June 6, 2021

Binding the strong man

Passage: 1 Samuel 8:4–20, Mark 3:20–35

Every year a competition is held to determine who is the world’s strongest man.
A group of men gather together at some site. Normally these men are big. The smallest winner I think was 6 ft tall and over 260 pounds or around 120 kilos for you, younger folk.
But most of them are bigger than that. A lot of them are around 6 foot three, 6 foot four, and weigh between 350 and 400 pounds.
They pull trucks or trains, and do deadlifts and lift stones, or toss heavy weights over high jump bars and all kinds of things to prove who is the strongest man.
I think in the dead lift these men lift over a thousand pounds. That is, they just have to lift it off the ground enough to straighten their legs.

Millions of viewers will watch this competition.

And another popular sport is Mixed Martial Arts, where two men, or women fight each other in a ring, with few rules. They kick or punch or try to choke each other out, and it is billed as the best and toughest fighters in the world.
And it is very popular with over 5 million pay per view people watching a big fight raking in 70 or 80 million dollars for one right night.

We are talking tough strong people. The toughest and strongest in the world.

And so, when Jesus talks about binding the strong man in order to plunder the house, you can imagine how tough it might be to tie up one of the strongest men in the world.

But binding the strong man is actually not a literal thing. It is actually the first parable that Jesus uses.
Scholars believe that Mark invented the literary form that we call a gospel. He was the first gospel writer, and Matthew and Luke actually had access to his gospel, and used some of his stuff when they wrote their gospels.

And in Mark’s gospel Jesus talking about binding the strong man is the first use of the word parable in the gospels.

So, what or to whom is Jesus referring? Who or what is the strong man, and who is binding this strong man?

If you read through the Gospel of Mark and just use the Markan picture of Jesus, you will see that Jesus is always in conflict.
Jesus is in conflict with temptation and the wilderness. Jesus is in conflict with various religious authorities. Jesus is in conflict with political authorities. Jesus is in conflict with demons. Jesus is in conflict with the forces of nature. He is in conflict with sickness and disease. He is even in conflict with his own disciples who don’t get it. And finally, Jesus is in conflict with death itself.
In Mark’s gospel, the message of Jesus is not. “Come to me, and you will have healings and money and wonderful relationships and blessings and glory.”
The message is that if you want to follow Jesus, then take up your cross and join the fight against all the dehumanizing forces in this world.

And Jesus comes to heal those who are wounded and hurt by the dehumanizing forces in the world.
And he encounters opposition. He encounters opposition from demons.
Now, a lot of us don’t like to talk much about demons. It isn’t a very 21st century thing to talk about.
And yet it is clear that Jesus had a ministry of exorcism.
Demons from a good liberal position are pre-scientific myths. For them there is no world of creatures apart from God and the creatures found on this earth.
However, the mistake is made, I think by those who read the bible literally, that demons are creatures that inhabit people, something like the movie, the Exorcist, and instead of seeing the corporate and political component of the demonic, they see it as individual and privatized.

Jesus saw the demonic, as evil that inhabited the system, till the system itself took on a life of its own, and that system dehumanized people.
So, exorcism is first of all about unmasking the truth of a situation. Exorcism is about framing reality.

And sometimes it takes Jesus to do that.
There is a story about a little fish who asks a whale a question. The little fish says that she is on her way to find the ocean. Could the whale tell her where the ocean is… The Whale kind of laughed and said that the ocean was all around her and she was in the ocean, but the little fish didn’t believe the whale and kept looking for the ocean.

In some ways when we grow up in a society and a culture and a family, it is the only one we know, and we think that is reality and that is normality. It is the ocean in which we live. It is all around us and we don’t know that there are different oceans, or whether is it polluted, or what. It is the one we are in.
What happens when you live in a dysfunctional family, or a dysfunctional society or a dysfuntioncal culture…
You think it is normal.
When you grow up with racism, bigotry, prejudice, misogyny, you think that is the way life is supposed to be. That is the ocean in which we live.

