I have been reflecting over the last few weeks about our capacity and willingness to face God honestly .
And, I have just finished reading a book by Rowan Williams, called ‘Resurrection, Interpreting the Easter Gospel’ exploring notions of brokenness, forgiveness and love. It is a profoundly insightful book. In it, Williams quotes from a poem by T.S. Eliot, called Little Gidding. Eliot writes:
“And last, the rending pain or re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
Of things ill done and done to others’ harm
Which once you took for exercise of virtue.” (Little Gidding, II. 138-42 T.S. Eliot)
You might ask yourselves why this section of poem and book reference today, and my response is to invite you to think about two stories in Mark’s Gospel in 2:23-3:6.
Mark’s Gospel is laid out in a particular concentric structure with the abundant stories of Jesus’ healing, forgiveness, table companionship, old and new in conflict, Sabbath work and picking food, and healing on the Sabbath, all referring and building on the circular telling of the stories, so we are caught up in the layers of stories and find ourselves woven into the growing tension and relationships Mark is laying bare for the reader.
In these two particular stories , Mark reveals the increasing tension between those who see the world one way and those pointing to a new way. Collecting food on the Sabbath and the healing of the man with the withered hand highlight this emerging conflict and the two very different worldviews.
Definitions of the Sabbath seem to matter far less to Jesus than honouring the purposes of Sabbath and meeting real human needs. It is a critique as relevant today as it was 2,000 years ago.
The Pharisees who were part of the group following Jesus in his early ministry, ask:
“Why do you do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” (2:24).
Jesus responds, not by redefining the Torah, but by redefining the purpose of Sabbath. The starting places are so different it is a wonder Jesus and the Pharisees had any conversation at all.
Jesus is directly challenging the existing spoken, formal positional power, and the authority’s culture and worldview. He is highlighting a significant gap between being lawful and being faithful; between custom and practice of the rules, and the motivation behind the acts.
Both Gospel stories give us a sense of the escalating tension and the character of Jesus’ opponents and their recognition there is an imminent collision between the old and the new, and their unwillingness to hear, see, listen, understand and change.
Jesus calls on David as an explanation for his behaviour in response to the criticism, but notice Jesus uses David the refugee and fugitive for his example, not David the king. David was on the run, seeking refuge from Saul. Jesus has shifted the ground from an argument about working on the Sabbath, to the issue of authority.
The Pharisees, and the religious and secular authorities had a strong commitment to honouring God and power at the expense of humanity while the reverse is what Jesus was demonstrating, about which he consistently spoke and preached.
“The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27).
The religious authorities’ commitment to defending God’s honour and authority meant understanding God demanding punishment for sin. God’s honour required sin offerings to appease and satisfy, in recompense, to reduce anger and to be obedient in payment, to satisfy God’s ego. All this was paramount then and this is still believed today.
We find it very hard to believe God is love.
Instead we find ourselves working to earn God’s respect and love, demonstrating our worth by following the rules to keep ourselves righteous in all things or else we simply turn away from God.
We do this rather than listen to Jesus’ words about love and reflect on why and how we act, think and speak.
The belief God was Lord, mighty in power to be placated and satisfied, completely ignores God’s love for God’s creation including all humanity which flows clearly throughout the Old and New Testaments. While we remain stuck on honour, shame, and value only power and authority, rules and giving and receiving satisfaction we continue to scapegoat, judge, reject and kill those who disturb our world and our ways of thinking. We remain closed to the Gospel.
The story of the man with the withered hand continues this theme. Jesus takes the Gospel to the authorities without holding back. He enters the Synagogue to pray and preach as usual. The authorities watch closely. Everyone sees the man with the withered hand.
Only Jesus speaks.
Everyone else is silent and the silence witnesses to our willingness to be uncommitted, or critical, watching from the sidelines.
A culture of silence intimidates the oppressed and prevents them from finding their voice.
Jesus’ healing of a paralytic man in a private house was a point of celebration. Healing in the synagogue on the Sabbath in public directly challenges the authorities. The tension is mounting.
And the description of the incident is extraordinary.
“Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart …’(Mark 3:4-5)
Jesus again emphasises this is not about rules or etiquette, but about human well-being. Jesus shows his compassion on behalf of the people and challenges tradition and authority to minister to those in need. This is the only time in the whole Bible is Jesus described as angry.
How is it we become so threatened by another that even their goodness is seen as hostile and must be destroyed?
Conflict over tradition is still alive and well in our churches today.
People were gathered around to watch. I wonder if the man with the withered hand had been planted by the Pharisees and Herodians? Those without power are silenced in the face of authority. They comply and do what they must to avoid standing out. With Jesus healing the man, he lays bare the ‘honour’ challenge to the authorities.
The second silence reflects the authorities’ response. This is the ultimate put-down; and, let us think about our own behaviour when we are challenged, we snub and ignore the challenger as though it never happened. This is like rubbing out or ‘disappearing’ the challenger as though they too never existed.
The man who was there to trap Jesus, finds himself in circumstances beyond his belief. Jesus calls out those around him as he speaks to the man. Resurrection power is everywhere, even in a deliberate trap in a Synagogue, a sacred place.
Jesus fills the silence with a scathing question:
“Is it Torah obedient to do good or to harm on the Sabbath, to save or to kill?” (Mark 3:4).
Do not miss the irony. While Jesus is healing the man, the Pharisees and Herodians are plotting to kill him; this hardly qualifies as saving life.
How often do we find ourselves doing the same?
The conflict over keeping the Sabbath, is real. Old or new ways, law abiding and love abiding; it is a fundamental marker of identity and culture then as now and Jesus is threatening to take it away. The inability to win the argument in the Synagogue on this occasion is underlined by Jesus’ next step. Jesus heals the man.
The reaction following this healing reveals the real problem; its not about the law, it is about our ‘hardness of heart’. It is this, more than the debate over the Torah which draws out Jesus’ anger.
Rather than seeking healing and embracing the miracle before them, the authorities go to the law. In the healing moment they focus on rejection and crucifixion instead. In our anger and resistance, we convince ourselves of our righteousness and virtue and proceed to kill without mercy.
Our reasons and actions work frantically to bring Jesus to answer for his crimes: disturbing our peace, challenging our beliefs, upsetting our customs and practices and not being repentant about it. He dares to be smart, informed, loving, compassionate and consistent. He dares to show us our motives and we cannot bear it.
Our justifications will not keep us warm at night. So, as I come back to where I started, our memories and beliefs are often a recollection of vast self-deception as T S Eliot reminds us.
When we finally turn our hearts and minds to repentance, we will find God’s forgiveness and absolute love is never abstract and it is focussed precisely on these choices we make.
The Lord be with you.