When I’ve had super high anxiety in times of deep distress, I developed some tendencies that bordered on OCD. I don’t say this lightly. At one point, I became so panicked about money and how I was going to make ends meet, I developed a “thing” about how I made the boys sandwiches for lunch. When I noticed it, I tried making the sandwiches a different way – make the honey sandwich first and then the vegemite sandwich. And I couldn’t. And I froze. It’s very hard to explain but the mere thought of doing it out of order made me panic and burst into tears.
Of course it had nothing to do with sandwiches or even the boys. It had to do with control and creating order in a situation I felt I didn’t have any control over. Thankfully I have an excellent psychologist who helps me work through these issues. Because if left un-checked, suddenly you have a “system” for dealing with everything you have no control over – and a deep anxiety about then not doing it that way, otherwise the thing you are trying to control won’t happen/will happen.
This could be money, relationships, work, the home and even our faith. We saw last week that the Pharisees had turned legalism into an art form. I’m not saying they were OCD but the effect was much the same. We must meet all these rules and regs or God won’t come – to the point where they fail to see that God has, in fact, come.
In our passage this week, we see this on steroids and the Pharisees see two of their most sacred cows (and yes, I’m aware of the irony) come under threat.
Fasting and the sabbath are two things which the Pharisees believed would actually hasten the coming of the Messiah. To not observe them was not just an insult to God, it would inhibit his coming.
What we see in Jesus’ handling of these issues however, is that the kingdom, which is centred on God, is therefore centred on Jesus himself. This starts to illuminate for us who Jesus is and, that if the kingdom is centred on Jesus, it does not cease to be centred on God – far from it.
So in 2:18 we see that the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist are fasting but Jesus and his disciples are not. This makes me wonder. The Pharisees fasting is obvious. Jesus actually is the Messiah and so he and his disciples don’t need to fast. We are not sure at this point if his disciples understand that, but they follow what he does. But John’s disciples? Surely they knew the Messiah was coming? So why are they still fasting? I wonder if John’s disciples only part-understood. John has come to prepare the way with his baptism of repentance. Given that that’s only part of the story though, his disciples understanding may have been stunted – especially as John has been imprisoned by this point (cf. 1:14) and so wasn’t around to explain it to them. But maybe they were doing it because it was habit – because that is how it had always been done – and not doing it…..well, maybe that was a step too far. There’s no real rhyme or reason. It’s just the way it always has been.
Anyway, enough of my musings. Jesus explains clearly that they have no need to fast because the “bridegroom” (ie the Messiah”) is already there – there is no need to fast anymore. In fact, to do so would be an insult to him, because it denies that the Messiah has come, but also it gives the people a demeanour of mourning when they should be rejoicing.
Now the Old Testament has many references to God as the bridegroom. It denotes a consummation of a covenant between two parties that cannot get any closer. It is a time of trust and relationship and festivities. So in saying he is the bridegroom, Jesus is saying two things – first, he’s saying he is God, and second, he is saying that new age has come.
Look for example at Joel 1:8 where the prophet says “Mourn like a virgin in sackcloth grieving for the betrothed of her youth.” meaning that Israel grieves for God with whom they had a covenant (and which they have broken with their disobedience). Then in Joel 2:12 he says “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” And in 2:19, after the people have rent their hearts (ie repented) God says “I am sending you grain, new wine and olive oil, enough to satisfy you fully.” What is described at the end of Joel is a wedding feast, a celebration with the two parties reunited in a new covenant.
The Pharisees are stuck in Joel 2:12. Jesus knows they are at the wedding feast.
After giving a portent of his impending death, Jesus doubles down to explain more. He describes “new cloth” and “new wine”. In parable-speak, we see Jesus’ relationship to the old establishment. Let’s unpick this, because it’s significant. In Matthew 5:17 Jesus said that he didn’t come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfil them. And yet here he says that he is a new wine, not poured into the old wine skins but needing to be poured into new. Can both be right? If he came to fulfil the old, isn’t that him (new wine) being poured into old wine skins (the law)? This is more nuanced. He is the new but he is not new in and of himself. He is not a single final piece of a jigsaw puzzle. He isn’t a final piece that just finishes off the old. He brings a new age, a new era. And the old itself needs to become new with him. The new era brings with it a new framework that is linked to the old, that is a culmination of the old but which supersedes it.
