Now John's disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. And people came and said to him, “Why do John's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day. No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins.”
One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. And the Pharisees were saying to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?” And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come here.” And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.
A newspaper headline this morning reads, “As votes are counted, Americans remain anxious.” Another states, “On an Election Day . . . a clash of competing visions of America, fear was the great uniter, and motivator.” Regardless of where one lands on the political spectrum, a common anxiety about what happens next and where our country is headed transcends the sharp boundary lines between clashing visions of what is good, right, and true. This is a point at which our contemporary situation makes contact with the controversies surrounding Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. Jesus challenges our anxious boundary lines and reveals the only way to restoration.
The first controversy in the sequence of events recorded in Mark 2:18-3:6 surrounds Jesus’ band of followers not fasting (2:18). While this may not seem overly controversial to our modern sensibilities, it was a serious break from the cultural norms of Jesus’ time and place. We do not know the particular occasion of this fast, but Zechariah 8:19 lists four reoccurring fasts in connection with the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem. Though “back home” now for a few hundred years, the Jewish people still had plenty of reasons for fasting as a mood of exile persisted within Roman occupation. Fasting became a boundary line marking out the faithful Jews from their pagan oppressors. However, Jesus’ disciples did not fast because the feast had arrived. As the prophecy in Zechariah says, the fasts shall turn into “seasons of joy and gladness and cheerful feasts.” It will not do to try to tack God’s agenda on an old cloth or bottle it up in a rigid wineskin. Jesus did not come to abolish the old but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17).
The following controversies both surround Jesus and the Sabbath. Keeping the Sabbath as commanded in Exodus 20:8-11 was at the heart of devotion to God. Jews looked back each week to God’s rest in creation—“rest” meaning God’s reign of peace where everything is as it should be, not simply doing nothing—and forward to the ultimate rest when God puts everything right finally and fully. Sabbath keeping was a serious boundary line that the Pharisees were particularly concerned to toe. In their minds, it separated those who are “in” and those who are “out” when God redeems Israel. Jesus challenged their deeply held convictions by reinterpreting the meaning and significance of Sabbath around the lordship of the “Son of Man,” a power-packed title carrying royal connotations (Daniel 7:13-14).
On another occasion, Jesus only heard crickets when He asked, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” He looked at those in the Sabbath worship service with anger for their silence and grieved by the hardness of heart it revealed. The Biblical understanding of the heart is like a personal control center that directs thoughts, emotions, hopes, fears, and actions. “Keep vigilant watch over your heart;” the Proverbs say, “that’s where life starts” (MSG, Proverbs 4:23). The Pharisees’ hearts were diamond-hard (Zechariah 7:12). They knew how to keep the Sabbath, but they had painfully forgotten why. Jesus demonstrated the meaning of Sabbath by a powerful act of rest-oration.
However anxious the times may be, Jesus continues to say, “Come here.” We too can stretch out our hands withered with worry and open up our hardened hearts to be restored by faith. Answering this call will lead to conflict with competing visions of the world. Jesus’ best intentions led the Pharisees to dig in their heels and plan to destroy Him (3:6). Even so, Jesus willingly crossed the boundary lines—holding together the world’s deepest anxieties and greatest hopes on the cross—and rose as the Victor over sin and death. Only the love of the Father in union with Jesus and the motivation of the Spirit has the power to cast out all our fears and to fulfill our deepest longings for way the world should be. Though reasons remain for sorrow and fasting within the present kingdom of fear: God’s Kingdom of joyful feasting has arrived, and the day is coming when our King shall return. In that day, everything will be as it should be, and Sabbath rest will become the perpetual state.