Historical Culture Context

Naming

“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me:” American youngsters often repeat this piece of street wisdom during name-calling disputes with their peers. That someone may ultimately break into tears and flee or decide to retaliate with physical force suggests that the saying reflects wishful thinking more than actual reality.

In the ancient Mediterranean world, calling people names was a key strategy for honoring or shaming them. Honorable titles applied to Jesus include “Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24), “bridegroom” (Mark 2:19-20), “Son of God” (Mark 3:11), “the Messiah” (Mark 8:29), among others.

Today's episode records phrases intended to shame and discredit Jesus: “beside himself” (= crazy, from his “relatives”!), “possessed by Beelzebub,” “acts by the power of the prince of demons,” “has an unclean spirit.” If such descriptions can be made to stick, Jesus' career is ended. The purpose of these labels is to identify him as deviant, as failing to measure up and stick to his honor status, which derives from birth. Names can “break bones” and end life in this culture.

The response of his relatives is significant. A Western reader might wonder: “Relatives call him crazy? With relatives like that who needs enemies?” Actually, declaration of insanity is a legitimate cultural ploy for protecting the life of one who deserved death. It also helped maintain the honor of the family in which the serious shame originated.

Earlier in Mark's story line, Jesus so infuriated the Pharisees that they plotted with the Herodians to destroy him (Mark 3:6). Honor and shame are very public matters in the Mediterranean world. If the shame is particularly egregious it can require the death of the one who caused it. For example, a rapist deserved death (see 2 Sam 13), but his life could be spared if the family declared him crazy. Even so, he would never be able to participate fully in the life of the community and would be culturally dead though physically alive.

Jesus prefers to defend himself. He has already demonstrated superb skill in challenge and riposte and is about to do it again. First he denies the charge (Mk 3:23-26). Jesus is Satan's foe and not his servant. Jesus' ministry snatches victims back from Satan's dominion.

Second, Jesus' ministry of healing and exorcism is a boon and not a bane to his clients. The only one hurt is Satan whom Jesus has effectively restrained (“he first binds the strong man” Mk 3:27).

Third, Jesus aligns himself with God, a higher and more powerful authority than Satan in the hierarchy of the spirit world (Mk 3:28-30). The word “spirit” means power, activity, behavior, the ability to perform or do things. The word "holy" identifies the source of this power, namely God. Jesus functions by the power of God and not the power of Satan.

Whoever denies this claim, which is what Jesus' opponents are doing, severs any possible connection with God. This is what the Greek word "blasphemy" entails. Literally, the word means to shame another person by outrageous verbal insult. Denying God's activity and attributing it to an evil spirit insults God.

Earlier (Mark 2:1-12), Jesus' opponents accused him of blaspheming by claiming to act on God's behalf in forgiving sin. It was this and not his healing and exorcism that so disturbed his opponents that they plotted to kill him. Now Jesus turns the charge of blasphemy right back at his opponents. By denying that divine forgiveness is accessible through Jesus they insult God outrageously, cut themselves off from the source of forgiveness, and seal their own destruction. Once again, Jesus wins a game of challenge and riposte. His honor increases; his reputation spreads.

The concluding segment of today's Gospel reports Jesus' reaction to the efforts of his relatives (including his mother and brothers, Mk 3:31) to spare his life by declaring him crazy. The harsh tone of Jesus' question: “Who are my mother and my brothers?”  indicates that Jesus d1d n􀁣t appreciate the1r earlier efforts on his behalf. In a truly startling move, Jesus redefines family. More valuable than bonds of flesh and blood is ready obedience to the will of God. Such people constitute Jesus' new family

It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of honor in the cultural world of Jesus. What value or values in the United States would stir similar passions? Would wealth be among them?

John J. Pilch
 

**From Saint Louis University

Kristin Clauson