One of the great things about being a pastor is that I get to regularly talk to people about the Bible and how it works. On Tuesday’s I publish old sermons that have been slightly reworked to become longer form blog posts. This is one of those sermons.
One thing I’ve learned about myself over the last few years is that I really tend to like order.
In every personality test I’ve done as an adult—whether it’s the Myers-Briggs, the enneagram, the flag test, whatever—they all come out the same. I hate chaos. I like things to be in their place; to be structured and systematized. If I’m playing a board game or a card game, I like all of my cards to be aligned the same way. All of my cash, if there’s money in the game, to be facing the same direction.
One way this presents itself is in the board game Monopoly. Most people like to play with house rules. Not me. I think house rules are dumb. Everyone always complains about how Monopoly always takes forever to play, but then they put in house rules that make the game last forever. If you play the game the normal way it actually takes about as long as any other board game. (Yes, this is something I’m oddly passionate about.)
And I think it’s because at the end of the day since I like structure and order so much I tend to be a rules person. I like rules. Not just in board games, but just in general. I like knowing the boundaries, what’s acceptable and not acceptable. I like systems and structures and having everything in place.
We’re continuing our series Scandal: The Offensive Gospel of Jesus and today we’re talking about rules and how Jesus views them. Over the course of this series we’ve been asking the question, what is it about the things that Jesus is saying and do—the teachings and the miracles—that make the gospel so offensive? Why is it that the religious leaders felt they had no other option but to try to kill Jesus.
Today we’re looking at Mark 3:1-6, which says,
1Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shrivelled hand was there. 2Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. 3Jesus said to the man with the shrivelled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.”
4Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent.
5He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. 6Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.
This narrative takes place on the Sabbath. A few weeks ago I mentioned that Mark, like the rest of the Gospel writers, tended to write his gospels less as a linear, chronological story. By that, I mean that Mark didn’t simply write his gospels in terms of what happened first, second and third. All of the gospel writers tended to group different stories or events in Jesus life together in order to make a bigger point.
And we mentioned the Pharisees at the time of Jesus were very concerned with cleanliness, dietary laws and Sabbath restrictions. For them, they viewed these three these as vital to Jewish identity. They saw them as a clear and obvious way to separate themselves and mark themselves off from secular, Gentile society as a whole.
So what Mark has done in chapter two and the first part of chapter three is group together five times that Jesus had a run in with the Pharisees over these specific issues; cleanliness, dietary laws and the Sabbath. It’s Mark’s way of—from the very beginning of his gospel—challenging the importance of Jewish identity. Or rather, questioning what it means to be viewed as God’s people.
Furthermore, these verse Mark 3:1-6 is the second half of Mark’s two-part Sabbath narrative. In both sections, we find Jesus coming head-to-head with the Pharisees in regards to how the Sabbath specifically should be practiced.
There’s this writing style that Jewish writers loved to use and it’s called a chiasm. A chiasm is named after the Greek letter Khi, which looks like a modern day X. The idea in chiastic writing is that you mirror your writing with the most important aspect in the middle.
For example, in the prophets we might see something written about the nation of Israel, then the city of Jerusalem, then they would mention the temple, before mentioning the city of Jerusalem again and finally the nation of Israel again. In this situation, we see the nation of Israel mentioned at the beginning and end, Jerusalem after the first Israel and before the second Israel with the temple in the middle. So it would look like this:
C: The Temple
In a chiasm, whatever is in the middle is the most important part. It’s the main thrust of the story. I say all of this because right in the middle of these two Sabbath stories, in Mark 2:27-28 we see Jesus say this, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”
These two verses are really the whole point of both of these Sabbath stories. Jesus, as the Son of Man, has the authority to explain what the point and purpose of the Sabbath is. And according to Jesus, the Sabbath was made for humanity, instead of thinking that humans were created to honour and keep the Sabbath. Mark’s readers, just like us, would have read those verses right before going into reading about this situation in the Synagogue. So what happens here?
Verses one and two setup the scene, “Another time Jesus went into the synagogue”
The text doesn’t specifically say where this synagogue is, but since Jesus is still up in Galilee, there’s a good chance this is the synagogue in Capernaum, the major city in the area which has acted as Jesus centre of ministry in Galilee. This would have been the largest synagogue in the area and the one with the most Pharisees around.
