He went into the house. A crowd gathered again, so that they couldn’t even have a meal. When his family heard it, they came to restrain him. ‘He’s out of his mind,’ they said. Experts who had come from Jerusalem were saying, ‘He is possessed by Beelzebul! He casts out demons by the prince of demons!’ Jesus summoned them and spoke to them in pictures. ‘How can the Accuser cast out the Accuser? If a kingdom splits into two factions, it can’t last; if a household splits into two factions, it can’t last. So if the Accuser revolts against himself and splits into two, he can’t last – his time is up! But remember: no one can get into a strong man’s house and steal his property unless first they tie up the strong man; then they can plunder his house. ‘I’m telling you the truth: people will be forgiven all sins, and all blasphemies of whatever sort. But people who blaspheme the holy spirit will never find forgiveness. They will be guilty of an eternal sin.’ That was his response to their claim that he had an unclean spirit.
I stood by the side of the stream and scratched my head. There used to be a bridge there, but it had been washed away in a storm some years before. I suspect the locals – this was in a remote area of the Scottish highlands – were quite happy that it hadn’t been rebuilt. No cars, not even tractors, could drive any further up their unspoilt valley. Now only walkers could pass that way; and the only walkers who could do it would be those prepared to ford the stream.
There were only two solid rocks I could see that would give me a firm foothold. For the rest, I’d have to splash and hope; but I knew if I made it, first to one rock, then to the other, I’d get across all right. It worked.
For generations people reading the gospels have wondered, quite naturally, just how much they can trust the gospels. Sceptics have suggested that it was all made up later to boost the church’s picture of the Jesus it worshipped. The bridges to historical certainty have been broken and not rebuilt. Fundamentalists have said that it was all dictated by God, so the question doesn’t arise. But most ordinary Christians are some-where in between. Where are there solid footholds on which we know we can stand, even if it feels a bit of a splash, some-times, to get to them?
This passage is one of those solid rocks. Nobody in the early church, however inventive they were feeling, would ever have made up a story about Jesus being accused of being in league with the devil. That would simply give too much ammunition to the new movement’s opponents, of whom there were plenty. So we can be absolutely sure this story is historically solid. You can rest your whole weight on it.
But if this story is solid, it means that we are forced, whether we want to or not, to believe that Jesus really was doing and saying things that were so remarkable that the only possible explanation – unless Jesus really was acting with a new, God-given power – was that he was in league with the devil. His opponents must have been desperate; this was all they could come up with. They couldn’t deny that Jesus had been doing extraordinary things. They could only try to hit back with smear and innuendo. The solid rock at one point enables us, then, to walk through some other bits of the fast-moving historical stream with equal confidence.
So what do we find as we do so? We find a new level of a theme we already observed: that when Jesus was behaving as if he was in charge, it wasn’t just the human ‘authorities’ that were being upstaged, and likely to strike back. It was the dark powers that hovered behind them.
There is an irony here. The legal experts from Jerusalem say that Jesus is in league with ‘the Accuser’, in other words, ‘the satan’. The word ‘satan’ actually means ‘accuser’; this reflects the ancient belief that the dark force in question was God’s ‘director of public prosecutions’, whose job it was to point the finger at evildoers, and who enjoyed the role so much that he began to incite people to commit offences for which he could then charge them. But it is they, themselves, who are ‘accusing’ – accusing Jesus! This is part of a much larger theme which continues throughout Mark’s gospel, as various different people ‘accuse’ Jesus of all sorts of things until they end up crucifying him.
But Jesus, in response, makes his strongest claim yet about what is going on through his work. What he is doing indicates clearly that the ‘Accuser’s’ kingdom – the usurped rule, in the whole world, of the power of evil – is being broken. Jesus has already made a decisive impact on it, ‘binding the strong man’ so that he can now ‘plunder his house’ (verse 27). This is the only explanation, Jesus is suggesting, that fits the facts. If Jesus had been in league with the satan, things would have got worse, not better.
The sharp, and worrying, warnings of verses 28 –30 have often been taken out of context, as though there was a special ‘unforgiveable sin’ but Jesus wasn’t telling us what it was. Within the passage, though, the meaning is clear. Jesus is doing what he is doing by the power of the holy spirit. But if people look at the spirit’s work and declare that it’s the work of the devil, they are erecting a high steel wall between them and the powerful, rescuing love of God. That is a warning to all of us, whenever we are tempted to sneer at some new or different ‘Christian’ movement.
The main lesson for us, though, as we continue our journey through Lent, may well be this. If we are serious about following Jesus, people will misunderstand us, too, and may accuse us of bad motives, or prejudice, or ‘extremism’. The answer is simply to look back to Jesus, and to his victory over all the powers of evil. They can still make a lot of noise, and cause a lot of nuisance, but the ‘strong man’ has been tied up, and those who work for God’s kingdom can indeed, in the power of the spirit, set about plundering his house.
Teach us, Lord Jesus, not to fear the accusations of the enemy, but to trust in your victory at all times.