THE PEOPLE JESUS KNOWS
Week of September 13, 2009
Bible Verses: Mark 2:3-12,15-17,23-28.
Lesson Focus: This lesson will challenge you to interact with all people in a Christlike manner.
Minister to the Hurting: Mark 2:3-12.
 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, "My 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!" [ESV]
[3-5] A crowd of people jams the doorway of the house where Jesus is. Crowds play an important role in this Gospel. Mark attests to Jesus' popularity in Galilee by referring to crowds nearly forty times before chapter 10. Crowds form audiences for His teaching and are the object of His compassion, but Mark never describes crowds turning to Jesus in repentance and belief, as the gospel requires [1:15]. In respect to understanding and faith, crowds generally demonstrate passivity, and often even greater fickleness. The single most common attribute of crowds in Mark is that they obstruct access to Jesus. Thus, despite Jesus' popularity, crowds are not a measure of success in Mark. They constitute "outsiders" who stand either in ambivalence or opposition to Jesus. Hence Jesus masks His teaching to them in parables. Houses or private settings, by contrast, provide settings for special revelation and instruction to disciples and insiders in Mark. Only in private does Jesus explain things clearly to His disciples and allow glimpses, if at all, of His divine Sonship. The contrast between "crowd" and "house" helps illustrate a larger theme in Mark, that enthusiasm for Jesus and even proximity to Him are not the same as faith - and may oppose it. What attracts such crowds to Jesus? Mark offers the simplest summary: he was preaching the word to them. Mark occasionally describes Jesus' message simply as "the word" by which he means the message of the gospel of God [1:14-15]. More than any other expression in early Christianity, "the word" defines the essence of Jesus' ministry. The truth He proclaims is the same truth He embodies, before which His hearers cannot remain passive. The teaching of Jesus at home in Capernaum is the context for this important story. The throng in the courtyard is blocking a needy party from reaching Jesus. If an opening to Jesus cannot be found, one must be made. This is a description of faith: it will remove any obstacle to get to Jesus. Jesus is not offended by the roof removers, however, but encouraged. When He sees their faith, He says to the paralytic, My son, your sins are forgiven.
[6-12] Mention of the forgiveness of sins creates a most unexpected twist in the story. The paralytic has not been brought because he believed his sins needed forgiving but because he wanted his paralysis healed. On hearing the forgiveness of sins, the story abruptly shifts from the paralytic to the scribes. They did not claim to forgive sins, and they are scandalized when Jesus presumes to do so. What began as a heart-warming healing has suddenly become a perilous confrontation over religious authority. Who can forgive sins but God alone, ask the scribes and they are right. Only God can forgive sins. Indeed, not even the Messiah has the authority to pronounce forgiveness of sins from his own power. Forgiveness of sins remains everywhere the exclusive right of God. The reason is that in every sin, even in sins committed ostensibly only against one's neighbor, God is the party most offended. Without having been told, Jesus knows the crises in the minds of the scribes. He meets their question with another counter-question: Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Rise, take up your bed and walk'? The scribes are no less dependent on Jesus than is the paralytic for the work of God, but their learning and status make them less aware of their need for it. Jesus wants them to know, that is, to experience firsthand the authority by which He forgives sins. In verse 7 the scribes ask who can forgive sins, that is, who has the ability. Jesus declares that the Son of Man not only has the ability but the authority to do so. The word for authority is the same word used to describe Jesus' teaching and exorcism in the Capernaum synagogue [1:21-28]. From a human perspective it is safe to pronounce the forgiveness of sins, since that statement cannot be falsified. Jesus, however, will provide evidence of the former by healing the paralytic, which can be verified by all. His authority to forgive, no less effective because of its invisibility, will be proved by healing the paralytic. The authority to heal and the authority to forgive are the same authority. Mark reports that the paralytic rose and immediately picked up his bed and went out before them all. Thus, in answer to the question, Who can forgive sins but God alone, hearers and readers are invited to supply the name of Jesus. His victory over sickness and sin is complete, for Jesus does what only God can do. The singularity of the event is echoed in the exclamation of the crowd, we never saw anything like this.
Seek Sinners: Mark 2:15-17.
 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." [ESV]
The Roman tax system was complex and varied, even in a small country like Palestine. Land and poll taxes were collected directly by the Romans, but taxes on transported goods were contracted out to local collectors, most of whom were ethnic Jews but probably not observant Jews, since Torah-conscious Jews could not be expected to transact business with Gentiles. Levi was one of these middlemen who made bids in advance to collect taxes in a given area. His own profit came from what he could cheat from his constituents, and a portion of his receipts stayed in his own pockets. The Roman system of taxation depended on graft and greed, and it attracted enterprising individuals who were not adverse to such means. Tax collectors were obviously despised and hated. A Jew who collected taxes was disqualified as a judge or witness in court, expelled from the synagogue, and a cause of disgrace to his family. The touch of a tax collector rendered a house unclean. Jews were forbidden to receive money and even alms from tax collectors since revenue from taxes was deemed robbery. Understandable, the call of Levi causes great consternation in the eyes of fellow Jews. It brings Jesus again into contact with unclean persons; not with unclean diseases as in the case of the leper [1:40], but with an individual who, because of his collaboration with the Gentile occupation, is both morally contemptuous and ritually unclean. It may be that contact with Levi was actually more offensive than contact with a leper since a leper's condition was not chosen whereas a tax collector's was.
