Mark 2:1-3:6 is a very well defined unit with the theme of liberation. The question is liberation from what? There can be no liberation without conflict, no freedom without tension, and no in breaking kingdom without a breaking of the old system. In saying old system I am not so much referring to the Law as I am referring to the use of the Law as a leveraging stick for the authority structures and powers that be to gain control and dominance over others. In Mark 2:1-3:6 there are five conflicts that Mark has structured chiastically.
A – Healing the paralytic on the Sabbath (2:1-12)
B – Calling of Levi and eating with sinners (2:13-17)
C – Fasting and Old/New (2:18-22) – Liberation. This draws the other four stories together and makes sense of them all.
B’ – Plucking grain (dealing with eating) on the Sabbath (2:23-28)
A’ – Healing on the Sabbath (3:1-6)
Rhodes says the question in these passages is, “Who has authority to speak and act on God’s behalf?” (Rhodes, 85). The religious leaders of their day believe they have the authority. Jesus challenges the system and brings to light something new and better. In this post we are going to work through these five stories but in the order they match each other chiastically: 2:1-12 with 3:1-6, 2:13-17 with 2:23-28 and last 2:18-22 to draw them all together in the center.
A – Jesus Forgives and Heals a Paralyzed Man (2:1-12)
You are sitting in your dining room having a meal with your family. All of a sudden you hear scratching and bumping and loud noises coming from the ceiling. All of a sudden a hole opens up and a man falls through it right onto the middle of the table and food. Would it make you feel any different if someone said to the man, “No problem we forgive you.” vs. “Your sin has been forgiven.”? We have the authority to forgive people of things they do to us personally. We do not have authority to forgive sins. When Jesus tells the paralytic that his sins are forgiven he is placing himself in the position of God and on the same authority level as God himself. Ultimately the charge against Jesus will be blasphemy and Mark gives us early glimpses of why people thought that (Mark 14:64).
This story is bookended by astonishment. First the people are astonished over Jesus’ teaching that is done with authority. He doesn’t have to cite this Rabbi or that Rabbi or recite various interpretations of the law. He speaks with authority. Following the forgiveness of the paralytic’s sin and the healing of his body again the people are amazed. “Which is easier to say to this paralyzed man? ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk?'” It is easier to say “your sins are forgiven” because there would be no proof whether or not it happened. To show that the man’s sins had indeed been forgiven Jesus orders him to walk and he heals the man of his paralysis. We talk about forgiveness so much that we forget that forgiveness is shocking at its core. Jesus liberated this man of more than a mat. He restored his relationship with God.
Now to 2:1-12’s chiastic match in 3:1-6
Α’ – Jesus Heals on the Sabbath (3:1-6)
The setting is the same as 2:1-12. Again Jesus is in the synagogue. He sees a man with a withered hand and look to see if Jesus would heal him. The tradition on the Sabbath was that work could be done if it was done to save a life. Ben Witherington cites the rule this way, “Whenever there is doubt whether life is in danger this takes precedence over the Sabbath.” (Mark, 133). This man’s life is clearly not at stake. Jesus trumps their tradition and heals him anyway. Why? From an American point of view we marvel that Jesus could heal a hand like that and think how thankful we would be for our hand to be healed if we were in this man’s situation. There is more to it than that. According to the Law (Lev 21:16-23) a man with a crippled hand like this would not have been allowed to worship God at the tabernacle (and at this point in the temple). Jesus was restoring more than a hand. He was restoring this man’s connection with God through his ability to worship in community with his fellow Jews at the temple.
Notice the irony of the religious leader’s response, “Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.” They were in direct violation of the “do no harm” intent of the Sabbath. They were doing the very thing they were accusing Jesus of doing! Again we see that there is a need for liberation from the powers that be by the inbreaking kingdom of God. Jesus is restoring what the Sabbath was originally intended for.
Now back to chapter two. Remember, we are working our way from the outside of the chiastic structure to the middle and the middle will give us information to put all the other pieces together.
B – Calling of Levi and Eating with Sinners (2:13-17)
Last time Jesus was by the lake it was just himself and his new disciples, now there are crowds. The first thing to point out in this story is something pretty obvious. People don’t like tax collectors. What is more, they didn’t like it when they were getting robbed out of house and home by a fellow Jew. Witherington notes that tax collectors were listed among murderers and thieves in the Jewish writing of the time (Mark, 120). Jesus was not just talking with these men. He was having table fellowship with them. This is a very close association. We are reminded that in the kingdom of God will be great feasts where even the most unlikely people will be there and the one you might expect to be there will be absent (Mtt 22). Jesus is more concerned about kingdom business and reaching the lost than he is about preserving a pristine reputation among his adversaries.
In the previous two stories Jesus crossed lines of expectation by healing on the Sabbath in order to restore their sense of what the Sabbath was originally intended for. Here, Jesus crosses lines of their expectations by associating with the outcasts and “unclean” spiritually of society. Why? Because he knows he is the one with the cure for the sin disease and in order for that to take place fellowship is a must.
B’ – Plucking Grain on the Sabbath (2:23-28)
The parallel story with Jesus eating with the tax collectors and sinners is Jesus and his disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath. The parallel here is the eating that is taking place in both settings. The Law said it was fine to eat grain from someone’s field (Deut 23:25). However, it was prohibited to do any threshing on the Sabbath (Exo 34:21). Jesus has come to liberate the Sabbath from those who have misused and abused the Sabbath to hold it over the heads of unsuspecting people as a form of dominance and control rather than as a constructive time where people are restored through rest and trusting in God to provide for the day.
C – Jesus Questioned About Fasting & the Old and New (2:18-22)
Finally, the story that pulls them all together. Jesus gets the question – why don’t your disciples fast like the disciples of other teachers? Jesus paints three pictures for them to help them get it and which illuminates the other four stories in Mark 2:1-3:6.
Wedding Celebration – N.T. Wright paints the picture of food on the table in celebration of the new bride and groom but no one is eating. Everyone is just staring at their plates! That wouldn’t make sense! When the consummation of all creation occurs it is time to celebrate! They had been looking for the messiah and God’s new covenant yet when it arrived they didn’t want anything new. The people and especially the religious leaders were far too comfortable with the way things were. When you are in power change doesn’t look so good. Jesus came and challenged the old and was ushering in the new and it wasn’t going to happen without a fight. When God comes and changes everything, don’t be surprised when some things aren’t the same any more. The old way of doing things said – Oh, you mustn’t heal on the Sabbath!, Best stay away from forgiving sins, and why aren’t you fasting. The new way of doing things says, “You don’t even understand just how good things are going to actually be.”
Patch of Cloth – What happens if you sew a new patch of cloth on an old garment? When you wash it the new one will shrink and the two will not fit together. The old and the new don’t mix. Something has to change.
Old and New Winesking, Old and New Wine – Here is the crux of it all. The Jewish leaders thought Jesus was pouring out the wine from their wineskins and the result was that they would be empty. Or they tried taking their old wineskins (ways of thinking, traditions, etc) and fit the kingdom into it and it just wouldn’t fit. What they didn’t understand was that Jesus was trying to replace both their wine and their wineskins. He was trying to give them a new way of seeing God more fully and fill up that new understanding with a deeper understanding and experience of the Kingdom and reign of God. All they could see was their old wine being poured on the ground and their old wineskins being ripped to pieces. They couldn’t see what Jesus offered was greater. They needed to be liberated and the liberator stood in their midst and all they could do was plot to kill him and in doing so violate the very wineskins they sought so desperately to protect.
We are left with this question – When Jesus comes to town which things prevent us from understanding what he has come to do?