It has been said that Mark 3:21 may reflect a genuine memory of difficulties Jesus had with his family when, as a single Jewish man in his thirties, he left his family to go on the road to preach the Kingdom of God. Certainly, Mark 3:20–35 paint a very unflattering picture of Jesus’ family, particularly since it is the first mention of his mother in the Gospels. But is there something else going on in this passage?
Verses 20–21 and 31–35 enclose a scene of Jesus in dialogue with scribes from Jerusalem, and in these framing verses, Jesus’ family is the common element. In v.21 his family accuses him of being ‘out of his mind.’ Immediately following this, in v.22, the scribes accuse him of being possessed by the devil. Both accusations are similar. In the ancient world, one who had a mental illness was commonly thought to be possessed by a devil. The accusation of his family is like the accusation of the scribes.
The scribes seem to be unable to distinguish good from evil. In 3:4 the Pharisees had been unable to answer a simple question about good and evil; now the big guys from Jerusalem have the same problem. They think that Jesus is delivering people from evil because he has evil (the devil) in him. Jesus’ answer is effective: how can evil drive out evil? Surely only good can do that. Martin Luther King once said: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
The sin against the Holy Spirit (v.28) is the refusal to see that good is good and evil is evil. If a person is not open to see good, then they are not open to the Holy Spirit, and no relationship with God is possible.
Having taught about this basic aspect of perception of God’s ways, the text returns to the family in v.31. The scene has Jesus’ natural family “outside,” while true disciples are “inside.” Those inside are depicted as “sitting around Jesus” (twice, in v.32 and v.33). A strong contrast is made between his natural family and the ‘new family’ of disciples — those willing to listen to, and do, the will of God.
But were these scenes shaped by Mark to accord with the historical situation of Jesus’ natural family, or were they instead moulded to match the family and social situations of the original readers of his Gospel? The Christians of Rome (for whom the Gospel was probably written) had a similar problem to Jesus in the story — their natural families thought they were out of their mind.
To be a follower of Jesus in Rome required great courage. It meant that you had to cut yourself off completely from normal social life, and certainly from any public career. Offerings to the Roman gods, sacrifices and cultic meals permeated the whole of Roman life. You could not even join a trade organisation. More than that, shrines were in every Roman house, with many household gods depicted in the normal Roman house. When a person became a disciple of Jesus, he or she had to find a way of living that avoided all of this.
Even worse, a Christian was considered to hate the human race, according to Tacitus. After all, they rejected their family traditions and beliefs and did not worship any of the Roman gods, but prayed to a human being who had been crucified as a criminal by a Roman prefect. By Mark's time, to be a Christian meant that you could be arrested and executed at any time. No wonder the family of the Christian thought that she or he was out of their mind in joining this new sect
There are several indications that Mark was addressing this contemporary situation. Elsewhere in his Gospel, in the Parable of the Wicked Tenants (11:1–9), he uses a parable to remind his readers of an event that had just occurred (the destruction of the ‘tenants,’ that is, the destruction of the Jerusalem temple and its institutions in August 70). In 3:23, the word “parables” is used for the first time, with the enigmatic question (a riddle, really): “How can Satan drive out Satan?" And yet, for the Christians of Rome, this is just what they had witnessed only two years earlier.
During 68–69, Rome lapsed into civil war. In December 69, troops of Vespasian attacked the forces of the last of the four emperors that had ruled over those eighteen months. Troops of one Roman emperor fought troops of another Roman emperor within the streets of Rome. For Mark, one was as good as another: he makes it clear from the beginning of his Gospel that Satan is behind the forces persecuting Christians (cf. 1:13; 4:15). Satan is fighting Satan. Thus, for Mark, “if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come” (3:26) — it is a hopeful sign for Christians that the Roman powers have been divided recently. Mark goes on to re-express his allusion with a different image: “If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.”
However, in 3:27, we have a different term used: “And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.” It has been suggested that “house” refers to Israel, thinking about the story situation. But if Mark is alluding to his own situation, “house” takes on quite a different meaning, as there was now a new house in Rome with the arrival of Vespasian as emperor — the Flavian House — and it was widely rumoured that Vespasian’s sons, Titus and Domitian (emperors themselves after 79), were very ambitious. Vespasian was regarded as elderly. Rome knew that the Flavian house was divided.
3:20–35 are likely to have moved Mark’s readers deeply when they remembered how their own family thought they were mad to become a Christian. But those readers were also led to look at the alternative that they had left behind. To stay with their natural family meant allying themselves with the forces of Satan that lay behind the Roman Empire in its persecution of Christians. Mark bluntly puts the disciple’s family in the same league as the Roman authorities here; they both do Satan’s work. Any thought of going back ’outside’ the Christian circle is negated here. It was a choice between good and evil, and those who remained in the new family of Jesus were on the ‘inside,’ gathered around Jesus, and doing the will of God (3:35).
These scenes, then, were not meant to describe the historical behaviour of Jesus' natural family. The actions of Jesus’ family in this text were a literary means of moving the original readers, just as 1:10–11 would have reminded those readers of their own baptism, that led to their own time of testing (“coming up out of the water”; hearing God call them a beloved child; having the Spirit force them into the wilderness to face Satan).
And yet this text speaks also to today: the families of many committed Christians today reject them and think that they are mad. Those families make no attempt to understand (just as the natural family in the story stays outside and does not attempt to come in to listen to Jesus). The natural family often make life difficult for the Christian. This text reminds us today that the choice to follow Jesus is the only right one. Nothing is more important than doing the will of God, because only in that way does a person becomes a child of God, and a brother or sister of Jesus (3:35).