A worship service to remember! Mark 3:1-6. Five stories of conflict

The literary structure of Mark 3:1-6

We’re back in Mark today, finishing up the section – five stories of conflict . Here is the handout that shows how these five stories are interconnected in various ways. I’ll just mention two:

  • All five have to do with Jesus facing opposition to his displays of authority, especially from Jewish leaders.
  • And in the very middle, in the parables of the new and the old, Jesus makes the point that with his coming things change. New wine is for new wineskins.

And the fourth story and ours today, the fifth one – both have to do with the new of Jesus’ teaching on the Sabbath. In both he claims the authority to define proper Sabbath observance, even if it goes against human traditions.

Our story today is quite interesting. It’s about a worship service that involves conflict, Jesus getting angry, a healing miracle and deadly scheming. Let’s work our way through this passage to see what’s going on and also to see what we can learn.

The story

1Again he entered the synagogue and a man was there with a withered hand.

It says “again” because it was a common pattern for Jesus to go to synagogues to share his message of the kingdom (1:21).

It isn’t clear what condition the man with the withered hand had. The word “withered” can also be translated deformed, shriveled or paralyzed. In any case, it was more than just a medical need. In the culture of that day, where most did manual labor, he would likely have been reduced to begging. Also there was a stigma attached, in that he would not have been allowed to worship at the temple in Jerusalem due to his deformity (Leviticus 21:18-20).

2And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him.

The “they” are the Pharisees, carrying over from the previous story. In this previous story they have already argued with Jesus about proper Sabbath observance.

And surely they knew that Jesus has already cast out a demon on the Sabbath in the synagogue (1:21-28). And perhaps they knew that he healed Peter’s mother-in-law in Peter’s home on the Sabbath (1:29-31). So this must have seemed to them like a perfect trap! Here is Jesus on the Sabbath and also there’s a man with a withered hand. Of course Jesus will do something!

Now, the Pharisees’ were looking to “accuse him.”That is, to bring up official charges against Jesus. And this was a serious thing. As Exodus 31:14 – says, “You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people.” This is in the background as the Pharisees look for evidence against him.

Can I just say here – what a crazy worship service!! First of all, can you imagine going each week and wondering what in the world Jesus might do? Or secondly, being in this service watching as the leaders try to find grounds to kill the visiting speaker! That’s what’s going on here.

Now, the Sabbath was important to all Jews, including Jesus, who observed it. >But there wasn’t universal agreement among the different Jewish groups on the details of how to observe it. Just as we saw last time – the question is: What constitutes work on the Sabbath? And Scripture says very little about this.

The Pharisees believed that Jesus’ healing was work. And although they made allowances for medical treatment if the life of a person was in danger, this wasn’t the case here. In their view, Jesus could easily wait until the next day to heal this man. Their attitude is summed up by a synagogue ruler in Luke 13:14, who said, “There are six days in which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day.”

3And he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come here.”

This poor guy must have known about the tension. I’m sure you could feel it in the room. And here he’s getting drawn into it. So his response to Jesus is an act of faith. He’s getting in the middle of things, both figuratively and also literally. I say literally, because the phrase “come here” can also be translated – “stand up in the middle.” This has to do with how synagogues were typically built at this time. There were rows of seats along the outside and people on mats as well, and the middle was open. So the man is being called to stand up in the middle of the room so all can see him.

4And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent.

First of all, Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees, not all who are present. For many there would be just common people, like the man with the withered hand.

Jesus is making a basic point: It’s lawful to do good and to save or the word can also be translated, restore life on the Sabbath. (The word “save” often means “to make whole” in a healing context – Mark 5:28, 34; 6:56; 10:52). (Jesus is disagreeing here with the oral law of the Pharisees, not Moses).

Jesus is saying we are to do good every; we are to love our neighbor every day, not just on certain days. He’s saying, it is in fact lawful, or in accord with Moses, to love your neighbor on the Sabbath. The love command is not suspended on the Sabbath. So Jesus has a different understanding of the Sabbath. It should be observed, and observed with mercy toward others.

But beyond this, for Jesus, the Sabbath is the perfect time to heal someone, since a part of what it’s all about is celebrating the goodness and wholeness of the original creation. And with Jesus, his healing on the Sabbath represents the in-breaking of the kingdom of God, or the new creation; the Sabbath rest of the eternal kingdom. This is to be a day of freedom and joy.

