Commentary on the Readings
10th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B – June 10, 2018
Since ancient times, the belief that evil was caused by malignant spirits led people to guard against their evil influences by resorting to magical practices, formulas, and the recitation of prayers, performing ritual acts such as destruction of statues, aspersion, spraying; everything to force the demons to leave. Exorcism, along with divination, was the essence of the Assyrian Babylonian religion. It was also practiced in Israel, where the disciples of the Pharisees successfully cast out demons (Mt 12:27). The Exorcism often bordered on magic. To increase its efficiency, invocation of names likely to contain divine power was added. Someone used the name of Jesus, sometimes getting good results (Mk 9:38), some other times causing the angry and aggressive reaction of the possessed (Acts 19:11-17).
Jesus heals the sick, and adapting to the current mentality, he resorts to exorcism, but he never performs magical gestures or esoteric rites. He does not pronounce incantations as the healers of his time did. He triumphs over evil only by the power of his word and asking them to have faith.
Exorcism should be practiced in the church in the same spirit. The belief that God would allow malicious spirits to take possession of either of his children is incompatible with belief in God who is Father. But there is no doubt that the “snake” spreading the poison of death is present in every human being from the moment of conception (Ps 51:7).
An exorcism is performed in the rite of baptism. It is the celebration of the victory already won by Christ on the spirit of evil. It is also the caress of the church to her child who now is going to struggle for life against the evil one. The fraternal community tells him: in this fight you’ll never be alone, we will all be at your side.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“I’m not alone in the fight against evil, Christ and the community of brothers are with me.”
To those who have a minimum of familiarity with the literary genres of the Bible, it may seem excessive, once again, to warn of the naive and simplistic interpretations of this passage. However, it’s worth it, because the temptation to give it a historic value always returns. It’s better then to repeat it: the story of Genesis, taken from today’s reading, is an account of something that happened at the beginning of the world. It is a text that, using the language of myth, gives an answer to the riddle of the presence of evil in the world. It explains not what some Adam and Eve would have done, but what we now are and do. It’s not serious to imagine man who, having eaten of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, plays hide and seek with God. He is afraid of him, and ashamed of being naked, while before he felt no discomfort. It is not serious to hold that snakes now crawl on the ground because, for no reason, God would have chastised them (before they had their legs?). They are not to blame if, in order to deceive the first humans, the devil assumed their appearance. The story also says that they were condemned to eat dust, yet today it does not appear that this happens.
The story of the so-called “original sin” is, in fact, the description of the origin of all our sins, and this touches us very closely.
Each creature has, in God’s plan, a meaning and a purpose, is part of a masterpiece. It is like the card of a wonderful mosaic that man, in harmony and working with the Creator, is called upon to make. Plants, animals, work, rest, sexuality, joys, celebrations and even pain and misfortune have a special place and specific function in the equilibrium of the universe. When “God saw all that he had made and it was very good” (Gen 1:31), it did not refer to the absence of disease and death, but the fact that every creature made sense; all served perfectly to the realization of his project.
What should man do? Study the creation, understand its meaning, discover the task he was called to perform and adapt his every action to God’s will. Everything would be harmonious if man had kept his place and had complied with the order established by God. There would be harmony between man and God: harmony is represented in the book of Genesis with the sweet image of God strolling in the garden beside man, while the evening breeze caresses them (Gen 3:8). There would be harmony between man and nature: the world would be loved, respected and cared for like a garden. There would be harmony between man and man: no domination, no oppression, no selfish manipulation, just the joy of being God’s gift to each other.
It is at this point instead that, from the beginning of the world, the serpent entered the scenario. It convinced man to go beyond the limits imposed by his condition as a creature, to set aside the plan of the Creator and to invent a new one, to follow his own whims and wiles, illuding oneself of obtaining his full realization and happiness.
Who is this snake? Nothing but the folly of man who, in a delirium of omnipotence, claims to replace God. He declares himself independent in making decisions about what is good and what is bad. This thrill of self-sufficiency tempts him subtly and quietly, as the serpent does and causes him to make choices of death.
