Crisis and a Quilt (Mark 3:1-6)

by The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund on March 18, 2021

A few weeks ago we observed that Jesus’ confrontation with Satan in the wilderness provides a kind of cosmic backdrop to the whole Gospel: many of the conflicts that follow are recapitulations of that confrontation.  Mark wants the story of God’s commissioning Jesus at baptism and Jesus’ subsequent victory over Satan in the wilderness to color how we read everything else.  God’s victory over Satan is ‘made local’ by Jesus in specific places where people live.  This becomes clear in Jesus’ first public act: casting out an unclean spirit from a man in the Capernaum synagogue (1:21-28). 

 

Mark 3:1-6 is another defining moment that will color how we read everything after it.  For the first time, Mark makes it explicit that folks in power will not only oppose Jesus, but seek to destroy him (3:6).  We will read the next thirteen chapters with this knowledge.  Moreover, Jesus’ opponents are not one group, but a conspiracy of Pharisees and “Herodians.”  Up until this point, we have seen Jesus in conflict with unclean spirits (1:21-28), scribes (2:6-7), and Pharisees (2:15-17, 23-28).   We’ve yet to meet any “Herodians.”  Whoever they are exactly,[1] they are clearly associated with King Herod Antipas, the Roman puppet ruler of Galilee.[2] 

 

Notice how Mark combines these ‘bad guys.’  In the same scene where Jesus casts out an unclean spirit, Jesus is compared favorably to the scribes (1:21-28).  In the same scene where the Pharisees are unfavorably introduced, they are referred to as “the scribes of the Pharisees” (2:16).  The Pharisees stay onstage for most of chapter 2, and by the time we’re in chapter 3, the Pharisees conspire with the Herodians to destroy Jesus (3:6).  There are little narrative and rhetorical hooks by which Mark links unclean spirits with scribes, scribes with Pharisees, and Pharisees with Herodians.

 

Unclean spirits, scribes, Pharisees, and Herodians—these are all different groups, and they’re not groups who would be natural allies.  But Mark’s rhetoric and storytelling have been subtly and not-so-subtly linking them from the beginning.  When Mark finally tells us that the Pharisees and Herodians are conspiring to destroy Jesus, he does so in a synagogue scene: a place just like the one where the unclean spirits and scribes were first referenced (1:21-28).  It’s as though Mark is closing a wicked circle: all these disparate groups are circumscribed by this conspiracy.  There will always be bad guys plotting offstage. 

 

This lumping-together is also Mark’s continuing the apocalyptic backdrop of the Gospel’s opening verses.  Just as in the wilderness there are really only two ‘teams’—Jesus + Angels vs. Satan + Symbolic Beasts—so too in Galilee, says Mark.  The apocalyptic world is a stark one: on one hand there is Jesus, God’s beloved agent in the world, and his followers,[3] and on the other hand there is everyone else of whatever opposing faction.  In between is the ever-important “crowd.”  Mark is telling us that the motivations of anyone who is opposed to Jesus are irrelevant: there is only doing good or doing harm, saving life or killing (3:4-5).

 

At the same time Mark has been identifying this axis of antagonists, he has been upping Jesus’ profile.  Not only has Jesus’ fame been spreading in the Gospel (1:28, 1:45, 2:12-13, etc.), but the way Mark the storyteller refers to Jesus has started to change.  Last week, Jesus was ambushed by some pop-quizzing Pharisees in a grainfield (2:23-28).  In that passage, Jesus compared himself and his followers to King David and his followers (2:25-26), and then claimed that the Son of Man was Lord even of the Sabbath (2:28).  The King David reference has a political edge because it’s about a rightful king who is currently on the outskirts.  Mark will sharpen that political edge when Jesus is declared to be greater than King David in 12:35-12:37. 

 

The Son of Man reference is even more significant.[4]  When we 21st century Christians hear “Son of Man,” we think of Jesus, but for Mark’s audience, the Son of Man was a figure they knew from the prophet Daniel.  The short version is this: there are a series of violent and terrible empires which are symbolized by beasts.  Then a God-like figure called “the Ancient One” takes away the power of the beasts and gives power instead to the Son of Man, who receives dominion over the earth and kingship over all nations and peoples.  The Son of Man is God’s unique agent; the Son of Man does God’s will and brings justice; the arrival of the Son of Man means the beasts of empire are losing power.  (See Daniel 7.)

 

The Son of Man is not just the rightful king of Israel, as David might be; the Son of Man is God’s viceroy on earth.  All other kingdoms are subject to him; in Daniel 7, the Son of Man comes down from heaven (esp. verse 13).  His coming means the empire-beasts are no longer in control.  For Mark’s audience, the empire-beast is Rome.  There’s a subtle nod to the beast symbolism of Daniel 7 when Mark says that Jesus is in the wilderness with Satan and “wild beasts” (1:12-13).  The connection is even stronger when the ‘heavens are torn open’ at Jesus’ baptism: it’s another nod to the Son of Man coming with the clouds.

 

This returns us to a theme of interrelated levels of conflict, which we’ve noted before.  In Mark’s apocalyptic view, there are four levels of conflict: cosmic, political, local, and individual.[5]  These levels are all related.[6]  As Mark’s Gospel has progressed, we continue to see these levels at work:

 

            Cosmic: Jesus as Son of Man, forgiving sins (2:5, 10) and Lord of the Sabbath (2:28)

            Political: Jesus compared to David, the rightful king (2:25-26)

            Local: Jesus’ community of followers distinguished from Pharisees, et al (2:15-22)

            Individual: heals man with a withered hand (3:1-6), et al.

