Mark 2:23 – 3:6 (NRSV)
One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said 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 and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath;so the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was 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 conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.
Comment: Throughout the whole second chapter of Mark, Jesus does some amazing and surprising things, most of which counter the cultural norms, power structures and religious beliefs of his day—eventually resulting in the confrontation in the synagogue during the Sabbath. Despite how the Pharisees are often presented, they were respected religious leaders.
The tension here results not just in how the Sabbath is viewed (incidentally the fourth of the Ten Commandments), but the overall system of purity and pollution, holiness and sin, clean and unclean, which extended to people, places, things and times. Sabbath held the importance of being a holy time, not to be defiled by prohibited behavior. The fields of Israel might be holier than any other land, but the synagogue was holier still. Furthermore, a man with a disability was at the very margins of cleanliness.
Although we might be tempted to judge this system harshly, it also provided a structure that allowed a minority ethnic group with their unique religious ideals to survive multiple generations without being absorbed into the a dominant culture.
—Comments influenced by David Rhoads, “Social Criticism: Crossing Boundaries,” in Mark & Method: New Approaches in Biblical Studies, ed. Janice Capel Anderson and Stephen D. Moore (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992).
1. How do you describe the tension in this passage?
2. If the system has helped Israel to survive, why does Jesus seem to be working against it?
3. Why is the Sabbath so prominent in this passage?
4. How do you translate this passage in terms of cultural relevance/application for our own society? Your life?