First Thoughts on Year B Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Epiphany 8

William Loader

Epiphany 8: 27 February Mark 2:13-22

This passage contains numbers 2 and 3 of 5 anecdotes about Jesus’ controversies found in 2:1 – 3:6. Like 2:1-12 they have doubtless come to Mark from his tradition and have been through various stages of development. The earliest form, here, too, appears to have a quip of Jesus as the punchline. In 2:13-17 it is: ‘The sick need a doctor not the well’ (2:17a). In 2:18-22 it is: ‘The wedding guests can’t fast while the bridegroom is with them’ (2:19). Both stories have been expanded so that now these pithy responses are supplemented with explanations about Jesus’ ministry. He came not to call the righteous but sinners (2:17b). He, the bridegroom, will go away (die); then people will mourn (fast?), but he has brought something new which defies the categories of the old (2:19b-22). As the expansions in the 1st and 4th anecdote explain: he is the Son of Man with authority to forgive sins (2:10) and determine sabbath observance (2:28). The 5 anecdotes now exhibit a certain symmetry, as Jouette Bassler has shown: 1 and 5: healing; 2 and 4: eating; 5: fasting.

In 2:13-14 Mark brings us back to the seaside and back to the call of a disciple, echoing the call of the two sets of brothers in 1:16-20. Levi’s name is not in the list of the 12 in 3:16-19. Matthew must have sensed the anomaly or had different information, because he changes Levi to Matthew, giving rise to the first gospel being attributed to this Matthew. Luke has Levi offer a party in his house. Mark is not so clear, but, as it now reads, it is likely that he means us to see the incident of 2:15-17 taking place at Levi’s.

Many sinners and toll collectors were attracted to Jesus, not yet following him in the sense that Levi did. We have to imagine that these are people employed to collect customs duty on the border between Antipas’ and Philip’s territory, between Capernaum and Bethsaida. They would not be very wealthy, but had enough money to afford such common meals with occasional stray guests, in this case Jesus and his disciples. They were accompanied by ‘sinners’, probably an enigmatic designation for women who attended to their needs and wants, most likely prostitutes. Special meals of this kind were a widespread custom at the time and frequently the locus of entertainment, including teaching. Jesus should not have allowed himself to stray into such company according to those who guarded the morals of society and they had good reasons, many of them biblical, although Jesus’ participation was not in breach of any specific law.

We can excuse Jesus by imagining that really these were all oppressed people trying to make ends meet. It is easier to come to terms with the idea that Jesus lived in solidarity with the poor than that he consorted with rich sinners. Mark understands these people to be sinners. They were, relatively speaking, rich: only richer people could put on such meals. Jesus is prepared to risk his reputation (and, his opponents would argue, his own integrity) by being with such people. Jesus’ off hand quip, ‘The sick need a doctor, not the well,’ does say that these are people in need, too, even if they have more than others. ‘The well’ may be tongue in cheek originally. The point is that Jesus defines his own ministry and ours not in terms of trying to protect himself and, ultimately, God, from contamination, but in terms of spreading love and compassion. The ‘doctor’ model for divine priorities achieves this focus very directly. The ‘king’ model or the ‘father’ model does not, at least not without some subversion of the common understanding of those models.

The controversy about fasting appears to have been originally with disciples of John. How come John went about fasting and Jesus goes about feasting? Answer: in Jesus’ ministry what John hoped for had begun to arrive. It was party time, time to celebrate. When the wedding celebrations have begun, don’t hang about as though they are still to take place. The shift from the image of the coming of the bridegroom which started the festivities to Jesus as bridegroom invited the expansions which now point to Jesus’ death and may be designed to justify the practice of fasting in the church. But we should not miss what appears to be the original point: celebrate! enjoy! Joy belongs to spirituality. Ordinary joy in ordinary things like food. The worried spiritual disciples of John are always with us!

Perhaps it was the note of celebration that brought up the imagery from two further sayings of Jesus which we now find attached to the story: garments and wine (2:21-22)! I think this probably happened before the expansions in 2:19b-20 which take us in a different direction. At the same time these two sayings serve the overall message of Mark very well in the context. The new situation calls for new categories, new ways of thinking. We need to be careful not to misread the images. People did not throw away used clothes the way many of us do. They certainly did not throw away old wine – nor do we! So this is not an attack on the Old Testament or the faith of Israel, as if Jesus has come to replace it with ‘Christianity’. The issue in the context is about how to interpret the tradition. In Jesus is new teaching with authority, as 1:27 tells us, a passage Mark is probably wanting us to recall here. At one level, that of Jesus and John, the old categories belong to the time of waiting, but in Mark they seem much more to focus on the controversies of the context which are now seen as issues within the Christian community between Christian Jews and Gentiles, on the one hand, and some other Jews, including some other Christian Jews, about how to interpret scripture.

We now face similar issues in interpreting the tradition which we bear, which includes our Christian traditions. The compassion caring model is by no means the standard one, despite our rhetoric. The morally and ritually worrying one is alive and well. There is a safety in fasting and fear is often afraid of joy. ‘Good advice’ will often ensure we do not get involved in controversial situations and we maintain ‘the importance of being earnest’. ‘Joy to the world’ – must be taken seriously, but in what sense?

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