On Unity: Some Observations on Mark 3:20-35

To all Friends who are in the unity, which is in the light; walk in the light. It is one light that doth convince you all; and one Christ, that doth call all to repentance, up to himself the one head, which is Christ.1 – George Fox

The passage in Mark 3:20-35 is so complex with its various examples of unity and disunity that it is hard to know where to begin! Implied throughout the text, however, is a single, fixed theme: unity with the holy Spirit provides strength, while separation from that Spirit ensures weakness and failure.

The topic of unity is set forth at the beginning of the passage in verse 20 where we read: “the multitude cometh together again.” Though the multitude is “together” (in unity), they are without Christ, and thus seek him. Without Christ, they are weak, even though they are gathered together. We are told “they could not so much as eat bread,” which is to say, they cannot sustain themselves.

In the verse that follows (21), Jesus’s friends enter the scene. Friends are those with whom we feel some unity. These friends, however, are not in unity with Jesus, and even go so far as to assert that Jesus himself is divided; they say of him, “He is beside himself” (21). Finally, adding to the muddle, a third group enters: the scribes, who claim Jesus is in unity with “the prince of devils” (22).

As each of the three groups – the multitude, the friends, and the scribes — enter the scene, the situation worsens into confusion, error, and malice. The crowd is unable to order itself to meet its basic needs; Jesus’s friends undermine him; and the scribes demonize him. The situation is one of disorder, ignorance, and hostility.

One feels a sense of relief when Jesus begins to speak. We know that he will bring clarity and truth to the chaos spread out before us; his words bring order and peace. For through the Logos, God created the heaven and the earth, and through the Logos the world can be restored to its godly estate in gospel order. Robert Barclay in his Apology refers to “common principles of natural truths [that] do move and incline the mind to a natural assent.”2 Even in his unredeemed state, Man is capable of reason and assent to natural truths.

And so, Jesus begins with reason. The scribes have charged him with casting out devils by means of unity with the prince of devils (22). Jesus repels the charge with logic (specifically, the first principle of identity: A = A): he rhetorically asks the scribes, how can he be in unity with Satan when he counteracts Satan by healing the demonically possessed? “How can Satan cast out Satan?” (23) Jesus disarms his opponents by compelling them to see the contradiction or disunity in their thought. He carries the idea further with illustration: “a kingdom . . . divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand” (24 and 25). In order to be sustained and continue, any being, any entity, any thing – be it a spirit, a thought, a house, or a kingdom – must be in unity with itself: its identity whole, and not fragmented by counterforce. Even “if Satan rise up against himself, and be divided, he cannot stand, but hath an end” (26). Jesus therewith dismisses the scribes’ accusation by means of logic, a method amenable to their predilection.

Continuing with the theme of unity versus division, Jesus deepens the dialogue in the next verses to show the need for unity with the Lord, not opposition to him. In the brief parable that follows, the Lord is the owner, the strong man, of the house:

27No 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. 28Verily I say unto you, All sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men, and blasphemies wherewith soever they shall blaspheme: 29But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation.

In these few verses, Jesus has set out the following ideas:  

  1. The Lord is the true, strong, and rightful owner and inhabitant of the house of Man.
  2. Man must recognize his unity with this Spirit in order to remain strong, free, and whole. Conversely, he must not join with the false, invading spirit that would bind the strong man (blaspheme the Lord) and spoil his house.
  3. It is blasphemy to slander another by calling the true Spirit that empowers him false, but if done in ignorance, the blasphemy is forgivable.
  4. To knowingly slander the true Spirit in another – to call it false – destroys the slanderer permanently. Denying the Spirit of Truth within oneself is likewise unforgiveable and puts one “in danger of eternal damnation” (29).

We read in the next verse Jesus’s reason for presenting this lesson: “Because they [had] said, He hath an unclean spirit” (30). He has been slandered by his friends (“He is beside himself.” [21]) and by his enemies (“by the prince of devils casteth he out devils” [22]). His unity with the Spirit of Truth/Logos has empowered him to refute the scribes’ charge and caution against his friends’ ignorant error. Finally, in the last few verses of this chapter (31 – 35), he provides the order necessary for a society (the multitude) to be sustained.

In the early part of this passage, we were told two things about this group “the multitude”: that they had come “together” and “they could not so much as eat bread” (20), which is to say that although people were gathered together (unified), the unity among themselves was insufficient to sustain them. This verse is telling us that without Christ, a social group – though unified among its members – cannot truly be alive: cannot participate in the Life. To be sustained, members of a group must be in unity with the Lord, not simply in unity among themselves.

31 There came then his brethren and his mother, and standing without, sent unto him, calling him. 32And the multitude sat about him, and they said unto him, Behold thy mother and thy brethren without seek for thee. 33And he answered them, saying, Who is my mother, or my brethren. 34And he looked round about on them which sat about him, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren! 35For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother.

By refusing the call of his family to come away from his work and accompany them, Jesus refutes the authority claims of all social groups. For if the family’s demand is set aside (the family being the principal social group), then must every social group’s demands be likewise considered secondary. Jesus upends the social group’s dominant hold upon people (or screen for them) by setting aside the one social group (the family) where natural ties and obligations are the strongest. He reorients kinship (unity) away from natural, social groupings and establishes it anew; kinship is now founded upon knowledge of and obedience to God: “For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother” (35). Jesus thereby directs people away from the natural tendency to find strength in numbers (social groups) and instead refers them to the power that can order and sustain them each under his own vine and fig tree (Mic. 4:4): that is to say, in the power of God.

In an earlier essay, “Beyond Idealism,” I wrote of some Christians’ preference for presenting Jesus as the facilitator of a smooth, easy flow of omnipresent love from on high to all sinners below. This notion dulls the conscience of the many and extends the influence of the few who perpetrate the claim, for the people love to have it so. Jesus, however, says nothing of the kind, not in this passage, nor in general, nor is he presented as such by early Friends. Jesus doesn’t lull Man into somnolence but awakens him to greater clarity and insight. He calls everyone to a higher way of being that requires the substance of Truth. His example will not let the conscientious person who loves truth continue in the well-worn, unexamined tracks of the millennia, plod out for us wearily to follow. On the contrary, his inward presence enables us to join with him, in spirit and in truth. Therein is the one, true, and miraculous unity.

1  The Works of George Fox (Philadelphia: Marcus T. C. Gould, 1831), 7:58.

2 Apology for the True Christian Divinity (Glenside, PA: Quaker Heritage Press, 2002), 22.

Road to Calvary, Baptistery of S. Giovanni Battista, Florence Italy Lorenzo Ghiberti, 1424

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1 Response to On Unity: Some Observations on Mark 3:20-35

  1. This is so important, Patricia! First, that we (sinners, not yet “sinners-in-recovery”) can’t count on a “smooth, easy flow of omnipresent love from on high to all sinners below” when we are both individually and collectively in rebellion against God, the source of that love, whose flow we are blocking by what we think, say, and do! — and second, that so long as we remain sinners, we may find transient “consensus” with others, but can find no true and reliable unity with anyone!
    I feel blessed by the calm clarity with which you exegete the Scriptures, so often pointing out what’s so long been “hidden in plain sight” from us readers.

    Liked by 1 person

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