Matthew 3: 20-35: Who is Jesus? “Why is this man so popular?” This question appeared on the cover of Time magazine beside a smiling picture of former President Ronald Reagan. The feature article went on to say that he was so popular especially because of the relative success of his presidency, because he was proving to be one of the strongest leaders of the twentieth century, because he restored the prestige and authority of the Office of the Presidency, because of his deep personal authenticity.
It is the same question which is bothering members of the religious establishment. Why is this man Jesus so popular? Jesus did not have a national periodical like Time to analyze his popularity, but it nevertheless was a matter of concern to many. Multitudes came to hear Him teach, and many came to be healed. Evil spirits were driven out by the authority of his word. Such actions obviously required supernatural power, but was it the power of God or of Satan? It is causing anxiety in his own family. They believe he has gone too far and demand he give up his mission (3:21). But their caution is too late; already government investigators from the capital have come, ready to press charges (3: 22). The logic of the religious leaders was simple: because they believed themselves to be God’s representatives, Jesus’ “succession” necessarily put him in allegiance to Satan. To borrow from the symbolic canon of our modern cold war dualism, Jesus is being labeled a “communist.”
Jesus has also been accused by the religious establishment in other two synoptic gospels. In Matthew (12: 22-32), Jesus heals a blind and dumb man who was demon possessed. This caused the Pharisees to charge Jesus with being in league with Beelzebul. In Luke (11:14-23), Jesus heals a man who was speechless, and some people claim Jesus did it by the power of Beelzebul. This passage sounds strange to modern and even postmodern ears. Beelzebul? Satan? Demons? It is an obscure name probably derived from a Hebrew idiom connoting ‘height,’ ‘abode,’ ‘dwelling’ … the name means ‘Lord of the dwelling,’ with reference either to the air or to the possessed in whom he dwells” (Taylor, 1963: 239; cf. Matthew 10).
Another meaning of Beelzebul is “prince of demons” (en to archonti ton daimonion). Later in the Epistles (1. Corinthians 2:6, Eph 2:2) we find the language of “Principalities and powers” and Jesus at war with the powers of darkness. The question we may ask: Did Jesus believe that a personality named Satan actually existed? He likely did, and that makes this passage difficult to explain. Satan does not necessarily mean a personality with horns and a red tail, but it does name a demonic power that is actively engaged against the saving, compassionate and reconciling love of God.
Jesus takes the charge seriously. His defense becomes offense by turning his antagonists’ words back upon them as a question and a riddle:
‘How can Satan cast out (ekballein) Satan? 24If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. (Mark 3: 23-26)
Jesus, here, points out the flaw in their thinking. He appealed to logical argument to answer the scribes’ accusations and left them virtually speechless. He is making them realize that in fact the kingdom of the satan is toppling. In other words, Jesus’ basic claim is that in his work God’s kingdom is arriving with all its power and potentiality. This is not a time of playing it safe, being politically correct, compromising, and pleasing the authorities in Jerusalem or even his own family. Jesus’ action packed ministry is for the release and liberation of the sin sick humanity. He showed utter indifference to the verdict of society. He had shown that he did not much care what men said about him. In point of fact, as H. G. Wells said, for most people “the voice of their neighbors is louder than the voice of God.” “What will people say?” is one of the first questions that most of us are in the habit of asking. Jesus’ mission is to let the will of his heavenly Father be done through the son’s living, words and actions. In Jesus’ day there were many who were astonished, puzzled, jealous, or threatened while others sought his help: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" (Luke 18: 38).
N. T. Wright in his book Simply Jesus writes that Jesus of Nazareth poses a question and a challenge two thousand years after his life time. The question is fairly simple: who exactly was he? Jesus of Nazareth stands out in the middle of history. Tens of millions call him ‘Lord” and do their best to follow him. Countless others, including some who try to ignore him, find that he pops up all over the place—a line in a song, an image in a movie, a cross on a distant skyline. Still this question pops up time after time: Who is this Jesus of Nazareth? C. S. Lewis who was agnostic before he came to know Jesus says it well:
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
¯ C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
The following books are read used directly quoted in the preparation of this sermon:
Ched Myers, Binding of the Strong Man
William Barclay, The Gospel Of Mark
N. T. Wrights, Simply Jesus
Tom Wright, Mark for Everyone
David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors, Feasting on the Word
(Rev. Patrick Augustine delivered this sermon on Second Sunday after Pentecost, on June 10, 2010, at Christ Episcopal Church, La Crosse, Wisconsin)