The negative part of Jesus’ question is directed at the Pharisees. He’s saying it’s not lawful to seek to harm and kill on the Sabbath. He knew what they were thinking (Luke 6:8), trying to accuse him of a capital crime. So Jesus draws out the contrast. He is doing good and restoring life on the Sabbath. They are scheming to harm and kill him on the Sabbath. He makes known their intentions. And this is why they’re silent.

Throughout this episode, Jesus is attempting to get them to listen to God and see what God is doing, even being provocative to do this. This is the only place in Mark where Jesus initiates a healing without being asked or approached. Jesus is attempting to get them to listen to God. But they spurn him. They remain in a position of hostility toward him and what he represents.

5And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart . . .

Jesus was angry. We see Jesus angry at various points in the gospels, usually at the religious leaders. But this is the only time that Jesus is said to be angry. (And interestingly, Matthew and Luke do not include this remark.) Jesus was also deeply grieved.

Why the emotions? Their hardness of heart. This language recalls Pharaoh who wouldn’t listen to God (Exodus 7-8), and also Israel who spurned the message of the prophets (Jeremiah 7:24).  Jesus was upset because they wouldn’t listen to God.

. . . and (he) said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.

The man once more shows faith in Jesus. He does what Jesus says. He stretches out his hand, and he is healed.

6The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

Again, the Pharisees are seeking to harm and kill Jesus – on the Sabbath. They “went out and immediately held counsel . . ..”

They speak with the Herodians, apparently a political group that supported Herod Antipas in Galilee, the one who arrested John the Baptist and later killed him. These two groups were very different, but they had a common enemy – Jesus.

In the last phrase of our story, we find the first mention of Jesus being killed in the gospel. It’s been alluded to (they charged him with a capital offense in 2:7 and Jesus speaks of when he will be “taken away” from the disciples), but this is the first explicit reference to what’s to come.

Let’s end with –

Some questions

– that come out of this story that challenge us.

1. Are you living according to the new wine that Jesus teaches? In this case he’s teaching about the Sabbath. And he’s saying, the Sabbath is the perfect day to do good to those in need.

 As we saw in the story just before this, Sabbath practices should take into account caring for human need. And Jesus as Lord of the Sabbath has the authority to change whatever traditions get in the way of this. This certainly gives guidance to Jesus’ Jewish followers, and should be applied by any Gentile followers of Jesus who keep the Sabbath or Sunday as a holy day. This is a part of the new wine for new wineskins (Mark 2:22) that Jesus teaches.

2. Are you ever hardhearted? In this story it’s the Pharisees who won’t listen to what God is saying through Jesus. But in other stories it’s the disciples who are called hard-hearted (Mark 6:52; 8:17). They don’t receive what Jesus is trying to say to them.

So this is a danger for us as disciples as well. We can be hard hearted. Jesus always challenges our views on things – our deeply held beliefs, values and traditions. When he does do we stop listening because we don’t like what he’s saying? Or like the Pharisees do we get stubborn or even hostile? When there’s a conflict between Jesus and our views, will we go with Jesus or our cherished ideas?

I ask you this morning – where is God speaking to you? What issue is he dealing with in your life? I think we all know where God is pushing us to grow in our Christian lives. Are you listening?

3. Are you here with a need? Are you like the man with the withered hand? Maybe you have a withered soul; you are broken within.

Perhaps Jesus is calling to you to act in faith. The man stood up in the middle of everyone and then stretched out his hand. What might Jesus be calling you to do to act in faith?

Jesus is here with us in this worship service today, to do good and to save.  You know that right? And he can minister to your need. Come to him this morning. Do what he tells you, and see what will happen in your life. See what good thing he will do. See what salvation he will bring.

Jesus defends plucking grain on the Sabbath. Mark 2:23-28. Five stories of conflict

The literary structure of Mark 2:23-28

Five conflict stories handout

We’re continuing to work our way through the five stories of conflict in Mark 2-3:6. And today we come to the fourth story, where Jesus defends plucking grain on the Sabbath. Our story begins in Mark 2:23, if you would like to turn in your Bibles.

Let me say, first of all – this text is difficult. It has generated many different interpretations.

