Proper 5, Year B, St. Bartholomew’s Church, Nashville

“But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered” (Mk 3:27).

“The world is run by the Man. The Man. Oh, you don't know the Man? He's everywhere. In the White House, down the hall, Miss Mullins, she's the Man. And the Man ruined the ozone, and he's burning down the Amazon, and he kidnapped Shamu and put her in a chlorine tank! Okay? And there used to be a way to stick it to The Man. It was called rock ‘n’ roll. But guess what. Oh, no. The Man ruined that too with a little thing called MTV! So don’t waste your time trying to make anything cool or pure or awesome, because The Man’s just going to… crush your soul. So do yourselves a favor and just give up!”

If you don’t recognize this speech, it’s from the 2003 film School of Rock, starring Jack Black as rock and roll refugee Dewey Finn, who’s been thrown out of his band and ends up teaching elementary school. Finn’s on a tear about “the man”, the power and authority who’s messing up the world and (more importantly) messing up Finn’s life. Finn serves the world by rocking, liberating people through his music, but “the man” gets in the way. The President, the Principal, any figure of authority: for Finn, anyone can be “the man”; be the one to crush your soul and destroy your dreams.

Jesus is not on a rant in our Gospel today, but he is drawing on a proverbial figure not too different from “the man” in School of Rock. Jesus is being challenged by the Pharisees, who want to pin him with being in league with the devil. In other words, he’s doing his miracles of healing by the power of the enemy. They look like good deeds but they’re not, the Pharisees claim. If he’s able to cast out demons he can only do it by the power of the prince of the demons.

To which Jesus replies: “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come” (Mk 3: 23-26). Common sense wisdom: if the devil was undermining his own kingdom by healing people then his authority must be on the verge of collapse.

But of course Jesus is not working for the devil. Here’s where Jesus turns to the “strong man”, most likely a proverbial figure not invented by Jesus but one he calls on here to make his point. If you are planning on stealing from the “strong man” you better start by tying him up and then ransacking his house. Again, common sense wisdom.

The “strong man” here is the devil, who Jesus binds by God’s authority before he takes away those who are enslaved by him: the sick and those in need of healing and new life. The devil is “the man” who’s in charge of things and is busy messing things up. Dewey Finn in the movie may be ready to throw in the towel but Jesus is not. “The world is run by the man” but Jesus is not of this world and neither are his disciples, as it says in the Gospel of John (Jo. 17:16).

Sometimes it seems that the “strong man” of this world has things wrapped up pretty well. Yet Jesus is the “stronger man” who can loose the chains of oppression, break the yoke, and set the prisoners free (Is. 58:6). “The man” is the system, and we can see his hand at work in school shootings, opioid addiction, unjust incarceration, and in a thousand other things in which the weight of events and human agency itself bears down on us in deadly fashion. Some of us may be more responsible than others, but in so many cases the causes are complex and culpability hard to assign. We genuinely feel unable to untangle the mess. In some cases we are inheritors of generations of bondage. That’s the “strong man” at work, keeping us powerless and enslaved and our souls crushed.

The good news is that Jesus is able to break our chains and to set the prisoners free. But first, as he says, the “strong man” must be bound. Jesus draws on a common sense tradition here, but he’s pointing to a truth that transcends our human experience. We cannot set ourselves free. Liberation depends upon faith in the One who binds the strong man, the One who by his death and resurrection sets us free from sin and death.

Today our confirmands are showing us the way by claiming faith in Christ. Today the “strong man” is being bound and his house ransacked, as Jesus claims those who are his own. You have always been his and always will be. It’s a great day for St. Bartholomew’s Church and for the Diocese of Tennessee as we see the Holy Spirit active and at work in the lives of these members of the church. The spotlight may be on them today, but what’s true for them is also true for us: God is powerful to save.

  • The Rt. Rev'd John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee