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Bible Commentaries
Mark 2

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

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Verses 1-17

To Forgive Sinners (2:1-17)

Back again in Capernaum, the city which may have become his home, Jesus’ main activity was "preaching the word." Much is left unsaid about this "word" because Mark’s readers knew its basic content — God’s disclosure of his plan, of his Kingdom and its coming, of the threat of condemnation and the possibility of blessedness. The "word" simply meant the gospel (Mark 4:33). Now this "word" became embodied in a strange action. When four men came carrying their paralyzed friend, the word of God’s mercy became a very special word to this particular individual: "My son, your sins are forgiven." Such an assurance that his guilt was cancelled tore this man loose from his paralysis. The twisted mind in the twisted body was healed, and he returned home to take up his customary duties.

It was not strange that the word embodied in such a deed should have created resistance. But the scribes objected not to the cure of paralysis but to the forgiveness of sin. "Who can forgive sins but God alone?" For a man to claim God’s power was blasphemy — that is, unless God had actually invested him with his own power to cancel sin. The complaint of the scribes was used to underscore the important issue: Was this act of forgiveness genuinely God’s work, or not? If not, Jesus was rightly labelled a blasphemer. But if this forgiveness, obviously effective, was truly from God, then the basic "word" of Jesus was also true: "The kingdom of God is at hand" (Mark 1:15). This, in fact, was the key issue in everything that Jesus was to do. In raising their question the scribes were undoubtedly sincere. Moreover, if their negative answer were correct, they were fully justified in uncovering the fraud. Their hostility was in some ways more natural than the faith of the five friends. Nevertheless, the experience of the five supported a more positive answer: the gift of forgiveness and health was, in fact, a gift from God. Their amazement led them to glorify God.

The core of this story, therefore, should be located in the power-laden word of Jesus : "My son, your sins are forgiven." We should notice the address. Why should Jesus have said "My son"? Did the Son of God, authorized to speak for God, take this way of declaring that this paralytic was in fact God’s child, welcomed into God’s family? And was this welcome as a son equivalent to the cancellation of his sins, similar to the way in which the father welcomed the prodigal in Luke 15? Whether or not this is so, we can be sure that to Mark the fact that God had forgiven this man was a way of declaring that God had opened his Kingdom to such sinners. By telling this anecdote, Mark was conveying the very message to his readers which according to Luke was delivered in the synagogue at Nazareth (Luke 4:16-19). Mark, however, was content to picture all this in his staccato accounts of Jesus’ healings. Both Mark and Luke understood these events as signaling "the acceptable year of the Lord."

From synagogue to house to seaside — Jesus seemed to move as the mood struck him. He did not limit his work to any favored setting. But whether in one place or another "he taught." Everywhere he found "the crowd" waiting to hear him. He did not in advance determine whom he would seek out. Men of the most diverse occupations met him; selection of followers seemed both unplanned and coincidental. Now it is Levi sitting in his office. Levi was a tax collector and was therefore detested. He made his living by taking money from his countrymen in order to give it to the foreign imperialist. Moreover, no person who tried to fulfill all the Mosaic requirements of purity could collect taxes. Only a Jew who craved money more than respectability or righteousness could accept such a job. We can imagine, then, the public outcry at Jesus’ dramatic gesture, for he summoned such a man to be a disciple. He welcomed him into the Kingdom. He accepted entertainment in Levi’s home, and this of course meant that they ate together. To eat together meant that they would be bound by the mutual covenant of brotherhood, with all its obligations. This was extremely offensive to the scribes, because the whole company at the table was a degraded lot. Levi was only one of the many sinners who had been welcomed to that table. The scribes could not avoid asking why. The answer of Jesus condensed his vocation into a single spear thrust which was to be remembered wherever the gospel was preached: "I came not to call the righteous, but sinners." Levi was as much in need of a physician as the leper and the paralytic had been. On his sickness and his sin, Jesus and the scribes agreed; that was why the scribes could not understand the behavior of Jesus and his disciples. Their conduct was just as obnoxious as their message: that God would send such a Messiah to call such people into such a kingdom (Romans 5:6-11).

To Defy the Righteous (2:18-3:6)

Each of these stories indicates a cleavage between Jesus and "the scribes of the Pharisees" (Mark 2:16). Slowly but steadily this conflict sharpened. Whatever Jesus did upset conventional patterns of behavior, defied the current codes of duty, and placed God in the position of condoning sin by forgiving the sinner. The "scribes" were those ministers of the synagogue who were charged by vows to defend the Scriptures, to teach the people to obey the Law, and to protest against willful defiance of Israel’s Covenant with God. They looked forward to the coming of God’s Kingdom, but they knew that when that time came God would decisively punish all sinners and reward all the righteous. Accordingly, anyone who condoned sin must be attacked, all the more if he did this in God’s name. When Jesus persisted in ignoring the Law, they were duty-bound to defend the Law against such treason.

