Mk 2.1-3.6 - “Conflict and Response”
I. Jesus returns from preaching throughout the area around the Sea of Galilee. He’s been proclaiming the good news that God’s kingdom is just about to arrive. He’s been casting out demons. He’s healed a leper. But now he’s back on his home turf, Capernaum the town he’s adopted, the town where Andrew and Peter and Peter’s mother-in-law live. And word gets out. Mark writes, Now after some days, when he returned to Capernaum, the news spread that he was home. So many gathered that there was no longer any room, not even by the door, and he preached the word to them.
From here on out things are going to get interesting. So far Jesus has met nothing but success. We saw him get baptized--the all-important revelation of who Jesus is that I warned you to keep clear in your heads. We heard God’s special message to him, “You are my beloved Son; I take great delight in you.” Then we saw the Spirit cast him out into the wilderness where he faced down the devil. Next, Jesus came into Galilee heralding the good news that God’s kingdom was just about to arrive. Those he called into his community came; the demons he cast out had to leave. He healed Peter’s mother-in-law, remedied all the ills of the crowds, preached all throughout Galilee, and cleansed a leper. He’s unstoppable--the devil can’t stand up to him. Sickness and disease, the things that plague us and break down our bodies, are no match for him. The demons have to acknowledge his authority, his power to destroy them, and run.
But here things change. Jesus comes home and finally runs into some roadblocks. It’s like Mark takes Jesus out on a test-drive in chapter one, saying, “Look, here’s what this guy can do! He really is God’s Son; he really does have all the power to undo the effects of sin and the authority to pronounce judgment on it.” But by chapter two we’ve bought into the story, put our money in on the ticket for the long haul, and now we get to see how Jesus handles the hard and stony hearts of people like us. Is Jesus still powerful? Of course. Is Jesus still God’s Son, still the one given authority to announce God’s kingdom, to cast out the devil, to heal the sick, and to pronounce judgment? Definitely. But if the story were to be all power and glory, we wouldn’t worship a messiah who got himself crucified.
Tonight we’re going to listen to five scenes in Mark’s story that go together, showing us how Jesus meets increasing opposition, not from Satan, but from us. It starts out small, just some critical thoughts, just some seemingly well-grounded disbelief, but ends up quite big, ugly, and murderous. Then we’re going to ask some questions about where this disbelief comes from and what this part of the story says to us, its audience.
So Mark writes in the first scene, Now after some days, when he returned to Capernaum, the news spread that he was home. So many gathered that there was no longer any room, not even by the door, and he preached the word to them. Some people came bringing to him a paralytic, carried by four of them. When they were not able to bring him in because of the crowd, they removed the roof above Jesus. Then, after tearing it out, they lowered the stretcher the paralytic was lying on. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
I think I remember a scene from an animated Bible story of this where the four men are gazing down from a hole in the ceiling of this house while Jesus talks to their paralyzed friend. Their animated Bible character faces match their animated Bible character robes, and their eyes are wide as Jesus forgives their friend’s sins. Mark doesn’t tell us how this person had sinned--that’s not the point. Even with the pressing, sweaty crowd, the friends’ huffing and puffing as they lug their crippled friend up on to the roof and pry up the terra-cotta tiles, the crumbling ceiling raining down on Jesus and those inside as the four friends tear out the mud-baked bricks that form the roof between the rafters--even with all this we haven’t gotten to the heart of the story.
Mark continues: Now some of the experts in the Law were sitting there, contemplating these things in their hearts: “Why does this man speak this way? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” These are, by all accounts, good, religious men. They’ve studied their Torah--they’re the experts in it--and they know that sin is a matter at heart between the individual and God. But here’s Jesus, saying to this paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
Jesus immediately calls the doubters out: “Why are you contemplating such things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up, take your stretcher, and walk’?” Then he takes it one step further. "But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,” --he said to the paralytic--“I tell you, stand up, take your stretcher, and go home.” And immediately the man stood up, took his stretcher, and went out in front of them all. They were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”
This episode seems to end amiably--everyone was amazed and glorified God. But pay attention to what happened. This isn’t really about healing but about where Jesus fits within the scheme the religious thinkers had worked out. He claims the prerogative to forgive sins. Humans weren’t so supposed to do that, so Jesus must be a blasphemer. But Jesus proves that he isn’t insulting God by showing how God has blessed him with the ability to heal the paralytic. “You are my beloved Son. I take great delight in you.”