The point is that we don’t always know where the demons are, and what they are and how they work.
For many people, they just go to work, collect their paycheques, enjoy their family, and not think about the ocean in which they live.
They don’t think about why do many people are hungry in this world and why there is so much violence and why there is so much injustice, or our history of racism. Or they think it is somewhere else and not Canada’s problem or our problem.

One of the things Jesus can do is point out the reality of our situation, of our system, of our culture and where evil resides.
And often it resides in the strong man. The strong man is the person or institution or system that controls and benefits from that control. Often the strong man benefits at the expense of the weak and the poor.

Sometimes there is a strong man, a person, who is the strong man. In our first scripture lesson from the Old Testament, the people of Israel wanted a king. They had been ruled by judges, and these judges ruled individual tribes. Each tribe more or less was autonomous. Government wasn’t centralized.
And there were those who thought that Israel needed a centralized government and a King, and that strong King is what Israel would need to stand up against the countries and forces around it.
And God says to Samuel. Tell them what a strong king means. It means higher taxes and it means your children will go to war and be killed in battle. It means that the King will take a lot of wealth and will need slaves and servants and the King will take your sons and daughters to be his slaves and servants.
He will get richer and you will get poorer.

The strong man will always assert himself and he will always be right, and what he says will go and you will not always like it.
But that is what Israel wanted. And that is what they got. And the institution of the monarchy became stronger than they ever believed.

And sometimes the strong man is not a person but an institution or a system.

In our gospel lesson today, there are two institutions that come calling after Jesus trying to control him, denounce him and call him crazy, or demon-possessed.

The first institution is the family. That is right. Jesus’ own family shows up, thinking that Jesus is out of his mind, trying to get him to stop. They were trying to take charge of him. They were trying to control him.

In the ancient Mediterranean world, your family did control you. They gave you identity. The determined your vocational prospects. You socialized with others as your family permitted. And you had obligations to your family in terms of obedience and service.

It may not be exactly the same today. We think we have more freedom from family and maybe we do, but the hardest emotional work any person ever does in life, is learn to be their own person independent from their family, yet still connected to and loving their family.

The family can be a strong man, that emotionally ties you up in knots, with guilt, and expectations and patterns of behaviour… with secrets, and alliances and manipulations and control mechanisms.

And the second institution that Jesus came up against who were out to control Jesus, who called him demon-possessed were the scribes or teachers of the law.
They represent both the religious authorities and the governing authorities.

They immediately recognize the threat that Jesus represents. They represent the ocean of Israel; and they don’t want anybody pointing out the flaws in the ocean, the pollution in the ocean, the dead fish in the ocean, who gets the most in the ocean, why there is inequity in the ocean, or why some sharks get to eat the little fish.
They want everything to stay just as it is and let everybody think that the ocean is normal and good.

They want the status quo. Why? Because the leaders of the political and religious authorities benefit from the status quo. They don’t want the little fish to question the big fish, or refuse to be food for the sharks. They don’t want everything equal and fair, because they benefit.

And so, Jesus talks about the strong man. The institutions of government, of family, or religious authority, and how these institutions dehumanized people.
How the strong man takes what the strong man wants, and the strong man takes from the weaker ones, and the strong man exploits the weaker ones.

And the strong man says: This is God’s will. This is the natural order of things. This is how it is. God blesses some and curses other. If you follow all the right things, and follow my rules, maybe God will bless you some day.

And Jesus has come to bind the strong man. Jesus has come with a ministry of exorcism. And that is to open people’s eyes to the truth, and where evil lives, and where oppression rules, and where people are taken advantage of….
And Jesus binds the strong man, not by armed force, not by soldiers or police, but by truth and love.
He even goes to the cross, to let us see what the strong man will do to an innocent person, so we will understand how the strong man will crucify anyone who stands in its way.

