Introduction to the Series:
I think that the Gospel of Mark is a dramatic narrative, by which I mean not simply that the content is dramatic, which it is, but that Mark has constructed a Gospel which is in essence a play, a drama, albeit divine and cosmic in its implications. This does not mean that I think that Mark is ahistorical, only that each Gospel author had to make choices in how their Gospels were constructed and Mark functions as a natural dramatist in how he presents material and how he structures the events in Jesus’ life. As the first written Gospel, and with the oral tradition more apparent on the surface, Mark is sometimes seen as simplistic and even shapeless, but I will argue that the Gospel of Mark is formed with great care, shaped by a series of six Acts, with many scenes, naturally, comprising each Act. Each Act is at the service of Mark’s overall purpose, to explain and unfold not only the identity of the Messiah, but the destiny of the Messiah and his followers. Mark draws the reader into his narrative, so that the reader himself becomes one of the disciples following along the journey with Jesus, a point that will become more apparent as we move deeper into the Gospel.
This is my division of the Gospel:
Act 1, 1:14-3:6;
Act 2, 3:7-6:6;
Act 3, 6:7-8:26;
Act 4, 8:27-10:52;
Act 5, 11:1-13:37;
Act 6, 14:1-16:8(20).
This is the sixth installment, comprising Act 1. Scene 7, Mark 2:13-22, in the online commentary on the Gospel of Mark, which I will blog on throughout the liturgical year. Please see the fifth installment here which contains a link to the previous installment and from there you can link to all of them.
13 Jesus went out again beside the sea; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them. 14 As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, "Follow me." And he got up and followed him. 15 And as he sat at dinner in Levi's house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. 16 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?" 19 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. 20 The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day. 21 "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. 22 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." (NRSV)
Conflict returns in Act 1. Scene 7, with the continuing presence of the Scribes, though here they are called “the Scribes of the Pharisees” (v.16), and with the introduction of the Pharisees and the “disciples of John” (v.18). The conflict arises in the second consecutive “slowed” scene, in which Mark allows Jesus, although surrounded by crowds (v.13), to teach and to introduce the rationale for his deeds. What causes the conflict in this scene?
Jesus has asked Levi son of Alphaeus to “follow” him, as he did with Simon and Andrew, James and John (1:16-20). The immediacy of the call is no different for the tax collector, who also responds to the call in Mark’s narrative without hesitation, but here is where the murmuring against Jesus begins: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (v.16). What is the source of the discomfort for the scribes of the Pharisees? It is not that Judaism does not have means for repentance and forgiveness of sins, it does; it is not that those who are in a state of impurity, such as tax collectors and sinners were suspected of being, might not become clean, they can indeed; it is that Jesus seems to join them without first demanding repentance or purity (see Act 1.Stage 5 for an essay on purity/impurity). Jesus seems to flout restrictions on social intercourse with those in need of repentance and purity, though we have seen him send a healed leper to the Priest according to the Torah previously (1:44). On the other hand, since in the previous scene, Jesus has forgiven the sins of the paralytic child, does his call to the tax collectors and sinners and his sitting at table with sinners indicate not just his acceptance of them but their forgiveness?
This is where Mark allows Jesus to teach, even if it is not in depth, and to introduce significant rationales for his behavior, which we have not seen before and which explains the heart of the conflict: “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” (v.17). This does two things for the audience, which includes us naturally: it makes us wonder does Jesus only call those who are not considered righteous by his compatriots? That is, does he acknowledge the righteousness of the Scribes and others who follow the Law of Moses more carefully? Are they “well”? Or, is he suggesting a new measure of righteousness, of “wellness,” to which even those who consider themselves, or who are considered so socially, must now measure up? Is everyone in need of the spiritual physician?
Mark’s dramatic genius is also on display in this scene, as he moves from this challenge immediately to a question not of sin and impurity, but of accepted righteousness and purity. Juxtaposed with the conflict regarding who should be called, but more significantly, how they should be accepted prior to repentance and forgiveness, is the question regarding acceptable religious practice: “Why do John's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” (v.18). In many ways, this question is a greater challenge for the onlooker because there is nothing wrong with fasting and, although we have not met the Pharisees, we have met John the Baptist when he baptizes Jesus. Surely there is no condemnation of John implied, and if the disciples of John engage in proper religious behavior, why would not Jesus and his disciples fast as well?
Jesus has explained why he skirts the boundaries regarding those considered sinners, now he must explain why he skirts the practices of the righteous. Jesus’ answer has two parts, both introducing ideas which are opaque, mysterious. The first answer in vv.19-20 strangely proposes that the “bridegroom” is with the disciples now and only when the “bridegroom” is taken away will they fast. Jesus must be the “bridegroom,” but what does it mean? Surely, they are at a bridal feast now, but when will the “bridegroom” be taken away? How will he be taken away? And who is the bride? The second answer ends the scene and it is even less penetrable of meaning: “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” (vv. 21-22).
There are images of “old” and “new” in Jesus’ teaching here. On the one hand, you have “unshrunk cloth,” “new wine,” and “fresh wineskins;” on the other hand, you have “an old cloak” and “old wineskins.” What is the “unshrunk cloth” and “new wine”? Are these Jesus’ teachings and deeds? What then are the “old cloak” and “old wineskins”? The old ways and practices? Again, it cannot be that Jesus simply rejects the “old cloak” and “old wineskins,” as we have seen him follow these ways already, but even if “new wine” does emerge from the same vineyards as the “old wine,” perhaps it in need of a “fresh wineskin”? Is this Jesus? And what will this mean for his continuing mission if he categorizes even the disciples of John and this new group the Pharisees, new at least to Mark’s story, along with the Scribes, as “old wine”? How can they be considered "well" if they are the "old wine"?
John W. Martens
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