Scene Two: Jesus is walking along the edge of the sea again, teaching the crowds that he seems inevitably to draw. He sees a man, a “tax-collector” sitting at his collection table. His name’s Levi, and Jesus says to him, “Follow me.” And Levi rises and follows Jesus.
Later that day, Jesus and his disciples are having dinner at Levi’s house with some of Levi’s friends, other tax-collectors and quote-unquote sinners, which probably means prostitutes. Here come the religious leaders again, the Pharisees. They call one of the Jesus followers outside and ask, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Again, they have a decent reason for asking. Here is this man who claims to represent God, the holy God, sharing a meal, drinking some wine, and generally having a good time in the middle of a crowd of prostitutes and “tax-collectors,” a profession that was lot more like a mob boss with hired strongmen under Roman rule than the gray-suited, numbers-obsessed IRS agents of our day. This amounted to Jesus’ bleary-eyed tabloid moment in the Pharisees’ eyes.
Jesus hears them pestering his disciples and responds, “Those who are healthy don’t need a physician, but those who are sick do. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners.” There’s a scene near the end of the film Dirty Pretty Things where an illegal immigrant name Senay, a doctor from Niger working as a taxi-driver and overnight bellhop, and a prostitute named Juliet confront a well-to-do Brit in a parking garage in urban London. Amid some shading dealings, the well-dressed Englishman asks the other three, “How come I’ve never seen you people before?” Okwe, the Nigerian doctor, responds, “Because we are the people you do not see.” The religious leaders confronting Jesus thought that God would associate only with the righteous, the church-goers. But Jesus says otherwise. He says, “Look, these “sinners,” these people you condemn or ignore, these are precisely the people I’ve come to call into God’s kingdom.”
Scene Three: Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Fasting was really important in Jesus’ culture. People saw fasting as one of the three basic things a truly religious person would do, in the saw way that a lot of us might feel that daily Bible reading is an important part of following Jesus. And here were Jesus and his followers not fasting. If they were really committed to God, surely they’d be fasting. Or at least the religious people thought so.
But what does Jesus say? “The guests of the bridegroom cannot fast while he is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them they do not fast. But the days are coming when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and at that time they will fast.” This isn’t exactly a straight answer, but we can get the gist of it. Jesus is saying that being with him, the bridegroom, presumably, changes things, particularly, it changes what acceptable religion looks like. You don’t fast at a wedding? Before the wedding, after the wedding’s over--then you can fast, but not when the party is going on. Then you eat good food and dance and sing! Jesus confirms this as he goes on: “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and the tear becomes worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the skins will be destroyed. No, new wine is poured into new wineskins.” The old ways are out--in fact if you try to bottle up God’s kingdom in the patterns and schemes of the old religious leaders, the fermenting, changing kingdom will put so much pressure and stress on them that they’ll crack and explode!
Scene Four: It’s the Sabbath. Jesus and his followers are walking through a grainfield, and as they do, some of the disciples are plucking a few sprouts of grain to chew on to take the edge off their hunger. Suddenly the Pharisees show up (who knows what they’re doing out in the field!). “Look, why are they doing what is against the law on the Sabbath?” Well, technically, picking handfuls of grain isn’t against the law. But it certainly violates the traditions handed down to the religious leaders by their ancestors. You’re not supposed to reap grain on the Sabbath, because that’s work, and picking heads of grain as you walk along is like reaping, it’s almost reaping. Better safe than sorry, right?
