On Mark 3: Conflict Rises

This is the third of a series of sermons working through the Gospel of Mark, preached at Broken Bow United Methodist Church on August 23, 2020.

Today’s scripture passage is Mark 3

Here’s the book version of the story I told for the Children’s Time.

Is lying a sin, and therefore to be always be avoided in favor of honesty? As parents, we have had many, many conversations about honesty and lying, and the importance of telling the truth.

I wonder if Corrie ten Boom, the 20th Century Dutch watchmaker, had such conversations with her parents Casper and Cornelia. As faithful Christians, I suspect she did, since there are well over a hundred instances in the Old and New Testaments about how lying is bad, or a sin. Yet, Corrie became famous, not for being the first female to be licensed as a watchmaker in Holland, but for being part of a group of people whose daily lives were filled with lies. Starting about 1940, she became a leader in the “Beje movement” – a system of safe houses for Jewish people hiding from the Nazis in the Netherlands. The ten Booms built a secret hiding place in a room in their house above the watchmaking storefront. Undoubtedly, she lied many times to Nazi soldiers, “No, there are no Jews here.”

With this, I ask again, “Is lying a sin?” But, Corrie ten Boom’s story raises a follow up question, “Are there times in which God calls us to lie, and in so doing, break the rules of the Torah, and the Bible?” Let’s keep this question in the back of our minds as we consider our passage from Mark.

Things have been heating up in the life and ministry of Jesus through the last few weeks in our reading of Mark. In a way, Mark 1-3 is foreshadowing for the gospel as a whole: Jesus proclaims and embodies the way of God’s kingdom; crowds follow him; others reject him and commit to silence him.

As we can see in today’s passage, they – the scribes and Pharisees – “were watching” Jesus, lying in wait for him to do something egregious. They’d already seen him claim to forgive sins when he healed a paralyzed man – something only God can do (2:7). They’d seen and objected to the company he kept – regular people, fishermen, tax collectors, sinners, and the sick (2:15-17). They’d seen that he seemed to disregard important Jewish practices like fasting and Sabbath rest (1: 21-23; 2:23-28). And, in today’s passage, he shows more care for people than he does for religious regulations.

In each of these scenes, the fame and conflict surrounding Jesus increases. More and more ordinary people follow him, and crowds consistently surround him. But, the legal experts grumble about, question, and challenge Jesus with increasing directness. Then, after seeing him heal the man’s withered hand on the Sabbath in the synagogue, the Pharisees join with supporters of Herod Antipas to “plan how to destroy” Jesus (3:6).

This is a bold move for Jesus’s critics that makes me wonder, “What would we do if we were there?” If we’d seen what Mark describes, would we follow Jesus with the crowds or the disciples? Or, would we, like the Pharisees, feel fed up or threatened by Jesus, to the point that we’d join forces with our enemies – the unclean and loathsome supporters of Herod, the puppet of the Emperor – to plan to destroy Jesus? It seems a little drastic and exaggerated, right? But, if we look a little closer at today’s passage, we can see at least three things that threaten and enrage the Pharisees.

First, Jesus calls them out directly, in the synagogue – their home turf – on the Sabbath. Jesus knows they’re watching, so he asks the man with the withered hand to “step up where people can see you” (3:3). Then, Jesus asks them a bit of a trick question: “Is it legal on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” (3:4). There’s no right answer for them. If they say it’s not lawful to heal on the Sabbath, they’ll appear heartless and force people toward Jesus. If they say it is lawful, they’ll contradict their own teaching. And so they stay silent, which makes people think Jesus has more legitimacy and authority than they do.

Second, Jesus is asking them more than a rhetorical question; he’s challenging who they are. If it were merely a rhetorical question, he might have left it at, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” That would have sufficed, but Jesus adds “to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill.” As Bible experts, the Pharisees would have heard this line as an echo of God’s message to Israel through Moses. Perched on the hills overlooking the Promised Land, Moses tells the people:

Today I’ve set before you life and what’s good versus death and what’s wrong. If you obey the Lord your God’s commandments that I’m commanding you right now by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways […] then you will live and thrive…

Deuteronomy 30:15-16, CEB

Hearing Moses, we can hear what Jesus is really saying. He’s inviting them to “choose life” by healing on the Sabbath. But as the passage ends, we know that they have chosen death, his death.

