Saturday, March 3, 2012

This is the seventh installment, comprising Act 1. Scenes 8 and 9, in the online commentary on the Gospel of Mark, which I will blog on throughout the liturgical year. Please see the sixth installment here  which contains a link to the previous installment and from there you can link to all of them.

Scene 8:

Mark 2:23-28
22 One sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, "Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?" 25 And he said to them, "Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? 26 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." 27 Then he said to them, "The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; 28 so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath." (NRSV)


Scene 9:

Mark 3:1-6
1 Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. 2 They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3 And he said to the man who had the withered hand, "Come forward." 4 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. 5 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. 6 The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him

These two scenes end Act 1. Conflict continues in both Scene 8 and Scene 9, and in both of these scenes the Pharisees are again present as the antagonists and those who challenge the ways of Jesus and his followers (2:24; 3:2). In Scene 8, the challenge of the Pharisees is concerning the way in which Jesus’ disciples follow, or do not follow, the Law of Moses.  This is not, directly, a challenge to Jesus’ authority from the Pharisees. It seems to be a genuine question over the disciples’ understanding and practice of the Torah, that in “plucking” grain they are engaged in work which is forbidden on the Sabbath. Even more, if they process the grain, at even a minimal level, more work will be involved, and unless they are going to eat raw grain, highly unlikely,  still more work will be required. Do the disciples of Jesus not know or do they not care about the Sabbath? What about Jesus himself as their master? What is his view of the Sabbath and, by extrension, the Torah?

In this case, Jesus does not defend his disciples from charges of breaking the Law, except in a roundabout way.  He draws attention to a story concerning King David in which the Law was broken to meet human needs, suggesting that a similar situation has unfolded before them. But why is it similar? Jesus answers by stating that "the sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath." The answer or reasoning has two parts: the sabbath is not meant to create hardship for human beings; and the Son of Man, a term Jesus has used earlier in Mark 2:9 to refer to himself, “is lord even of the sabbath.” The first portion of Jesus’ response is based upon an event in Scripture and Jesus is drawing a parallel to it, as anyone, hypothetically, might do, but the fact that the story involves King David might be intended to draw a parallel to Jesus as a new David, who has authority to allow his companions or followers to “break” the Torah at one level to fulfill their human needs.  This might be the intended sense since Mark has at the beginning of the Gospel called Jesus by Messianic, Davidic, and kingly titles.

The second portion of Jesus’ response introduces a strict argument from authority, not with respect to Davidic claims, but beyond David, with respect to the mysterious Son of Man, who Jesus claims is “lord of the sabbath.” This claim involves mastery over the Law, in a sense mastery over the perfection and completion of Creation, but Mark simply allows this reality to hang in the air. One cannot but ask, who is this man and what is he claiming? The conflicts are profound and deep: the question of the Pharisees is a fair question regarding the Law; Jesus answers as if to say, you have no idea the authority I have which permits me to allow this.

The Pharisees do not leave in Scene 9, though they will not be named until 3:6. In this Scene, Jesus is in a Synagogue, supposedly on the same Sabbath as the grain has been plucked, so tension would remain high. The Pharisees are clearly not satisfied with Jesus’ explanation as to why his disciples do not follow the Law of Moses, so they are stalking him, watching “to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him” (3:2). Mark lets us know that their mind has already been determined: they do not believe his biblical interpretation or his claim to divine authority. Jesus in  modern parlance stares them down, daring them to draw the right conclusions concerning him or to act on their understanding.

Jesus heals the man with the withered hand, though it is not clear that this would have been considered as an illegal act on the Sabbath, and challenges the onlookers to decide:  "Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?" (3:4). There is no direct response made, but Mark creates a scene in which one can feel the seething anger rising amongst the Pharisees. Jesus has not only ignored their questions, he has upped the ante, and he has gone all in. What is their response?  After Jesus’ healing of the man with the withered hand, they too go all in, for “the Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him” (3:6).


Whatever the source of Jesus’ authority, whatever claims he is making about himself, the Pharisees do not believe him or accept him. If they represent God and the Law of God, exactly who does Jesus, regardless of his manifest power, represent? How dare he throw his view of the Torah and himself in their faces? Engaging the help of some political allies, the Herodians, the Pharisees plot to kill him.  Through their quick entry into the Scene Mark shocks us to realization: political concerns have been lurking on the fringes of the stage for a while. The decision to "destroy" Jesus is a harsh and shocking response, but it should not be unexpected. Mark has quickly shown us Jesus’ power and authority, over illness, evil, and creation, but the Pharisees do not accept that Jesus’ power and authority is from God.  What else can they do? Should they let him go on? What are Jesus’ aims in all of this? This is the first time that the Herodians have been seen in this Gospel, but they seem to be in tune with the Pharisees: we need to destroy this man. What threat, or threats, does he pose? Mark has demonstrated the opposition, clearly and rapidly, but why must they stop him? And so the first Act ends.

John W. Martens

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