Texts: Deuteronomy 5:12-15; 2 Corinthians 4:5-12; Mark 2:23-3:6
We don’t know exactly who “the Herodians” are, but we know that Herod, their namesake, is the Roman-installed governor of Galilee. Although he claimed Jewish ancestry, he and his family were well known for his importing of Greek customs and practices. This makes the Herodians unlikely political allies for the Pharisees, who as religious purists would have been very resistant to both Greek influence and to Roman rule. While not exactly enemies, these two groups were certainly not friends; the fact that that Pharisees are willing to make what, to them, is such a vulgar compromise speaks to just how much they dislike Jesus and wish to see him destroyed.
His argument—that human need outweighs the commands of the law—was neither new nor controversial. What perhaps may have been controversial to the Pharisees was Jesus’ claim that he, like David, was on a ‘mission from God,’ as it were, and that his (and his disciples’) need outweighed the Sabbath restrictions.
Whatever it was exactly that angered them, from this point on the Pharisees will not hear what Jesus has to say. They have become convinced that he is wantonly disregarding God’s law as it suits him, and they have branded him their enemy. The confrontation in the synagogue shows us how this is true. Jesus can sense their intention to trap him and calls them out. He asks them an obvious question; their silence betrays the fact that they are not interested in the truth, but only in setting him up.
It isn’t legalism that’s the problem here. As strict as the Pharisees were, the kind of dialogue in which Jesus engages them is simply the normal kind of rabbinic debate that was and still is common regarding the interpretation of the law. What is extraordinary about this passage is how the Pharisees all of a sudden refuse to engage in that debate and so quickly declare Jesus and enemy to be destroyed. This is what grieves and angers Jesus in the synagogue: not that they are so strict in their legal interpretation, but that they have refused to listen and have decided only to entrap and oppose him.
The sad thing is that if they continued to listen, to engage with him and debate, they may not change their minds, but they would still grow and learn. And that is Jesus’ mission, after all: to announce the coming reign of God and to reveal God’s will and work in the world. In closing themselves off to Jesus, the Pharisees didn’t realize they were also closing themselves off to the very God they so deeply tried to serve and honor.
It’s easy for us to criticize the Pharisees for their legalism, to set them up as a straw man to be knocked down so we can congratulate ourselves and say, “Look how unlike them we are!” But it is much harder to condemn their hard-heartedness without also seeing how hard our own hearts can sometimes be. We also harbor prejudices and stereotypes; we also write others off as “opponents” and “enemies,” allowing ourselves to believe they are deficient in some way: stupid, callous, ignorant, selfish or even cruel. We apply these labels liberally to the people who don’t vote for the same candidates we do, or who hold to a different economic theory, or who attend churches that are too different from our own. We let labels keep us from hearing people who think differently than we do, people whose own opinions and experiences might actually teach us something about our own and help us to grow in understanding.
When St. Paul says that he and his fellow apostles “carry in their bodies the death of Jesus,” he is admitting that he and his companions are not perfect. He knows that they do not look successful: they are occasionally run out of town, their message is not as powerful or eloquent as some of the other preachers, they are subject to imprisonment and beatings and persecution; but he also knows that their human frailties and imperfections are themselves a testament to the gospel they preach. “So death is at work in us,” he says, and yet, even in their weakness, the message of the gospel continues to spread and the community of disciples continues to grow—“but life is at work in you.” The power of God always works to nourish human life and community.
Even God’s laws—the very laws that we sometimes consider too restrictive or needlessly complicated—are designed to help human life together flourish. That is one of the grand ironies of this story: the Sabbath was originally instated to give people who used to work as slaves a time specifically to rest—something they never got in Egypt—and to recognize that rest as a gift from God. Paul recognizes that his weakness is not a bug, but a feature: it reminds him and his audience that the message he proclaims is not his own invention, and therefore not reliant upon his success as a public speaker. Our own weakness is a reminder to all of us that the power we proclaim is not is not ours, but God’s, just like the Sabbath rest is itself a reminder that it was God who delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.
One of the things this story shows us is how relying too heavily on our own convictions—even religious convictions—can actually prevent us from knowing God more fully. When we rely too heavily on our own ability to reason or follow or intuit God’s will, we may miss how other people—people with different opinions and different interpretations—might help us learn more about ourselves and about God.
It is remarkable that, this early in Mark’s gospel—barely three chapters in—Jesus’ work of revealing the truth of God is already pointing him to the cross. One of the messages of Mark’s gospel is that it is only in his death that Jesus can really be known, and only by following him to death can we know God. Perhaps this is one way in which we are put to death in our baptism: our certainty, our superiority, our sense of self-reliance must die if we are to be able to follow him as we ought. We die in baptism and are brought to new life by constantly being reminded of how frail and weak and wrong we so often are, and how much we need to rely on God for true strength and rest.
That is one of the reasons we come together as a community for worship. There is no community in existence that is completely homogenous in its membership; no community is full of people who all believe exactly the same things, practice exactly the same things, or confess the same things. Our diversity is often cause for conflict, but it is also a means by which God helps us to grow into fuller understanding of how God is at work among us.
If that is true of God’s Church, how can it not also be true of God’s world? The world is fully of people that God has made, people who have experienced (or not experienced) God in different ways, through different means. As part of our call to spread the gospel, we come into contact with many different people of different political and religious beliefs, any of whom may help us to better understand our own—but not unless we are able to die to our own desire to be correct and listen for how God might be speaking to us through them.
We can steadfastly follow Jesus while at the same time remaining open to the possibility that we have more to learn. In Mark’s gospel, the disciples are always falling short of Jesus’ expectations of them, constantly misunderstanding and misapplying his teaching. He occasionally rebukes, but never abandons. Even with Jesus himself to lead them, they are not great at following; so what makes us think we could do any better?
In spite of all of this, Jesus never rejects them, never despises them. He continues to patiently teach and guide, trusting that as they continue to grow in faith, they will come to fuller understanding. Our journey of faith continues in their footsteps. We are still becoming the disciples Jesus calls us to be, and we always will be. And like those first disciples, Jesus remains with us, teaching us, feeding us, and bringing us to new life.