January 31: The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come here.” And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. – Mark 3:1-6

As I was growing up, my maternal grandmother spoke in venerated terms of “Brother Morris,” a preacher at the First Baptist Church in Ada, Oklahoma. During his tenure he was able to get the town’s movie theater closed on Sundays. While that didn’t last beyond his pastorate there, even as late as the 1970s I remember very few businesses open on Sunday—unlike today when someone like Chick-Fil-A is viewed suspiciously for their Sunday closing policy. While I was in seminary, there were debates among students about what is “lawful” to do on Sunday as well, which continues among pastors. The Westminster Confession of Faith (subscribed to by many Reformed folk) states rather sternly:

“This Sabbath is then kept holy unto the Lord, when men, after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering of their common affairs beforehand, do not only observe an holy rest, all the day, from their own works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations, but also are taken up, the whole time, in the public and private exercises of his worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy.” (chapter 21, paragraph 8)

In the bible passage from Mark above, we can see that Sabbatarian arguments have been going on a long time. It seems that most American Christians today are either muddled on the issue or have completely given up even attending worship on the Lord’s Day, seeing it as “the best of the seven” only because it provides time and space for more self-indulgence than usual!

We could talk about the relationship between the Seventh Day and the First Day and how the vast majority of Christians came to worship on the First Day, but it’s more valuable to think about what the Sabbath Day meant. For ancient Israel, the Sabbath looked forward to the freedom to come, of hope for the great Day of Rest when all pagan oppression would cease. It looked backward to the creation of the world, to the Exodus, and was a day marked out for those who keep it as God’s chosen people, His faithful and hopeful people.

For the original audience in Jesus’ day, it had become a great hammer and symbol of nationalism. It no longer envisioned Israel as the light of the world, but simply as the light and the rest of the world as darkness. This happens when religion and nationalism are entangled. It was doubtless a no-win situation when it came to celebrating God’s creation and redemption, past, present, and future. The letter meant much more than the spirit of the law.

Jesus gets right in the middle of it by healing the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath. Jesus knew that the Pharisees were hard-hearted and stiff-necked. They could not even see, much less celebrate that God had sent his Messiah. So Jesus puts it starkly, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” This is irony at its best. “Is it legal to do good, or shall only doing evil be lawful?” Thus “they were silent.” If the Sabbath speaks of creation and redemption, the answer is obvious, but they couldn’t admit it without contradicting themselves.

In the story just before, Jesus had said that He is “lord even of the Sabbath.” The Pharisees had a choice: repent, submit, and obey, or go get some powerful help from the Herodians. They chose the latter. When Jesus said He is “lord even of the Sabbath,” He means that the temple was all about Him—He’s lord even of the temple; the priests were all about Him—He’s lord even of the priests; the sacrifices were all about Him—He’s lord even of the sacrifices; the feasts were all about Him; the law was all about Him. The Sabbath is all about Him.

He had made His Messianic claim of the dawning of a new day where even the Law would be seen in a new light. The kingdom is breaking in and the time is coming when people are restored every day and forever. It is eternal Sabbath of rich feasting with the Son of David who is the Son of Man who is the Lord, even of the Sabbath. And that’s the gospel!

He went out again beside the sea, and all the crowd was coming to him, and he was teaching them. And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.

And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” – Mark 2:13-17

What is Levi doing at a tax booth in Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee? That seems odd, doesn’t it? You would need to understand who was in power to figure out what Levi was doing there. Herod the Great, who died in 4BC, willed divided parts of Israel to three of his children. Archelaus inherited Judea in the south, Philip received the Golan Heights, extending up into Syria, Antipas got Galilee in the north with the Jordan as the border between his and Philips’ territory. Capernaum is where the Jordan meets the Sea in the north, so it is the town between the two territories. Just as you pay an airport tax today, and perhaps a toll to travel between countries, so that’s the way it was between these two territories; Levi has a toll booth, and he’s the toll collector.

Anyone working to collect tolls or taxes from the Jews is going to be hated, but particularly if it’s a Jew doing the collecting. Chances are that Levi is used to being hated and socially mistreated. Then one day Jesus came by without a shout or swear or insult and said something unimaginable: “Follow me.” While we know that Jesus’ call to follow is always answered in the affirmative by the one called (salvation belongs to Him!), I suspect that at least this calling may have been a kind relief for Levi.

Scandalously, the man who was working for the one claiming to be the King of the Jews was called to work for the One who is actually the King of the Jews. But royal identity has to wait a bit. Instead, Jesus identifies Himself as a doctor rather than a king. Jesus goes with Levi from the toll booth at the sea to Levi’s house. And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

The scribes of the Pharisees, that is to say, the lawyers, are appalled that bad people—people easily written off—are not only following Rabbi Jesus, but making a feast or party out of it. It’s not merely that Jesus had a few people over for dinner, but many are there for the festivities. This is outrageous in a world where Old Covenant shadows had been used to judge these outcasts and ignore them from then on.

But Jesus doesn’t mind challenging these critics to their face. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” This is so monumental that I have to wonder if a bell rang out through the universe. The doctor is in! He is warning us to see things properly (from God’s point of view rather than by human partiality); He is encouraging us to extend His healing welcome (because we know we’re warmly welcomed too); He is showing us where to get the medicine we need (at His table). And that’s the gospel!

