If you have checked out the preaching the series on the website, you will have seen that two weeks are given over to each theme before the focus on Easter. On the website you will find recordings of the sermons and the text so they can be revisited. Do raise questions with me if you would like to.
I have entitled this week’s message, ‘Power and Authority’, but in many ways Mark has been building this picture of power and authority in relation to Jesus since the beginning of the gospel. Basically he is pointing to the fact that Jesus has the power and authority to do what he is doing, because of who is – God incarnate bringing in the Kingdom. Our title for this week reflects the statement of the teachers of the law last week: ‘Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ Remember the question when Jesus cleared out the temple of the traders and money changing stalls:
as he was walking in the temple, the chief priests and the scribes and the elders
came to him, and they said to him, “By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?”’Mark 11:27-28
Mark’s gospel aims to establish by what authority Jesus did these things, thus pointing to who Jesus is.
The two incidents we read about today are the culmination of a series of five clashes which have escalated as time has gone on. The first comes when Jesus forgives the sin of the paralysed man. Then there was doubt cast on his credentials because he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, followed by questioning why he wasn’t following the ritual of fasting. Then comes the question about the purpose of the Sabbath and what is allowed, culminating in the questions whether or not it was right to do good or evil on the Sabbath and the plot to kill Jesus.
In looking at these two particular incidents, I am going to use three of the questions from last week:
1. Why were the religious leaders offended?
2. What do the accounts tell us about Jesus?
3. So what?
Why were the religious leaders offended?
The clashes are clearly to do with questions of law and Sabbath observance. I think we find it hard to understand the law as laid out in the Hebrew Scriptures – not least because we haven’t really studied it or lived it. We tend to think it was what the Jews had to keep in order to be right with God, it was impossible to do so and now we don’t have to worry because of the sacrifice of Jesus. Well although crudely put, there are elements of truth in that understanding. However, we also like to claim the law for our own purposes. So our laws are constructed on the foundation of the 10 Commandments and have drawn upon other aspects of the Hebrew law. They are designed to keep society safe and enable people to live free from fear. They are designed to punish those who choose to offend against society and to be tested in a court.
The Jewish law was of a different nature and purpose. First of all, the Books of the Law or Torah, include the accounts of Genesis, Exodus and Numbers, as well as the specifically law like books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. The purpose of the law was first of all to enable people to live holy lives in relation to God, which also included relationships with other people and the stewardship of animals and the land. Within the law the Sabbath rest was and is a distinctive practice in Israel’s faith. The foundation for the practice comes from
• Genesis when it states that God hallowed the seventh day because that was the day God rested from the work of creation.
• Deuteronomy 5 which states that the Sabbath is a day to remember liberation from slavery in Egypt and by implication the slavery of having to work seven days a week without rest.
• Exodus 31 in which it states that the Sabbath rest is a sign of the covenant between the Hebrews and God; and which lays out dire consequences for those who violate the day of rest.
So when we read about the Pharisees picking Jesus up for the action of his disciples on the Sabbath, or for healing on the Sabbath, they are not just nitpicking fault finders. They know the seriousness with which the Sabbath should be kept and how it is to honour God.
In fact strict observance of Sunday, which is a direct transfer of one of the Hebrew laws, was standard in Britain until the late 1960s. We have probably forgotten – those of us who are old enough to remember that is – how little happened on a Sunday and how nothing was open, until the laws were liberalised. For some, Sunday was sheer boredom – nothing open, nothing on the box and even the pubs were closed. Listen to Tony Hancock’s sketch about Sunday afternoon.
For the Jews, the Sabbath was a day of rest and a day to honour God and remember his provision for them. However, numerous interpretations of what constituted work and what didn’t; what was allowed and what wasn’t, sprang up and made it a burden. This was the same with other aspects of the law, and so what was designed to enable people to walk with God became an impossible straight jacket. In their attempts to remain distinctive, the Pharisees and teachers of the law made a burden too hard to bear. The actions of Jesus and his disciples seemed to be undermining the Sabbath and disregarding tradition to a dangerous extent. Yes, they could not doubt the good that was done, but undermining the Sabbath could lead to further disturbances which could upset the status quo. It also seemed to strike at the distinctiveness of Jewish faith. Hence the most unlikely alliance with the Herodians.
What does it tell us about Jesus?
So were these clashes indicative of Jesus who was a rule breaker and underminer of tradition? In some respects we have to say ‘yes’. There were further healings on the Sabbath; he did overturn the stalls in the temple; his teaching challenged that of the Pharisees; some of his parables were told against them and he did get angry with them. We have to ask what the purpose of these actions were and whether he was undermining to destabilise the status quo and cause an insurrection, or was there another reason?
