The episode involving the paralytic set Jesus on a path of conflict with the religious authorities, though the situation is more like smoldering embers that will burst into flame later. For now, the guardians of tradition are perplexed, irritated, and perhaps wounded at Jesus’ disrespect for their position. In the following stories, Jesus will consciously stick his finger in that wound, unafraid to provoke a reaction in exchange for gains in proclamation of his kingdom way. These leaders become a foil for his teaching, and in the heat of the conflict Jesus’ rhetorical flourishes are all the more stunning.
The calling of Levi itself is nothing special. Rather, Levi’s identity sets the stage for one of the big questions that Jesus’ ministry raises: How will God deal with issues of purity and holiness in his kingdom? Undoubtedly, the seeming contradiction in Jesus’ words and actions caused the Pharisees to watch him carefully at this point. His call to repentance happily sounds downright Pharisaical, but his lifestyle has some disturbing characteristics.
Mark cuts to the chase, or rather, to the meal. Although some translations say that it is a party at Levi’s house, the grammar suggests that the setting is probably Jesus’ house again. According to custom, the teacher would have “called” (2:17) or invited guests to a banquet and taught at table. The problem is that Jesus has invited “tax collectors and sinners.” Lumping together these two groups of people clues us in to what is at stake. Sin is not just immorality in Jesus’ context, though “notorious sinners” like prostitutes would certainly have been a part of the mix. The wider vision of sin also included ritual impurity and political incorrectness, for the Torah is not divided into compartments of moral holiness and ritual holiness. No, holiness is holiness; purity is purity; righteousness is righteousness. Thus, the tax collector is a triple threat, the perfect representative of sin. Tax collectors were (1) famously corrupt in their handling of taxation, (2) ritually defiled by constant association with their Roman masters, and (3) obviously traitors to the Jewish people because their willingness to collaborate with the Empire’s oppression. Levi’s actual moral conduct and intention is irrelevant, as he is a symbol in this story. Thus, “sinners” includes a wide variety of people, from the town’s crassly immoral black sheep to the perpetually impure tanner (made unclean according to the Torah by touching the corpses of animals). They all had one thing in common, though: they were “sinners,” an identifiable class--the marginalized, the outcasts, the untouchables. This is, of course, the perspective of the “righteous,” which is to say, those not socially identified with sinners.
So the Pharisees ask Jesus’ disciples after seeing his conduct, “Why?” It’s a request for explanation. They are testing the waters. Jesus’ response is loaded with meaning, as the short sayings recorded by Mark often are. First, Jesus rejects one way of viewing the kingdom in favor of another. The rejected way--the Pharisees’ way--assumes that the kingdom will be the place where “sinners” are ultimately relegated. The “righteous” will be called to God’s table, whereas the “sinner” will not. Jesus’ contrasting view, which is also his enacted proclamation, is that God sees things differently. The purpose of the kingdom is to make well. Rather than divinely legitimizing the marginalization of those who are, according to Jesus, sick, God’s aim in the inauguration of the kingdom is to heal, to call to new life, and to forgive. We must not fail to note that Jesus doesn’t say the sick are actually well or that the sinner is actually righteous. They are still in the wrong. His point is that God’s agenda is not to reject them but to call them to the table anyway, in an act of grace, in order to begin in a new direction. Jesus is making known God’s mission. The fundamental correction that these religious devotees need is to understand what God is trying to accomplish. Their worldview is founded on the wrong assumption. For the readers who grasps what God is about, it is a transforming and liberating realization, whether she is among the righteous or the sinners.
The second message is in keeping with Jesus’ backhanded way of responding to his adversaries. Enjoy the sarcasm with which Jesus calls the Pharisees “righteous.” Undoubtedly, they heard it as well. Contrary to popular belief, the point is not that the Pharisees weren’t actually righteous in terms of Torah. They were. The rhetorical force of Jesus’ statement in the Sermon on the Mount, that his followers’ righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees, depends on it. The point here is very much the same. For Jesus’ righteousness is seen in the fact that he is blameless before the Law (hence the Pharisees perplexity about him--he’s a contradiction) and that he interacts intimately with the outcasts. God’s intention to save the unrighteous is itself a righteousness that the Pharisees do not possess, but they do not recognize this about themselves, and so they do not recognize their need to be graciously accepted alongside the sinner. Jesus has come to invite the unrighteous. The hearer’s burden is to recognize who Jesus is and decide whether she needs an invitation to his table.
