[April 18, 2010] We skip ahead now to the end of this first section of Mark (after its initiation in 1:1-15), 1:16—3:6, in which Jesus begins His work, being Himself the drawing near of the Kingdom of God (1:15), calling people to Himself and serving them—faithful to God—in the power of the Age to Come, of which He is the Lord.
After calling the core group of disciples, Peter, Andrew, James and John, He went into the synagogue in Capernaum and purged it of its demon, after which He could preach there with a measure of freedom. Then, after restoring the household of Peter, He could be the presence of the Kingdom in the town, healing all the sick who came to Him and casting out demons. But He refused to be tied down to people’s needs and desires and expectations. He left on a preaching tour during which He healed the leper. When He returns, He heals the paralytic, and then He calls Levi, the tax-collector, and feasts with the sinners and tax-collectors who welcome His presence.
These last three incidents are strung together for a reason. (1) Leprosy is a graphic illustration of what sin—the rupture of our relationship to God—does to the interior of the human being. Jesus heals the leper by touching him, which expresses His coming to us in His “person,” that is, by engaging us as persons by the face of His own personhood. (2) Sin also leaves us powerless to extricate ourselves from our condition, that is, it leaves us paralyzed. Jesus heals the paralytic by forgiving his sins, which expresses the fact that our freedom from our enslavement to our condition takes place by redemption, that is, the forgiveness of our sins. Jesus accomplishes this by His death on the cross and the shedding of His blood. When Jesus “touches” us (who are outcasts from God), He pronounces the forgiveness of sins which He Himself has won for us. We are free of our chains and can rise up. (3) But it does not stop there. For, unless we respond to His call, we are not yet free. The next picture shows Jesus calling the sinner Levi. At once he follows Jesus. We who once were outcasts from God and powerless to save ourselves, now must rise up and follow Jesus. Levi shows what it means to follow Jesus by holding a dinner in his house and inviting his friends to eat and fellowship with Jesus. Mark says that these sinners “were following Him.” To follow Jesus is first of all to enjoy His company with other sinners!
Now we come to the conclusion of this section. The demoniac objected to Jesus’ message of the drawing near of the Kingdom of God (that is, the presence of the Messiah). Jesus overcame the demon. But then the Pharisees start objecting to the implications of His message: Who did He think He was to pronounce that God had forgiven somebody’s sins? And now, how could He be eating at the same table with sinners? Here their opposition starts in earnest.
The Bridegroom’s Presence (Mark 2:18-20)
Those who are religiously or spiritually serious want to see Jesus as a new teacher, a rabbi who has a following of disciples like other rabbis. But He does not act in the way that they would expect. For the Jews, fasting is a sign of penance. It is almost synonymous with penance—feeling sorrow for our sins, which expresses our determination to change our ways. Yet Jesus does not have His disciples fast. After they saw Him take upon Himself—as the Son of Man—“the authority to forgive sins on earth” (2:10), and then saw Him dining with sinners as if their presence does not offend Him, His disregard for fasting raises some red flags. Does He not take sin seriously? What is more important to God than our obedience to His commandments and what should bother us more than our disobedience to God?
Jesus does not respond to this concern directly. What He tells them is that something utterly new is taking place: the Bridegroom is here! The Messiah, the One who will save us from our sins and from our condition of sin, has come. All the Law and the Prophets pointed forward to His coming and expressed longing for it, and now He is here. They are all witnesses of it, but the disciples have the privilege of being the invited guests. How can they possibly fast at a time like this?
The Kingdom of God is not yet openly manifest. It is present in His own person only. He is in the midst of Israel only temporarily, to reveal Himself and to offer Himself as a sin-offering on their behalf. When He is gone, then His disciples can fast. But for now, it is impossible. They all ought to be celebrating, as the people will do on Palm Sunday. The reason the rules have changed is that His presence in the midst of Israel is something utterly unprecedented. It is unprecedented and yet it is what the whole religion of Judaism had been looking forward to—with every Day of Atonement, every Passover, every Pentecost, every Feast of Booths, and every Sabbath.
New Wine Needs New Skins (2:21-22)
The new does not mix with the old. This is usually interpreted as a rejection or end of Judaism. This is not the case. It is rather that Judaism—if it recognizes who Jesus is—cannot go on as if the Messiah has not come. The system of priesthood and sacrifice, the kingship, and the message of the prophets all point forward to the coming One. They find their fulfillment in Him. The synagogue and the church both look forward to the coming of the Messiah, but the church recognizes that the Messiah who is yet to come has already come and revealed Himself.