And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and when they had made an opening, they let down the bed on which the paralytic lay. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”–he said to the paralytic– “I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.” And he rose and immediately picked up his bed and went out before them all, so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!” – Mark 2:3-12

I’ve always thought forgiveness is a good thing. I mean, I need it after all! That my sins would be forgiven on faith alone is too good to be true. But this is not good enough. A modernist mindset has led most of us to believe that the only way to think about the forgiveness of sin is personal, even private. In the Bible, however, forgiveness not only has a personal application, but a national or corporate fulfillment as well. While there is no longer a national forgiveness indicated for us (like Israel was in the Older Testament), we are in the new nation, which is the church. The church has her King, but still lives in a kind of exile, which will end when the curse is removed. That’s the fullness of forgiveness.

In the passage above, Jesus told the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Jesus tells him that he is His child and is forgiven. This is remarkable. The issue then becomes a matter of forgiving sins, which was tantamount to healing. Immediately the scribes are incensed, but instead of answering their thoughts that this was blasphemy, He said to them, “Why do you question these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.”

Leviticus is plain that God could forgive sins: And the priest shall make atonement for him for the sin that he has committed, and he shall be forgiven (Lev. 5:10). The problem is that Jesus is neither a priest, nor at the proper altar in the Temple, nor offering sacrificial blood for the one seeking forgiveness. He is a long way from Jerusalem and the Temple, not a Levite, and without sacrificial blood; nonetheless Jesus forgave the paralytic’s sin with a word.

This is true liberation. The money necessary for the sacrificial animals was not needed, nor was the requirement of traveling to Jerusalem necessary. This is a new world and new order of things. “We never saw anything like this!” Some rejoiced; some didn’t. The Scribes and the Pharisees cherished the old order of things, and this was threatening their way of life, though it’s doubtful they had any idea just how much!

Jesus’ faithfulness as the Son of Man means the authority really to forgive sins has been given to man. Mark counts on you knowing Matthew’s gospel, and here Matthew says (9:8), “When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men.” Repeatedly in the Newer Testament, the saints are exhorted to forgive one another (Gal. 6:1; Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:13; James 5:15, 19-20). This is what Jesus is demonstrating at the healing of the paralytic, and it is good news because it means the old has passed away and the new has come. The church, in exile under the curse, has power to remove the curse because the Son of Man has authority. And that’s the gospel!

That evening at sundown they brought to him all who were sick or oppressed by demons. And the whole city was gathered together at the door. And he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons. And he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, and they found him and said to him, “Everyone is looking for you.” And he said to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.” And he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons. – Mark 1:32-39

In thinking about Jesus’ parables, I’ve noticed that Jesus didn’t try to speak as clearly as he could. That’s something of an arresting thought for me since, as an American pastor in the twenty-first century, I feel like a big part of my goals, indeed much of people’s expectations of my effectiveness, is speaking in a way that is immediately accessible to every person, regardless of education, age, experience, or even interest. That doesn’t describe Jesus’ preaching much at all. He regularly spoke in parables and with other rhetorical devices that were meant as much to conceal His meaning as to reveal His meaning to the audience.

That’s rather closely related to the idea of crowds. While I am glad to say that bigger is not necessarily better, it must be conceded that I would rather go to the restaurant that takes reservations than the one where I can find a seat immediately at any time. Americans with Evangelical identities tend to believe that having throngs of people coming for the preacher, or at least the church leadership, means that is the better place to be. Jesus, though, in the passage above and a number of other places in the gospels, eschews crowds of people. Think of it: Jesus did not try to reach as many people as possible, and when He did speak to those around Him, He didn’t try to get everyone to understand what He was saying!

The passage above comes immediately after Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law from her fever and she rises up and starts feeding everyone. That evening “the whole city was gathered together at the door.” What a scene! And He does heal the sick and free those seized by demons. But then He slips out before sunrise and goes to a desolate place to pray. It’s not surprising that throngs came to Jesus, but it may be a little shocking that many people who felt they needed Jesus were left behind by Him. His prayer was more important to him than more healings and exorcisms.

Where it gets really interesting is that Mark says, “Simon and those who were with him searched for him.” The Greek for “searched for him” means “hunt him down.” Again, in keeping with Mark’s theme of Jesus as the greater David, the Greek translations of the Hebrew scriptures where wicked King Saul pursues David literally means stalks him down, and is the same as the disciples’ hunting Jesus down. There’s nowhere in the Older Testament where it is used for anything other than to describe a hostile pursuit. This lets us know that Simon’s declaration to Jesus, “Everyone is looking for you,” wasn’t in the kindest, most patient tone of voice.

As far as we can tell from Mark, Jesus never even goes back to that town. The question is why Jesus wanted to get away from them and not heal as many people as He could have. The text gives us the answer to both parts. As to what His motivation was to get away from the crowds, it is plain that He wanted to get away to pray. Jesus, the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, needed to pray. He needed to pray more than do what otherwise would be good works. We should consider this well concerning our own lives. If Jesus required solitary, contemplative prayer, how much more do we! Our world doesn’t encourage this; we should repent and rebel against the busy-ness of modern life that would prevent similar prayer as part of our ordinary patterns of living.

The second part of the question concerns why Jesus didn’t heal as many people as He could have. Again, Mark quotes Jesus’ answer unmistakably: “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.” Jesus didn’t mainly come out to heal people, but to preach. Real healing, that is to say, healing that lasts, is not going to come in this present life. The people Jesus healed eventually got sick again and died. The healing that lasts would come through faith in the gospel Jesus preached. It is a message of righteousness that comes by faith, an announcement of the victory of Jesus himself, and a fulfillment of the long-awaited promise of God to make all things new. That’s what they needed more than anything else. And that’s the gospel!