“And a man with a shrivelled hand was there.”
The text doesn’t say this specifically, but there was a general understanding in Israel that physical deformities and maladies were the results of sin and a punishment from God. In John 9, Jesus and his disciples come across a man born blind and the disciples ask, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
There’s good cause to think this same thought process would have existed in Capernaum. Which means, every time this man came to the synagogue and lifted up his hands in prayer—which was a custom in the synagogues—everyone would have seen his hand and suspected that there was obviously unrepentant sin in his life.
As David Garland says in his commentary,
This man would have stood out when the congregation stood for prayer and raised both hands to shoulder height, palms outward, in prayer. A withered hand is frequently the punishment for stretching out one’s hand to reach for something sinful… His condition would have been regarded as proof of unconfessed sin that had not escaped God’s notice.
This man would have been seen as an outcast. Someone who clearly had sinned and was being punished by God. Verse two continues, “Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath.”
Now the Sabbath was a big deal. The Sabbath was one of the Ten Commandments that Moses was originally given on Mount Sinai. And in Exodus 20:8-11 we read,
8“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. 11For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
We’re not supposed to work on the Sabbath. That’s the deal. But the problem with this command is that it doesn’t define what work is. Which means people began asking all kinds of questions about what is and what is not work.
Can you walk on the Sabbath? How far? Can you carry something on the Sabbath? Can you cook? Can you read? Can you talk with friends? Over time, something called the Mishnah developed. The Mishnah was believed to be the oral law that God gave along side the written law. And while the original command was simply, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy” the Mishnah came up with 39 things that it considered to be work and therefore were not allow on the Sabbath.
Those 39 things were: planting, plowing, reaping, gatherings, threshing, winnowing, sorting, grinding, sifting, kneading, cooking/baking, shearing, laundering, combing wool, dying, spinning, warping, making two loops, weaving, separating two threads, tying, untying, sewing, tearing, trapping, slaughtering, flaying, curing, smoothing, scoring, measured cutting, writing, erasing, building, demolition, extinguishing a fire, igniting a fire, applying a finishing touch and transferring between domains.
Avoid these 39 things and you are keeping the Sabbath. However, even from this, another question came up. Suppose someone was in a life threatening situation and the only way to save them was to do work? Can you break the Sabbath in order to save a life? This is known in Judaism as Pikuach Nefesh or the principle of the preservation of life. If someone’s life is in danger, then you’re allowed to break any rules in the Torah, including the Sabbath law, in order to save their life. However, if someone’s life is not in danger, then it can wait until the next day.
So Jesus entered the synagogue and he saw this man with a shrivelled hand. The man who clearly had some unconfessed sin in his life, or so they thought. And the Pharisees are watching to see if Jesus was going to heal this man on the Sabbath. If Jesus healed him, then he’s breaking the Sabbath since this man clearly isn’t in a life threatening situation. He can be healed tomorrow. If Jesus breaks the Sabbath law by healing him, then the Pharisees will have something that they can accuse Jesus with.
And Jesus takes the bait. He calls the man to come stand in the middle of the synagogue where everyone could see. And he presents this question to the Pharisees, in verse four, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” The question really gets at the heart of the purpose of Sabbath and the law in general. Is the law good or bad? Should we save a life on the Sabbath or should we kill?
Essentially, Jesus is asking them about the way they view the purpose of the law. Why did God give us the law? Did God give us the law for our benefit? Or is the law a burden? Something to be used to show our devotion to God? Every Jew, including the Pharisees, would know the answer to this. Obviously, the point of the law is to be a benefit and a blessing in our lives.
And remember, from the last verses of chapter two, we know that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. The law is good and gives life. But, if they answered that it is supposed to give life, then Jesus could use that as an excuse to heal this man. However, they couldn’t possibly say that the law permits evil; that the law should be used to kill. That would undermine the entire point of the law. Jesus took their bait, but then turned it around on them and used it to trap them instead. What does the law allow? To do good or to do evil? To save life or to kill? They’re stuck. So they remain silent.
Verse five says,
He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored.
