MARK 2:1 – 3:6. THE CONTEXT
Near the beginning of his Gospel, Mark groups a series of stories that serve two functions:
• First, they establish Jesus’ authority—authority to forgive sins (2:1-12)—authority to call a tax collector and to eat with sinners and tax collectors (2:13-17)—authority to permit his disciples not to fast (2:18-22)—authority to permit his disciples to pluck and eat on the sabbath (2:23-28)—and authority to heal on the sabbath (3:1-6).
• Second, they introduce the antagonism of the scribes, Pharisees, and Herodians—antagonism that will eventually lead to Jesus death.
MARK 2:23-24. WHY DO THEY DO WHICH IS NOT LAWFUL?
23It happened that he was going on the Sabbath day through the grain fields, and his disciples began, as they went, to pluck the ears of grain. 24The Pharisees said to him, “Behold, why do they do that which is not lawful on the Sabbath day?”
“It happened that he was going on the Sabbath day through the grain fields, and his disciples began, as they went, to pluck the ears of grain” (v. 23). In that part of the world, grain is usually harvested in the late spring or early summer. Deuteronomy 23:25 allows people to use their hands to pluck grain from a neighbor’s field, but prohibits them from using a sickle—the idea being to allow a hungry person to eat the neighbor’s grain but not to permit the wholesale harvesting of it.
The Pharisees said to Jesus, “Behold, why do they do that which is not lawful on the Sabbath day?”(v. 24). They assume that the teacher is responsible for the conduct of his disciples. The problem is not that the disciples are plucking and eating grain from a neighbor’s field, but that they are doing so on the sabbath. The Torah says:
“Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as Yahweh your God commanded you. You shall labor six days, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath to Yahweh your God, in which you shall not do any work, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your ox, nor your donkey, nor any of your livestock, nor your stranger who is within your gates; that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and Yahweh your God brought you out of there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm: therefore Yahweh your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day” (Deuteronomy 5:12-15).
At issue here is what constitutes work. Is it work to pluck grain to satisfy one’s hunger? While various Old Testament passages deal with the subject of work (Exodus 16:22-30; 34:21; 35:2-3; Numbers 15:32-36; Nehemiah 10:31; 13:15-22; Jeremiah 17:21-22), they leave much to the imagination when it comes to defining exactly what constitutes work in particular situations.
However, Exodus 34:21 says, “Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest: in plowing time and in harvest you shall rest”—so plowing and harvesting are clearly among the proscribed activities. The scribes list reaping as third among the 39 types of activities that they classify as work. The immediate question is not whether reaping is prohibited, then, because it clearly is. The question is whether plucking a few handfuls of grain constitutes reaping.
In defense of the scribes, the prohibition of work on the sabbath is a broad principle that requires interpretation if people are to know exactly what is and is not permitted. Scribes study the Torah in an attempt to provide the needed clarity. They began these studies, presumably, out of their devotion to God—out of their sincere desire to obey God’s law and to help others to do so.
However, as often happens when people devote themselves to a narrow, intensive enterprise, their study took on a life of its own. By Jesus’ time, a substantial amount of scribal interpretation had been codified into the Mishnah (the Talmud, an extension of these studies, would come later). Two problems resulted:
• Jewish religious leaders began to regard the Mishnah as second in importance only to the Torah—or even as equal to the Torah. It became increasingly difficult for them to differentiate between the Torah (God’s law) and the Mishnah (their interpretation of God’s law)—and they became increasingly inflexible in the application of their interpretations.
• As so often happens with academic endeavors, the scribes became so preoccupied with the fine points of the law that they lost the main point. We will see that in these verses as they criticize Jesus for allowing his disciples to pluck small amounts of grain on the sabbath (2:24)—and as they watch Jesus “to see whether he would cure (the man with the withered hand) on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him” (3:2).
MARK 2:25-28. THE SON OF MAN IS LORD EVEN OF THE SABBATH
25He said to them, “Did you never read what David did, when he had need, and was hungry—he, and those who were with him? 26How he entered into the house of God when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the show bread, which is not lawful to eat except for the priests, and gave also to those who were with him?” 27He said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28Therefore the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”
“Did you never read what David did, when he had need, and was hungry—he, and those who were with him?” (v. 25). David was Israel’s greatest king. During his reign, Israel enjoyed its greatest glory days. David was also devoted to God and enjoyed God’s favor. God promised to bring forth from David’s lineage one whose kingdom would be forever (2 Samuel 7:11-13)—one who would redeem his people (Isaiah 59:20)—the messiah.
By Jesus’ time, David enjoys iconic status among Jews as a man of almost unrivaled reputation. If Jesus can show that the actions of his disciples parallel David’s actions, he will present his opponents with an irrefutable argument. He begins by stating that David and his companions were hungry—an obvious parallel to Jesus’ disciples.