On Easter, the women were frightened when the young man announced that Jesus had risen. They were not prepared for the Gospel to be true, even though they believed it. It would have been easier to go on waiting than to deal with the fact that everything we believe about Jesus is actually true. This is the piece of new unshrunk cloth. It cannot simply be sewn onto the old cloth. This is the new wine that cannot simply be put in the old bottles.
Jewish Christians can continue to attend synagogue, but they cannot remain the same as before. If the others expect them to conform their attitude to their own, the cloth and the wineskins will break. Likewise, if the Christians try to conform to the old attitudes, their wine will spill. They have to conform to the reality of who Jesus is. An example of that is the salvation that is offered to sinners and Gentiles. This was promised in the prophets. The conversion of sinners and Gentiles to the One God is a sign that the Messiah has come. Jesus is the coming One who is gathering them in. The old Judaism is not prepared for this. Sinners and Gentiles must conform. Sinners must fast and Gentiles need to undergo circumcision.
And what about the Gentiles—us? When we come to Jesus, it does not do for us to conform to the form of Judaism. It is not what is called for. A new wineskin is called for, one that takes into account the reality of who Jesus is. The reality of Jesus changes everything for us and shapes everything we do. The church for us—our community—is shaped entirely by the reality of Jesus, the fact that Jesus is whom He reveals Himself to be.
This means that the church cannot be simply another social institution, an organization, a club or society. It is the new creation in the midst of what is old, the presence of the Kingdom of God before the Kingdom of God is manifested in the world that has no use for God. We cannot attempt to conform to what is old or we will find the old tearing and our wine spilling. Our community needs to be new.
In the same vein, old Israel is going to remain old Israel, faithful to God in the old way—living in expectation of the coming One. And as long as Israel continues, upheld by God, it will continue to be a living sign to the church of the promises that God made to the people of Israel so long ago and of the reality of God’s election, an election that does not depend on us but on the freedom of God.
The Lord of the Sabbath (2:23-28)
The stubbornness that insists on always keeping things the way they are is reflected in the attitude of these Pharisees who now oppose Jesus with respect to the Sabbath. Actually, many rabbis would have agreed with Jesus in what follows. According to rabbinic Judaism, down to this day, the preservation of life takes precedent to the Sabbath. The priests were right to offer David the bread of the Presence that was freshly baked on the Sabbath, for it was to preserve the life of David and his men. The poor can also pick the ears of grain and eat them on the Sabbath. This rule, that the preservation of life takes precedent to the rule that work cannot be done on the Sabbath agrees with Jesus’ statement that “the Sabbath came into being for man and not man for the Sabbath.”
So the objection comes from a certain school of Pharisees, not from all the Pharisees. This school, which we know about, later supported the Zealot movement. They considered themselves zealous for the Law, and they demanded separation from sinners and Gentiles and would even resort to violence to make it so. Rabbinic Judaism later eschewed violence. But this school of Pharisees did not, and in fact they were the same ones who often attacked the apostles when they preached to the Gentiles and the churches when they sat at their common table with Gentiles. These same Pharisees always insisted on the outward observance of the Law even to the disadvantage of the poor. If the poor could not keep the Sabbath regulations because they had to perform a little work to survive, then they were sinners.
These Pharisees represent then the kind of self-righteous religion that insists on outward form and considers the interpretation of the intention of the Law as a way of trying to wriggle out of the demand for strict obedience. What God demands is obedience. We need to obey no matter what the cost. This might be commendable, but they insisted that what must be obeyed is not the true intention but simply the outward form. Jews can ride a bicycle but they cannot drive a car on the Sabbath because to drive a car one must ignite a fire, and that is work. Fine (there is no reason why the form of the Law should not be observed), but they would also agree that the preservation of life takes precedent to the outward form. These old Pharisees would not agree.
But more is going on here than simply this argument. For Jesus is also saying that “the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” He is even greater than David, implying that by opposing Him these Pharisees are like King Saul and his followers who persecuted David. They represented a kingdom that had been replaced by the anointing of David as king.
The coming of Jesus fulfills the Sabbath because through Him Israel can at last enter into the Sabbath rest spoken of in Psalm 95:11. Everyone in Him enters that rest, that place where we do not have to labor for the blessing of God but the blessing comes by grace. In Christ, and in the church where we feast on Christ, Christ is food for the hungry and satisfies our longing. He satisfies the longing of our hearts so that our labor for bread is over. He is the Promise Land of blessing.
