Monday, July 22, 2019

Mark 2 23-28 & Mark 3 1-6

My father told me that his Wesleyan Auntie Janie used to distinguish between Sunday games and week-day games. Snakes and Ladders and Happy Families were unacceptable on the Sabbath because they involved dice and cards. Drafts and Chess, on the other hand, were permissible. I myself am old enough to remember the last days of Christian England, when newsagents were allowed to sell newspapers on a Sunday but had to rope off that part of the shop which sold chocolate and magazines. I guess that is what most of us think of when we think about The Sabbath. Scottish Sabbatarianism and the Lord's Day Observance society; joyless fanaticism or arbitrary hair-splitting.

If we are not very careful, we are going to read this very English attitude into these stories. Jesus represents the relaxed liberals who don't mind a cup of tea and a dance and some scones and perhaps even a couple of pints of beer. The Pharisees represent the uptight old matrons who close down the taverns and won't let kids play football on Sunday, even if that means forgoing their Olympic gold medal. Jesus represents sensible English people and the Pharisees represent Johnny Foreigner with his rules and his rosaries and his prayer mats. Jesus represents us and the Pharisees represents them. Roses are reddish, violets are blueish, if not for Jesus, we'd all be Jewish.

There was once a schoolboy who was suppose to write about this passage for his R.E homework. His essay began "The Pharisees were very wicked men, and thank God that we are not like them!" Somewhere along the line a point seemed to have been missed.

As a matter of historical fact, the Pharisees were a sect within Judaism: they believed that the tablets of the Law were supplemented by an oral teaching which God told Moses about, but which Moses never wrote down. (This oral Torah eventually became the Talmud, so today's orthodox Jews are indirect descendants of the Pharisees.) I was brought up to think of the Pharisees as obsessive literalists; but in fact, it was the Sadducees, who will hear from in a few chapters, who believed in following the exact text of the Torah. If anything, Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for being too free and easy in their interpretation.

That kind of split is not at all unusual in religions. Some Muslims follow only the literal text of the Koran; others think it has to be interpreted in the light of the Prophet's life and the teachings of his immediate successors. Some Christians believe in Scripture Alone; others call on a great body of infallible tradition. Some Star Wars fans believe only in the eleven canonical movies; others pay attention to the comic books and computer games as well. 

The more texts there are; the more commentaries on the texts; and the more opinions on those commentaries; the more possible it is for two people to sincerely disagree about what the holy book actually says. This allows for some flexibility: you can usually find a loophole or some wiggle room which allows you to apply the letter of the law to a modern situation in a pragmatic way. But there is always a danger that this approach will turn religion into a game for experts. Only people who have mastered all the books and all the commentaries can know the proper religious thing to do under a particular set of circumstances. Which gives a great deal of power to the people who have spent their lives studying the texts, and puts individual conscience on the back burner.

The Scribes and the Pharisees don't represent Jews in general or even prissy Methodist Aunties with a hang-up about card-games. What they represent is theoreticians: people who think that religion is a subject.

That is the joke which this second section of Mark's Gospel seems to turn on. A crack has opened up in the sky. God is walking around the Galilean countryside disguised as a carpenter. Devils are running away from him. Crowds are being drawn to him. Sick people are getting better just by being near him. Tax collectors are giving up collecting taxes, and, perhaps more remarkably, fishermen are giving up fishing.

So: what kind of people would be least happy to find God wandering around on earth? Who would be most cross if God turned up in church or temple or synagogue?

The answer, perfectly obviously, is "religious people".

and it came to pass, 
that he went through the corn fields on the Sabbath day;
and his disciples began as they went, to pluck the ears of corn.
and the Pharisees said unto him,
"behold, why do they on the Sabbath day that which is not lawful?"
and he said unto them,

"have ye never read what David did,
when he had need,
and was an hungered,
he, and they that were with him?
how he went into the house of God
in the days of Abiathar the high priest
and did eat the shewbread,
which is not lawful to eat but for the priests
and gave also to them which were with him?"

and he said unto them, 

"The Sabbath was made for man, 
and not man for the Sabbath: 
therefore the Son of Man is Lord also of the Sabbath."