Sin causes the break of all the harmonies and the reading presents the tragic consequences through images. Man who let himself be seduced by the “serpent” who is in him ends up out of place. God seeks him, calls him, “Where are you?”, but cannot find him (vv. 8-10), because he is not where he should be. As a father, the Lord is grieved of the evil that the son has done, is concerned. To recover him, he invites him to consider in what state he has reduced his own self. “Where are you?” means “Where did you end up? What have you done with your life?”
Man’s response: “I heard your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid myself” (v. 10) expresses the rejection of God’s presence, no longer considered as a friend, but as an opponent to be avoided, as a tyrant who threatens the independence and freedom.
Hiding oneself from God is to get away from prayer, reading the Bible, the life of the community, in order not to be questioned, not to be hampered in one’s choices. The man is afraid of God because he fears that he may deprive him of happiness; but in reality he does nothing but fall into the abyss of the most complete confusion.
The second consequence of the decision to distance oneself from God in moral choices is the departure from the brothers and sisters (vv. 12,16). Adam accuses Eve; she blames the serpent, both reproach God of having created a wrong world. It was you—Adam insinuates—who put me next to a person who, instead of leading me to you, has distracted me from your plan. I trusted her because you had given her to me.
This reaction is an attempt to put the blame of evil on a scapegoat, that could be the family in which one was born, society, upbringing and, ultimately, on God who wants that man could realize himself in meeting with his own kind, which, however, often, instead of taking him up, drags him down.
The woman, questioned in turn, blamed the serpent. As the snake is just the other side of our humanity, her words constitute a new accusation against God: you have done evil things, creating man as he is, capable of performing follies and crimes. Why didn’t you make him different, perfect? Why is this insidious “snake” that injects deadly poison in him?
After addressing the man and the woman, we would expect God to query the snake. However he does not, because the snake is not a creature different from man, but the counterpart of man, that which is opposed to God.
Will the serpent rule unchallenged forever?
From our point of view the human condition seems hopeless. Paul describes it in dramatic terms: “I cannot explain what is happening to me, because I do not do what I want to, but on the contrary the very things I hate. In this case, I am not the one striving toward evil, but it is sin, living in me. In fact I do not do the good I want, but the evil I hate. Alas for me! Who will free me from this being which is only death?” (Rom 7:15-24).
Will the defeat of man be final?
In the last part of the passage (vv. 14-15) God responds to this disturbing question.
The struggle between “the snake” and man will continue until the end of the world. Here’s what the outcome of the confrontation will be: “the snake” is declared accursed, that is deprived of supernatural and irresistible strength. It can be defeated and in fact it will be, as God assures, through live and efficacious images. It—God says—will lick the dust, that is, his defeat is inevitable and sensational (Ps 72:9); will crawl on the ground, as the defeated enemies are forced to do in front of the victor (Ps 72:11); will have its head crushed, and even if, to the end, it will attempt to implement its deadly pitfalls, but will not get its way.
It is the promise of universal salvation.
“Who will free me” from the slavery imposed by the “serpent” asked Paul (Rom 7:24). We will find the answer in today’s Gospel, but it is already announced in the passage of Genesis: one of the offspring of the woman will prevail on the “snake” and will crush its head.
This letter was written at a time when relations between Paul and the Corinthians were tense. Within the community meddlers had arisen. They caused tension and discord, spreading opinions contrary to the gospel and sought in every way to put a bad light on the person and work of the apostle. After years of toil and hardships endured for the sake of Christ, Paul also began to feel his strength failing.
In today’s passage he gives us a poignant reflection on his internal situation. I do not get discouraged—he says—although I realize that my body is wasting away. Physical weakening is not—he assures—an inner weakening. Every day I check on the growth of the new man destined to stay forever (v. 16). This thought that gives Paul joy and consolation is developed in the following verses (vv. 18-19) through the contrast between the present tribulation that is “light and momentary” and the future glory that is instead “eternal and immeasurable.” From this observation comes the invitation to look away from visible things and to focus it on those invisible, that are imperishable. Paul does not teach us to despise the things of this world. He does not encourage disengagement and disinterest in facing the problems of this world. He instead invites us to give them their right value. Material possessions cannot in any way be transformed into idols. They are not the ultimate goal of life. Man uses them to live, but does not live to accumulate them. He knows that this life is not definitive; it has a beginning and an end. Wise is the one whose program in mind is that it is only a gestation that prepares for birth. In the last verse (5:1), the apostle proclaims his joyous certainty: When this earthly dwelling is destroyed, we shall count on a heavenly dwelling not built by human hands.
