Tuesday, July 2, 2019

According to Mark: Religion vs. Grace

In this portion of our study on the gospel of Mark, we will be looking at Mark 2:1–3:6. That’s a good bit of ground to cover, but we will be paring it down to the theme that unites the five stories told here. As always, of course, the first thing to keep in mind is that we are being presented with Jesus Christ. The most important element is seeing Him for who He is. But in these passages in particular, that means learning about Him through the ways that He confronted the religious authorities of His day.

Sin and Suffering

The first conflict the Lord has (with humans, at least) is described in Mark 2:1–12. I’ve made that conflict our focus here, but there is certainly more to it than that. Jesus, as He almost always does in Mark, heals only when He is asked to do so. In this case, that meant four guys who destroyed a house in order to request healing for their friend. It’s quite the model of persistence in faith, which is definitely one of our lessons here. I don’t know who owned this home or what they thought of that, so hopefully they saw the higher value in it. We at least know that Jesus did on the basis of His response. In compassion, He used His power to heal the paralyzed man and His authority to forgive his sins.

That last part was where the trouble came in. As we touched on last week, sickness and suffering were usually seen as being directly connected to a person’s sin. The assumption, then, would have been that the paralyzed man has done something to deserve his condition. We don’t really know that here. All we know is that Jesus cared for the man when many of the “pious” people around him did not. But He did still acknowledge the fact that sin was an element in suffering. Ultimately, it is the cause of pain. It may not always be a one-to-one cause, but it is still the cause. It has to be removed in order for suffering to end.

For Jesus to claim the ability to remove sin is really just as shocking as the scribes thought it was. It is something that only God can do. That’s the thing they’re missing, though. Jesus can forgive sins because Jesus is God. And it is where His display of power comes in. He did not come with the primary purpose of performing miracles, but the miracles are the verification of His identity. Healing paralysis was the proof of His right to cure its root cause.

Pharisees and Tax Collectors

I skipped the calling of the disciples last time, but the one we see in Mark 2:13–17 fits into this context of contention. Levi, also known as Matthew, was a tax collector. It is basically impossible to put in contemporary terms just how much people like him were hated. By collaborating with the occupying Romans, Jewish tax collectors were traitors politically, ethnically, and religiously, on top of being thieves. No one could be more vile.

We already know what Jesus does in this situation, but try to forget that for a second and step back into it. Here He has come, preaching repentance and the coming of God’s kingdom, and He spots this man in the middle of doing his sinful “duty.” He walks right up to Levi. If you had been in the crowd, what would you have expected Him to say? If you were Levi, what would you have expected? “Follow me” would not have been my first guess, I have to admit.

What did Levi think in that moment? What did he already know about Jesus, about His message and His miracles? What must he have been feeling as Jesus approached him? I can only imagine the wash of guilt and shame as he sat there, extorting his own people on behalf of their enemies. If he wasn’t sweating already, surely he had to be by the time the Lord reached him. But instead of increasing the condemnation Levi must have already felt, Jesus reaches out His hand to invite him into fellowship. Forgiveness, once again, is available in Him.

Make no mistake, that is the point. The rest of this passage makes that clear. First, though, we have to meet the Pharisees. Mark mentions them for the first time in v. 16, though they were most likely the scribes of v. 6, as well. The Pharisees were a separatist group known for their devotion to the Jewish nation and for their dedication to righteousness. They were actually very well thought of in ancient Judea, but our modern opinion of them comes from their interactions with Jesus.

For them, everything came down to purity. Life had to be lived behind carefully guarded walls. It affected their clothes, their food, and the people with whom they associated. Some of their rules came from the Old Testament, while others had been built up as later traditions. They did all they could to avoid the unclean, and they expected all other holy people to do the same. For Jesus to eat with tax collectors and other undesirables was unfathomable for them.

Which is why they are under the greatest condemnation of all. As we saw with the leprous man healed by Jesus in Mark 1, Christ did not come to guard anything. He came to conquer, and He desires hearts most of all. Let’s be totally clear about it. Jesus was not some type of proto-Social Justice Warrior. He was not associating with the marginalized in order to upset the status quo. He was not validating their behavior. Rather, He confronted them with their need for healing by showing them grace. They responded to it because they knew their need.

Self-righteousness was what led to the self-destruction of the Pharisees. They were blind to their own heartlessness, to their injustice and to their pride. They did not even know that they could not see. They would not ask for forgiveness because they could not comprehend their need for it. They were not actually well, but thinking they were meant they would continue to be sick.

The New for the Old

That brings us to what Mark seems to have viewed as the centerpiece for this passage, which is appropriate given that Mark 2:18–22 is the central story in this group of five. It is interesting to see Jesus’ teaching on fasting, on being the bridegroom (which is another allusion to His deity; cf. Is. 54:5–8; Jer. 31:31–32), and His first prediction of His coming death. But most important is the somewhat confusing closing proverb. What is he talking about clothes and wine for?