I have sometimes been told by my Jewish friends that there is ludic element to following the Torah: that it is a holy game, and that getting the correct interpretation of a particular law is less important than knowing the scriptures well enough that you can argue for interpretation A over interpretation B. I don't think we are supposed to imagine that the Pharisees are shocked and horrified that Jesus's disciples have violated the holy day by nibbling bits of wheat on their way to morning service. I think we have to imagine someone plucking a bit of grass and chewing it, and one of the Pharisees saying "Aha! Gotcha! Picking grass could be seen as work, so we have caught you breaking the Sabbath on a technicality".

To which Jesus replies, "Aha, gotcha yourself! Two can play at that game..."

Jesus appeals, not to the law itself, but to a book of history (the second book of Samuel, since you ask). And he appeals to what appears to be an unrelated case. King David once allowed his men to eat consecrated bread from the temple, simply because they were hungry. (He asked permission first; and he assured the Priest that his men abstained from sexual intercourse on while they were on active service. But he did let them eat holy bread.) So it follows...

Well, what follows? Is Jesus attacking the whole idea of holiness and sanctity? "David was prepared to use sacred bread for a mundane purpose. So either David was a sinner, or it is sometimes okay to use sacred things for mundane purposes. David was not a sinner, so it follows that it must sometimes be okay to desecrate the sacred"?

Is he trying to place history above the law, individual cases above general principles. "Let's stop looking at rules and regulations, and instead look at the way admirable people actually behave and use that as our yardstick"?

Or is he somehow critiquing the validity of the Pharisee's additional teachings? "You Pharisees interpret the law in the light of your oral traditions: I say we should interpret the law in the light of the historical texts."

Or is he saying something as simple as "Pish tosh and fiddle faddle, you know jolly well that everyone fudges the law a bit when they are peckish."

I am not sure we can draw any kind of moral or religious principal out of the exchange. The question "can we nibble little bits of grass on our way to church" is not one of the pressing moral questions of our age. If we look at the story as a story, it clear enough what is being said. "The Pharisees were religious hair-splitters. But when they tried it on Jesus, he turned around and beat them at their own game."

If you want a message, perhaps that is it. Don't try to quote chapter-and-verse at God. He's better at it than you.

Just when we are resigned to Jesus and the Pharisees having a back-and-forth religious argument on a technical point, he makes a much more dramatic and sweeping claim. He again refers to himself by that strange title, Son of Man, the son of the human. And he suddenly seems to say that as the Son of the Human, he gets to decide who can do what on which day of the week.

You know who gets to decide whether or not we can work on the Sabbath? This guy. God made the Sabbath for men. So The Man is in charge of the Sabbath.

You can see why the Pharisees would be unimpressed by this. But that doesn't quite prepare us for what follows.

and he entered again into the synagogue;
and there was a man there which had a withered hand.
and they watched him,
whether he would heal him on the Sabbath day;
that they might accuse him.

and he saith unto the man which had the withered hand, 
"stand forth."

and he saith unto them, 
"is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath day, or to do evil?
to save life, or to kill?"
but they held their peace.

and when he had looked round about on them with anger,
being grieved for the hardness of their hearts,
he saith unto the man, 
"stretch forth thine hand" 
and he stretched it out

and his hand was restored whole as the other.
and the Pharisees went forth,
and straight-way took counsel with the Herodians against him,
how they might destroy him.

Since Jesus returned to Capernaum, Mark has shown a rising conflict with the Scribes and the Pharisees. Up to now, Jesus has largely been prepared to answer them on their own terms. But today, on the specific question of the Sabbath, everything comes to a head.

There is a person who needs healing. It isn't a matter of life and death. No one is hungry. The man with the poorly hand could presumably have waited til after sun-down to get healed. The Pharisees are specifically there in the synagogue to see what Jesus is going to do. And what Jesus is going to do is heal the man's hand. No excuses. No clever arguments. It's a direct challenge to them.

Do you have the power to forgive sins?
Well, I can do miracles. Draw your own conclusions.

Why are you having dinner with sinners?
Because they are sick and I am a doctor.

Why aren't your followers fasting?
Because I'm here.

Why are your followers breaking the Sabbath?
Because I say so.

Are you going to heal this man, on the Sabbath?
Yes: yes I am. Look at me. Look at me breaking your Sabbath.

And the Pharisees reaction is immediate and, if we didn't already know the story, it would be quite surprising.

"Let's kill him."

Well. That escalated quickly.

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