More on the Strong Man

Another thought on this Sunday’s Gospel:

The scribes, coming down from kingly Jerusalem to Jesus’s house, say, “By the prince of demons he casts out demons.”  (Continuing the parallels between kingdom and house, they also say, “He has Beelzebub,” whose name seems to be a Hebrew parody: Baal of the Flies, maybe, the pagan God of the filthy house.)

Jesus first responds to the general charge, “How can Satan cast out Satan” (how can the attacker throw out the attacker).  Then he ties it to kingdom and house: “If a kingdom be divided against itself . . . if a house be divided against itself.”

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Then he adds one last version: “No one can enter a strong man’s house and seize his goods unless he first bind the strong man.”

Now, there are two houses here.  Jesus is casting out demons and “preaching the Gospel of the kingdom of God” (Mk 1:15): he is entering Satan the strong man’s house and seizing his goods (that is, us, those the strong man has bound).  And Satan has entered the house of Jesus the strong man to seize his goods.  It all depends on who is stronger, who can bind the strong man.

That’s what Jesus means when he says next, “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven (sent away) for the sons of men,and whatever blasphemies they utter.”  Jesus is the stronger man.  No matter how Satan has bound us, no matter how we have fallen prey to his lies, Jesus is stronger.  He can cast out those demons because he is the stronger one.

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“But,” he immediately adds, “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty—no, held in—with eternal sin.”  “For they were saying, ‘He has an unclean spirit,’” and casts out the unclean spirits by an unclean spirit.

The only sin we cannot escape is the sin of denying that Jesus is our liberator.  That is the logic of the strong man: we are bound by Satan the strong man, and no one can enter that strong man’s house and seize his goods unless he first bind the strong man.  We are not strong enough to bind that strong man, we need someone stronger.  If we reject him—if we reject his Holy Spirit, if we turn against Jesus the liberator—then we are stuck.

It’s not that he won’t forgive us.  That’s not the problem.  The problem is that we are bound and we need someone to set us free.  We need to call on Jesus.

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Of course, it’s worth noting that all this language of “binding” and “forgiving” points right to Jesus’ mandate to the apostles: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” he tells Peter, “and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16).  He extends it more broadly two chapters later.

In John he breathes on the Apostles and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit”—just as Mark is talking about the sin against the Holy Spirit—“if you forgive (send away) the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from (actually, it’s a different version of, ‘use strength on’) any, it is withheld” (Jn 20).

Jesus passes this power to his disciples, especially in Confession.  You could paraphrase: “The only sin that cannot be forgiven is the one that is not confessed.”

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But Mark doesn’t make that connection, he sticks with Jesus the strong man.  And this is an important point, one our devotion needs to discover.  It is not the sacrament that frees us from our sins.  It is Jesus.  We approach Jesus through the sacrament; the sacrament is the structure he has established by which we say, “Oh Jesus, the strong man, bind Satan the strong man and set me free from his possession”; but it is Jesus, working through that sacramental ritual, who sets us free.

Never forget it is Jesus, Jesus alone, who frees us from our sins.  If we are not his kingdom and his house, we are lost.

 

eric.m.johnston

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