Pentecost 2: 3 June Mark 2:23 - 3:6
Our passage contains the final two of five anecdotes which
portray Jesus dealing with criticism (2:1 - 3:6). They may have been passed on
to Mark as a collection, just as later he will include in chapter 4 a
collection of parables with the common motif of seeds. In Mark these anecdotes
are linked together in part by the them of authority. In 2:28 we read of Jesus
as Son of Man being “lord also of the sabbath”. In 2:12 we read that as Son of
Man he has “authority on earth to forgive sins”.
The theme of authority also forms a link with the first public act of Jesus’ ministry in Mark (1:21-28), where he liberates a man possessed by demons and people declare that he teaches with authority and not as the scribes, indeed brings “new” teaching. “New” is a motif also picked up in the middle story of the 5 anecdotes in 2:18-22 about new garments and new wine. His new approach to scripture and its laws contrasts with that of his critics.
It is one thing to declare that someone has authority. It is another to unpack what that means. In Mark it clearly means to do God’s will. John the Baptist had declared that Jesus would baptise in the Spirit and when the Spirit descends on Jesus in his baptism, God declares him to be his Son (1:8-11). In Mark Jesus’ ministry is to baptise or flood the world with God's spirit. What does that mean? It means embarking on a ministry of setting people free from the powers that bind them.
At one level that refers to Jesus’ ministry as an exorcist, as his first public act shows, but it also means teaching which liberates people. That is the setting for the five anecdotes where Jesus is criticised, because in each of them we find Jesus interpreting his faith tradition in ways that are liberating.
The “lord of the sabbath” shows that authority by interpreting sabbath law. “The sabbath was made for people not people for the sabbath” (2:27). God’s priority is people not preoccupation with rules. At the core of many of these stories is a two-liner pithy response on the part of Jesus, such as “the sick need a doctor not the well” in response to criticism about his eating with sinners (2:17).
Behind 2:22-28 may well have been a simple story about disciples plucking and eating grain and Jesus’ simple response to criticism in 2:27. At some point this response was supplemented with an argument from precedent. David had a high priest feed his hungry men with food preserved only for priests (2:25-26). Thesupplement erroneously identifies the high priest as Abiathar, who was in fact not the high priest at the time, but this does not alter the argument, though it now justifies the disciples’ action grounds that they were hungry, possibly not part of the original anecdote. Whether the reference to David by Jesus later hailed as Davidic Messiah came from Jesus himself or from an early storyteller, the same principle underlies it. Don’t ignore the commandments, but also don’t apply them in ways that make it sound like God is more interested in laws than people.
The final story in 3:1-6 has a similar theme. It would have been easy to say to Jesus: if you are really keen to observe the law, then you could postpone the healing till the next day, for surely a day’s delay will not change things. But that would also be to focus overly much on regulation. Jesus’ response is quite confronting and shows that for him people matter most.
As these stories were told and retold, they received supplementary arguments. This is especially clear in Matthew’s retelling of them, who wants to make sure that they are not understood as setting the Law aside (12:1-14). So in the first story he introduces the argument that oriests have to work on the sabbath and the second that people can rescue trapped animals on the sabbath.
Mark’s fifth story ends with sharp irony. Is it lawful to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill on the sabbath (3:4)? His opponents then do the latter. They resolve on the sabbath to have him killed (3:6). Bitter exchanges in the early days of the Christian movement between Jews who became followers of Jesus and Jews who did not sometimes led to very polarised depictions of that conflict which in turn shaped how people recounted the ministry of Jesus. In actual fact, we find no reference to controversies over the Law in the accounts of the trial or hearing of Jesus before the Jewish authorities. Nevertheless the principles which Jesus applied in his interpretation of scripture became important as the church faced new situations which not only called for a more liberal interpretation of biblical commands, but also led to some of them being set aside, like laws requiring circumcision of Gentiles joining God’s people and feed laws. The conflict then was not just with non followers but also among the followers themselves, especially those we would identify as fundamentalist who could never contemplate setting any biblical command aside. They plagued Paul all throughout his ministry.
These two stories about conflict over the sabbath are seed stories because they embody an approach to God and to scripture which religious people in particular always want to resist, right through to the present day. They inspire a grace-based approach to the tradition we hold dear in a way that never allows it to become a burden or barrier, let alone a killer of hope.
Epistle: Pentecost 2: 3 June 2 Cor 4:5-12