I think there was another reason and we need to go back to the announcement at the beginning of Mark’s gospel: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’ The clashes come against the backdrop of this statement which indicates Jesus as the one bringing in the Kingdom of God. The clashes provide an insight to the gospel or good news that Jesus was announcing and it involved enabling people to draw near to God, not keep rules. So let’s see how that works:
1. The first clash comes over the pronouncement of the forgiveness of sins. This is significant, because as the teachers of the law quite rightly pointed out, only God can forgive sins. Jesus confirms his authority by healing the man. All criticism silenced for the time being. Significance? Here we have someone with the authority of God. The good news means that we can know forgiveness, and as represented by the healing of this man, complete restoration to life. We are no longer confined to the mat, if only we will pick it up and walk.
2. Jesus is criticised for eating with the wrong people. They are impure, they don’t even attempt to keep the law, they are beyond the law. The good news means that there is hope of restoration for everyone.
3. The question about fasting is an interesting one which I think is to do with ritual and Jesus’ rejection of religious observance for the sake of religious observance. There is a place for fasting and that time was going to come for the disciples when the ‘bridegroom’ was taken from them, but it wasn’t now.
4. Then we come to the question of what is lawful on the Sabbath. It was not unlawful to do those things that were necessary for life. It was in defining those things where it became complicated. However, Jesus makes the point that the Sabbath day was not given to be a burden of observance but a blessing. It is not a religious ritual to be ticked off, counting the hours until sundown, but a blessing from God, giving space to honour God. Jesus didn’t reject the Sabbath, but the rule bound ritual it had become.
5. The final clash over the man’s healing seems to be prompted by Jesus. Admittedly Mark records that the religious leaders were on the lookout for an excuse to accuse him, but Jesus gives them that excuse. Why not wait until sundown to heal the man? After all in Mark 1 we see people coming to Jesus after sundown for healing. Clearly Jesus wanted to make the point that we don’t exist to fulfil religious ritual; that we don’t serve religious ritual and that God is not dishonoured by good being done on the Sabbath.
Ironically it is the good that is done which causes the Pharisees to make an unholy alliance with the Herodians, a group surely they would not want to be associated with, since that would link them with the hated Herod and in turn with the hated Roman authority. However, as we have seen in our own time, zeal for religion can lead people of any religion to perform evil acts and justify them.
We come to our final question. The concern of the Pharisees was to walk with God and to be distinctive as the nation of Israel was called to be. Distinctiveness seems to have degenerated into legalism and drawing boundaries that actually excluded people rather than enabled them to meet with and walk with God. When their traditional interpretation of the scriptures and their traditional actions and rituals were questioned or challenged, they retreated into defensiveness and legalism it seems.
The same question arises for us: how can we be distinctive and faithful to God in our society? It has to be more than ritual; it has to be more than rules that draw boundaries as to to who is in and who is out; it has to be more than ‘going to church’. The pandemic has caused us to think about what it means to be church and whether or not we can fulfil that properly under current circumstances. For some churches it has caused them to think about the meaning and purpose of communion and how that can be celebrated remotely and if it can’t what are the implications? Important as these issues are for Christians, they are questions of tradition and practice, not questions of distinctiveness. At the end of the day, they are not the things that will draw people to Jesus Christ.
For Christians, Christ is distinctive. This may sound like stating the obvious, but whilst routine is important, ritual supports and enables, fellowship encourages and spurs us on, these things can be found in other religions as well as secular groups and organisations. It is Christ who makes the difference and as Christians we are called to conform to the character of God in Jesus Christ. If we look at the example of Jesus, that may mean challenging some of our revered practices and rituals; our traditional interpretations and prejudices; allowing the Holy Spirit to illumine our understanding. That does not mean being destructive and driving a tank through everything, like the digger taken from the Lidl’s building site was driven through the fence, demolished the hedge and smashed the roof at Morrisons. Jesus was strong and robust, but did not set out to demolish – except the stronghold of sin which he took by force on the cross and in resurrection.
The purpose of looking at Mark’s gospel and paying regular visits to the gospels each year, is to keep Jesus in focus, not to confirm us in what we knew already. If we are to learn anything from the clashes of Mark 2, it is that we need to be proactive in examining our motives and understanding so that we do not become stumbling blocks for others seeking to enter the Kingdom. How can we be distinctive? By looking again at the actions of Jesus in the gospels, asking the Holy Spirit to open our hearts to his understanding, and desiring to honour God our Father in all that we do. Ritual and tradition are important and helpful, but we worship Jesus Christ.