What does this mean? Well, in the next episode, we see that the old is cherished for what God intended, but Jesus gives a new interpretation. I saw this with a hint of a smirk because his interpretation is not new – he’s actually reminding the Pharisees of what the sabbath is supposed to be about, but that in all their legalism, they have forgotten.
In trying to obey God to a tee, the priests had long before tried to set a list of dos and dont’s for the sabbath. This included things like not walking further than 1km from ones own house. And deliberate sabbath breaking was punishable by death – that’s how seriously it was taken. Breaking the sabbath was an obstacle to God’s deliverance of his people.
In a cornfield, Jesus’ disciples pick some ears of corn to eat. This breaks the sabbath. Jesus relays a story of David when the High Priest of the tabernacle gives David and his men consecrated bread from the altar because there is nothing else to eat, on condition they we ritually clean (which they probably weren’t). So Jesus shows that the local Pharisees are stricter than the high priest of the actual tabernacle was on King David. That’s how far their legalism had got.
He reminds them that the sabbath was made for man and not man for the sabbath. If man was created for the sabbath, that would place the sabbath above God – and this is how the Pharisees were treating the sabbath. They had idolised it. The sabbath was created for man by God for them to rest and remember him. That’s the point of the sabbath. By the way, if you’re interested in some history of the sabbath, you can read here one of my previous blogs.
So, where does this leave us? Jesus gradual revelation of himself is beautiful and simple. He is the bridegroom. He is the Messiah. This is not a time for fasting but for rejoicing. But he is also bringing in a new era. The obvious corollary is that the law and the Pharisees are old, fulfilled – superseded. This is dangerous. We can see why the Pharisees would be so determined ultimately to dispose of Jesus.
Jesus’ final words in this passage are “So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:28). He is the Messiah – and he is God. The sabbath was made for man. So if Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath, he is also Lord of all man. This seemingly innocuous statement has such depth, and such significance that’s its earth shattering.
Don’t forget, they are on the other side of the cross and even though God is standing literally right in front of them, they are still waiting for him to appear. In addition, they are doing everything they possibly can to hasten his coming – fasting, observing every rule, squeezing the most out of every regulation so they can (supposedly) get closer to God.
But nothing they do, or could ever do, could bring God to them. Nothing that they did, or that we can do, can push “go” on God’s plan for salvation. By the same token, nothing we can do can stop it either. Jesus came. The plan has already happened – it happened at the cross. Nothing we do can possibly change the fact that God’s single act of salvation is already done.
We are in Jesus’ new era. We’re already in it. What we do now, is based on love and gratitude. We are obedient. We seek to grow in Christ likeness. We nurture our discipleship. We depend on God for everything, in humility. This is a work in our hearts that affects what we do, because our salvation is already done. The Pharisees wanted what they did to affect their salvation.
But it’s already done. And frankly, thank God. Because if I, in my anxiety, can’t make sandwiches a different way when my finances are out of control, I have got no chance of getting into heaven on my own efforts.
The new era has already come and it is in our hearts and in our relationship with God. That doesn’t mean we do nothing. He did it all, but we still progress in our growth to christlikeness. There is a work happening in us. Our sanctification is ongoing but our salvation is fixed. Once we have accepted Jesus as our Lord and saviour, there is nothing we can do but follow.
Note: This is a stand alone blog that doesn’t depend on any other piece. But it runs as part of an online Bible study in Mark and throughout there are links to previous observations. You can dip in and out or start at the beginning if you like. If not, that’s also fine – you don’t need to have started at the beginning to be able to get into this blog.
If you want to start at the beginning though, it starts in Mark 1 and you can follow along from here.