“Who is this person?” is the question that, from the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, everyone is asking about Jesus. Who is—they ask—this man who casts out demons, teaches with authority, caresses the lepers, sits at table with sinners, not practices fasting, breaks the Sabbath precept and has the courage to challenge the scribes and Pharisees “watching them with indignation” (Mk 3:5)?
Two interpretations of this very enigmatic character’s identity are presented in today’s passage. The first is that of family members who are introduced at the beginning of the episode (vv. 20-21) and reappear at the end (vv. 31-35). The second is made by a delegation of scribes, probably sent by the Sanhedrin of Jerusalem to ask him an official account of his inexplicable position he assumed with regards to the law and religious institutions of his people (vv. 22-30).
We reconstruct the scene: Jesus is in a house—supposedly in Capernaum. He is surrounded by a large crowd and is exposing his “new doctrine.” The interest is such that people forget or do not even have time to take food (v. 20).
At this point, the scene is interrupted and moves to Nazareth. There the family came to know that Jesus, by his preaching and his works, is causing tensions and provoking serious problems. They left to fetch him and they interpreted what was going on saying: “He’s out of his mind!” (v. 21). An opinion causes worry, especially if one considers that in the group, with brothers and sisters, there is also the mother (v. 31).
Between the departure and arrival of these family members in Capernaum, the discussion of Jesus with the scribes from Jerusalem is inserted. These open the hostilities with heavy accusation, which is also their answer to everybody’s question: “Who is this?” He is a sinner—they assure; he is one in league with the prince of demons. Jesus replies with images and parables, speaks of Satan, a broken home who cannot stand, a house occupied by a strong man who is bound and ends with the enigmatic statement that sin cannot be forgiven.
Let’s examine the contents of the passage considering, first, the verses at the beginning and end that deal with family members. They made the trip “to take charge” of Jesus. How does one explain their decision?
A few months passed since he left Nazareth and travels throughout Galilee “preaching in the synagogues and driving out demons” (Mk 1:39), conflicting reports on his activities came in his hometown. Someone speaks of him with enthusiasm, but the most forward objections and remain baffled. All have now realized that his message is not in tune with the official doctrine of the scribes and of the Pharisees. His behavior does not conform to the sacred traditions of the elders. Some started to call him crazy and “Samaritan,” that is, a heretic (Jn 8:48,52). The fact that the Pharisees and the Herodians have already met to consider how to get rid of him is somewhat disturbing (Mk 3:6). There is therefore every reason to be worried. The family feels called into question; it asks whether it’s high time to recall him to order, to get him to adjust to the more conventional behaviors. In the Orient, the clan normally intervenes, a move led by the father or the eldest son.
When his mother, brothers and sisters arrive at Capernaum, Jesus is in the house, in the middle of a circle of people. They do not come in; they want to talk to him and expect him to come out.
Now the spatial image acquires a clear theological significance: there is a clear distinction between those outside and those inside, between the old and the new brothers, sisters and mother.
Relatives who are left out represent, in Mark’s intention, ancient Israel. Rightly, the evangelist does not mention Mary by name but simply called her “mother.” He considers her the symbol of the “woman Israel,” of the people from whom the Savior was born. Ancient Israel was caught by surprise by the Messiah of God. She saw all of her theological convictions and hopes accumulated over the centuries called into question. She felt called to conversion, to a radical change of mind and tried to reclaim Jesus, her son. She tried to put him back in the family, to bring him back into traditional patterns.
Jesus cannot accept it. He is not the one that has to go out. Those outside are the ones who must enter and accept the conditions put by God in order to belong to the new family, to the new mother Israel, the Christian community. They must abandon their dreams, sit around him as brothers and sisters, let his eyes scan them (v. 34), listen to his word and put themselves at the disposition of the Lord to fulfill his plan (v. 35). Who stays outside of this perspective, this “new home,” although biologically a child of Abraham, is neither his brother nor his sister nor his mother. He/She excludes himself/herself from the Israel of God.
