Commentary on Mark 2:23—3:6
These two controversy scenes — one in the grainfields and one in a synagogue — are very important for understanding the Gospel of Mark as a whole.
They illuminate why some of Jesus’ contemporaries found him offensive to such a degree that they would eventually deem him a grave danger. When explored on the first Sunday of the lectionary’s return to Mark, the scenes play a crucial role in setting the stage for many sermons to come between now and November.
The theological convictions that run through Jesus’ controversies with Pharisees are difficult for some congregants to trace, given that so many Christians default to defective notions of first-century Judaism and unhelpful caricatures of Jesus’ outlook on the law. Preachers do well therefore, to explain some of this passage’s nuances.
What is lawful when someone hungers? (Mark 2:23-28)
The story begins with Jesus’ disciples literally making “a way” (hodos, Mark 2:23) through fields. They are not stealing grain as they journey (see also Deuteronomy 23:24-25). What concerns the Pharisees instead is the fact that they are traveling and gleaning on the sabbath. They should have stayed put and prepared their snacks on the previous day. To the Pharisees, this behavior appears to deliberately neglect the mandate to observe the sabbath and keep it holy (see Exodus 20:8; Deuteronomy 5:12).
Jesus disagrees, not because he regards the sabbath commandments as trivial but because he sees a larger picture, one that regards the sabbath in a different light. He turns to another piece of scripture (a story about David) to interpret scripture (the purpose of the sabbath). He roughly, but not precisely, summarizes 1 Samuel 21:1-6, a story about David taking consecrated bread that was supposed to be reserved for priests (see Leviticus 24:5-9).
David insisted on the bread because he was a fugitive, seeking allies and fleeing Saul, who had clearly declared his intentions to kill him. Jesus implies that the priest (whom Mark or Jesus misidentifies as Abiathar instead of Ahimelech) did nothing wrong in breaking the strict letter of the law concerning the bread. By remedying David’s hunger, the priest sustained the life of a weary traveler and contributed to David’s quest to live into his calling as the king anointed to replace Saul (see 1 Samuel 16:1-13).
Jesus therefore offers a legal opinion, one he derives from scripture itself. He contends that sometimes certain demands of the law are rightly set aside in favor of pursuing greater values or meeting greater needs, especially when those greater needs promote a person’s well-being and facilitate the arrival of divine blessings.
It must be noted that Jesus’ argument was hardly novel and therefore not scandalous on its surface. In fact, when he notes that the purpose of the sabbath has always been to serve humankind (as opposed to making humankind serve some stern religious principle), he is essentially restating Deuteronomy 5:12-15, in which God institutes the sabbath so a people who once toiled in slavery can forever enjoy at least a modicum of rest. Rabbinic traditions dating to a century after Jesus if not earlier expressed opinions similar to his words in Mark 2:27, including: “The Sabbath is handed over to you, not you to it” and “Profane one Sabbath for a person’s sake, so that he may keep many Sabbaths.”1 The proper function of the sabbath is to promote life and extol God as a liberator. Everyone knew that.
The Pharisees understood the sabbath. Perhaps they did not appreciate that it was Jesus, by some appearances a new and uppity teacher, who was dispensing legal insights. Where Jesus definitely would have caught their attention was in his assumption that somehow he and his calling were comparable to David and David’s calling. Also, declaring himself the “lord” or “master” of the sabbath itself could be tantamount to claiming that the law’s ultimate purpose is to serve Jesus. The scandal resides here: he presents himself as no ordinary teacher.
What is lawful when someone suffers? (Mark 3:1-5)
The scene in the synagogue intensifies the conflict over Jesus’ authority, his values, and the urgency of his claims. For the Pharisees who lie in wait, watching, the issue is not whether Jesus has the power to heal the man’s hand, it is whether doing so on the sabbath demonstrates a willful disregard for the law of God — a law that was believed to give good order to life and to provide conditions for encountering God’s blessings and holiness.