The following passage seems bizarre to many readers. It is as though Jesus does not answer the question asked or Mark randomly stuck some other sayings in place of the answer Jesus gave. One word makes sense of the passage, though: expectations. Expectations will actually be a key to the entire narrative (so much so that it may become redundant). Expectations of the Messiah and the kingdom have already been challenged, and they will continue to be. The disciples expectations will cause them terrible difficulty in understanding Jesus. The religious leaders’ expectations will ultimately cause them to hate Jesus and have him killed.
This time, the question does not come from the Pharisees but from observers who are also confused about Jesus’ unusual style. Other groups, including the disciples of John the Baptist, fast. Jesus’ do not. What’s the deal? Jesus asserts, in his roundabout way, that the recognition of his identity makes all the difference. Fasting is not a universal practice that God’s people just mechanically perform. Rather, the situation determines what is appropriate, and the presence of the “bridegroom” means the situation has changed. But there is a deeper answer as well, which makes sense of the broader conflict that is intensifying scene by scene. Their expectations of God’s Messiah and God’s kingdom are the old wineskins and the old cloth. Jesus, the true Messiah, is the new wine and the new cloth. He will burst and tear every attempt to box him in to what they “know” the Messiah should be and do. Mark’s challenge to everyone, even those who think they’ve got the Christ figured out, is to recognize that he is more than our expectations can bear.
The next two stories deal with conflicts over Sabbath practices. The witness of all four Gospels confirms that this dispute was at the heart of Jesus’ clash with the religious leaders of his day. At root, the Sabbath controversy is about interpretation of Scripture and, therefore, interpretation of God’s will. As the one who fully understands God’s purpose, Jesus reveals himself to be the authoritative interpreter. The outcome of these two exchanges is Mark’s record of two interpretive keys, which are lenses through which Jesus’ followers read Scripture in his way.
The first episode is sparked by the disciples’ disregard for the standing interpretations of work in relation to the Sabbath.
Some groups in Second Temple Judaism had very precise determinations about what constituted a violation of the command not to work. Yet, even if it is totally absurd to deem casually plucking a grain of wheat to be work, that is not Jesus’ contention. Rather, despite the absurdity, he assumes for the sake of argument that they are working and thus breaking Sabbath law. If this disturbs the reader who assumes that Jesus, being perfect, could never have broken God’s law, a little discomfort is good. Do not let that assumption force the story to say something it does not. Those who feel this way find themselves in good company--that of the Pharisees. Concern for God’s law is admirable and praiseworthy; understanding it is a different matter. Now we must let Jesus speak.
The first words out of Jesus’ mouth are another open-handed slap full in the face. While not all of the Pharisees would be experts in Scripture, the “scribes of the Pharisees” from the Levi story certainly were, and every Jewish child would be familiar with the stories of David, the Pharisees naturally more so. Jesus effectively says to the authorities on Scripture, “What, you’ve never read the Scripture before?”
The moral of the story Jesus retells is that David broke the law. Period. Yet, he was not punished nor was anything ever said against his and the high priest’s decision. The implication that Jesus draws from this is that there is a principle at work in God’s evaluation of the law: It was made to serve man, not the other way around. This is one of the most profound theological statements in all of the Bible.
God did not create the Torah on the sixth day and then decide to come up with a being who could keep it. The loving impulse behind creation, and therefore behind all of God’s will and work in the world, is the existence of humankind in right relationship to himself. The law is merely a means to that end. Therefore, to do anything that serves that end is to keep the intention of the law. This is what Jesus does perfectly. The law, much more than providing a fixed rule that circumvents humankind’s need for wisdom and discernment, points toward God’s intentions. The interpretive key is that God is concerned first and foremost about the wellbeing of creation. When necessary, he is concerned about this over against rigid subservience to the law. The Son of Man’s ability to understand this is what makes him “Lord also of the Sabbath.” Note that this identification is linked to his interpretation of the Sabbath, not to his rejection of it. Some have falsely assumed that he is claiming the right to disregard Sabbath--to be above the law.
The second episode takes place in the traditional Sabbath setting, the synagogue. Something has changed. Now “they” are watching him not just to see what he will do but “in order to accuse him.” Mark labels this predisposition to Jesus’ act as “hardness of heart,” and it will be extremely important in future stories. Presently, the second interpretive key takes center stage. In the previous story, the accusation was that the disciples did something “not authorized” on the Sabbath. Jesus now borrows their words to clarify what is truly authorized by the Sabbath law: to do good and to save life. He does this in a provocative way, because there were plenty of hypothetical situations being disputed by his accusers. The stickiest situations where those where a life was in danger and work was required in order to save the person. But Jesus heals a man whose ailment is not life-threatening. Many interpreters of the law, then and now, would have much preferred that he just wait until the next day. There is no need to break the law in this case, so please take the conservative route. This approach to Sabbath law presumes that in such situations it authorizes the least amount of good possible, so that good should be done only in the most extreme situations, because doing the least amount of work is paramount to doing an unnecessary amount of good. Jesus contends by contrast that the intention of the law is to authorize good, and keeping the law should never prevent it, lest it cease to be the law. He is, once again, the perfect interpreter.