Third, in healing the man’s hand on the Sabbath, Jesus challenges the Pharisees’ interpretation of scripture. If we scour the Law – the Torah, the first five books of the Bible – we’ll find repeated instructions to keep the Sabbath holy, and to observe the Sabbath, by not working, as a sign that all life is dependent on God. But, we won’t find any rules specifically mentioning healing on the Sabbath. Therefore, literally, healing on the Sabbath is lawful. But, by Jesus’s day, the Pharisees had developed a more restrictive interpretation of the Law based on oral tradition of the rabbis. They defined work as any act meant to control or change the created order. And they made lists of things that were work, and should be avoided on the Sabbath. So, according the Pharisees, healing on the Sabbath was not lawful. Even so, Jesus heals the man in plain sight of his critics, with his actions proclaiming, “God values human life more than God values your restrictive interpretations of scripture and your rules.”

In healing the man’s hand, even if it means breaking the Sabbath laws as they were interpreted, Jesus reveals God’s unstoppable care for those who struggle, so that the people could know and follow God. The Pharisees couldn’t see God in Jesus. But the crowds of people coming for healing, and Jesus’s growing group of disciples Mark lists next in the chapter, see God in Jesus, and they choose to follow him in the way of life.

Seeing this, let’s turn back to Corrie ten Boom for a moment. Given Jesus’s actions in this passage, is it lawful to lie? In one sense, according to scripture, lying is always a sin. And yet, Corrie ten Boom lies in order to choose life. She lies to be faithful. Perhaps, we might even say that Jesus inspired her to lie – to live contrary to some scripture – in order to be faithful to scripture’s more important calling: promoting life.

Corrie and Jesus interpret scripture through a vision of God’s kingdom. Jesus interprets scripture regarding the Sabbath differently than the Pharisees do. He interprets God’s commands in scripture through God’s promise to give and promote life. And when others’ interpretations of God’s commands in scripture actually prevent wholeness of life, Jesus reveals God’s unstoppable care for those who struggle, so that they can experience wholeness, life, and blessing.

We might see many areas of our lives in which Jesus could be challenging our interpretations of scripture here, but let’s take the ordained ministry of women as an example, asking Jesus’s question: “It is lawful…?” Many denominations and churches today, in our own community even, answer that it is not lawful, that God does not call women to preach or teach in church, or possibly in their families, at least where men are concerned. They base their answer on certain passages of scripture interpreted certain ways. But in our denomination, we’ve been ordaining and appointing women to teach, preach, and serve as pastors since 1956 (and in some cases, earlier). We’ve heard Jesus calling us to interpret scripture differently, giving precedence to other passages to support our answer. In this, Jesus reveals God’s care for those who struggle, so that we can know and follow God faithfully. And for women in leadership, we have heard his call, seen his healing and life-giving care, and followed.

But herein lies our great and ongoing challenge as people of faith. Jesus reveals God’s will and ways fully. Jesus comes into the pages of Mark and our lives proclaiming, “Now is the time! Here comes the kingdom of God! Change your hearts and lives and believe this good news.” Jesus reveals God’s care for those who struggle, so that we can live into God’s in-breaking kingdom. May God give us eyes to see those who struggle in our midst – those kept out and apart from God’s healing and blessing by restrictive interpretations of scripture – so that we can bear Jesus’s life-giving presence in their lives. May it be so.

Reflection Questions

  1. At least on the surface, the conflict of this passage is based on whether it is indeed lawful to heal on the Sabbath. See this article from the Jewish tradition. What do you think? Did Jesus break the Law (the Torah), or not?
  2. If you say that he doesn’t break the Law, on what grounds do you say this?
  3. If you say that Jesus does break the Law, what difficulties does this raise for you theologically? What other scriptures does “Jesus breaks the Law” contradict or hold in tension?
  4. I applied Jesus re-interpretation of scripture to the idea of the ordination of women. Does this work for you? What other ideas or issues might a similar re-interpretation deal with? Is it possible that it works for some issues and not others, and why?
  5. I don’t go into the feelings or experience of the healed man in this sermon. What do you think he’s feeling or thinking? How does it feel when Jesus calls him up to be seen?
  6. What do you want Jesus to heal you of? How might you experience this healing from Jesus? Or, in what ways have you experienced Jesus healing you? And, were there any “Pharisees” in your life that thought Jesus shouldn’t heal you in the way that he did?
  7. Does Jesus call us to participate in healing ministry, and in what ways?
Here’s the live version of the sermon from the 11 o’clock worship service.
It has a slightly different structure in the middle section, which I think is a gift of the Holy Spirit.

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