You see the real sin against the Holy Spirit, is when people try to help those whom the strong man oppresses; and they are labeled crazy, or pinko communists, or terrorists, or bleeding-heart liberals.
When we try to stop liberation from happening, justice from happening, equality from happening, we sin against the Holy Spirit.
When we support the strong man, and do nothing for the weak, because it is to our personal benefit, we blaspheme the Spirit.
When we fail to recognize the demons in our institutions and our families and our churches, and in our culture, we sin against God’s spirit.

One of the strong men in our world today is the free market. It can be demonic in the way it has shifted wealth into the hands of the rich and away from the vast majority and especially the poor.
Every country, every nation, every person has to a greater or lesser extent live with free market principles in order to participate in the global economy.
This massive system includes the public and private sector; domestic bodies such as the Bank of Canada, or in the United States, The Treasury and the Federal Reserve.
It includes international institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. It includes commercial banks and pension funds, advertising agencies and the media, and stock markets and money movers moving 3 trillion dollars daily.
And the strong man takes no prisoners and exacts a terrible price from the poor and the weak.
In sub-Saharan Africa half the population lives in absolute poverty. Millions of people do not have enough to eat but the strong man demands that agricultural land be planted with crops for export instead of feeding their own starving people.
The strong man runs rampant in rich countries controlling almost every avenue of life, in the relentless cultivation of desire for consumer goods.
Even when half the stuff on the market is superfluous, fake, wasteful, or even down right bad for people, the message is buy, buy, buy.
And Jesus opens our eyes to the dangers of demons of materialism and consumerism and presents another way.

The strong man in Canada tried to take the Indian out of our aboriginal peoples. They were put in boarding schools and forbidden their language and culture and their right to be raised by their parents.
And we didn’t even have the decency when they died, to record their names, to give them a decent burial, or to send their bodies back to their families.
Far too many of them died from diseases and infections, like tuberculosis, because they were crowded together in facilities that were ripe for pandemics.

The strong man in Canada has run our Armed Services and let the abuse of women be the norm. They paid it lip service, but little was done.

The strong man in Canada kept Jews from coming here from to Canada during the Great Depression and World War 2 in spite of the persecution of Jews in Europe.

The strong man in Ontario, Canada incarcerated unwed pregnant women in the 1920’s through to the end of the second world war.

The strong man in Canada put homosexuals and lesbians in jail before 1969 and purged them from the military up until 1992.

The strong man isn’t usually one person. The strong man is a system comprised of many who think they have to go along to get along.

And while we would like to blame Sir John A. MacDonald or some other leader for the residential school system, we have to admit it was not only leaders, but what a lot of Canadians wanted. It was a reflection of the times, and in some ways we all have to repent of what we Canadians did. We went along with the strong man.

I think that is why Mark’s gospel says that if we want to follow Jesus, we have to take up a cross.
Will we join the fight against the strong man? The strong man is person, institution or system that dehumanizes others.
Interestingly enough Jesus calls himself, the Son of Man, which means: “The human one.”
Will we join with Jesus is exorcism, in casting out evil in our institutions? Will we join with Jesus in binding the strong man, or do we go along to get along?
Do we desire to see the captives in our global house liberated from poverty and lack of education and medical care, prejudice and discrimination?

Jesus enters a house. Outside the house are his family and the religious leaders. They are the insiders to the system.
Inside the house is Jesus, with the sick, the insane, the demon-possessed, the hungry, the poor, the unorthodox and the unclean. The outsiders of the system.

Do you get it. Jesus is bringing the outsiders in. He is changing the whole social landscape. He is reversing the flow of energy. The system should not exist to serve the strong man, but should exist to help the weak ones.

And Jesus is sitting with the outsiders, in the house saying: These are my family.
And if we want to bind the strong man, we do it by loving people, liberating people, helping people, including outsiders, standing up to the evil or excesses of the insiders, fighting against injustice, forgiving sinners, and healing the wounded.
For after all Jesus says: “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”