“How he entered into the house of God when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the show bread, which is not lawful to eat except for the priests, and gave also to those who were with him” (v. 26). Mark mistakenly uses Abiathar’s name—it should be Ahimelech (1 Samuel 21:1). Abiathar was Ahimelech’s son (1 Samuel 22:20) who became David’s priest and served David prior to and after his ascension to the throne. It is generally recognized that Matthew and Luke used Mark as one of their key sources. Both tell this story (Matthew 12:1-8; Luke 6:1-5), but neither mentions Abiathar’s name, presumably because they know that Ahimelech is correct. In Matthew’s account, Jesus adds a second argument: “Or have you not read in the law, that on the Sabbath day, the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are guiltless?” (Matthew 12:5).
Jesus is referring to an incident from 1 Samuel 21:1-6 where David, warned by Jonathan, fled for his life from King Saul. While on the run David asked the priest Ahimelech for bread. Ahimelech protested that the only available bread was the holy bread, the Bread of the Presence, also known as the Showbread—bread intended to be eaten only by the priests in a holy place (Leviticus 24:5-9). However, Ahimelech offered to give the holy bread to David if David’s young men had kept themselves from women. David promised that this was the case, and Ahimelech gave him the bread. God did not condemn this action, a fact that Jesus uses to support his contention, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (v. 27).
While Jesus cannot claim that his disciples’ circumstances are as desperate as David’s, the obvious parallel is that both David and Jesus’ disciples engaged in a forbidden activity (David date holy bread and Jesus’ disciples plucked grain on the sabbath) to satisfy their hunger. If it was appropriate for David to eat the holy bread to satisfy his hunger (and the Pharisees would not dare suggest otherwise), then it must also be appropriate for Jesus’ disciples to pluck and eat grain on the sabbath.
But there is also something more happening here. Jesus is drawing a parallel between David prior to David’s enthronement and Jesus prior to his enthronement. This incident points to Jesus’ kingship and his yet-to-come enthronement.
“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (v. 27). Jesus puts forth the principle that God gave the sabbath to help people—not to arbitrarily restrict their activities. By abstaining from work on the sabbath, people keep it holy (a service to God), but also gain a day of rest (a service to themselves and their families).
Even the most observant scribes and Pharisees recognize that it is sometimes necessary to work on the sabbath. However, they draw the line very conservatively—with good reason. Sabbath observance, circumcision, and Jewish dietary restrictions are the most significant marks of Judaism and their observance binds the Jewish community together.
The scribes and Pharisees therefore believe that sabbath work is permissible only to sustain life. For example,if a building collapsed on the sabbath, the arbiters of the law had determined that potential rescuers could remove enough rubble to determine whether anyone was alive. If so, they could continue. If not, they would have to wait until the next day to remove the bodies (Edwards, 94).
In the two instances mentioned in this Gospel lesson, neither Jesus’ disciples nor the man with the withered hand have needs that could not wait for resolution until the sabbath is ended.
“Therefore the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath” (v. 28). Son of Man is Jesus’ favorite self-designation. It has its roots in Daniel 7:13. Son of Man comes without well-defined meaning, which suits Jesus’ purposes. The Romans would kill Jesus if he called himself king, and the Jews would convict him of blasphemy if he called himself Son of God.
Jesus has taught in the synagogue “as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (1:21). He has used the title “Son of Man” for himself and claimed authority to forgive sins (2:10)—an authority validated by the healing of the paralytic (2:11-12). Now he pronounces himself “lord even of the sabbath” (2:28)—putting himself on a par with God (Edwards, 97).
MARK 3:1-5. IS IT LAWFUL ON THE SABBATH DAY TO DO GOOD?
1He entered again into the synagogue, and there was a man there who had his hand withered. 2They watched him, whether he would heal him on the Sabbath day, that they might accuse him. 3He said to the man who had his hand withered, “Stand up.” (Greek: egeire eis to meson—“stand up in the middle”) 4He said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath day to do good, or to do harm? To save a life, or to kill?” But they were silent. 5When he had looked around at them with anger, being grieved at the hardening of their hearts, he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored as healthy as the other.
“He entered again into the synagogue, and there was a man there who had his hand withered” (v. 1). Earlier—perhaps the previous sabbath—Jesus exorcised an unclean spirit in the Capernaum synagogue (1:21-28). Mark doesn’t identify the synagogue in which Jesus encounters the man with the withered hand, but Capernaum is a real possibility.
“They watched him, whether he would heal him on the Sabbath day, that they might accuse him” (v. 2). “They” almost certainly refers to the Pharisees, who questioned Jesus critically in 2:24. “Watched” is imperfect tense, suggesting continuous action—the Pharisees are conducting ongoing surveillance in an attempt to expose Jesus for violating Jewish law. Exodus 31:14 specifies that the penalty for profaning the sabbath is death and a person who works on the sabbath is to be cut off from the community—although by Jesus’ day such draconian penalties are rarely carried out.
