Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Mark 2:23-28

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."  
(Mark 2:23-28)

First, what are the Pharisees talking about?  Moses said that this is lawful:

"If you go into your neighbor's standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbor's standing grain."  (Deuteronomy 23:25)

But why do they say this is unlawful?  One can only assume, knowing how the Pharisees had a knack for applying the hardest interpretation to the law, that they considered this to be work, and therefore unlawful on the Sabbath:

"Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates."  (Exodus 20:8-10)

Well, there you go - don't work on the Sabbath.  But is it really work to casually pluck some grain as you go from point A to point B?  That same passage in Deuteronomy mentions having a couple grapes as you walk through the vineyard, just don't be filling your bag up with grapes for later.  I remember as a child going to edge of the corn field near our house and grabbing a few ears for dinner that night.  It wasn't Indiana sweetcorn by any stretch, and we were harvesting bushels.  We didn't have a lot in the way of money, so grabbing a couple ears of corn for dinner was something in our belly.  (Don't misunderstand - we weren't starving, but pickin's were sometimes slim when it came time to prepare a meal.  Ask me about apples and onions sometime.)  

There is a passage in Proverbs that I read recently that reminds me of this:

Two things I ask of you; deny them not to me before I die:
Remove far from me falsehood and lying;
give me neither poverty nor riches;
feed me with the food that is needful for me,
lest I be full and deny you and say, "Who is the LORD?" or
lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God. 

(Proverbs 30:7-9)

How many times have you heard mentioned in conversation about ethics/morals the scenario of the mother stealing bread to feed her starving children?  This situation of the disciples plucking some grain isn't necessarily the same thing, but the principle remains the same.  God is not so concerned with semantics or "the letter of the law" as much as He is with the welfare and meeting the needs of His children.  It is this very thing that Jesus makes reference to when He speaks of David, in need and hungry, eating the bread of the Presence.

Here in Leviticus 24, we read about the Bread of the Presence:

"You shall take fine flour and bake twelve loaves from it; two tenths of an ephah shall be in each loaf. And you shall set them in two piles, six in a pile, on the table of pure gold before the LORD. And you shall put pure frankincense on each pile, that it may go with the bread as a memorial portion as a food offering to the LORD. Every Sabbath day Aaron shall arrange it before the LORD regularly; it is from the people of Israel as a covenant forever. And it shall be for Aaron and his sons, and they shall eat it in a holy place, since it is for him a most holy portion out of the LORD's food offerings, a perpetual due."  (Leviticus 24:5-9)

Then, in 1 Samuel 21, David and his companions eat of this bread because they were hungry.  There it is: they were hungry.  There was no malicious intent, no thought of David's to take the bread from the temple as a joke or because they were too lazy to get bread somewhere else.  They were hungry.

This is where Jesus qualifies the whole thing: "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath".  The Sabbath was not supposed to be a burden.  It's a day of rest from the six previous days of work.  Yet, the religious traditions and legalism of the Pharisees had made the Sabbath possibly more cumbersome than the rest of the week.

Man has quite a talent of doing this to so many things.  For example, taxes.  Look at the tax code in the United States.  It is so overwhelming that one often needs a specialized tax lawyer or accountant to make certain that no violation has been made by accident.  It's really reflective of the human heart.  We know that we must contribute to the collective.  It's just a reality of living in community with other people.  However, all too often we want something for nothing.  We quickly affirm that the load is lightened when the many contribute.  Yet, we want to be excepted.  When the municipal government comes calling for our due, we want loopholes and deductions and credits.  Rather than fork over what we know we owe, we would rather wade through an ocean of red tape, moaning and groaning over every penny, like the little child that keeps a tight grip on that toy when their parents have just told them, "Share that with your brother".

You can imagine the same thing happening over the centuries in Israel.  People coming to the priests asking them just exactly where the line was between "Do not covet" and "Healthy ambition", or just what exactly do you mean by "do not work on the Sabbath"?  We want details, specifics, the line clearly demarcating right from wrong.  Rather than flee evil, we want to court it while staying on the "good" side of the line.  Ask the leaders of your local church's teens group... how many times do they hear questions about, "is holding hands alright?" or "is it OK to kiss on a date?" or "where is the line between making out and going all the way?"  The heart betrays itself.

Eventually, you end up with a 2000 page book with rules for every conceivable situation.  Contrast that with Mark 12:30-31:

And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.'
The second is this: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these." 

This is what Jesus means when He says that His yoke is light.  The yoke that religious tradition lays on people is heavy.

I find that God's timing is impeccable (as always) in regard that I'd be studying this passage during this time of year.  Over the next couple weeks, it will prove difficult to ignore all of the references to Halloween.  There are few holidays more overtly challenging to the Christian's testimony, while also providing opportunity for us to respond to others in a Christ-like manner to the "in your face" issues that are unavoidable with Halloween.  

The responses to Halloween, just within my church, nearly cover the spectrum.  I know there are those that participate in activities from trick-or-treating to going to costume parties.  There are those that will turn off the lights and retreat inside, pretending that nothing is different that night versus another.  Then there are those that will espouse "Reformation Day" as being the true holiday on October 31.  I'm not going to go into what my family does here, but I'm not going to go off on anyone else either.  