At this early point in the story, the music shifts to a minor key, establishing a theme that will run throughout the rest. Jesus’ adversaries are ready to kill him. Sabbath is no minor issue. Jesus seems flippant in his handling of the black and white requirements of Torah, and that makes him dangerous. These leaders take their job to preserve lawful Judaism with utmost seriousness, and they will not abide the cancerous influence of his teaching. If we ask the Pharisees who Jesus is, they will say, “A false teacher and a threat to Israel’s restoration.” If we ask the man with the withered hand, he will say, “The only one who made the Sabbath to be truly a day of wellbeing (shalom).”
What follows is one of Mark’s customary summaries, which signals a transition. The emphasis of the passage is clearly the sheer multitude of people seeking him and, thus, his popularity. The Pharisees are right to fear his influence. The natural step at this point is to outsource. The job is overwhelming, so he selects “apostles,” that is, sent ones. Mark’s definition of an apostle may be the simplest and most helpful in all of the New Testament: those selected (a) to be with him and (b) to be sent out. Their ministry is quite clearly an imitation of Jesus’. They are with him to learn what to do; they are sent out to do it. They are now an extension of Jesus’ kingdom ministry. They are the twelve.
They return home, and once Jesus‘ family hears he is back, they come to take custody of him. The rumor is that he is either out of his mind or demon possessed, certainly causing no small amount of shame and alarm for his family. These are, of course, alternative answers to the question of his identity. His response to the accusation of demon possession is sandwiched between the beginning and ending of his family’s action, creating a dynamic sense of the search for him happening even as he challenges its cause.
Jesus once more deftly makes two points at the same time, using his accusers own reasoning against them. These are Jerusalem scribes, who now attempt to take the offensive to another level. Realizing that any attempt to deny his power would be futile, they employ a cunning strategy of defamation. Yes, they say, Jesus has power, but it is demonic power. This is a very impressive move, but Jesus outflanks them. First, he says, let’s just be reasonable. Does it make sense that Satan would be fighting against himself, liberating those under his dominion from his own servants? No that would be clearly illogical, and if it were the case, it would suggest that civil war plagued a kingdom soon to crumble on its own. But second, and what is more, the evidence does point to a defeated kingdom. You have noted well, says Jesus sardonically, Satan’s reign is clearly on its heels. So, what is the logical conclusion, if it is not civil war--if Jesus is in fact proclaiming a different kingdom? It is that Jesus (the stronger one) has entered Satan’s house (his kingdom), tied him up (as the weaker one), and robbed his possessions (given his demonic servants the boot). The implication is again about identity. Jesus is the stronger one.
Many a reader has been distracted at this point by the “unforgivable sin.” It is important not to skip the passage, but there is no reason to give it undue attention, especially since the sin mentioned is specifically spelled out by Mark himself. “For they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’” Apparently, calling the Holy Spirit an unholy spirit is such an utter misidentification that it is an especially serious problem. Even if Jesus means that God would refuse to forgive one of these scribes if he later came to faith in Jesus and made a total turn around--which is not likely what he means--I prefer not to dwell only on the negative. Jesus does say, astoundingly, that God will forgive any offense, including blasphemies, which is a powerful truth for someone getting to know God to absorb. It would be tragic for the reader to hear primarily that maybe God will not forgive. At the same time, the warning is severe, and it is right to hear that failure to recognize Jesus may be the difference between receiving forgiveness and not.
Jesus’ family arrives at last, but they cannot get into the house for all the people crowding around. Jesus’ response to their summons is the first direct teaching about the new reality of the kingdom. He is forming a spiritual family--spiritual because it is bound together by the will of God. But it is family, and his choice of that metaphor is exceedingly important. It speaks to the relational dynamics that characterize the new community forming around the Messiah. Pondering deeply the nature of family can reveal much about God’s purposes. The reader too is extended the opportunity to become a member of Jesus’ family, but she may well ask what the will of God is, then. For Mark, Jesus is clearly God’s own answer to that question.