Jesus is angry with them, but he’s also deeply distressed. He’s frustrated with their stubbornness. If only they would give up their pride, they could see what God is doing in their midst. This is what’s known as righteous anger. It’s an anger that comes genuinely out of love for them and for those they’re oppressing.
Jesus has no desire to simply write off the Pharisees and say, “I’m done with you, I’m choosing a new people.” Jesus deeply wants them to get it. He wants them to understand that people matter more than rules do. But their pride and their stubbornness have blinded them to that reality. So he heals the man’s hand.
Ironically, he doesn’t really do much. There are plenty of other times in the gospels where Jesus actually does something when he heals. He spits in the mud and creates a salve or he touches someone or he asks them to go wash in a pool. Here, Jesus simply says “Stretch out your hand.” Which could hardly be considered work? However, the result is the same. The man has been healed.
Whatever way he had been ostracized from the community is over and he can now fully participate in worship in the synagogue. This is something that should be celebrated. This is exactly what the Sabbath is all about, healing, restoration, recovery. But instead, verse six tells us, “Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.”
The Herodians weren’t a political group like the Pharisees and Sadducees were. They were simply the rich supporters of the Herod dynasty. They were the ones advocating for Hellenistic or Greco-Roman influences in Palestine. They gladly supported Roman rule. The Herodians, in every sense, were the enemies of the Pharisees. But here we see this alliance between them.
Jesus was disrupting their very way of life. He was undermining their traditions and their religious rules, which made the Pharisees mad. Furthermore, he was gaining a following, which could potentially lead to the overthrow of the Roman government in Palestine. So while neither side liked the other, they both had the common goal of getting rid of Jesus.
And it all stems from this question about the Sabbath. It stems from Jesus asking some hard questions about how they viewed the law. From Jesus perspective, people are always more important than rigid adherence to the law. Notice, Jesus never says “Let’s get rid of the law. Let’s get rid of the rules.” But when the rules become a hindrance to coming to God, Jesus was okay with the law taking a back seat.
The rules should never be a barrier to people coming to God. And yet, even though the Sabbath itself was not a barrier to experiencing God, the Pharisaic interpretation of the Sabbath was. If the way we interpret rules ends up acting as a barrier to someone experiencing the grace of Jesus, then we’re in the wrong.
This is particularly an issue for someone like me because I like the rules. I like to know where I stand and where others stand. But a lot of times I can hold on to the rules a little too tightly. It can be easy for me to think, “Well I was able to do this, why can’t others?” And what happens when I do that is that I start to measure myself against other people. I start to compare myself and think, “God must be more pleased with me. God must like me more because I’m more obedient.”
And this is what the Pharisees did. They tended to use the law as a measuring stick. They tended to think of obedience to the law as a way to please God. They thought God looked at them and was happier with them when they obeyed the law. And they used the law to compare themselves to others. But whenever we see the rules as a way of measuring ourselves compared to others, rather than for the benefit of people, we’re in the wrong.
However, according to Jesus, the Sabbath was made for us, not us for the Sabbath. In a broader sense, the law was made for us, not us for the law. We weren’t creating to strictly follow the law. The law was created for our benefit. But when Jesus showed up, he showed us the best way to live out the law. And what he shows us is that sometimes, in order to obey the spirit of the law, you have to be willing to disregard the letter of the law.
This is why, when asked what the most important law is, Jesus said it’s to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and to love your neighbour as yourself. Those two laws sum up all the law and the prophets. In other words, the rest of the law is just commentary on what it looks like to love God and love other people.
Daniel Akin, in his commentary on Mark, says it this way,
Jesus actually fulfills the intent and heart of the Mosaic law… In this act of mercy, Jesus loves His Father by expressing God’s character and compassion toward this man, who is undoubtedly one of God’s precious creatures. Likewise, He loves this man through His kind, healing touch. The Pharisees knew nothing of this love and thus were far from fulfilling the law of Moses.
For Jesus, love for God and love for this man were more important than strict, rigid obedience to the letter of the law. And that’s because, for Jesus, people are always more important than rules. Which once again, does not mean that Jesus didn’t care about the rules or thought we should completely do away with the rules. But he understood when the rules got in the way. He understood when we should need to set aside the letter of the law in order to fulfill the spirit of the law. Because people matter more than rules.