These relatives are also those that belong only “materially” to the family of Jesus. They have their names written in the records of baptisms. They are convinced of knowing him because, since childhood, they grew up hearing about him, but they are not always “seated at his feet” to listen to him. They do not orient all their choices on his word. They try to adapt it to human “common sense” and when they do not agree with him, they do not follow him. They remain outside of the new home, even if they lead a life a little better than before.
In the middle of the passage (vv. 22-30), sandwiched between the departure and arrival of the relatives, a second group is introduced. They are the scribes who have made their opinion about Jesus and are spreading it among the people. He is possessed—they ensure—and performs healing in league with Beelzebub, the prince of demons.
For several centuries in Israel there was a widespread belief that all evil in the world was caused by an ordered array of demonic powers. They believed that Beelzebul was the leader of this “army of darkness.” Immediately below him in the hierarchy, were six archdevils, under whom other demons acted. These are personifications of all the provocative forces of evil: violence, arrogance, greed, sloth, lust. At a lower level there were the “malignant spirit” that caused diseases, misfortunes, calamities.
This was the language used at that time to formulate an explanation of the evil that exists in the universe and Jesus is adapting to the current mentality. To convey his message he recurs to the usual image: the “kingdom of God” and the “kingdom of Satan.” They face each other with their angelic armies deployed in battle. In fact it is the relentless struggle between the life-giving divine forces and impulses to evil, rooted in man, causing death. These diabolic and murderous forces, it is true, are embodied, that is, act in and through humans. Prime example is that of Peter: he is called “Satan” by Jesus (Mk 8:33) because he let himself be seduced by the wisdom of this world and rejected the judgments of God.
Jesus responds to the accusation of the scribes with an argument that, besides being uncontestable, is the principle that, at any time, allows one to determine who works according to God, and who is on the side of evil. The criterion for discerning is the pursuit of the good and of human life. Anyone who acts against man is moved by the devil.
It is easy for Jesus to prove that his works are from God, because he recovers, heals, gives life to man. His actions are therefore incompatible with the designs of Satan. Those who act on behalf of humanity, those who dress the naked, cure the sick, break bread with the hungry, that person, believer or not, can only be animated by the Spirit of God.
The second image that Jesus uses to refute the accusation of the scribes is that of a strong man who is defeated by a stronger one. The kingdom of the devil—he ensures—has its days counted; its end has already started because a vastly superior force for good has entered the world. Although Satan still seems to be the ruler, in fact he has already been dethroned, no longer dominates from the top. In fact, Jesus sees him “fall like lightning from heaven.” “The stronger man” has taken away the ability to harm (Lk 10:18-19).
These statements are an invitation to hope, a stimulus to grow in the certainty that God’s plan of salvation will be implemented, even if it will take a long time before this victory is manifested in its fullness. To think otherwise, to give up in the face of evil, to let the arms down, is to recognize that Jesus is less powerful than evil.
The group of scribes who believes Jesus is an agent of Satan represents those who, then as now, are fighting against those who, believing in God or not, take the side of man. Who oppresses man, enslaves him, always feels being put into question and threatened by the gospel of Christ. For this he reacts, becomes aggressive, defends his own position with all the tools of evil, with threat, insult, slander and even violence.
In concluding his own defense, Jesus makes a solemn statement: “Every sin will be forgiven except slandering the Holy Spirit” (vv. 28-30).
We emphasize, above all, the first part of the phrase. Jesus assures that every sin will be forgiven. The defeat of evil—he is certain about it—will be full, universal and definitive. What then is the sin against the Holy Spirit?
From what is said in v. 30, one can guess that Jesus accuses those who say that his work comes from evil, who argue that his speech acts against man, of this sin. Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is moving away from Jesus and his gospel believing that he indicates ways of death.
Jesus’ statement, of course, does not refer to the condemnation to hell. He talks about the present, not the future. He wants to stir the conscience and denounce the gravity of a choice contrary to God’s plan and to the impulse of the Spirit. To achieve his pastoral goal, he uses an impressive image, as the rabbis of his time used to do when they wanted to inculcate an important truth. He does not threaten eternal punishment: he warns of a present danger.
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading: