When reading the New Testament, one discovers a great emphasis on love and unity. Indeed, the coming of the spirit at Pentecost is just one story that tells us that one of the primary works of the spirit is to unite together people from all walks of life in the community of faith. And, Paul very often speaks of unity.
Yet, such an understanding of this emphasis on unity does not necessarily mean that Jesus himself was always a uniter. I think we often picture Jesus as having a calm and innocent nature, as he speaks of love and peace.
But is this the total portrait of Jesus? Perhaps if we look closely at the sayings of Jesus, we will find some that describe him as much as a divider as a unitier.
One of the more classic statements in which Jesus clearly draws a line of division is when he says that if any want to be his disciples, they must take up their cross and follow him. This is clearly a statement that, although not inherently divisive, certainly results in divisions as some do take up the call, while many others do not.
But some statements are even more shocking than these. For example, take Luke 12:51: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”
Such a view of Jesus does not sit well with those of us who would rather think about unity and togetherness, love and peace. The idea that Jesus was divisive, even intentional in his divisiveness, seems to rub against our common views of him.
I find one story from the Gospels particularly creative in portraying the divisiveness of Jesus. It is a story that involves conflict not only between Jesus and the religious opponents, but also between Jesus and his own kin.
Mark tells the story in Mark 3:20-35 in a narrative structure known as the “Markan Sandwich.” The designation describes a literary structure in which one story begins, but that story is interrupted by another story, which is told in full, and then finally the first story concludes. In this particular narrative, Jesus’ conflict with the religious leaders is “sandwiched” between his clash with his own family.
In setting up this structure, Mark is intertwining these two stories in order to show that Jesus equates, at some level, the actions of his birth family with the actions of his critics. Jesus sees both his family and his religious critics standing against him doing the will of God. They also are actively hostile towards him.
We must keep in mind the religious and cultural setting in which Jesus lives. For one thing, in a culture of honor and shame, one was to bring honor to the family name. In the minds of his family, who see Jesus as “out of his mind”, Jesus was bringing great shame onto his family, dishonoring their name among their neighbors.
In terms of the religious setting, instead of bowing to the religious authorities who accuse him of having power by Beelzebub, Jesus works outside the boundaries of religious establishment, thumbing his nose at those who would criticize him. This puts him in conflict with the religious establishment; a conflict that will heat up throughout the story.
And so it seems that both Jesus’ family and the religious leaders think him to be possessed in some sense. His family believes he is insane, which would have been attributed to demon possession, and the religious leaders outright accuse him demon possession.
But what seems interesting is that though his family and the religious authorities come to him with so-called authority, authority they expect him to follow, it seems that Jesus, in response, has drawn a line in the sand, excluding both of these groups from his inner circle.
So, instead of honoring his family by siding with them, and instead of submitting to the authority of the powerful religious establishment in Jerusalem, Jesus has called together those he calls his true family, those who do the will of God. These people, Jesus says, are his family; everyone else is outside.
But what about the parable that Jesus tells in the midst of all of this? What is its meaning?
From a literary perspective, Jesus’ parable about a house or kingdom that is divided is situated right in the middle of the sandwich. This is vitally important to how Jesus sees both his family and the religious leaders.
The parable offers Jesus an opportunity to clearly define his mission in the world. His actions of casting out demons are not accomplished by his own demon possession. They are his attacks against Satan’s dominion which he intends to plunder, and anyone who stands in the way, like his family or the religious authorities, are standing on the side of evil and are guilty of an unpardonable sin; the sin of blaspheme against the Holy Spirit, the power by which Jesus casts out evil spirits.
Both Jesus’ family and the religious elite were guilty of this sin. His family thought he was mad, and so they tried to stop him. The religious elite accused him of siding with Satan, for he did not meet their religious approval. Both of these groups stood in the path that God had laid before Jesus to do the will of God. Both of these groups sided with the kingdom of Satan.
What Jesus saw in his family and in the religious establishment of his day was symbolic of a status quo that held onto the power structures of tradition, refusing to allow God to transform those power structures into communities of love and justice.
This is the meaning of Jesus plundering Satan’s stronghold. The actions of Jesus in casting out the evil spirits function as parables of Jesus’ attack against the social, economic and political structures of his day. These are the strong man’s houses.
Thus, in rejecting his family, and in rejecting the authority of the religious establishment, Jesus made a stark division between those who stood against God’s will for justice and inclusiveness and those who would follow him through doing the will of God; a will that was epitomized by love, service, and sacrifice.
I deeply believe Jesus was a uniter, one who sought to bring together people from all walks of life. Indeed, by redefining his family as those who do the will of God, Jesus was transforming the concept of family from that which was characterized by blood kin, ethnicity, nationality, or religion to that which was exemplified by living out God’s will.
Yet, at the same time, Jesus’ message was so radical and so demanding that it was, and it remains, quite divisive. Jesus was as much a divider as he was a uniter.