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1st Sunday after Trinity

26 May 2024

Proper 4: Deuteronomy 5.12-15; Psalm 81.1-10; 2 Corinthians 4.5-12; Mark 2.23-3.6

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I HAVE a lot of questions when I read this passage. Some are straightforward matters of information: (Q) What is the “bread of the Presence”? (A) Weekly sabbath offerings of bread in the sanctuary of the Temple; (Q) Who are the Herodians? (A) No one really knows. Other questions are more interpretative: How can Jesus be angry and grieved at the same time (3.5)?

As they walk along, the disciples begin to pluck grain and eat it. They do so despite the fact that Mark has already drawn attention to the day of the week — a sabbath. So, the disciples are doing something that they knew was “wrong”. Jesus did not tell them to do it. Had he done so, we would have to conclude that he was engineering an opportunity to denounce his opponents for legalism. The disciples commit this apparent sin all by themselves.

But then, like a supportive friend, Jesus stands up and takes their side. He acts as their leader, taking responsibility for their actions besides defending them. The Pharisees acknowledge as much when they complain to Jesus, instead of directly to the disciples. After all, Mark has not told us that Jesus, too, ate the grain.
But Jesus defends them by quoting scripture, and the way in which he does this confirms that he is taking responsibility for their actions. Perhaps he has been teaching the disciples what he now declares to the Pharisees: that “the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.” Perhaps he has chosen this very moment to put a principle into practice.

Now that the issue Jesus is confronting has been identified (breaking the sabbath, Exodus 20.8), Mark moves on to a second event. Reading his account is like encountering a series of prophetic “sign-actions” (look at Jeremiah 19 or 27-28, for examples). First, we must accept that Jesus is the Son of Man, a title that he first claimed only a few verses before (2.10).

The term “son of man” is used in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible to mean “human being”. Isaiah and Jeremiah both use the phrase only occasionally, whereas Ezekiel does so frequently. So, when Jesus says to his critics that “the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath,” he couldm perhapsm be referring to human beings in general having the right to interpret the sabbath law to suit themselves.

Whatever we make of the term “son of man” in the prophets, Mark is using it to identify one individual: namely, Jesus. By making this claim, Jesus is encouraging his critics to react to him and his ministry.

Christians believe that Jesus was (and is) the Son of Man and, therefore, has the right to forgive sins; so he is justified in making this claim and demonstrating it by his power to heal. But it is still surprising that he claims it so frankly. It seems odd when set beside the constant theme of the “messianic secret” — Mark’s ever-present warning to the few not to share the Lord’s wonders and signs with others, with the many.

Having staked a claim to be Lord of the sabbath, Jesus now proceeds to reveal a little of what that means in practice. The man who has a withered hand will still have a withered hand the next day unless somebody, somehow, helps him. So there are really two questions in the little story. First, why does Jesus heal the man? Second, why does he heal him there and then, instead of waiting until the sabbath is over?

We should not confuse Jesus’s emotions with his reasons. Yes, he is both angry and sad because the Pharisees cannot explain their attitude but still cling to it. But the reason that he heals the man is not to make a theological point, but to set a fellow human being free from suffering.

Luke gives a similar picture of Jesus’s reasoning in the story of a woman who had been crippled for many years: “Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” (13.16).

Jesus responds immediately. He refuses to let laws that were designed as a blessing for humankind become, instead, a burden. Finally, his opponents at least have the grace to be ashamed.

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