The title of this sermon is a nod to Ched Meyer’s fabulous commentary on Mark’s story of Jesus, Binding the Strong Man (Maryknoll, N. Y.: Orbis, 1988). Early in Jesus’ ministry, in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is immediately a figure of controversy and concern. By chapter 3, he is already in trouble— with his family, his followers, and the political and religious leaders. Jesus challenges tradition, flaunts authority, and dishonors the family. Mark sets up the dynamic tension of the story very quickly—a story that promises to be an epic battle. Mark is widely acknowledged as the earliest of the written Gospels we have, so this author is following no one else’s script. In this early encounter, Mark raises the question, “Who has true authority?” Does authority come from tradition and religion, or does true authority come from God? Mark says that the authority from God in Jesus the Christ trumps the authority of the established faith. The established authority of the day—the scribes—confront the new authority—Jesus— and attempt to discredit him by accusing him of being possessed by demons. Jesus deflects their accusations deftly, saying that Satan wouldn’t destroy his own handiwork. The message here is fairly clear—evil doesn’t cast out evil; good does. The author of Mark then employs a cryptic and somewhat confusing statement from Jesus, “But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first binding the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered” (v. 27).
Some scholars believe this statement means that Jesus has already taken care of Satan for the time being, and that the prince of darkness won’t be much of a problem while Jesus is around. Others believe that Jesus is putting the religious leadership on notice—that he will “tie up” the establishment and usher in a whole new church. There is a third perspective that has significant merit, especially in our day of a “house divided” within mainline Protestant Christianity. Rather than a threat, perhaps Jesus is offering a word of caution—if the strong man, defined as our faith, is “tied up” in senseless debate, red tape, endless discussion, non-productive planning, power plays, institutional preservation, and political maneuvering, then virtually any “thief” can sneak in and plunder the house. In other words, all kinds of silly and simplistic alternatives to serious faith can attract people while organized religion isn’t paying attention.
Spend a few moments in a book store or online at Amazon or Barnes and Noble and scan the titles in the sections on “religion,” “spirituality,” or “new age.” What do you see? On any given day, you will see a wide variety of titles on prosperity gospels, praying your way to health, contacting spirits, “secrets” to success, encounters with angels, encounters with demons, “Christian” reincarnation, earth spirituality—you get the picture. One thousand and one options, from the ridiculous to the sublime, all aimed at a culture that says it is “spiritual, but not religious.” The strong man of organized religion may very well be tied to its own ecclesial throne, while pretenders pillage and plunder the spiritually hungry and seeking.
We may be bound, but we’re certainly not gagged. Part of our problem is that we are engaged in never-ending disagreements about who is right and who is wrong, who is good and who is evil, who is righteous and who is sinful. We are not seeking unity, harmony, reconciliation, or justice. We are merely adopting the secular culture’s passion for competition and winning at any cost. Forget grace and forgiveness, ignore love and mercy, disregard patience and tolerance, and label justice and generosity as socialism and communism to put “those people” in their places. Turn religion from life-affirming, joy-producing, divine blessing into legalistic, authoritarian, proof-texting moralizing and no one has to break in and bind us—we’ll do it ourselves.
Jesus goes on in Mark to say that any sin can be forgiven us except one—blaspheming the Holy Spirit. Blasphemy is one of those widely misunderstood concepts that get thrown around a lot by the people who understand it least. Contempt for God and the Word of God in thought, speech, or action is the essence of blasphemy, and judging other Christians is a primary form of blasphemy. Much of what we call “religious debate” is nothing short of blasphemy, and any time one “Godgroup” points a finger at another and disrespects or devalues the work of the Holy Spirit in the other’s faith, it is an unforgiveable sin. Yet we keep right on doing it. We stick labels on people we disagree with—like fundamentalist, conservative, liberal, progressive—heaping contempt on their heads as a way to “prove” our own superiority. The time has come to unbind the strong man.
Religion has fallen on hard times. Once religion was worn as a badge of honor, but today virtually no one wants to be thought of as religious. Too many people equate religion with the worst possible behaviors associated with the church—self-righteousness, judgmentalism, condemnation, prejudice, intolerance among them. Sects, factions, denominations, splinters, and divisions send a message to the world that Christians can’t get our own story straight. Petty bickering and conflict within congregations reinforce the impression that being Christian offers nothing of greater value than any other club or association.
So what can be done? While the answer is simple, it won’t be easy. The time has come to set aside differences and focus instead on what we share in common. Jesus says in today’s Gospel lesson, “But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first binding the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.” Let’s begin here. Let’s acknowledge that we believe different things and value different things and seek different things, but at our heart and core we are all one family, children of God, and brothers and sisters of the Christ. It won’t change anything overnight, but one thing is certain. If we’re all on the same side, there won’t be any of “those people” left to dislike.