Jesus says no. He says, “Haven’t you religious experts even read the scriptures?” He says to them, “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and he and his companions were hungry--how he entered the house of God when Abiathar was high priest and ate the sacred bread, which is against the law for any but priests to eat, and also gave it to his companions?”
This is a pretty incredible statement. Jesus doesn’t point out that the Jesus followers are only breaking with tradition, like we might expect him to. No, instead he quotes a situation where the ancient king David plainly did something that contradicted God’s Law. He went into God’s holy tabernacle and ate the bread that was dedicated as a gift for God for the priests to ceremonially eat in the tabernacle. What does this mean?
Jesus is saying that David was someone special, God’s chosen ruler who God made a promise to, a promise to pick one of his descendants as a special leader for Israel and a savior of the world. And when someone that special is around, the rules change. My wife’s parents had some pretty strong dinner time traditions when I first met her. Dinner at five-thirty, meat and potatoes, everyone around the dinner table. But when she would come home from college (and bring me with her), things would change. They’d put off eating until we got in from Ohio, sitting down at six-thirty or even seven. She was special, so dinner time rules could change. That’s what Jesus is saying here, but at a hugely more important level. The rules are not what’s important; what’s important is what God’s doing. Then [Jesus] said to them, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath. For this reason the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”
The last scene is heartbreaking. Jesus walks into synagogue on another Sabbath. Everyone’s gathered around to see what will happen, and many in the crowd are just waiting for him to break another law or tradition. They want to accuse him, and here’s the perfect opportunity, so good it might have been a setup. A man with a paralyzed hand is sitting in synagogue. Will Jesus heal on the Sabbath even though it breaks with the rules, with tradition?
Jesus says to the man with the paralyzed hand, “Stand up among all these people.” Then turning to the crowd whose eyes are fixed on him, watching for what he will do, he says, “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath or to do evil, to save a life or destroy it?” The text continues: they were silent. Jesus looks around, angry, disgusted by the hard-heartedness, that attachment to tradition, the fear of change, the lack of faith. The people sitting in the synagogue cowardly back away from voicing the obvious answer to such a direct question--“Of course it is lawful to save a life! Of course it is lawful to do good! Of course”--and this is where it gets personal for them--“it is lawful to heal a man with a paralyzed hand.”
He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. And how do the people’s leaders respond? So the Pharisees went out immediately and began plotting with the Herodians, as to how they could assassinate him. Things are not going so well for Jesus now.
II. So why do all these people reject Jesus? Why don’t they understand that this is what God’s kingdom looks like when it comes? I’ve hinted at what I think lies behind it all, but let’s wake up and have a bit of a discussion. What do you think? Why do these people react so negatively to Jesus, why do the Pharisees go plot Jesus’ assassination with the ruling Herod dynasty at the end of the last scene?
The new thing that Jesus is announcing, God’s coming kingdom, is not what they expect and doesn’t fit into the systems already in place, so instead of embracing what God is doing, they fall back on their tried and true strategies of religious behavior.
III. So how do we respond to Jesus message? How do we avoid being modern day Pharisees? I want us to discuss this a bit also, but to structure our conversation, I want to give us two areas to think about. The first is a negative one. What old, engrained, habitual ways of thinking do we have to vow off, work to avoid, train ourselves out of? The second is the positive side: What does our positive acceptance of Jesus’ message of God’s new kingdom look like?
As we close, I want to remind us of two things. The first is the one positive example in the text tonight. Mark only tells us once in our text of people responding to Jesus in the right way. It’s in the first episode that he tells us that Jesus forgave the sins of the paralytic when he saw the four friends’ faith. Faith, or maybe a better word is trust, is always the right way to respond to Jesus. We should trust him and what God is doing in and through him.
The second thing I want us to remember is in the last episode. Remember Jesus’ anger and heartsick disgust at the crowd who sat silent in the synagogue. Jesus stares around the room, in disbelief, grieved at the crowds heard-hearted hiding in the false security of the status quo. God, please protect us from our own complacency, our own fear! Amen.