The application to Mark 2:23-28 is this:  Where is your heart?  Where is MY heart?  The Pharisees looked on at the disciples plucking some grain and judged them as having broken a law.  A man-made law to be sure, but they had elevated it to the same level (or maybe higher) than God's Law.  Was their interpretation of the Sabbath law wrong?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  What was wrong was their putting it on everyone else.  If their conscience bore witness that they felt it a sin to pick grain on the Sabbath, then for them it was a sin.  But to put that on their fellow man... is also a sin.  

Some of the churches in my community offer Halloween alternatives.  They have cookouts and games for the kids and hay rides.  Some have "trunk-or-treats" where members of the church give the children candy and toys in the parking lot... presumably out of the trunk of the car.  If I choose to take my family to such an event, there is nothing wrong with that.  But I do have to ask, where is my heart?  Am I doing that so that I can look down on other families that dress up in costume and go door to door getting candy?  Am I doing that because I'm afraid of what others might think of me?  That cuts both ways, you know?  Often the "fear of man" card is thrown out there when a Christian is afraid to do something because non-Christians might think poorly of him.  But sometimes, that same Christian may be doing something because he's more concerned about what the other people in his church will think of him.  

Maybe he has fun dressing his kids up in their favorite cartoon character outfits and driving around to family and friends houses, letting the kids get some candy, and getting to see some relatives/friends that he doesn't get to see too often.  But he and his wife are buddies with other families at church... and they're not doing "trick or treat"... they're going to the bonfire.

So... where is your heart?  Where is my heart?  Am I seeking to please God?  Or man?  

This Halloween, when we are presented with this litmus test of our faith/heart, will we be thinking about 1 Timothy 1:15 and Matthew 7:3-5?

"The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost."  (1 Timothy 1:15)

"Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when there is the log in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye."  (Matthew 7:3-5)

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Mark 2:18-22

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." (Mark 2:18-22 ESV)


Context, context, context.  Good hermeneutics always considers context.


In this passage, our context is amongst people expressing concern about Jesus' association with sinners and tax collectors - an unconscionable act in their eyes.  Now they're starting to ask more questions, this time regarding not His associations, but His followers apparent lack of religiosity.  It seems that the Pharisees observed twice-weekly fasts.  Vincent's Word Studies says, "The Pharisees fasted every Monday and Thursday during the weeks between the Passover and Pentecost, and again between the Feast of Tabernacles and that of the Dedication of the Temple."


"I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get." (Luke 18:12)


I find this interesting since the Old Testament had only one commanded fast, which was found in Leviticus for the Day of Atonement. 


"And it shall be a statute to you forever that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict yourselves and shall do no work, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you. (Lev. 16:29 ESV)


The meaning of fasting is critical to our context. 


"Yet even now," declares the LORD, "return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments." Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. (Joel 2:12-13 ESV)


History reveals that Jewish tradition eventually incorporated ever more fasts, and it's reasonable to assume that this was done to encourage the heart to feel what it should prior to fasting, such as what we read in the above passage from Joel ("rend your heart and not your garment"), or even as memorials to past events, such as the Captivity or other similar events in the history of Israel.  Whatever the reason, the theme running through those presupposes an internal, spiritual state of repentance and humility before God.


Is it unreasonable to think that well-meaning Levitical priests throughout the generations "encouraged" fasting hoping that they would became closer to God because of it?  I think this is not an uncommon approach that many people employ today for many other reasons.  For example, how many counselors encourage one spouse to perform acts of love for their partner, with the intention of coaxing that spouse to feel "love" by acting it out?  There are other examples I'm sure where well-meaning advice is intended to demonstrate that an external act can be the "seed" for an internal feeling or meaning.

But we see in this passage in Mark that fasting on a regular basis had grown beyond mere suggestion to that of expectation, and then had become practically a law that must be followed if one intended to pass muster in a religiously minded society.


So here we find these religious people asking Jesus about the difference between His followers and those of John and the Pharisees.  I've always stumbled over what Jesus says in response.  I was confused because I didn't have context.


The Old Testament uses marriage to illustrate the relationship between God and Israel.  It's within that context that we understand the idolatry (spiritual adultery) committed by Israel against God.  


"For your Maker is your husband, the LORD of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called." (Isaiah 54:5)


"...not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD." (Jeremiah 31:32)


The religious authorities of Jesus' day should have understood the implications of Jesus referring to himself as the Bridegroom.  Such a reference was Him obviously claiming to be the God of Israel.

Even John the Baptist references this when people asked why others were going to follow Jesus now, leaving him:  

"You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, 'I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.' The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease."  (John 2:28-30)


Jesus is referring to Himself as the Bridegroom here because his arrival on earth, living among men, is as the Bridegroom being present at the wedding.  It is not a time of mourning or somber remembrance, but a time of celebration and joy.  Perhaps it was understandable that the disciples of John the Baptist were fasting because John was in prison.  But the followers of Jesus could not be fasting while Jesus was with them.  Yet, Jesus does make an indirect reference to His death in verse 20 when He says the "bridegroom is taken away from them".  He says that they will fast in that day.