Jesus’ response to the Pharisees — “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” — indicates that he disagrees with the premise of their suspicions. By orchestrating the man’s healing, he does not disparage or break the law in any way (for nothing Jesus does here can be considered “work” that the sabbath prohibits). Rather, Mark casts Jesus as honoring the purpose of the sabbath commandment. It is as if Jesus is saying that the chief objective of the law, in general, is to save and preserve life (see also Deuteronomy 30:19-20). Indeed, therefore, what better day is there than the sabbath, a day meant to promote God’s commitment to humanity’s well-being, for the restoration of a man’s malformed hand?
Again, Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries would not have found his basic perspective especially troublesome. “Saving life overrules the Sabbath,” according ancient rabbinic tradition.2
Admittedly, the man was not dying, but his hand was withered. Jesus’ determination illuminates the urgency of his life-giving work; after all, the reign of God is near (Mark 1:15) and so people are experiencing liberty. With the restoration of his hand, the man in the synagogue probably also receives back his ability to work in the Galilean economy. In receiving that ability, the man may recover his ability to provide for a family. In other words, we need to avoid seeing the miracle in an ableist vein as an act of merely “fixing” something that had gone “wrong” with the man. The event represents a restoration to wholeness and dignity. It means to promote life and human flourishing. Foretastes of resurrection cannot wait. They extend the sabbath’s joy and freedom to all aspects of life.
The beginning of the end (Mark 3:6)
Only 79 verses into this Gospel, and now the Pharisees and Herodians want to destroy Jesus. Even though those two groups are not mentioned at all in connection with Jesus’ arrest, prosecution, and execution at the end of Mark, still their partnership here, so early in the narrative, raises eyebrows. The name Herodians is ambiguous. No one knows exactly to whom Mark refers with that term. But the association with Herod — and with the ardent Hellenizing legacy of the Herodian family — makes them unlikely political allies for the Pharisees, who tended to resist Hellenistic influences. After not much time in ministry, Jesus has managed to offend two very different groups. Imagine the editorial staffs of both Mother Jones and National Review finding something or someone they both vehemently oppose.
This is the way toward the cross in Mark
In this pair of scenes, Jesus does not assail Judaism. He does not reject the law. He does not render the sabbath obsolete. He does not even call the Pharisees blind guides or a pack of dotards. A sermon on the passage should not do those things, either.
But a sermon should note the way in which disagreement about living within the law quickly escalates into hostility, a hostility that will eventually lead some — but certainly not all — of the most powerful religious authorities to seek Jesus’ debasement and death. Even as the passage emphasizes a commitment to life and vitality abiding at the heart of God’s reign, it also illustrates how religious commitments and values — any religious commitments and values — can ossify and turn oppressive in the hands of careless stewards. None are immune.
In many ways, the entire Gospel of Mark tells a story of recurring controversy. Passages like this one help us interpret the controversies and also, eventually, the events at the end of the narrative. As Donald Juel put it: “For us — as for Mark — the cross ought to be a sober reminder how easily the most noble motives can be perverted. It points out how quickly an institution can become an end in itself, stifling legitimate concerns of those outside that may seem to threaten stability. It illustrates how frequently insidious forces we scarcely notice can transform the best-educated, best-intentioned among us into insensitive leaders, desperately out of touch with what’s real.”3
Such insensitivity and brokenness move Jesus to grief in the synagogue when he considers the stony, Pharaoh-like hearts that regard something as more valuable than removing suffering and disadvantage before the sun sets. But Mark also has good news to announce. This story of the in-breaking reign of God will also tell of compassion and transformation. Jesus, like the God who instituted the sabbath, is committed to preserving life. His ministry will expose the oppressive and corrosive tyrannies of fear, imperial pretense, and religious hypocrisy, wherever they reside. But, finally, he will deliver us from them.
- See material quoted and discussed in Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8 (AB 27; New York: Doubleday, 2000), 245; Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 33.
- Marcus, Mark, 248.
- Shaping the Scriptural Imagination: Truth, Meaning, and the Theological Interpretation of the Bible (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2011), 175.