Mark 2

When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 

17 When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” 

18 Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?”  Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.  The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.  “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made.  And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.”

23 One sabbath he was going through the cornfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?’ And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.’ Then he said to them, ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.’

3:1 Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come forward.’ Then he said to them, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. 

7 Jesus departed with his disciples to the lake, and a great multitude from Galilee followed him; hearing all that he was doing, they came to him in great numbers from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, beyond the Jordan, and the region around Tyre and Sidon.

Things move quickly in the opening chapters of Mark’s account of Jesus’ life. There’s no sweet introit with angels and shepherds and a baby divinity – no ‘runty redeemer’ as Jenni’s Christmas program dubbed him. Even so, our first glimpse of Jesus is quite pleasant. He steps out of the crowd that’s gone to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. As Jesus rises from the water, the clouds clear, the sun dazzles, and we, as insiders to the story along with the narrator, hear the voice directed only to Jesus that claims him as God’s son, with whom God is well pleased.  The spirit, like a dove, settles on him. That, along with the detailed description of John, provides a satisfying visual opening scene. We settle in to hear a story. 

Jesus passes his Vision Quest in the desert, and collects his first disciples. We notice their ‘attraction at first sight’ that causes them to drop the tools of their livelihoods and follow him immediately, and we get more context – Jesus is a teacher – one who astounds with wisdom and authority people have never heard before. Then we learn that he can heal – a fever, unclean spirits, leprosy. By nightfall all of the cities’ sick and demon infested are at his door.

At the end of the first chapter Jesus is a celebrity – sought-after and singled out, a man of awe. Magnetism and charisma, he’s got.

But if Mark’s Jesus generates crowd appeal through God’s power for healing and new life, he generates conflict and opposition in equal measure.

Chapter 2 provides the first inciting event in the plot of Mark’s story and then they tumble together one after another. The tone is set for the main conflict of the story that develops between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees who at first seem to be caught by surprise at Jesus’ words and works –  observing him in action and pondering in their hearts – something any number of us can imagine ourselves doing. What is he up to, where does this ability come from, what is it that he’s saying?  It’s not quite kosher.  

Then they see Jesus eating and meeting with tax collectors and sinners, and they question Jesus’ disciples about his motivation, his rationale.

We, too, tend to judge people by the company they keep, the food they eat or buy. We have a list of those, whom – for one reason or another – we would put in the category of sinner and tax collector – those who are morally, ethically, theologically, politically, physically, or personally objectionable to us. Right?

After the fourth encounter – when Jesus heals on a Sabbath in the synagogue, they have had enough. They can’t argue against his questions, can’t understand his power, but everything he does offends their beliefs. He quotes scripture and then interprets it in ways that upsets everything they’ve been taught. It seems to cut to the heart of the matter – to the heart of God – and exposes a truth they’re not ready for. 

For generations, these professional religious have been tasked with insulating and protecting, setting apart – keeping hidden – the Holy of holies – the sacred presence of God. They kept it within Judah, Jerusalem, Mount Zion, the temple, in an inner room, behind a curtain – into which the high priest was allowed to go just once a year, on the Day of Atonement, to offer a sacrifice for the people’s sin. This distance was necessary because holiness is dangerous!

There is an ancient strain of religious tradition that says that which is holy cannot come into contact with the profane without destroying it. God’s holy fire cannot tolerate corrupt human flesh. Rather, God must be mediated through sacred space. And so for generations, the religious leaders have kept the people protected from the nearness of God through layers of mitigating laws like growth rings encircling the heartwood of a tree. 613 laws spiral the original 10 commandments. But here is Jesus breaking those laws willy nilly; claiming to be the presence of God, yet walking around among the dirty and sinful and infectious? It’s not possible. This can’t be happening.

Jesus brings out a completely different, deeper tradition – that God is present everywhere, accessible to all of creation; that God brings holiness to the people, in God’s self, in compassion and love. God does not wait behind the curtain to be approached once a year on tiptoe and in fear.

