Is this House Divided? Conspiracy Theories and Unclean Spirits (Mark 3:19b-35)by The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund on April 15, 2021
In Mark 3, the stakes are raised. There’s a conspiracy against Jesus at work (3:6), and as though in response, Jesus strategically withdraws with his followers to regroup (3:7). The crowd is massive (3:8-10); the unclean spirits are shrieking in terror (3:11-12). To accommodate the numbers and the heightened stakes, Jesus empowers twelve apostles with authority heretofore unheard of amongst disciples (3:13-19). It’s like these twelve are Jesus’ counter-conspiracy. However, in a grim stroke, Mark tells us that among these twelve is a betrayer (3:19a). The conspiracy will penetrate even the circle of apostles.
Today, some of Jesus’ fiercest opponents show up—scribes from Jerusalem—and we are left wondering if the conspiracy against Jesus will gain a foothold amongst them in the chief city of Israel, or if it already has. It doesn’t look good. That word conspire is on my mind this week.
If we break down that word into its constituent parts, we get con (with, or together) and spirare (to breathe). To conspire with someone is “to breathe with them.” You put your heads together so close that you breathe each other’s breath. It creates a feedback loop: one conspirator literally breathes the other’s words. When the other talks, it’s the same breath passed back and forth. That word for breathe, spirare, is where we get our word for spirit. Passed back and forth in a closed loop of conspiracy, deprived of sunlight and open air, shared breath becomes unclean. The spirit of conspiracy becomes unclean.
Think of the scribes muttering together about blasphemy when Jesus heals the paralytic (2:6-8), or the Pharisees waiting to see whether Jesus will heal a man’s withered hand on the sabbath (3:3). These are the folks conspiring against Jesus (3:6). They show up where Jesus does, heads together, whispering in the shadows. One says blasphemy, and the others breathe it in and start passing this bizarre un-truth along. Another says, “It’s by Satan that he casts out demons!” This, too, gets passed back and forth, back and forth. It doesn’t matter if these assertions are true; it only matters that the assertions can reinforce and sustain the conspirators’ power and security. Over time, these shadowy words breathed in and out again and again corrupt those who traffic in them, warping their view of things. Their close-breathed breath becomes their animating unclean spirit. In a few chapters, Jesus’ trial will be a sham.
When we think of conspiracy in this way, Mark’s opening scene becomes more poignant. When John the Baptizer (who himself will be the victim of a small conspiracy [6:24]) dunks somebody under water, their breathing has to stop briefly. It might be scary, but this symbolically breaks the feedback loop of con-spiring as I’ve described it. It ‘drowns’ a con-spiring, unclean spirit and in-spires us with God’s own Spirit of Truth, as Jesus is.
And what does Jesus do immediately after his own baptism? Jesus, in-spired with God’s Spirit is whisked into the wilderness where he confronts Satan, the prince of unclean spirits. Mark has been subtly connecting the unclean spirits with Jesus’ conspiring foes. We are meant to see the unclean spirits and the conspiring Pharisees and Herodians as in league with each other, even if the worldly powers that be are unaware of their sinister allies.
All this is in the background for this week’s passage. Jesus is in a house, which is packed as usual. (See 1:32-33, 2:1-5.) Jesus’ family, aware that things are escalating, show up and try to collect Jesus and calm everything down. Meanwhile, some scribes from Jerusalem exhibit a curious bit of reasoning: they say Jesus has been casting out demons by the power of Satan himself (3:22).
This isn’t a conspiracy to destroy Jesus, but it is a conspiracy theory, a kind of unclean spirit that would both justify and animate Jesus’ destruction. It’s a conspiracy theory because it can only be ‘true’ amongst the conspirators themselves, which is to say it’s only believed by folks who have their heads bent together in a closed feedback loop, passing the same words back and forth. These Jerusalem scribes see that Jesus is casting out demons. This threatens their social standing, so they try to cast doubt on what everyone knows to be true by saying Jesus does all this by…demonic power? On what possible grounds do they assert this?
They have nothing to stand on, and Jesus says as much: “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand” (3:23-24). It’s like the Jerusalem scribes are watching a housefire, and as Jesus sprays it with a water-hose they’re shouting, “He’s making it worse!” It’s absurd as soon as the theory is outside their closed circle of conspirators and exposed to the light of day.
What makes this passage more poignant, however, is Jesus’ family. They know things are escalating, that rumors about Jesus are flying all over, and so they come to collect him (3:21, 31). Clearly, they’re not amongst the conspirators, but they are afraid of what the conspirators might do. If they were not, they would not be there trying to keep Jesus from stirring things up. These conspirators aren’t just gossips and folks of ill-repute, after all, but actual leaders and persons of influence—people from the capital city itself! They’re the ones trying to catch Jesus out by making wildly false assertions. It’s understandable that Jesus’ family would be afraid. With such powerful people involved, they’d prefer it if he just didn’t make a fuss.
Jesus’ response to the message about his biological family is severe. He does not go out of the house to greet them, but looks instead at those gathered with him inside and says, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (3:34-35). It is not enough that his biological family is not part of the conspiracy; that they are acting in fear of the conspirators at all locates them symbolically ‘outside’ the household of Jesus.
