I find it an interesting quirk of human nature that we turn on our celebrities when we find out they’re different to how we thought they’d be. If a hot superstar turns out to be gay, or a stunning model turns out to have cellulite, or a Hollywood couple get divorced and publicly scrap over the kids or if a mega-church pastor turns out to have problems with humility. We turn on them like a lynch-mob as if they had deliberately lied to us.
Of course what this means is that these people are normal. What it also means is that we somehow want them to not be normal. We want them to be something else. Something we don’t see in our ordinary, mediocre lives. We want to believe that perfection is real, that the hunky movie stars don’t smell when they sweat and they always look like they walked out of the gym. We want them to be their movie characters. We want them to be what we imagine them to be.
We want them to be what we want them to be.
In Mark 3:1-12, we see two sides of this. We see the Pharisees wanting Jesus to be a bad-guy. And we see the people wanting Jesus to be a rock star savior.
Last week we saw Jesus communicate that he is the Messiah and the Lord by communicating he is the Lord of the Sabbath. As the Lord, he is the new wine. The old wine has been superseded, which was dangerous teaching. He was publicly saying that the established order was being renewed in him.
In that instance, it was Jesus’ disciples who had “broken” the sabbath (according to Jewish regulations). That’s why, in Mark 3:2, the Pharisees watch Jesus closely to see if he will heal on the sabbath (and thereby break it). They want him to break it. They want an excuse to accuse him. According to scripture, sabbath breaking was a capital offence (cf. Numbers 15:32-36). It should be noted here that what Numbers describes is not a prescriptive response to sabbath breaking. The man is punished for breaking the sabbath insofar as his attention was deliberately not on God – which was the purpose for the sabbath in the first place. The Jewish leaders had taken this to be prescriptive and so death was the punishment for all sabbath breaking. Again, we see the history of minimising God’s relationship through a misguided attempt to maximise obedience.
But since the Pharisees were trying to trap Jesus into sabbath breaking, why would Jesus make the man with the shriveled hand stand up in front of everyone? why wouldn’t he be a bit quieter about it? Doing it publicly seems to play into the hands of the Pharisees. Perhaps to highlight the point above. Jesus is performing a public sign for the purposes of teaching. The Pharisaical approach would be to do nothing in the face of need so as not to break the sabbath. What Jesus shows is the hypocrisy of their approach. What is lawful on the sabbath? To do good or evil? To save a life or to kill? If Jesus is saying that doing good and saving life is lawful, the corollary is that the Pharisees have made evil lawful.
It’s interesting that Jesus is angry and distressed. Even in the divinity with which he heals the man, we see the ragged humanity of his emotions.
The Pharisees, faced with the hideous truth of what they do, go away and plot in secret, away from light where their deeds could be seen clearly. To accuse Jesus of sabbath breaking at that point, would be to publicly admit that Jesus is right.
And think about that. The Pharisees need Jesus to be the bad guy. If Jesus is right about this, their whole approach to the Sabbath crumbles. And if that crumbles, fractures appear in their whole system of maximising obedience/minimising relationship.
Interesting side note: The Herodians and Pharisees were enemies. The Pharisees wanted the restoration of the kingdom of David. The Herodians were a political party and supporters of the Herodian dynasty: the client kings installed by the Romans. What each party wanted therefore was completely different – and yet in this they were united. They needed to get rid of Jesus. Jesus was a threat to both. If he ushered in the kingdom of God, the Pharisees and Herodians were out of business and out of power.
After this, we see Jesus withdrawing to the lake (that is, the Sea of Galilee) and people come from as far north as Sidon and as far south as Idumea to see him. “Beyond the Jordan” even refers to the area around the Decapolis. What we see here is people coming from great distances, and even from Gentile areas.
What we see here is like a scene at a movie premier that everyone knows the star of the show is going to. The crowds are pressing and they all want something. They want to be healed. They want to be touched. They want to touch Jesus. They all want a piece of him.
What did they want of him? They wanted something he had, but not what he came to do. They wanted him to save them, but not in the way that he had come to do.
I guess I look to some people the same way. Bobby Kennedy is one of my heroes. I wanted Barack Obama to be the next Bobby Kennedy. I wanted him to bring light into a dark and dismal world. I wanted to believe that change was possible. I wanted to feel that there was something better, aspirational, inspirational. I wanted to believe.
The way the people press forward to Jesus feels familiar to me. There is a hunger in the crowd – a need. What Jesus was doing had spread by word of mouth so far and so quickly that people were coming from everywhere to see him. Were they coming because they believed? Or because they wanted to believe? Perhaps both. But what they wanted was only a tiny slice of who he was and what he had come to do. Because while they might have flocked to him as I would have to Bobby Kennedy had I been around in the 1960s, Bobby Kennedy was just Bobby Kennedy. The person they had in front of them was God himself.
But Jesus seems content to let them follow for the moment. When he casts out evil spirits, he commands them not to tell anyone. Why? Surely he would want to bring his followers along with him – we have seen previously how he was carefully controlling how his ministry was communicated. Surely now he can start communicating more clearly as the crowds press towards him?
I don’t think it was that simple. In John 6 we see Jesus starting to be more open about what his message is and what following him truly means and people turn away from him. Jesus knows that this will happen, but his ministry is too new for this to happen just yet. He needs his followers to learn as they follow at this point. In fact Mark as a gospel takes this approach – as we follow the story, we learn for ourselves the truth of who Jesus is.
Humans are horribly flawed. We have enormous expectations and we hold to them rigidly. Changing them requires time and gentleness, and largely we have to decide to change our expectations for ourselves. If others change them for us, we feel attacked and betrayed. For the moment, Jesus needs his followers to gradually learn the truth. As his teaching becomes more explicit, their expectations will already have been shaped and molded. People will still turn their backs when he turns out to not be who they thought (or wanted him to be), but more of them will represent the fertile soil in which seeds can grow.
This is why we still need the gospel of Mark. Today we like to see Jesus as the guy who is all about love and forgiveness. This is true – but before love and forgiveness comes knowledge of our sin. Just look at the sinful woman in Luke 7:36-50. There’s a woman convicted of her sin and comes to Jesus in repentance. After that, there’s justification but there’s also sanctification. There is work to be done in our relationship. This isn’t easy.
Some of us want Jesus to be the love guy whose name we can pray to God in for the things we need. This is normal and valid – because he is the love guy we pray to God in, and we are supposed to bring our requests to God. The problem occurs when he is only that.
Who do we want Jesus to be?
The answer is, Who is Jesus telling us he is. The work and person of Jesus Christ has nothing to do with what we want him to be. He is who we need him to be.
And who do we need him to be? This is what we’ll explore as Mark leads us through the nuance of Jesus as a man, as God, as the Messiah and our Lord.
This blog is a stand alone piece but it is also part of a weekly online bible study. If you have missed any or would like to reference back to the beginning, the links are below:
Week 1: “Who do you say I am”. Introduction to the gospel
Week 2: The Beginning. Mark 1:1-20
Week 3: The Who, the what and the why. Mark 1:21-45
Week 4: Jesus didn’t come for the super-religious. He came for you. Mark 2:1-17
Week 5: There is nothing you can do to start – or stop – God’s plan. Mark 2:18-28