And also, this topic is controversial. Should Christians keep the Sabbath? Is Sunday the new Sabbath? My own view is that in Acts 15 the Jerusalem council ruled that Jewish Christians would continue to observe the Law – which would include keeping the Sabbath, but that Gentile Christians are not required to keep the Law of Moses (The apostolic decree). Although, of course, you can choose to keep the Sabbath or another day as set apart to God if you like.

Let’s look at story –

Mark 2:23-28

And we begin with the accusation of the Pharisees

23One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24And the Pharisees were saying to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?”

The concern here is not that the disciples are stealing. They’re gleaning, which is allowed in the Law (Deuteronomy 23:25). The concern is about what constitutes work on the Sabbath.

Keeping the Sabbath, as you know, is the fourth of the ten commandments. Exodus 20:10 says in part – “on the Sabbath you shall not do any work.” The problem is that the Old Testament is a bit vague on what all the word “work” covers. (But see Exodus 16:22-30 – no gathering manna; Numbers 15:32-36 – no gathering wood; Exodus 35:3 – no kindling a fire; Nehemiah 10:31, 13:15-22, Amos 8:5 – no trading; and Jeremiah 17:19-27 – no carrying loads).

One text that is more specific, Exodus 34:21 forbids plowing or harvesting. But are the disciples really harvesting? They’re picking a few heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands and then eating the good part (Luke 6:1). The Law is concerned with going out into the field with a sickle as a part of your yearly work load.

The Pharisees here do specifically define this as a forbidden Sabbath practice. This is their interpretation of Exodus 34:21. But not everyone at this time accepted the Pharisaic view on things on any number of topics and Jesus is clearly one of them. (As we will see in Mark 7 he rejects the traditions of the Elders.)

That the disciples are plucking grain on the Sabbath shows that Jesus has taught them that this is acceptable on the Sabbath. Which is why, as we will see, he goes on to defend them. And I would just note that a later Rabbinic tradition held that plucking grain on the Sabbath was fine, as long as no tool was used – which is the case here. (b. Shabbat 128a – “And one may pick them with his hand and eat, as long as he does not pick them with a vessel. And one may crush and remove the seeds with his hand and eat them, as long as he does not crush a lot with a vessel”; Yong-Eui Yang) (No tools could be used in gleaning).

So this is not about whether to keep the Sabbath or whether it can be broken. Both sides agree that it’s to be kept. [Although many commentators come to this story with an inbuilt assumption that Jesus and the disciples had no problem breaking Sabbath law, this is surely wrong. From the point of view of the text of Mark what we know so far is that Jesus is concerned about keeping the Law. Note his instructions to the leper. And to break the Sabbath was punishable by death. Why would the disciples knowingly do this when they still are not clear that Jesus is even the Messiah? This comes later in chapter 8. And why would the Pharisees later need to seek to trap Jesus to accuse him if this was a clear cut case of breaking Sabbath? They would already have him. And why wouldn’t they have been arrested or why wouldn’t this be a part of the charges against Jesus in Mark 14, warranting his death? No, this story is like its parallel in Mark 3:1-6. It’s a question about how to observe the Sabbath, not about the freedom to break the Sabbath, for whatever reason.] [We will look at Mark 7 later and see that Jesus does not set aside the Mosaic food laws for his Jewish followers.]

The debate is about who has the authority to declare what is proper Sabbath observance?

Jesus begins his response by referring to an interesting story from 1 Samuel 21:1-6

25And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: 26how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?”

Now, Abiathar wasn’t the high priest at this time. His father Ahimelech was, although he was almost certainly there when this happened. But Abiathar is the better known of the two, later being David’s high priest. So he’s used as a point of reference here.

There are some analogies here, from Jesus’ point of view, between David’s situation and what’s going on in Mark 2:

  • David’s a type of the Messiah and Jesus, is the fulfillment, the Anointed one
  • David’s men compare to Jesus’ disciples
  • David’s a king in waiting yet to be revealed, as is Jesus
  • David and his men are hungry. Jesus’ disciples are hungry
  • And David and his men do something unlawful. The disciples do something the Pharisees say is unlawful

But there’s a key difference. Although what happened in 1 Samuel 21 may well have taken place on the Sabbath (this is when the bread would be available to eat – Leviticus 24:8-9; and according to some later Rabbinic traditions) Jesus doesn’t focus on this. Jesus focuses on how it was unlawful for them to eat the bread of the presence, which was only for priests (Leviticus 24:9).