Jesus joins Levi for dinner at his house where there are many tax collectors and sinners, signifying that the call of a sinner is not an exception to His mission but typical of it. Most of the people in the sinner category are simply laborers and commoners who were too busy, too poor, or too ignorant to live up to the rules of the religious authorities. Jewish dietary laws were intended to exclude contact with Gentiles, especially in the intimacy of table fellowship. Jesus' disrespect for this essential Jewish boundary causes great offense to the scribes. The tax collectors and sinners invite Jesus to dinner, whereas the scribes stand outside in judgment. The cleft between Jesus and the scribes is accentuated by the word followed. Levi follows Jesus, as do the tax collectors and sinners. But the scribes do not follow Jesus. The lesson is pointed: fellowship with Jesus is based on a radically different standard from that of Torah. Jesus calls and reclines with the blatantly undeserving and unrighteous. Fellowship with Jesus violates social and religious convention rather than promoting it. This story thus illustrates the truth of 2:1-12: there Jesus pronounced forgiveness of sins, here he forgives sinners, entering their houses in fellowship and reclining with them at table. Jesus' fellowship with tax collectors and sinners - and its condemnation by the scribes - illustrates the radical nature of grace. The "tradition of the elders" justifies a status quo of distinctions and erects barriers among people; the gospel seeks to transform and reconcile this condition by building a bridge between Jesus and human need. Jesus communicates in word and deed that accepting and following Him are more important than following Torah. When the unreformed and unregenerate do that, they will enter the kingdom of God before the scribes and Pharisees. In table fellowship with sinners and tax collectors, Jesus scandalously asserts His authority, His own person over Torah, and the extravagant love of God over merit. That is the scandal of grace. The scene is summed up in a memorable saying, Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners. The fact that Jesus can be found in the company of people such as Levi reminds us of the difference between His mission and that of the scribes. They come to enlighten; He comes to redeem. Given that mission, it is as senseless for Jesus to shun tax collectors and sinners as for a doctor to shun the sick. The grace of God extends to and overcomes the worst forms of human depravity. Ironically, in one sense great sinners stand closer to God than those who think themselves righteous, for sinners are more aware of their need of the transforming grace of God.
Confront the Religious: Mark 2:23-28.
 One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain.  And the Pharisees were saying 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 was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him:
 how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?"  And he said to them, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.  So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath." [ESV]
[23-26] The action of the disciples in plucking heads of grain as they passed through a field on a Sabbath walk provoked the fourth controversy recorded by Mark. The action in itself was wholly legitimate. The Mosaic Law allowed the picking by hand ears of grain from a neighbor's field [Deut. 23:25]. The disciples' conduct came under the critical scrutiny of the Pharisees only because it occurred on the Sabbath. The action of plucking grain was interpreted as reaping, an act of work in violation of the Sabbath rest. Among the scribes it was assumed that a teacher was responsible for the behavior of his disciples. For this reason the Pharisees address their protest directly to Jesus. They raise a question of what is legally permitted or prohibited, perhaps with the intention of satisfying the legal requirement of a warning prior to prosecution for Sabbath violation. Jesus answered their protest with an appeal to Scripture, calling attention to the incident recorded in 1 Samuel 21:1-6. The formulation, Have you never read, followed by a counter-question reflects the language of debate. The relationship between the Old Testament incident and the infringement of the Sabbath by the disciples lies in the fact that on both occasions pious men did something forbidden. The fact that God does not condemn David for his action indicates that the narrowness with which the scribes interpreted the Law was not in accordance with the tenor of Scripture. Jesus argues that the tradition of the Pharisees is unduly stringent and exceeds the intention of the Law.
[27-28] With the introduction to verse 27 Mark indicates that the statement which follows has no direct relationship to the immediately preceding verses. This literary device recurs several times and in each instance it signals that only a fragment of the conversation or teaching which took place has been recorded. Jesus' initial response to the Pharisees was broken off after verse 26. The pronouncement in verse 27 stands on its own as the conclusion to a larger discourse, of which only the most salient point has been preserved. The pronouncement was remembered and transmitted for its assertion that the Sabbath was instituted by God to benefit man. Its relevance to the question of verse 24 lay in the re-affirmation of the original intention of the Sabbath which the extensions of the Law in the Pharisaic tradition had obscured. Verse 27 should be recognized as an authentic pronouncement of Jesus expressing God's purpose in establishing the seventh day as a period of joy and refreshment. The divine intention was in no way infringed by the plucking of heads of grain on the part of Jesus' disciples. The pronouncement of verse 27 rounds off the paragraph and constitutes its key point: the Sabbath was made for man's enjoyment. Verse 28 represents the comment of Mark himself on the larger meaning of the total incident for the Christian Community. Reflection on Jesus' act and word, through which He established the true intention of the Sabbath and exposed the weakness of a human system of fencing the Law with restrictions, revealed His sovereign authority over the Sabbath itself. With this word Mark drives home for his readers the theological point of the passage. These things were written that they may understand Jesus' true dignity: He is the Lord of the Sabbath.
Questions for Discussion:
1. Why do you think the first thing Jesus said to the paralytic was My son, your sins are forgiven? Why did the scribes react the way they did? What does Jesus want his followers to learn from this story? What does Jesus show His authority over in these verses?
2. What is the lesson to be learned from 2:15-17? What is the scandal of grace? What does Jesus show His authority over in these verses?
3. Over what does Jesus show His authority in verses 2:23-28? In each of these three passages Jesus' interpretation of the Law is met with disagreement and conflict with the scribes and Pharisees. Why does this happen? What is the key point of difference?
The Gospel According to Mark, James Edwards, Eerdmans.
The Gospel According to Mark,