 

With the introduction of the conspiracy, we are beginning to see how these levels will be interrelated through the Gospel story as a whole:

 

            Individual: Jesus heals man with a withered hand on the Sabbath (3:1-6) à

            Local: Pharisees depart synagogue and conspire with Herodians to kill him (3:6) à

            Political: Jesus’ movement grows (3:7-8), eventually entering Jerusalem as Davidic

king (11:1-10); the conspiracy grows to involve Rome à

            Cosmic: a Roman Centurion recognizes Jesus as God’s Son, i.e. an agent of the beast-

kingdom of the day acknowledges God’s reign (15:39).

 

This is a lot of ground to cover, but as we prepare for Holy Week, it’s important that we see this as clearly as we can.  We usually talk about Jesus as either my savior as an individual, or as the savior of the world in abstract terms.  We usually don’t notice how this salvation happens through and is mediated by interrelated conflicts at the local and geo-political levels.  But this is fundamental for Mark’s Gospel.  The cosmic overthrow of Satan by God happens in Jesus from top to bottom, and there are causal relations between levels of conflict.  The distinctions we are used to making between the individual, local/communal, political, and cosmic levels do not exist in the same way for Mark; instead, what we see is that Jesus’ individual deeds (teaching about the sabbath, say) are doorways into local community issues (fasting, agriculture, taxation, etc.), which in turn are doorways into the political conflicts between rival kingdoms (Davidic kings, Roman Emperors, puppet kings like Herod, etc.), all the way to the apocalyptic conflict in which God overthrows Satan—and vise versa.

 

In Jesus, not only is God’s victory won on each of these four levels, but these four levels are integrated into a coherent and life-giving whole.  It’s as though the cosmic, political, local, and individual are layers of a single quilt which God is sewing.  Jesus is God’s needle, stitching together heaven and earth and death and life and everything in between.  We are bound to him in our baptism that we might take up our own crosses and follow, even as thread follows the needle.  In our following, God makes us the stuff by which He reconciles creation, both to itself now in our specific historical seam, and to the full future vision He intends.

 

What do you think?  Does the image of God’s stitching a quilt of four ‘layers’ (cosmic, political, local community, and individual) work?  If so, how do you see your own discipleship flowing like a thread through those layers and helping to unite them in God’s vision?  Which ones are the easiest for you to see and how are they related?  Be specific.  If not, what about the image doesn’t work?  Are there more layers?  Fewer?  Something else?

[1] Matthew 22:16 and Mark 12:13 are the only other places in the New Testament where the Herodians are mentioned by name.  They may be an invention of Mark’s, a generic way of referring to the Galilean aristocracy around Herod Antipas.  Their concerns are likely municipal and secular, not religious, to the extent that those categories can be differentiated.  They’re the unsavory crowd at the weird party where John the Baptist is executed (Mark 6:14-29).  It is possible, however, that the “Herodians” referenced in Mark 12:13 are retainers around Herod Antipas’ brother, Herod Archelaus, who rules in Jerusalem, where Jesus has gone by chapter 12.  See note 2 below for this excruciating confusion of names.

[2] In what might be the worst bit of name confusion in the New Testament, there are multiple Herods.  Herod the Great ruled 37 BCE to 4 BCE.  Herod the Great’s children as recorded in the New Testament are Herod Archelaus in Jerusalem and Samaria, of whom Joseph was afraid (Matthew 2:22); Herod Antipas, who ruled in Galilee and had John the Baptist executed (Matthew 14:1-12 and Mark 3:6); and Philip, referenced in regard to a questionable marriage arrangement in Matthew 14:3 and who was ruler of Caesarea Philippi.  Herod in Mark’s Gospel is Herod Antipas in Galilee and is called a “Tetrarch,” which means he’s one of “four rulers,” only we don’t know who the fourth is.  Clear as mud? 

 

[3] What will be interesting and discomforting to observe as we go forward is how even Jesus’ followers will be guilty of Pharisaical “hardness of heart.” (See 6:52 and 8:17.)

[4] We’d seen that phrase “Son of Man” in one other place: when Jesus healed the paralytic in 2:1-12, he told the scribes that “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (2:10).  In that scene, the scribes accused Jesus of blasphemy and asked, “who can forgive sins but God alone?”  Jesus’ answer was, “the Son of Man.”  For Mark to show us this conspiracy of Jesus’ destroyers after naming Jesus the Son of Man may be some narrative irony: is the Son of Man even a figure one could conspire against successfully?  For Mark, the answer is Yes and then No.  The emphasis is on the No, but the Yes comes first.

 

[5] In the article linked at the top, we saw these levels clearly in chapter 1 like this:

Cosmic: God’s Son and angels vs. Satan and symbolic ‘wild beasts’ (1:12-1:13)
Political: God’s kingdom in Galilee vs. Roman kingdom (1:14-1:15)
Local: Jesus’ teaching authority causes synagogue panic (1:21-1:22)
Individual: Jesus rebukes an unclean spirit in a single man (1:23-1:26)

 

[6] Again, from a few weeks ago, we saw these relations like this:

                   Jesus rebukes the unclean spirit (individual) à
                 Synagogue panic becomes spread of Jesus’ fame (local) à
                 Jesus’ fame generates a lifegiving movement, God’s kingdom (political) à
                 God’s overthrow of Satan and imperial beasts of earth is revealed (cosmic).

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