Sermon Trinity I Sunday 6 June 2021, Sara Wheeler

‘No man can enter into a strong man’s house, and spoil his goods, except he will first bind the strong man; and then he will spoil his house.’

Who is the strong man?

According to the context of Mark’s gospel, he is Satan, the force of evil, and according to Jerusalem scribes making a nuisance of themselves somewhere in Galilee, Jesus is working in partnership with him in the driving out of demons.

By this stage in Mark, we’ve had quite a lot of the force of good fighting it out with Satan with Jesus in the middle – in the wilderness for example, where Jesus successfully bound the strong man by withstanding temptation.

Jesus now applies logic to the arguments of those pressing forward in the crowd loudly accusing him of charlatanism. What would be the point, Jesus argues, in cooperating with one bad guy, in order to tie up another bad guy?

This is the fourth story in Mark about people’s reaction to Jesus, and one imagines the writer trying to build an argument in support of Jesus and his teaching. That, building an argument, is what writers do, perhaps the only thing in this whole sermon about which I have authority to speak. When today’s reading begins, Jesus has just healed a blind and mute man. Mark  frames him within his miracles.

By the way, the non-canonical version of the story we have heard today, the one in Thomas, says the episode is actually about the importance of careful planning. I can’t help thinking that preaching a sermon on that interpretation would be a lot easier.  A sort of Marie Kondo approach to spiritual tasks.

Who might the strong man be today?

He’s anti god, but he’s not anti just the Christian god is he? That moment in the evolution of Christianity has passed, at least within Thomas Little’s walls. Our strong man can’t be just that. Let’s say he is the one opposing the forces of good.

If that is the case, we must neuter him. Mark on this point is clear: we cannot overcome the enemy without taking away his power.

Who is the attacker then in the story, the one who binds? In Luke’s gospel he is someone stronger than the strong man. (Luke’s account ushers in the story of a man freed from a demon. This cunning demon, however, is not destroyed, he is merely displaced, and promptly joins up with seven other demons to get back inside the same man, who ends up worse off than he was when Jesus cured him.)

In verse 23, Mark writes  that Jesus called everyone round him and spoke to them in parables: ‘How can Satan drive out Satan?’, for example. Jesus continues,  If a country divides itself into groups which fight each other, that country will fall  apart.’ It’s hard to know where to start with that in terms of contemporary relevance. It is a statement of fact, not a parable. To cite last week’s Economist, ‘The Holy Land remains contested by two peoples who cannot bring themselves to live together.’ We are not walking in the garden in the cool of the day.

Continuing the analogy of the effects of fighting Satan with Satan,  a strategy the Pharisees accuse Jesus of prosecuting, Mark quotes Jesus saying, ‘If a family divides itself into groups which fight each other, that family will fall apart.’  Few among us could not come up with examples of that.

 The strong man story is a call for non-violent Christian political resistance, perhaps, if we can discern ideology reflected in the narrative. Scholars do often interpret Mark’s gospel as a call to overturn oppressive power structures. There is no shortage of strong man candidates if one does go down this route. I would like to see a painting of him labelled MAMMON.

A word on the strong man through a long-angle lens, one Mark often uses to view the world. The baptism of Christ at the start of his ministry achieves or represents victory over chaos and over all the armies of strong men. He’s done it for us.

I find this immensely reassuring. Viewing the verses here in a close-up shot, however, it’s for us to bind our own strong men as well. Here our Old Testament reading offers advice: don’t hide in the trees. We can surely do it, though we with giants fight. It’s a question of how hard we try.

I am reminded of a story told by George Bernard Shaw, not one of my favourite writers, but apposite here. ‘A Native American elder’, Shaw relates, ‘once described his own inner struggles in this manner: inside of me there are two dogs. One of the dogs is mean and evil. The other dog is good. The mean dog fights the good dog all the time. When asked which dog wins, he reflected for a moment and replied, The one I feed the most.’ 

Jesus, God, the Bible, someone or other in charge of events – what John Betjeman called ‘the management’ – is showing us through this story that we can do the right thing or stay on the right course by allowing the holy spirit to live with us in a kind of in-dwelling. There is a choice here, don’t you think, between binding, or letting the strong man roam and by the latter condemning our inner life to a tense stand-off with stuff that’s not good for us?

Jesus mentions the holy spirit. (But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness.) I would like to draw to a close by considering what that might be, but I imagine at theological college, if they have ten cardinal rules of sermons on the white board, number one might be, don’t try to define the holy spirit in the last paragraph.

So here’s what I think. The one characteristic that bipeds do not share with any animal is the desire to reach for the transcendental. Michelangelo’s finger on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. If anything is quintessentially human, it is the religious impulse. We detect it from Neolithic records: in cave paintings, for example, in which early man and woman crawled to the spot that was the most difficult of access to carve or daub pictograms of animals escorting their kinfolk to the next world. I do a lot of work with indigenous peoples and I see again and again the way in which their earliest myths seek to show the non-finality of death. Here is a carved walrus bone I picked up in Chukotka in the Russian Far East. It is intricately engraved with people, walruses, and scenes of the next works in which both live happily together

Mark talks of ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ and you could say that means letting the strong man beat you down, letting what’s bad for you get the upper hand. By binding the strong man you take away his power. You become stronger than him.

Some say this story reflects a world-view prevalent in biblical times: one in which human beings believed they inhabited a binary universe peopled by powerful unseen forces, good or evil. They needed to control these forces, ‘or bind’ them, in order to get them on side. Certainly there’s a great deal in this passage that does not translate, culturally, to us, here, today, but it also shows how little that matters. The Bible so often crystallises moments of universality. I’ve been doing some work in my day job lately on Queen Esther, a mythical figure and one of only two women to have her own biblical book. Incidentally, though it’s not really incidental, that book, the Book of Esther, is also one of only two in the Bible not to mention god. Yet when Esther utters her fabled line, ‘If I die, I die’, isn’t she acknowledging the power of the transcendental? Of choosing the indwelling spirit of the holy over the strong man?

(You can watch Joan Collins on YouTube delivering this speech splendidly.)

No man can enter into a strong man’s house . . . except he will first bind the strong man’. We must strive to remove the enemy’s power – the enemy within and the enemy without. And as we proceed through this vale of tears we can disarm our doubts by letting them go. It is how we become authentically ourselves.

I don’t go in for eternal damnation. But I do believe one profits enormously from accepting, or seeking to embrace, that notion of the transcendental, wherever it might lead. If you can do that, the strong man really is bound.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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