Though Jesus was a popular teacher and healer at the end of Mark 1, opposition to his ministry emerges throughout Mark 2 and culminates in plans to kill him in Mark 3:6. Mark 2:1-3:6 contains five “controversy” stories which highlight this emerging opposition.
Jesus forgives sin (thereby committing blasphemy). Jesus eats with sinners (and thus defiles himself). Jesus feasts rather than fast (contrary to the traditions of the elders). Jesus works on the Sabbath (violating the traditions). Jesus heals on the Sabbath (violating the traditions). In each case Jesus crosses boundaries that mark him as an agent of change. The change, of course, is the inbreaking of the kingdom of God.
The final two stories, both centered on the Sabbath, occur in Mark 2:23-3:6. In the first the disciples harvest a crop and prepare a meal. In the second Jesus heals. Both were regarded, by the traditions of the time, as violations of the Sabbath. They were forms of “work.” Later Rabbinic traditions verify such attitudes. And n the first century, contemporary with Jesus, the Qumran community explicitly denied people the option to heal on the Sabbath or help an animal out of a ditch. One could not even draw water from a cistern on the Sabbath at Qumran or eat anything that was not already “in the camp.”
This practice is called “fencing the law.” While the Torah, for example, does not explicitly say one cannot heal on the sabbath or draw water from a cistern, these regulations are put in place in order to distance a person from breaking the law. One does not want to get too close to the line for fear of violating the holy command. Thus, traditions accumulate. Jesus and his disciples violated a couple of those traditions by harvesting and healing on the Sabbath.
Jesus responds on both occasions. Because he is the Son of Man–the eschatological figure that brings the reign of God into the world–he is also Lord of the Sabbath, and Jesus identifies what is most important about the Sabbath. His responses employ a general principle–mercy.
In the first instance, Jesus uses an example from the Hebrew Bible to defend the actions of his disciples. He recalls how David and his companions once “entered the house of God” and “ate the bread of Presence, which is not lawful for any but priests to eat.” David did this because he was hungry and needy. Sharing the forbidden bread was an act of mercy.
In the second instance, Jesus asked a simple question, “Is it lawful to do good, or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” To “do good” is a Hebraic expression for benevolence or mercy, for charitable acts. With this question, Jesus argues that it always lawful to do good, that is, to show mercy….even if it is on the Sabbath.
Jesus grounds this principle of mercy in relation to the Sabbath with a broad hermeneutical principle: “The Sabbath was made for humanity, and not humanity for the Sabbath.” The Sabbath was a good thing; it was divinely instituted. It served an important and vital function within Israel. However, it was not an end in itself, but a means to an end. The Sabbath served humanity, and it must not be used to obstruct what is good for humanity.
God’s commanded rituals (as, for example, the Sabbath) are intended to serve humanity. They do not rule humanity nor should they ever be used to subvert God’s goal for humanity. Consequently, mercy will always take precedence. Matthew called attention to this in his version of the story–if people truly understood Hosea 6:6 (“I desire mercy and not sacrifice”), then they would not use the Sabbath (or any rituals) in such an obstructionist manner (Matthew 12:1-8). God’s heart lies with mercy rather than sacrifice.
This explains Jesus’ anger. When he asked the question about whether it was lawful to do good on the Sabbath, the Pharisees were silent. To Jesus it was obvious, but the Pharisees were caught in the dilemma of their own traditions and understanding of the law. Jesus was angered by their insensitivity to the Torah’s mercy. Moreover, he grieved their hardness of heart, that is, their inability to see the world through God’s merciful eyes. They could only see the world through their rules.
The Pharisees also responded with anger. They been to conspire with the Herodians to kill Jesus. Herodians were not an official party or sect like the Pharisees, but a loose-knit alliance that supported the Herodian family’s rule of Galilee. Herod Antipas ruled Galilee at this time. Herodians opposed messianic figures and revolutionaries as they supported the Roman power that backed Herod. Consequently, opposition to Jesus made strange bedfellows. Devout oppressed Pharisees joined forces with politically empowered Herodians to kill Jesus.
On the one hand, the religious establishment opposed Jesus because he was a threat to their pious practices. On the other hand, the political establishment opposed Jesus because he was a threat to royal stability. Either way, opposition to Jesus has emerged.
The kingdom of God had broken into the world in the ministry of Jesus. The religious establishment opposed it and the political establishment opposed it. Not much has changed. Practicing the kingdom of God is scandalous.