Photograph by Petr Sidorov via Unsplash

Who rules the world?

June 26, 2024

In Mark 3:20-35, Jesus spins a rather serious parable about Satan as a strongman who has all of the treasures of the kingdom. The strongman is strength exemplified. How could the teachings and ministry of this odd rabbi and his group of even odder followers possibly put a dent in, let alone defeat such power?

When Jesus tells the story of Satan, he talks more precisely of “the” Satan. In Jesus’ day “Satan” was more of a title, not a given name like yours or mine. The title became shorthand for the popular belief that a diabolical tempter is out there, drawing us off our path or the right thing to do. Today, we typically personify Satan and dress him with images drawn from latter-day myths (i.e. the pitchfork, the tail, and great taste in eveningwear). In Mark’s gospel, “Satan” appears when there’s tempting to be carried out: testing Jesus in the desert or when the disciples lean toward believing their doubts more than what Jesus is proclaiming. Indeed, this parable of the strongman comes up when people who do not believe what he is saying surround Jesus. The scribes are there to question Jesus’ authority. And to make matters worse, Jesus finds his own family ready to haul him off back home, thinking that he has lost his sanity.

Even as he’s dismissed as a child of the Devil and not the boy we grew up with, Jesus tells a story of an evil empire divided and a strongman humiliated in his own stronghold. Why these particular stories? Isn’t the first rule of dealing with bad press to ignore the criticism and change the subject?

Jesus meets his critics head-on, questioning the logic of their charges. If he works for Satan, then why does he work against him? Jesus is in the midst of liberating the demonically possessed. Indeed, the very presence of Jesus terrifies the demons he encounters. Go back earlier in Mark’s narrative, as Jesus teaches in a synagogue. Mark 1:23-26 reads:

Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.

The scribes try their best to suggest “guilt by association,” yet the stories being passed around about Jesus among the peoples of rural Galilee point to someone out to get Beelzebul and the rest of the demons, not in league with infernal forces. The scribes refuse to see what even the demonic see clearly. Nerves are fraying around the demonic realm. Simply the sight of Jesus unsettles those that thought they had everything under control.

Jesus drives his point further claiming that the Tempter is losing not only his edge, his kingdom is about to crumble! The strongman will be bested by the Stronger, i.e. Jesus and those who follow his ways. Nothing will be left, other than a distant memory of powerful tyranny made pathetic by Jesus.

As the strongman is trussed up, the treasures he hoarded are carted off. It is the last defeat, as the wealth amassed (usually by any illicit means necessary) must be fabulous, if the strongman is the ultimate “boss” of this level of the game Jesus plays with the demonic. But what are the treasures? Are they made of solid gold or at least gold-encrusted?

The treasures may not be what we imagine them to be. Jesus does not choose the obvious things we tend to prize or hoard. Jesus is not after status. He has that (cf. the demon’s frightened calling out to Jesus as “the Holy One of God”). Jesus is not after power. He already has it, speaking as one with authority and possessing a humility that perplexes the scribes, the Pharisees, and even the Temple priests. Jesus has no need for gold or crown. Jesus looks nothing like the powerful of Empire and Temple, yet he is the one causing demons to tremble and the poor and marginalized to receive their dignity and due.

Like in many stories in the gospels, the disciples in Mark 3:20-35 serve as a “stand in” for the reader, asking questions and showing what sort of responses people can have to the gospel’s events. Their challenge is our challenge. Do we believe or do we doubt? What do we believe in more: the way the world tends to be, or the way the world could be, if the gospel is made known? 

So if this parable is supposed to give us a glimpse of what the Kingdom of God is all about, what are its treasures, the ones formerly claimed and hoarded up by the strongman, aka the Satan/Tempter? Jesus gives his critics another puzzling answer:

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.”  And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:31-35)

His own family may think him mad, yet Jesus finds his welcome and his identity as Messiah and Son of God affirmed by those who follow Him and take the gospel seriously. His “family” members are those willing to seek this Kingdom of God, even if it means questioning the powers and persuasion of the strongman.

Like in many stories in the gospels, the disciples serve as a “stand in” for the reader, asking questions and showing what sort of responses people can have to the gospel’s events. Their challenge is our challenge. Do we believe or do we doubt? What do we believe in more: the way the world tends to be, or the way the world could be, if the gospel is made known? Most days we tend to see only the disaster of life-as-we-know-it more readily than the rose-tinged vision the parables and teachings of Jesus recast the world as. Can we trust that the shadows will not overtake us, nor shall God leave us to ruin and decay? The tempter does not stop at tearing down the optimism and the good the gospel seeds throughout the world. It is up to us to decide whom we will trust as the “final” authority. Mark’s gospel challenges us to be bold in our choice. Is Jesus indeed stronger than the strongman?

In the wonderful film Romero, the late actor Raul Julia portrays Fr. Oscar Romero, the archbishop of El Salvador in the late 1970s. The film traces Romero’s appointment to the high office of bishop when he was thought to be a safe candidate, unlikely to question the political and military regime in charge of this Latin American country. Through a series of eye-opening events, Romero becomes increasingly aware of the severe challenges in his country and the moral authority he could claim if he chose to speak up. Romero becomes a controversial figure, quite at odds with the corrupt government authorities. Indeed, the film ends as Romero’s life ended with an assassin shooting Romero dead at the altar as he serves the Eucharist.

In one powerful scene, Romero finds himself lost out in one of the many poverty-stricken areas of his country. Not quite sure where he is and far from the safety of the bishop’s residence, Romero finds his heart broken as he encounters again and again the sobering scenes of what the average El Salvadoran lives with every day in grinding poverty and under the constant threat of brutal violence. After this experience, Romero drops to his knees in a posture of prayer (or perhaps it is repentance?) as the poor villagers walk up to him and surround him as he kneels.

One might say the scene is “pure Hollywood” in its dramatic retelling of Romero’s life. The gospel of Mark claims otherwise. Is the scene a sign that the strongman still reigns or is it that yet again Christ’s gospel at work, calling the faithful to the work of God’s Kingdom, no matter how powerful the demonic grasp might seem to be upon the world?

The Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot serves as Associate Executive Minister for the American Baptist Churches of New York State.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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