But anyway, on this day, the Pharisees and scribes have had it. Jesus had to be shushed, dealt with, stopped before it went any further. They left the synagogue, and  – after a brief meeting in the parking lot – agreed to conspire with the king’s men – the Herodians – in order to destroy him. Think about that phrase for a moment: not in order to stop him, censure him, silence him, imprison him, or even kill him; but destroy him, erase him, from-dust-into-dust him.  Their fear of change, of new possibilities – of their professional status and social standing being made obsolete – their fear of this uncontrollable power Jesus commands hardens their hearts and sets the trajectory for the rest of the story.

It seems to be true that people in power want to stay there, and that they want things their way, and therefore, they fear change and new information if they’re not in possession of it. I recognize that in myself in my very small realm of power. We see it here in the gospel. We see it in the embarrassing and inept way our politicians in Washington behave. Like the scribes and Pharisees, they, too, have hardened their hearts to any truth that doesn’t fit their agenda, party line and re-election efforts. They, too, have lost sight of the the content of their purpose – promoting justice and the welfare of the people – while they shore up the institution that keeps them blind – but in power. It’s an old game. In hardening their hearts, the Pharisees and scribes closed their minds to what their eyes were seeing and ears were hearing. 

What the open-minded people saw was prophetic promise becoming incarnate right in front of their eyes. The lame can walk, the blind can see, even the unseen and dangerous spirit world obeyed Jesus. It turns out that God’s presence does not need to be kept in the dark of the temple’s inner chamber. That presence among the people, touching them, was healing them, not consuming them. Jesus said it was actually the scribes who were devouring the widows and the poor. If the Pharisees had gone back to their scriptures with open eyes, they would have seen that what seemed so new and reckless in Jesus, was actually very old indeed. But they didn’t.

I think that dynamic of old and new is interesting and maybe important. Jesus is clearly new to the established order, new to the earth. In his baptism the clouds didn’t clear – I said that to be poetic. What the Hebrew says is that as he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw the heavens ripping themselves apart – schizomenous – violently tearing asunder, cleaving apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.”  That word is used three times in this gospel: in Jesus’ baptism with the heavens, at the moment of Jesus’ death, “Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. 38And the curtain of the temple (the curtain dividing the holy of holies and the people) was torn schizomenous in two, from top to bottom.” Schizma it’s used one more time: it’s here, tucked in the middle of the escalating division between Jesus and the Pharisees.  “As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast,” Jesus said.  “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.  No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse schizo is made.  And no one puts new wine into old wineskins;” or the wine will burst the skins, and that would be a tragedy.

A patch of new cloth sits between the beginning of Jesus’ ministry when God claims Jesus as her son, and Jesus’ last earthly breath. That’s heady company for a ripped cloak. Mark is careful about words – this isn’t a common word, and it isn’t an accident. The hardening hearts of the scribes and Pharisees, the cleaving of old from new is a definitive action, a pivotal moment of cosmic consequence. God is on the ground, present in Jesus, self-revealing in acts of power and mercy, meeting people in all their need; responding, teaching, touching them, and the scribes and Pharisees set up a divide, pull their old cloak around themselves, tearing away from the new fabric of life. Making a choice. 

It’s a new order not calling the righteous, but sinners, seeking not the professional mediators and interpreters, but reaching out to everyone, coming not to the self-satisfied, but to those whose need is great.

The new order of Jesus is inclusive in table fellowship, seeing through the conventional rules of society that dictate who is welcome and who is not, it sees each person’s potential for wholeness, not the dis-ease that limits them. The new law of this communion is to be written on hearts, not in dusty books of judgment, so all will know the love of God, all will discover their place within the purposes of God. The sabbath is not a day to be governed by rigid rules and hardship, but a day given in grace, designed for compassionate rest for servants and animals – a day gifted for life to prosper. It’s a new schism and it threatens the established order, frees those bound by the dictates of those 613 laws ordinary people couldn’t meet, and is a challenge to us.

  Do we stand with Jesus when the needs of our world are great? (Or retreat into the safety of the status quo that favors us?) Do we open our eyes to those needs around us and do what we have within us to do? (Or do we say we are small and poor and can’t make a difference?) Do you open your heart and mind to the healing presence of Christ for you?   (Say yes.)