In the church, too, the poor are equal with all others—for we ought to make no distinctions—and they eat at the common table. This is true when we gather, but it ought to also be true in the distribution of our goods, in our common life. Those who have more should share with those who have less, as long as they work (Galatians 6:10; 2 Thessalonians 3:10-12; 1 Timothy 6:17-18; Ephesians 4:28). This represents outwardly (the outward form does matter after all) what is true inwardly—that Christ is the bread that satisfies us all without distinction.
Hardening of Hearts (3:1-6)
The following story takes the opposition further. Jesus, Son of Man and the Lord of the Sabbath, heals the man with the withered hand—as the prophets promised would happen in the Age to Come. As the Son of Man He is the One who will bring in the Age to Come and in Him personally the Age to Come has already come. He heals the man without any labor—the man merely stretches out His hand as Jesus commanded. Jesus does not even say as He said to the leper, “Be healed!” The healing, in other words, was an act of God, not a work of man. In John 5:17 Jesus says, “My Father is working until now,” that is, even on the Sabbath. Yet these people’s heart is so hardened that they do not see this. The last verse of this section says that “the Pharisees went out and immediately took counsel with the Herodians against Jesus as to how they might destroy Him.” These Herodians are with Herod Antipas. Herod the Great opposed Jesus at His birth, and in Acts 12 Herod Agrippa I plots with the Pharisees against the church. The politics of the world has always taken an interest in the church, and almost always it has been to the detriment of the church. We represent an alternative Kingdom that is antithetical to the claims of worldly kingdoms (all of them).
The hardness of heart represents their putting form above the needs of a crippled man, as in the previous story the Pharisees put form above the needs of the poor and hungry. They were doing the religion thing as if people did not matter. Before we said that Jesus walked out on Capernaum because His agenda took priority to their pressing needs. This is the other side of that. Jesus’ agenda was firmly grounded in reality—the reality of real people and their lives.
The Gospel rejects the placing of mental and ideological or religious constructs above reality—the reality of people in their personhood and the reality of their created being (and the reality of all creation). The constructs exist only in our soul. They can be tools that aid us as we seek to live according to reality, but they are not the same as reality. They can bear witness to reality (or not) but they are not the same as reality. The Christian Jew can follow the Torah because that whole way of life—given by God—bears witness to the reality of Jesus. But even the Torah is not reality.
What is reality? Our own reality, grounded in our createdness, is our personhood. We exist only in this kind of relatedness, not in the isolated monad of the “individual” which is an abstraction. This, however, is only revealed to us as we are encountered by the Person of God. For us Christians, the Person of God is revealed in the face of Jesus Christ (revealing to us that God is the personhood of the Trinity). This Reality is the source of our own reality; it reveals our reality to us; and it sustains us in reality, the reality of creation. This Reality, beginning by Its personal encounter with us, also transforms all reality so that it can participate in, as its own, the divine Reality—a “sanctification” or “glorification” that is revealed in the Reality of the Incarnation, Transfiguration and Resurrection.
What we have in the text of the Gospel according to Mark here, is the insistence on the reality of the Messiah, in Jesus, over all forms. The coming of the Messiah is nothing new to Israel, but that the Messiah has in fact come in the person of Jesus is startlingly new. It fulfills the forms of the past and the reality of this fact must take precedent to anything else that we may be attached to, that we may want to hold on to. We may keep the forms if they serve this revelation, but we must not be attached to them. The revelation of Jesus as the Messiah, as the Son of Man, the Lord, and the Son of God, as the presence of the Kingdom of God, takes precedent to everything else. Everything else is a construct, even if it is divine, and can only serve as a tool to serve this prior reality that enlightens all reality.
What opposes Jesus is this desire we have to treat the constructs in our soul, which collectively is the “world,” as reality instead of what is reality. Our soul is alienated from God because it is in rebellion against God and wants to be independent of God. This is the condition in which we find our soul. The Gospel calls us to die to our soul in order to save our soul. The soul, and the things we construct in our souls, is not reality. Forms are products of the soul.
So let us be wary of ever placing our forms above reality, and let us also be reminded that the reality of Jesus—whose Person encounters us as persons—is located in the reality of our personal relations to those around us and in our care for the creation which eventually will embody (in itself and as manifesting it) the reality of God. Whatever forms we follow must always be at the service of this.