In what areas of our lives do we have love rules more than people?? In what areas are we rigidly holding to the rules to the detriment of those around us?
As an example, all denominations have a rule book. In the Wesleyan denomination I was trained in, it’s known as The Discipline of the Wesleyan Church. A new one comes out every four years after the denomination has what they call General Conference. It’s where people from every district get together and talk about denominational issues. If you’ve every struggled with insomnia, this is the place for you.
The Discipline contains all the rules for the Wesleyan Church—what you have to do to be a member, what’s required to be ordained or to be a church, issues of discipline and structure—it’s all in there. And it’s a good book. I actually really like the Discipline most of the time.
But there have been times in the past when the rules don’t work. There have been times since I’ve been a pastor, where I’ve seen people hold tightly to these rules. And I’ve seen times when people who are genuinely trying to follow Jesus have been hurt by these rules. I’ve seen times where these rules have been used to justify why we shouldn’t build relationships with those people and why we should expect them to reform or change their behaviour before they can be accepted into the community.
Are we, regardless of our denomination, holding a little too tightly to the rules? Is our holding to the rules causing some people to be excluded unnecessarily?
In John 13, Jesus reminds us that we will be known as his disciples when we love one another. Not when we rigidly hold to the rules and exclude one another. But Christians over time have been known to do this. To rigidly hold to rules and even at times persecute each other over the rules. One great example is the Anabaptists.
Many denominations believe in infant baptism, but Anabaptists subscribe to believer baptism, which means they believed adults should be baptized after they made a personal decision of faith in Jesus.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, many Catholics and Protestants persecuted the Anabaptists for their different belief. In those two centuries, thousands of Anabaptists were killed because of their belief in believer baptism.
Now we can say what we want about which baptism is right, but I think we can all agree that murder is wrong. And there’s absolutely no reason why we should be killing fellow Christians over a difference in theological beliefs.
This is what can happen when we think that rules matter more than people. And this doesn’t just happen on the scale of denominations or movements. Individual church and people can be hard-hearted and stubborn as well. And so we need to constantly ask ourselves, am I being stubborn? Am I rigidly holding on to rules to the exclusion of people?
Furthermore, what am I using as my identity? For the Pharisees, keeping the Sabbath was a matter of Jewish identity. Obeying this specific interpretation of the Sabbath was a matter of national, racial tradition and understanding. Who they were as a people was intricately wrapped up in how they kept the Sabbath, how to maintained dietary restrictions and whether or not they were circumcised. And as Christians, we’re not immune to using things other than Jesus as our identity.
For some of us, maybe our identity is wrapped up in our denomination. Are we Wesleyan or Reformed or Anglican or Catholic first and Christian second? Or are we first and foremost identified as followers of Jesus, and only secondly as members of our denominations?
Maybe for some of us, our identity is wrapped up in being conservative or liberal. Our identity is husband or wife, father or mother. Wherever our value comes from, that’s ultimately our identity. For me, one of the things I struggle with a lot is allowing “pastor” to be my identity.
Whenever our identity is found in something other than Jesus, it will be easy for that thing to become an idol in our life. We will be unwilling or unable to remove that thing from our life without losing our understanding of our worth as a person. Is there something other than Jesus that you tend to use as your identity?
And finally, are there ways we can be so focused on the rules that we don’t understand what God is doing in our community?
For the Pharisees, they didn’t realize how God was moving in Capernaum. There was no time to celebrate the restoration of their brother with the shrivelled hand. They were so focused on how Jesus had supposedly broke the law. They were so focused on a strict interpretation of the law that they missed how God was working in their midst.
Can the same thing happen to us? Can I, as a rules guy, focus so much on my own definition of success, my own definition of what church should be, that I fail to see how God is actively working in my life and in the world around me?
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be a Pharisee. I don’t want to be hard-hearted and stubborn, rigidly holding to the rules over people.
I don’t want my identity to come from “pastor” or from “church leader” or from how well I’m following the rules. And I don’t want to be so focused on my own interpretation of the rules that I miss what God is already doing; how he’s already working.
So I need to ask myself, where am I stubborn and hard-hearted? What am I using as my identity? And how am I focusing more on rule than people, missing the ways where God is always moving and working in our community.