This is hard to hear. It’s stark, and it feels unfair. But that’s Mark’s incredibly human, incredibly apocalyptic worldview. Jesus’ angelic showdown with Satan and the beasts frames so much else that happens in Mark’s Gospel (1:12-13). It’s not enough, apparently, to simply not join the conspirators and refuse to breathe their theories. To allow them any power at all over how we order the world around us is to concede too much. Even to consider what they say is to go astray. Perhaps that’s why Jesus never lets the unclean spirits speak (1:25, 1:34). He leaves no room for their potential influence.
The relevance of all this to our own day doesn’t need elaborating. After years and years of division, conspiracy theories are no longer the purview of mere loonies on the fringe, but actual leaders and persons with real influence. More and more media outlets mean more and more ways for my own feedback loop to be my individually catered ‘news source,’ thereby exacerbating the problem. Still, in public, we and our leaders all usually say that we want unity.
In an environment like ours, it is tempting to misrepresent Jesus’ words in this passage. We say bitterly of our divisions that a house divided against itself cannot stand (cf. 3:24-25), and that if we can’t find a way to work together, then our own house will fall. This is all fine as far as adages go, and it certainly comes from a good place. We very rightly desire the healing of divisions—there is not just one kind of division—that our household might be united.
But none of this is Jesus’ point; in fact, it’s the opposite. Jesus begins with a hypothetical kingdom ruled by Satan, and then moves on to an image of how divided kingdoms fall. Well and good. We have to remember, however, that all of this serves to expose the conspirators’ falsehood as a falsehood. The conspirators are saying Jesus casts out demons by the power of Satan, and Jesus is shattering this lie. Their concern for their own power has created in them a feedback loop animated by an unclean spirit; they have abandoned the truth. Indeed, in the context of Mark’s text, they are blaspheming against the Spirit of Truth, which Jesus condemns in the strongest terms as an eternal sin.
Those who would be members of God’s kingdom, which is to say members of Jesus’ real family, can neither join the conspirators, nor let fear of them guide their lives (as Jesus’ biological family seems to be doing). They must do the will of God.
The actual point of this exchange, then, in which we read, “a house divided cannot stand,” is not the reunification of a divided kingdom, or that the two halves of a kingdom must work together to be reconciled. The point is that the scribes from Jerusalem and the other conspirators are acutely at fault, and that they must repent of their lies if they would be with Jesus and enter the only kingdom there really is: God’s. There are not two sides of a house divided in this exchange. There is only one side and one house: those who live in reality with Jesus, and those outside of it who are trying to build a world on falsehood (or are accommodating those who are). Jesus has plundered the strong man’s house and cleansed it. The only question is whether we will reside with him there or not.
We 21st century Christians have the benefit of hindsight in reading Mark’s Gospel, and so it’s easy to see all this at work in this passage. We have no such benefit in reading our own day: there is no man from Nazareth to whom we can simply point and say, yes, there he is. But we do have conspiracy theories, promulgated both by regular folks and by people in real power, whose assertions are so wildly baseless that it makes one wonder whose words they’re breathing. We may not buy into the rampant falsehoods ourselves, but we spend a lot of energy enabling their promulgators.
If Jesus’ response about his biological family tells us anything, it’s that this is not a virtue. Jesus is the Stronger One who has already come like a thief in the night and bound the father of lies (1:7, 3:27). Why loose that which God has bound? Conspirers in our own day are deserving of our pity and our decency as fellow human beings, but not our accommodation in discussion of anything that matters. Justice, the future, the ordering of our common life. Either we are in the house of God-spoken reality with Jesus, where the animating and inspiring Spirit is the truth honestly sought and given, or we are not.
In our various struggles for unity, we must not be lured from reality, which is to say we must not be lured from the house God has given us in which to live, even if the dinner table arguments get pretty heated in here. To go conspiring into the shadows after willful falsehoods, even in search of security, is not to divide the house, but to leave it. It is to reject the world God has made and to come dangerously close to blaspheming against the very Spirit He breathed into us when the world began. It is an exhausting, fearful, and profoundly unnatural thing to conspire into ‘being’ a world that does not exist.
So we must sit, with compassion and curiosity, between our neighbor and our own ignorance of the world as it really is. There is no other house, no other kingdom, no other possible conversations to be had. There is only this house, of which Jesus is Lord, and in which there are a great number of people whom we adore and a great number whom we dislike and a great number by whom we are befuddled. Beyond the walls of our shared and God-spoken reality is literally nowhere, a place of unclean spirits and monstrous with nonexistence.
 Note that Jesus’ includes “mother and sisters” in verse 35, which further suggests the presence of early female disciples. That Jesus only says “mother and brothers” in verse 34 is likely rhetorical: a response to verses 32 which likely does not originally include “sisters.” It’s also perhaps worth noting that father is not included at all here.
 We also have to spend a lot of energy reminding ourselves which way is up!
 This reference is from John’s Gospel (8:44), not Mark.