So far in this Mark study, we’ve found out why and who for Jesus came. The next stories tell us a bit of the how. Even though Jesus made clear claims to be the long-expected Jewish Messiah, he was not the Messiah that the Jews expected. I’m not denying that he was the Messiah, just that he wasn’t the one the Jews thought he would be.
The general public loved him and he quickly gathered a large following (without the help of Facebook or Twitter). But the religious leaders of the day, the Pharisees, were skeptical. Why? In short, because he didn’t follow their rules. Because he wasn’t the kind of Messiah they wanted. He didn’t fit in their box.
Read Mark 2:18-3:6.
If you know anything about the origin of the Bible, you might know that the original writings didn’t have either chapters or verses. The recent organizational invention is usually helpful if often arbitrary. In this case, I’ve chosen 2:18-3:6 because the three stories here have a common thread: Jesus breaks the rules.
Necessary background info: the Pharisees loved the rules. Not the beautiful and good kind of love, but the one that’s obsessive to the point of restraining orders. To the Pharisees, rules were the whole of their religion. Their theology was that good obedience to the rules meant acceptance from God. But as Jesus points out multiple times in his ministry, the Pharisees’ rules superseded God. They worshiped not God but the rules.
In The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard, he presents two extreme views of spiritual discipline. The modern view, he writes, is that discipline is unnecessary to good spiritual health and growth. Most Christians reject discipline, instead favoring closeness with God that comes “naturally” (read: relying on highly unpredictable, varying moods to experience the spiritual).
Willard contrasts this with the early church view, which was based on the teaching of Jesus and Paul. The early Christians believed the spiritual, just like the physical body, needed rigorous, diligent exercise to be strengthened. However, over time, long after the Apostles were gone, some Christian leaders took spiritual discipline to ridiculous extremes. Examples include: “eating no cooked food for seven years, exposing the naked body to poisonous flies while sleeping in a marsh for six months, not lying down to sleep for forty or fifty years, not speaking a word for many years, proudly keeping a record of the years since one had seen a woman, carrying heavy weights everywhere one went, or living in iron bracelets and chains, explicitly vying with one another for the championship in austerities.”
Willard goes on to compare this fanatic level of asceticism to someone consumed by their diet or bodybuilding. He writes: “The point no longer seems to be health or strength, but self-admiration, self-righteousness, and self-obsession. In such bodybuilding groups, we often see muscle for muscle’s sake. Similarly, in the excesses of spiritual ‘asceticism’ we see asceticism for asceticism’s sake. These people are no longer truly ascetic, no longer are they truly concerned about taking pains for the end of a healthy, outgoing union with the healthy, outgoing, and sociable Christ who also loves himself and all of God’s creation. … Here it is a matter of taking pains about taking pains. It is in fact a variety of self-obsession–narcissism–a thing farthest removed from the worship and service of God. It is actually losing one’s life through trying to save it.”
The Pharisees had lost the point. The rules had never been about gaining God’s approval. And they definitely were not about the rules themselves. As if God felt bored one day and made up random laws for the hell of it.
Rather, every law was for the good of humans, not much different from a parent’s rules for the health and safety of their children. As Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Letting the disciples starve for the day would defeat the Sabbath’s purpose.
Jesus does not deny that fasting or honoring the Sabbath are important disciplines and should be followed, but he also does not advocate for obedience regardless of whatever other harm it may cause. He’s also not saying that the laws depend completely on personal judgment, but neither are they as inflexible as the Pharisees believed. Sometimes the question needs to be asked, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?”
Which extreme do you lean toward: laissez faire abandonment or tyrannical diligence? How have you seen either one come between you and God?