The imagery is clear enough. Fabric contracts when it dries, so a new patch on an old garment will stretch unevenly and create a tear. Wine ferments, and when that process occurs in a sack, the sack expands with carbon dioxide. Do that in an old bag that has already been stretched out and it will explode. But what do these things have to do with fasting?

Nothing, directly. They have to do with the gospel. Jesus did not come as a prophet, not in the way all other prophets did. The prophets of the Old Testament came with messages of covenant renewal. They called the people of Israel and Judah to return to dedication to God and His Law. Theirs was a mission of repair. Not so with Jesus. He did not come to fix the old system, and He did not come to destroy it. He came to complete it and bring in a new one built upon it. The message of redemption found through Him is more than a reformation of Judaism, and it came with a new structure based on faith and grace rather than works and ritualism.

Of course, in spite of not being a destructive force, this change was still a threat to those who benefited from the way things were. That was why Jesus was opposed by the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Herodians, and the Romans. The stories here wrap around that fact.

Redefining the Sabbath

The next two events recounted by Mark concern the Sabbath regulations of Judaism. Over the centuries from the giving of the Fourth Commandment (Ex. 20:8–11), there has been much discussion over what it means to “work.” As you most likely know if you have ever interacted with Jewish people, many of these rules are still observed today.

Jesus does not condemn the practice of Sabbath observance, but again, He redefines it. Using His authority as Lord, He explains that He did not intend for humanity to be enslaved to the rules. Rather, the rules had been intended to point to higher truths for the betterment of humans. Rest is valuable because it teaches us to rely on God. But that value does not exceed necessity. Even more importantly, true rest is not found in one day off a week (as good a thing as that is). It is found in salvation and restoration to the Lord (Heb. 4:6–10).

It is truly amazing to see how spectacularly the Pharisees missed the point. Rather than being willing to recognize the truth at work in Christ, they are devoted to resisting Him. Their brilliant plan in Mark 3:1–6 is to set Him up. They make it so that a man in need of healing is present in public on a Sabbath. That way, if Jesus performed a miracle, everyone would be able to see just how wicked He was. Because, you know, miraculously healing people is so evil. How do I roll my eyes in writing?

Don’t skip over this. The Pharisees are fully expecting that Jesus is going to heal this man. They are so fixated on the rules that they are completely ignoring the power of God at work in their midst.

The Lord’s response to this is so incredible, not only in its power but also in how hilariously frustrating it had to have been. First, He illustrates their hypocrisy by flat out asking them whether it is right to do the right thing. Then, He heals the man’s hand. This is the only time in Mark that Jesus performs a healing without someone at least implicitly asking Him to do so. Usually, Jesus wants to respond to faith. But He makes an exception in order to put the religious “authorities” in their place. And lastly, He does not touch the man or actually do anything Himself. He just tells him to stretch out. Jesus heals without any type of effort, and therefore did not even have to work on the Sabbath to get this done!

And how do the Pharisees respond to this? By getting to work on the Sabbath day. They go out and expend the energy to figure out how they can have an innocent Man murdered. Who’s breaking the law here?

Avoiding Self-Righteousness

We can have some fun at the Pharisees’ expense, but it is important to remember why they are presented here. We don’t want to live like them. Religious people can easily fall prey to their attitudes. Christians can be distracted from seeing with the eyes of Christ, and we can put rules ahead of having compassion on the lost.

We need to remember what we were, and what we are. As fallen members of the human race, we are paralyzed by our fears and disfigured in our pride. We are all Levi, busily at work in our self-destruction until the Lord comes to us. We have to hold on to the power of the moment when we saw all that was wrong in ourselves and heard that Jesus wanted to take away our uncleanness. That is what we have been given, and that is what we have to offer.

In saying that, however, the warning against self-righteousness is not for the religious alone. We live at a time when growing numbers of people are not willing to admit of their faults. It is not right to attack or abuse them for this, but the fact remains that they are as blind to their need as the Pharisees were. It does them no good to celebrate what God abhors. They need to know He loves them, but they need to know what love looks like. Salvation only comes to those who acknowledge their sickness must be cured by the Great Physician.

Those of us who know that must balance the avoidance of legalism with the necessity of confronting sinners. We can really only do that by example. We can’t live perfectly. We need to live gratefully. Share what you have experienced in Christ, rather than making comparisons in order to find comfort in your own comparable holiness. The good you do, after all, amounts to nothing if it is only done to justify yourself. Jesus finished the work that none of us can do. Now we reap the benefits. That is the lesson here. We must not lose sight of it.

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