After witnessing the earlier exorcism on the sabbath, the Pharisees hope Jesus will do it again—will expose himself once again to judgment by healing on the sabbath. Mark gives no indication that they register their hostility overtly, but it is not difficult to imagine their critical gaze and tight-lipped faces. There is tension here—tension that is obvious except to the most oblivious.
“He said to the man who had his hand withered, ‘Stand up.'” (Greek: egeire eis to meson—“stand up in the middle”) (v. 3). Mark gives no indication that the man with the withered hand has asked Jesus for healing. Presumably Jesus’ action comes as a surprise to him—probably as a shock. People with a deformity typically want to fade into the background—to give people a chance to forget their deformity. This man certainly doesn’t want to be made a public spectacle, but it is possible that he witnessed the earlier exorcism and responds with hope rather than embarrassment.
“Is it lawful on the Sabbath day to do good, or to do harm? To save a life, or to kill?” (v. 4). Jesus addresses his question not to the man but to the congregation—to his opponents in the pews. He poses two either-or possibilities—“to do good, or to do harm” and “to save a life, or to kill.”
Jesus’ opponents, of course, would advocate a third alternative: Let’s wait until the sabbath is ended. Let’s honor God on the sabbath and heal this man on the next day. There is no urgency. This man has lived with this condition for years. Another few hours won’t make any difference.
But Jesus has come to bring life and release and freedom. What better time to do a good deed than on the sabbath! What better place than the synagogue! Jesus is obviously at odds with any interpretation of the Torah that would stifle the impulse to relieve suffering on the sabbath. In a situation such as the one mentioned above—where a roof has collapsed—we cannot imagine that Jesus would ratify an interpretation that would require leaving the dead untended until sunset.
“But they were silent” (v. 4). Silent! Watching! Waiting! Hoping for Jesus to expose himself! They have seen Jesus’ skill at handling opposition, so they are reluctant to engage him in public debate. Better to wait for him to make himself vulnerable! Better to give him plenty of rope! Perhaps he will hang himself—or give them opportunity to do so!
“When he had looked around at them with anger, being grieved at the hardening of their hearts” (v. 5). Jesus is angry and grieved—angry that holy men should obstruct holy action—angry that small men enjoy so much power over the life of their community—grieved at their hardness of heart—grieved at their lack of compassion for a man whose infirmity has defined so much of his life—grieved that those responsible for interpreting Torah should have failed so completely to understand God’s will.
Jesus “said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored as healthy as the other” (v. 5). Jesus does not require much of the man, but he does require that he stretch out his withered hand in front of the assembled crowd. In responding, the man (who was surely aware of the tension in the room) must take a stand—must throw in his lot with Jesus—must refuse to allow the powerful men who run his town to control his actions.
Stretching out his hand is an act fraught with consequences. On the one hand, he is healed. On the other hand, he cannot expect any favors from these Pharisees with whom he must live day by day. Of course, there is no evidence that they have done him any favors in the past, so he may have lost very little. Still, his compliance with Jesus’ command is an act of courage—and, perhaps, of faith.
MARK 3:6. THEY CONSPIRED HOW THEY MIGHT DESTROY HIM
6The Pharisees went out, and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how they might destroy him.
We don’t know very much about the Herodians except that they support Herod. As such, they have little in common with the Pharisees, who resent Herod’s rule. However, these usually unallied men find common cause in their opposition to Jesus. The oppose Jesus because he constitutes a threat to their traditions and to their status as arbiters of those traditions. He not only fails to honor these powerful men, but he also goes out of his way to challenge their authority and their understanding of the law.
They plot to kill Jesus. It is quite early in Mark’s Gospel, but he lets us know early on what to expect. Jesus will allude to his death at 9:31; 10:34; and 12:7. Mark will mention again at 11:18 and 14:1 that the chief priests and scribes are plotting to kill Jesus. In the end, they will succeed, but in the very end, Jesus will win.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Brooks, James A, The New American Commentary: Mark (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1991)
Edwards, James R., The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002)
France, R.T., The New International Greek Testament Commentary: The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002)
Guelich, Robert A., Word Biblical Commentary: Mark 1 – 8:26 (Dallas: Word Books, 1989)
Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to Saint Mark (Hendrickson Publishers, 1991)
Lane, William L., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974)
Marcus, Joel, The Anchor Bible: Mark 1-8 (New York: Doubleday, 1999)
Williamson, Lamar Jr., Interpretation: Mark (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1983)
Wright, Tom (N.T.), Mark for Everyone (London: SPCK and Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001, 2004)
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Copyright 2015, Richard Niell Donovan