I do not believe that this means that the Christian life is to be one of mourning and self-affliction.  On the contrary, there is much joy and celebration in the heart of one that has been saved from their sin and eternity in hell.  It just means that there will be occasion for fasting, but that time is not when Jesus is walking among them.




The next two verses have always ranked up there in the list of passages that I totally did NOT get, but hoped to one day understand.  This isn't to say that I have come to fully understand all of the nuances in these verses, but I can say that it's so much clearer now after having studied this passage extensively, that I can share in this blog what I believe my Lord means here.


"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." (Mark 2:21)


I had a woolen sweater once.  It was a cream color with navy blue decoration of snow flakes, I believe - clearly a winter garment.  I know that it was very warm, and I only wore it once or twice per year.  Anyway, it was to be hand washed only and then laid out to dry.  But being a man, I didn't read the care label and threw it in the washer with everything else.  Then into the dryer.  Needless to say, I no longer have that sweater.  It was WAY too small after it's adventure through the laundry. 


There is a whole lot to explain why wool and other natural fibers shrink when not cleaned properly, but suffice it to say that in Jesus day, they weren't wearing polyester or other man-made fibers.  They were also quite familiar with shrinking clothes and repairing old clothes with patches.  It was also common sense that you didn't take a new piece of cloth, cut it up into patches, and use it to repair old clothes.  The old clothes had already shrunk down in size through repeated cleanings and wear.  If you patched a hole in the old garment with a piece of unshrunk cloth, the next time the garment was washed, the patch would shrink and pull away from the garment. 


Okay, that's probably all pretty obvious, right?  But how does that analogy relate to what Jesus is talking about here?  The old garment was the old Mosaic system of religion.  It had become rigid and inflexible with all of the legalistic practices that had been added to it over the centuries.  To try to incorporate the life, joy, and vitality that the Kingdom of God was bringing into that old system would have been impossible.  Jesus already told them that He came to save sinners (the sick), not the religious (those that thought themselves without need of saving).  Then He tells them that His followers are not in need of mourning and fasting, but He is bringing joy and celebration to them.  Now, He's telling them that He's not here to play 'fix-er-up' with their religious system - He's bringing Truth and Life... replacing the old, dead system of works and oppressive law-keeping.


"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." (Mark 2:22)


He continues this theme by drawing on another analogy with which they would have also been familiar.  Since fresh water was not a largely available commodity of the day, wine was a staple at the table.  The fermentation process imbued an alcoholic content to the drink, killing most any harmful bacteria or contaminants.  Whether they knew why this fermentation process created gases and that gases expand is irrelevant.  They knew, however, that making wine would burst its container if it wasn't able to stretch accordingly.  So they used relatively fresh animal skins that had enough elasticity to accommodate the wine and its gases.  Once the skins had been used and had dried out, they could not be used again for making wine.  If they were, the skins would burst and you'd ruin the skins and lose the wine.


The concept is similar enough to the first lesson: the old and the new were not compatible.  Jesus was not here to pour new life into the old system - it would have destroyed the new "wine" if it tried to accommodate the restrictions of the old "skin".  There's also a parallel to be made here between discarding the old garment/skin and putting on the new garment/skin.  One cannot "put on the Lord Jesus Christ" while trying to maintain the old life (Colossians 3; Ephesians 4).  Also, one cannot fix up "holes" in the old life with "patches" of Jesus.  Christianity is not an addition to your life - it's a NEW life (2 Corinthians 5:17)


Finally, the people that Jesus were talking to were most likely there because they saw something that they wanted.  They were not blind to the fact that Jesus was amassing quite a following, and they were intrigued.  Perhaps they thought they might be able to incorporate something of His teachings to spruce up their own religion.  It is an attractive idea to keep the familiar and the safe, but to adorn it with new attractive ideas.  The cult of the new is a very old religion.  Even today it attracts and traps people by the millions.  Ideas come into vogue for a while, but then once they're common, they lose their luster.  So new variations of old ideas are introduced, made up to look new and shiny, attracting new crowds.  Then people adopt those new ideas that fit into our existing ideologies, creating conglomerations of disparate and unrelated philosophies or beliefs until none of it is recognizable.


We're beginning to see the results of generations of this practice today.  Every movement of religious tolerance, inclusiveness of all beliefs, and acceptance of anyone's and everyone's ideas of gods as valid, is the competing world system that is not compatible with Christianity.  I know people that buy into Karma, astrology, paranormal phenomenon, and New Age philosophies all while calling themselves Christian… with a straight face!

Jesus Christ said, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6). [emphasis mine]


Acts 4:12 says, "And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved." [emphasis mine]


Are you trying to pour new wine into the old skin?  Are you trying to patch up your calico garment of beliefs with some Jesus?


And he said to all, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.  For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.  For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?  (Luke 9:23-25)


Throw away the old life and put on Jesus Christ.  He isn't a lucky talisman – He's the One and Only Living God, the Creator of all things, the Savior of world.  We don't need anything else but Him!