image001-3Of all the opponents to Jesus and the kingdom Mark might have identified in his gospel, of all the adversaries he might have painted in heated conflict with Jesus’ message and work, naming church-going religious people as the “enemy” comes as a bit of a surprise.

Mark could have made the Romans the bad guys. They were present in Mark’s Gospel, readily available to twirl mustaches and emit wicked cackles. There was plenty not to like about the Romans. They were violent and greedy, arrogant and pagan. At the time Mark wrote his Gospel—twenty-five years after the events he records—the Romans were engaged in a devastating suppression of Christians around the Mediterranean world, persecuting and tormenting Mark’s brothers and sisters.

Why not make the Romans the villains of his story?

A few years later, when John writes the Revelation, the antagonist of his apocalyptic vision was the Beast, the Dragon, the seven-headed monster threatening to eat the Child of Promise. The villain of the Revelation was Satan: Satan raging back and forth across the earth, devouring souls and slavering for more; Satan and all his evil minions; Satan and his wicked dominion arrayed against the forces of light.

Why didn’t Mark make Satan the opponent?

Instead, Mark identified “those who think themselves righteous,” “those who believe themselves to be on God’s side” as the real bad guys in the ministry of Jesus—a shocking, unanticipated, uncomfortable turn in Mark’s tale.

And the issues that created the divide? The concerns that get the Pharisees’ oppositional juices flowing? The Pharisees were not upset about this broken world and Satan’s mastery of it. They were not offended by unrestrained violence or rampant greed. They cared nothing about suffering or injustice or self-serving power or the tyranny of lust and pride.

What truly bothered them was Jesus’ failure to keep the Sabbath in their accustomed manner. He ate when he ought to have fasted. And he spoke uncomfortable words and kept uncomfortable companions. The Pharisees couldn’t stand Jesus flouting standard operating procedures!

There is a blindness to which religious people are prone that causes them to obsess about gnats and be oblivious to camels. It is a form of selective attention in which every mole hill becomes a mountain and mountains appear no more than molehills. It is an absence of taste that permits upright (uptight?) people to love old wine and hate the new.

Aren’t you glad we’re not like them?

A Sabbath Battle

It’s the Sabbath Day and—once again—Jesus is flirting with strict religious boundaries and expectations. It’s the Sabbath Day and Jesus is traveling with his disciples—a Sabbath activity of which the Pharisees heartily disapprove. There were limits on how far a devout Jew could walk on the Sabbath day—only a short distance and no farther or else you ran the risk of “working” on the Sabbath.

But here Jesus and his disciples are traveling on the Sabbath Day. To compound their error, as they walk through fields ripe with grain, Jesus’ disciples break off the heads, rub them between their hands, and snack on the kernels.

Harvesting. Reaping. Making preparations for a meal. On the Sabbath!

The Pharisees are shocked. “Unbelievable! Master! Rebuke your disciples! They are doing what is unlawful to do on a Sabbath. Will you speak up to protect God’s law? Do you care at all about God’s commandments?”

Jesus could have said many things. To his disciples: “Drop the grain. Don’t give offense. Let’s not poke our anal-retentive friends in the eye with a stick … or with a seed.” He could have yielded to their sensibilities for the sake of peace. He could have picked other battles.

Instead, he took a stand. “I have something to tell you. Sabbath was meant to be a blessing, not a burden, to the people of God. It was given for man’s benefit, not to become one more boundary and restriction and obligation to prove piety. God did not create us to conform to Sabbath traditions. The Sabbath was created to conform to human need. Any questions?”

That popping sound you hear in the background? That’s a Pharisee blowing a gasket.

Previous Article in Series

Next Article in Series