New Testament Reading | Mark 2

The story continues with further healing and recruitment. But then we get into some of Jesus' actual teaching. I can't help but think it's significant that the first of those teachings, and in fact the first two, are less about what to do* than about how to approach the law more generally.

Translation

This is my rendering, which shouldn't be treated as definitive. Many other translations are available on Bible Hub, while the NRSV can be found here.

Going into Capernaum a few days later, people heard that Jesus was home. So many people gathered together that thersimplye wasn't even room in the doorway, and Jesus spoke the Word to them. Then some people came bearing a paralyzed man, who was carried by four of them. But they could not get him through the crowd, so they dug through the roof and lowered down the cot the man was laying on.

Seeing the man's belief, Jesus said to him, “Child, your sins are forgiven.”

There were some Scribes seated there, and they thought to themselves: What is he saying? He blasphemes. Who can forgive sins other than God?

Jesus knew right away what they were thinking and said to them, “Why do you wonder that? Which is easier, to say to the paralyzed man, 'your sins are forgiven' or 'get up, take your cot, and walk'?”

So that they would know the power the son of man had to pardon sins on Earth, Jesus said to the paralyzed man, “I tell you, get up, take your cot, and return to your home.”

The man stood and picked up his mat in front of everyone, so that all were amazed and gave glory to God, saying they had never seen the like.

...

Then Jesus went back to the sea, and the whole crowd went after him, and he taught them. As he passed by, he saw Levi, son of Alphaeus, sitting at the toll house, and said to him, “Follow me.” And Levi got up and followed him. Then they were sitting for a meal in Levi's house, and many tax collectors and sinners gathered with Jesus and his followers, for many had followed them, and Scribes from the Pharisees also. Seeing that Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners, the Scribes asked of his disciples, “he eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners?”

Hearning this, Jesus said to them, “the healthy do not need a physician, the sick do. I did not come to call the righteous, but the sinful.”

...

And disciples of John and of the Pharisees were fasting. And they asked Jesus, “Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples don't?”

Jesus replied, “Does the groom's family fast while the groom is with them? As long as they have the groom with them, they do not fast. There will come a time when the groom will be gone, and on that day they will fast. No one uses new cloth to patch old clothes, because the two will separate, and the hole will be worse. No one puts new wine in an old skin, because it will rupture, and they will lose both.”

...

Then one Sabbath they were going past the fields, and Jesus' disciples left the road to pluck some grain. And the Pharisees said to Jesus, “You see that they do what is not permitted on the Sabbath.”

Jesus said, “Do you not remember what David did when needed because he and his companions were hungry? How they went into the temple under Abiathar, and David ate the bread that had been left in offering, which only the priests are allowed to eat, and gave it to the others?” He continued, “the Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath. So the son of man is lord even of the Sabbath.”

Thoughts

The first time I read this chapter was when I began to realize just how different Jesus' actual teaching was from what I had been lead to believe. I also think it's far more important than we give it credit for, especially compared with the more commonly-known passages (such as your first-stone-throwing and your sermoning-on-the-mounting). My take is that Mark didn't write anything “just because,” and that these are the things that Mark wanted his readers to come across first.

The first vignette I want to talk about here is with the tax collectors. As now, these were not popular folks. But Jesus says that he's spending time with the because they're the ones who need him most. This makes sense, but also has the potential to justify some bad acts by us now. The big question is whether he's making a moral judgment: is he saying that those who've morally failed are the ones that he needs to spend time with, or the sick? In other words, are these people “sick” because of something outside of their control or through poor moral choices? On the one hand, there was often a connection made between physical ailments and spiritual purity (or maybe better said a lack of distinction), and Jesus specifically says that it's the sinful who need him rather than the righteous, which certainly implies a moral failing. Where this makes me nervous is to what extent we are supposed to preach to those whom we see as being sinful — that's a dangerous path to start down. I don't think we're supposed to sit in judgment over each other, and that is what so often happens. At the same time, we shouldn't throw out the baby with the bathwater and refuse to do something just because others abuse it. I still struggle a great deal with the extent to which one should preach as opposed to something more passive. For now, the best answer I've come up with is that we should have conversations: we should talk about what we think and why, with the idea of it being a collaboration, and giving everyone the benefit of good faith. I'm wary of anyone who claims to have sufficient certainty to dictate what someone should do.

Related to this, a theme that I keep coming back to as I think about what I've read in Mark so far is law. I mentioned this a little in my introduction, but one of the things that has always turned me off mainstream Christianity is how blindly legalistic and formulaic it often is. It's also baffling given how often Jesus rails against this specific approach. I have some theories about why the modern practice has deviated so much, but for now, suffice to say that I think it's extra-Biblical. What Jesus is saying here is, specifically, that we have to look at the context for a rule and the reasons behind it. It's worth mentioning first that the Sabbath was a big deal to Jews during this time – it was part of the Ten Commandments, and was highly valued both as God's law and as a cultural practice. So when we read about Jesus' disciples picking grain on the Sabbath, this was a major taboo. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say it'd be akin to a man skipping his wife's funeral to sleep with his mistress or something. At the least, this was a much bigger transgression than it tends to feel like to us.

Stein's commentary (see bibliography) argues that this is in reference to Jesus' power, i.e. that he had the authority to re-write the law, or at least wasn't beholden to it. I can't say definitively that this is wrong, of course, but something about this idea just doesn't ring true. I must admit that some of my resistance may stem from what I want Jesus to be saying. But the other thing is that these two ideas aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. In other words, Jesus could both be showing his own authority and saying that we should ourselves be devoting more thought to our own approach to God's law.

This last point jives with some other things. Jesus refers elsewhere in the Bible to the law being different before, and that as people changed the law changed. I'm mainly thinking here of Matthew 19:8:

Moses allowed you to divorce your wives because of your heart-hardness, but this is not how it was at the beginning.

But notice here that Jesus isn't making things more permissive viz. divorce, but is instead making them harder. In other words, this isn't about making life easier for yourself, but instead Jesus suggesting that people have grown and so have the strength of character to do the right thing. Contra Stein, I don't think we can dismiss the practical elements of the disciples' feeding themselves. It's the classic question of whether it's moral for a starving person to steal food (note that what the disciples did wasn't considered theft, of course). The very first thing that happens in chapter 3 is Jesus having another run-in with the Pharisees, this time about healing on the Sabbath, and there it's specifically couched as a moral choice rather than Jesus demonstrating his power.

I think what's going on here is actually two separate ideas. One, we're being shown why we should take thisStein concludes that the reference to “new wine in an old skin” refers to Jesus' coming bringing a new order of things. While I ultimately agree with the conclusion, I'm not sure how much we should read into that aspect of the metaphor. Jesus guy seriously in the first place. He demonstrates supernatural abilities, such as healing and knowing what people are thinking. But remember, even before that, we're shown Jesus being chosen by God and then the effect he has on people: the fishermen who drop everything on Jesus' word in order to follow him, and the reactions to the people whom Jesus teaches in Capernaum. Mark wants to clearly show why any of what Jesus actually preaches should matter.

This is why I don't think Jesus' teachings here are only Mark showing Jesus' power. He's already done that, and will do so more later. Mark is instead beginning to lay the groundwork for what Jesus' actual teachings will be. That teaching requires a willingness to think about what the rules are, and whether blind adherence to them is the right way to go. Stein concludes that the reference to “new wine in an old skin” refers to Jesus' coming bringing a new order of things. While I ultimately agree with the conclusion, I'm not sure how much we should read into that aspect of the metaphor. I think Jesus is asking people to start growing up a little.

#newtestament #mark