Musing 6 10 18.B | 10th Ordinary Sunday
Jesus, in the gospel passage from Mark, uses a provocative image to underline the reason for his mission to preach the good news and bring healing into the lives of human beings: plundering, stealing and even physical violence. Listen to the parabolic words again: “But no one can enter a strong man’s house to plunder his property unless he first ties up the strong man. Then he can plunder the house.” What does this mean and who is the so-called strong man?
The context of the entire gospel passage is important in order to interpret the meaning of this text. Basically, various groups of people—Jesus’ relatives and the religious authorities from Jerusalem—are in an increasingly adversarial stance against him. His relatives think he is out of his mind; so, they want to reel him in, so to speak. The religious authorities’ accusation is more insidious and thus even diabolical: they think what Jesus does is by the power of demons. Thus, they willfully refuse to acknowledge the good that is plainly before their eyes and say rather that it is demonic, diabolical. Thus, they call good evil, and they call the work of God the work of the devil. This mindset is clearly distorted and diabolical: who is really out of their mind? Who is demented?
The spiritual writer, mystic and Trappist monk, Fr. Thomas Merton, wrote a small reflection on the Christmas story that has a dark, even apocalyptic, tone. He wrote a powerful line to capture this state of dementedness that seems to encompass humanity: “Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for Him at all, Christ has come uninvited” (Raids on the Unspeakable, 72). The world is demented—it is out of its mind, literally what the word demented means. It is out of its mind because human beings are out of their minds.
If the good work of God can be interpreted as evil and diabolical, if human beings would rather hide from their creator and obfuscate, blame, lie and pass the buck as articulated in the famous Genesis passage about the aftermath of the fall of man, if one could not trust in the infinite and eternal mercy of God, then the world is truly demented…out of its mind. We are out of our minds. We need to be plundered, stolen back to God.
And so we come to the evocative and provocative parable of Jesus in the gospel text of Mark. The strong man of the passage is the evil one—the devil, the demonic, the demented forces of evil—who has plundered and stolen from God’s good creation to pervert it, distort it and manipulate it. His forces of manipulation and distortion and perversion are such that good is called evil and evil is called good. But, there is a stronger one who can go into the strong man’s domain to bind him and plunder and steal back that which is rightfully his. And this is not just a cute thematic forcing of links (an eisegesis); there is a powerful linguistic connection (true exegesis).
In the beginning of Mark’s gospel, a passage which we heard back in Advent, John the Baptist is the first human character on the narrative stage who prophesies about his own mission and, more importantly, about the one to whom he is oriented and disposed. He says: “One stronger than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the holy Spirit” (Mark 1:7-8). Jesus is the stronger one who goes into the strong man’s abode to tie him up and steal back that which is his—everyone who is his: the entire human race. What the devil, merely the strong one, had plundered and stolen in the prehistorical fall by the divisive separation of hiding and lies, Jesus, the stronger one, has restored back to the inclusive relationship of love and truth that comes from God.
This restoration of relationship is powerfully captured in the second reading from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians when he writes “…that the grace bestowed in abundance on more and more people may cause the thanksgiving to overflow for the glory of God.” It is a “glory beyond all comparison.” So, the strong man—evil—may seem strong, but he is not stronger. The stronger one, Jesus Christ, who ties up the strong man and steals his property—all of us—back for God reveals this “glory beyond all comparison.” And to do it, he appears “out of his mind”—demented—in a world that thinks it is in its right mind, but really is not. He out-steals the thief; he out-plunders the plunderer; he out-crazys the craziness of a world which says good is evil and evil is good in order to restore the true order of creation as one based on mercy and love.
St. Augustine powerfully and poetically captures this seeming madness of a God so in love with us that he will never cease in his pursuit to break through our dementedness, our being out of our own minds and our senses. In his deeply personal and yet magisterial Confessions, the bishop of Hippo sums up the sentiment expressed in the parable of the strong man as he acknowledges how God has pursued him, Augustine, and how his own senses, one by one, and thus his own mind are restored, healed and configured into the mind of Christ:
“Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new,
late have I loved you!
Lo, you were within,
but I outside, seeking there for you,
and upon the shapely things you have made I rushed headlong,
You were with me, but I was not with you.
They held me back far from you,
those things which would have no being
were they not in you.
You called, shouted, broke through my deafness;
you flared, blazed, banished my blindness;
you lavished your fragrance, I gasped, and now I pant for you;
I tasted you, and I hunger and thirst;
you touched me, and I burned for your peace”
(Confessions X, 27, 38).