Commentary on Mark 2:1-22
After a preaching tour in Galilee, Jesus returns to his home base in Capernaum, where he continues preaching, teaching, and healing.
He also comes into conflict with some Jewish religious leaders — namely, the scribes and Pharisees.
Scribes were professionals trained in the interpretation of Jewish law. They are often mentioned in association with the Pharisees, who led a lay reform movement within Judaism. Concerned to preserve the Jewish faith and way of life in the midst of Roman occupation, the Pharisees took seriously God’s calling of Israel to be “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). They sought to renew the faith by applying biblical laws concerning ritual purity to all Jews (not only priests) and to all aspects of daily life (not only temple worship), with special attention to dietary laws and Sabbath observance.
While scribes and Pharisees valued debate about interpretation of the law, opinions were formed on the weight of precedent and tradition. Jesus troubles them because he speaks and acts on his own authority, without deference to tradition (1:22). He seems cavalier about law observance and simply makes pronouncements, claiming to speak and act for God. Thus they view him as a threat to the religious and social order.
Forgiveness, Healing, and Conflict
The first of Jesus’ conflicts with the religious leaders is embedded in a healing story. Jesus is teaching in a home in Capernaum, and the place is packed, with no room even in the doorway (2:1-2). Four people come carrying a paralyzed man on a mat, trying to bring him to Jesus. Seeing no way to get through the crowd, they dig through the roof (probably thatch and mud) and lower their friend on the mat to Jesus (2:3-4). “When Jesus saw their faith,” Mark tells us, “he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven'” (2:5). We are told nothing about the faith of the paralyzed man; Jesus responds to the determined faith of this man’s friends. He does not begin with physical healing, but first pronounces the man’s sins forgiven.
Jesus’ pronouncement does not sit well with the scribes, who begin “questioning in their hearts” and accusing Jesus of blasphemy. After all, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (2:7). In using the passive voice (“your sins are forgiven”), Jesus is essentially saying, “God forgives your sins.” Yet the scribes are apparently troubled that Jesus declares the man forgiven without him going through the proper channels — i.e., visiting the priests and offering appropriate sacrifices. Jesus simply declares him forgiven now, implicitly claiming to speak for God.
Blasphemy, or claiming what belongs to God alone, violates the law’s all-important boundary between God and creation, and is so serious as to be punishable by death (Leviticus 24:15-16). Indeed, in the end, the charge of blasphemy will lead to Jesus’ crucifixion (14:63-64).
What the scribes cannot see, of course, is that Jesus is authorized to speak and act on God’s behalf. He is God’s anointed, the Messiah, God’s beloved Son (1:11). As a demonstration of his authority to forgive sins, Jesus tells the paralyzed man to stand up, take his mat and return home, which the man promptly does (2:10-12). Jesus demonstrates his power to bring both spiritual and physical wholeness, and the crowds respond by being amazed and glorifying God (2:12).
Eating with Sinners
Moving from the overcrowded house, Jesus goes out beside the sea to teach the crowds. Seeing a tax collector named Levi sitting at his tax booth, he simply says, “Follow me.” Like the fishermen before him, Levi gets right up and follows (2:13-14).
Next we find Jesus and his disciples having dinner at Levi’s house, along with many other tax collectors and sinners. “For there were many who followed him,” Mark tells us (2:15). The term “sinners” in the Gospels generally refers to notorious sinners, those who show blatant disregard for God’s law. Tax collectors were considered among the most notorious sinners and were particularly despised in Israel. They were viewed as collaborators with the Roman occupiers, who placed a heavy tax burden on the people. Because they dealt with Gentiles and Gentile money, they were considered unclean. They were also known to be greedy. They were assigned a region and a fixed sum to collect, and were allowed to collect as much additional money as they could for profit.
The “scribes of the Pharisees” (i.e., scribes associated with the Pharisees) appear again, keeping a wary eye on Jesus. They are scandalized by Jesus’ behavior, for this meal in which he is partaking is certainly not kosher. Moreover, by eating with such folk, he may be seen to approve of their “lifestyle.” So the scribes ask Jesus’ disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (2:16). Jesus overhears and responds to their question with a proverb, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick,” and then a mission statement: “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (2:17).
While the scribes and Pharisees focus on separating themselves from sinners and keeping themselves ritually pure, Jesus shatters all boundaries between clean and unclean, righteous and sinners. He does so not just to be iconoclastic, but because that is the only way to heal the sick and bring back the lost.
Fasting and New Wine
Next a question arises about fasting. We are not told who the questioners are. The text simply says that “they” came and asked Jesus, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” (2:18). Jesus responds by telling them that it is not appropriate to fast at a wedding banquet in the presence of the bridegroom (2:19). Once again Jesus uses eschatological language. The time is fulfilled and reign of God has come near! This is a time for feasting!
At the same time there is a somber reminder that the bridegroom will be taken away, and there will again be a time of fasting (2:20). God’s reign has not yet arrived in all its fullness. This is but “a foretaste of the feast to come.”
Jesus continues his eschatological theme with metaphors of patches and wineskins. It will not work to put a patch of new, unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, or to put new wine in old wineskins. The patch will pull away and tear, and the old wineskins will burst. The old boundaries cannot contain the new reality of God’s reign coming near in Jesus.
From the very beginning, Jesus’ ministry shatters boundaries. He eats with the unclean, heals on the Sabbath, touches lepers, and even claims divine authority to forgive sins. God’s invasion of this world in Jesus is resisted by those who hold power, those whose lives are dedicated to keeping boundaries intact. Yet for the leper who is cleansed, for the paralytic who is healed, for the sinner who is forgiven and welcomed to the table, God’s invasion in Jesus is welcomed as a mission of liberation, healing, and life.
The preacher’s challenge is to discern both the threat and the promise in these stories for those who hear them today. Jesus may very well be breaking down boundaries that we are desperately trying to hold in place. Yet this boundary-smashing Jesus is our only hope of deliverance from all that holds us captive.
January 8, 2012