The Pharisees illustrated their devotion to God by fasting. John’s disciples also believed that to prepare for God’s Judgment Day sinners must mourn for their guilt. Jesus’ disciples, by contrast, celebrated the approach of the new order by feasting and drinking in the most dubious company. Why? "Ours is a wedding feast," was the reply. "We are guests of the bridegroom himself. Here he is with us. Who can mourn at such a time?" When this debate (vss. 18-20) is seen as the sequel of the previous banquet (vss. 16-17), it becomes clear that to Mark the wedding feast was recognized as a symbol of the joys to be shared in God’s Kingdom. As the bridegroom, the Messiah includes his Church in those joys. This Church is made up of sinners whom he has accepted and who can do nothing less than rejoice over their forgiveness. To attempt to confine their joy within the restrictions required for mourning would be as foolish as to pour new wine into old wineskins. For those who believed, the news of God’s forgiveness had changed everything (Mark 1:14-15). Like the paralytic and the tax collector they entered into a new friendship, where they lived in the exuberance of a new hope. For them only the happiest of celebrations was appropriate. To act with the old gloom and fear, to carry out the old practices, even to obey the Law designed for the earlier day — all this would have denied the truth and would actually have destroyed the "old wineskins." But of course the Pharisees had no inkling that this rejoicing could be justified. For them there should be no wedding feast until the great transformation was visible to all. They were, in fact, the guardians of what Jesus called the "old wineskins." And among the most cherished of these wineskins was God’s command to keep the Sabbath Day holy. They were therefore bound to challenge this teacher with regard to his defiance of God’s rules for the Sabbath. The Christians in Rome, to whom Mark was writing, were at odds among themselves over whether or not they must hallow the Sabbath. Some disciples treated all days alike, while others insisted that the seventh day of the week (the Sabbath, our Saturday) was holier than other days (Romans 14:1-7). The dispute produced keen animosities. The Sabbatarians condemned the others and were in turn despised by them. As a result, the two factions found it virtually impossible to worship together, for they could not agree on the time for meeting. In such a situation this story about Jesus (vss. 23-28) was cherished by the "liberal" group, and Mark was one of their spokesmen. The story made clear that Jesus not only "broke" the Sabbath in the synagogue itself, but also broke it by walking farther than the law of the Sabbath permitted and by encouraging his disciples to do forbidden work. It was forbidden to work by harvesting grain and husking it for food. When the defenders of the Sabbath protested, which was nothing less than their duty, Jesus did not deny the infraction. He appealed to the precedent of David, of whom the Messiah was Son (see 1 Samuel 21:1-6). More important, he appealed to the principle of creation. Who made the Sabbath? God. If so, then God’s Son should be superior to the Sabbath, for he is its Lord. (This again was outright blasphemy.) For whom was the Sabbath made? Man. Then the conditions of God’s New Creation (the Son of Man with his people) justified a new understanding of the Sabbath. The Son of David and his friends should be as free as David and the priests had been. The dawning of the New Age had produced a revolution. Jesus was showing how this revolution affected the institutions designed for the Old Age, including even God’s Law. Since the Pharisees could not accept the revolution, they were bound to defend the old. Their conflict with Jesus measured the incompatibility of the new and the old. Here began the later enmity between the Church and the synagogue.

Now the Pharisees must watch Jesus for other infractions, for every infraction would increase the damage to law and order. They must be ready to challenge this rebel at every opportunity. And virtually every episode provoked such an opportunity, because Jesus with his disciples acted with what must have seemed to be reckless freedom. If a man needed healing, they did not wait until the next day, when it would be entirely legal to heal. They provided the help at once. To postpone the healing would, in their eyes, make the Sabbath an instrument for doing harm, even of killing (Mark 3:4). The Messiah came not to observe holy days but to save life. Each act of mercy was a demonstration of the truth that salvation makes all days holy, because every day presents its opportunity to heal and to free. Only the hardness of men’s hearts can blind them to this true holiness.

Yet as guardians of the holy, the Pharisees saw no other course than to destroy the cause of such blasphemy, such defiance of God’s Word. Because they needed the help of political authorities, they held a committee meeting with the supporters of Herod, seeking the surest ways. As ambassador of the new "law and order," Jesus had no other option but anger at the Pharisees, combined with grief over their blindness. For the issue was not merely whether to break or to obey the Sabbath law, but whether to reject or to believe the message that God’s power had been released for man’s healing.

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Mark 2". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/mark-2.html.
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