Another difference highlight’s Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees here. In this story an actual violation of the Law is permitted both by the high priest and Scripture, in the sense that it doesn’t condemn David. But the Pharisees condemn what is not a violation or at least what is a disputed violation based on their view. Whereas Scripture here is flexible, given human need; the Pharisees are super strict.

But I think the key reason Jesus refers to this story is to emphasize two crucial themes:

1. David and his men’s need. Jesus says in v. 25, “David was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him.” Now, there’s no indication that they were starving, but they were in need of food. [1 Samuel doesn’t actually mention anyone with David and some commentators think that there weren’t. This was a part of David’s fabrication. Jesus, however, takes this part of David’s statement as true.] This shows that the Law has a humanitarian bent to it that takes into account human well-being.

And 2. David’s authority in this matter. Jesus’ reading of 1 Samuel 21 accentuates this. As he says in v. 26, David “ate the bread of the Presence . . . and also gave it to those who were with him.” David was able to do this because of who he was. And David is a type of the Messiah. The unspoken implication is that the Messiah, his son, will also have similar great authority with regard to the Law.

Both of these points set up what Jesus has to say about the Sabbath.

The Sabbath was made for human well-being. This takes up the first point.

 27And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

The point of Sabbath observance is to bless humanity. It’s a gift of God for rest from the normal routines of work.

I like the NLT of this verse, “The Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath.” The rules of the Pharisees, although well intentioned, make Sabbath observance a burden (Matthew 23:4) which is the opposite of rest.

Jesus teaches here that the Sabbath should have a humanitarian bent to it. It shouldn’t cause human need, but should allow the meeting of basic human needs – here simple hunger. (In Matthew 12:7 the quote of Hosea 6:6 stands in for this saying on the Sabbath.)

And then finally, Jesus speaks of his authority to declare proper Sabbath observance. This takes up the second point of the 1 Samuel story about David’s authority. (This is the core argument. Notice that Luke 6 leaves out the humanitarian argument.)

28So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”

In 1 Samuel 21 David was lord over the law on the bread of the presence. “So” the Son of Man (Daniel 7:13-14), that person who will rule and judge the nations on the final day alongside God, whom Jesus connects to himself as the Messiah, David’s son — so the Son of Man is Lord not just of a onetime exception to a matter of minor cultic law – he is Lord even of the Sabbath, as important as it is.

To say it another way, if David, the prototype of the Messiah can authorize a breaking of the Law, surely Jesus, his son, the Messiah and Son of Man can rule in a mere dispute over interpretation of the Law on proper Sabbath observance. (Sigal; Davies and Allison). And he rules that plucking grain on the Sabbath is proper.

What about us?

What should we take from this? It’s a fairly complicated discussion about a topic – plucking grain on the Sabbath, that most likely none of us has ever even thought to raise.

Well, we are reminded of Jesus’ true identity and thus his great authority. This is a constant theme in this part of Mark.

In the Old Testament the Sabbath is God’s. For instance, Leviticus 19:3 says, “You shall keep my Sabbaths: I am Yahweh, your God.” The Sabbath is God’s, but here Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath. It is his. Once again, Jesus takes on the role of God. This is who Jesus, our Savior is.

Keeping Sabbath should take into account caring for human need. This certainly give guidance to Jesus’ Jewish followers, and should be applied to any Gentiles who keep the Sabbath or Sunday as a holy day. This is a part of the new wine for new wine-skins (Mark 2:22). Whatever guidelines you might use – don’t create human need, but rather place human need and caring for it at the center.

Finally, Jesus is our teacher in all things. He has authority over every part of our lives, not just on this topic. As he says in Matthew 23:10 – “You have one teacher, the Messiah.” And as he says in Mark 8:34, “follow me.” We are to follow his example.

So, if you want to know God’s will on any matter – look to what Jesus has taught and modeled for us in the Scriptures. See how this interacts with what the Old Testament taught. And then see how the rest of the New Testament helps us to understand Jesus. And that’s how you know God’s will.

And if you do this and then someone accuses you of not doing God’s will, as with the disciples in this story, you have the confidence to know that Jesus will defend you with his full authority, just as he does in this story.