's Gospel there are many such sandwiches. Have fun spotting them!