© Rosemary Bardsley 2013


Task #1: Read Mark 2:13-17. Answer these questions:

[1] What did Jesus do that evoked criticism?



[2] How did Jesus reply to this criticism?



A.1 From the perspective of the religious elite
When Jesus called Levi [elsewhere called ‘Matthew’] to follow him he cut right across the religious culture of his day. Levi worked for the hated Romans, collecting money from his fellow Jews to enrich Rome, and, in all likelihood, taking more than required by Rome in order to line his own pockets. The close association with the unbelieving Romans also had the added stigma of ritual uncleanness.

It is this man, this betrayer of his people, despised, hated, ostracised, and most probably also ritually unclean and a thief, whom Jesus commands ‘Follow me.’  It is this man whom Jesus takes along with the others as a disciple. This man is commanded to embark on a journey of learning from Jesus.

Note: It was a common practice of Rabbis to gather a group of students around them and to teach these students. A disciple is a student, a learner. Jesus, the teacher, was gathering around him a group of students, a group of learners. Levi [Matthew] is here called to be a member of that group who would remain with Jesus, following him as he went about teaching, and learning from him as he taught.

But Jesus did not just call Levi away from his work. He did not hold himself aloof from Levi. Ignoring the religious expectations and perceptions of his day Jesus went to a dinner party in Levi’s house, Jesus sat and ate with the ‘many tax-collectors and “sinners”’ who were Levi’s guests. Culturally, sharing a meal indicated fellowship and acceptance. Culturally, eating with the ritually unclean involved a person in the other’s uncleanness.

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees who saw Jesus eating with these despised people were puzzled and offended. They could see no reason why anyone who set himself up as a Rabbi and taught about the kingdom of God would do such a thing.

A.2 From the perspective of Jesus
While the teachers of the law and the Pharisees puzzled over why a religious teacher would deliberately seek fellowship with ‘sinners’ and deliberately incur ritual uncleanness, this was not at all a problem for Jesus. To him, his reasons were clear and well defined, as he explains in his brief response to the question they asked his disciples:

[1] It is the ‘sick’ who need a doctor, not the ‘healthy’.
[2] He came to call ‘sinners’ to repentance, not ‘the righteous’.

In feasting with the ‘sinners’, Jesus was doing what he came to do: to minister to those who are spiritually ‘sick’, to call sinners to repentance. Here at this party he is in the midst of the spiritually wounded, he is in a gathering of sinners. These are the ones he came to save. These people who are aware of their need of a spiritual ‘doctor’, these people who know that they are sinners, condemned and guilty before the holy God.


A.3 A deeper, unspoken perspective
Both the Pharisees’ question and Jesus’ answer clearly identify Levi’s guests as ‘sinners’. Jesus does not refute this designation. For it is true, they are ‘sinners’. What the teachers of the law and the Pharisees don’t realise, and what Jesus at this point does not mention, is that they also are spiritually sick, they also are ‘sinners’, they also need this ‘doctor’, they also need to repent. Although not outwardly wicked they are just as godless as those they despise.

They would identify themselves with ‘the healthy’ and ‘the righteous’ in Jesus’ response. But their spiritual sickness is in their hearts, not their observable actions; their sin is hidden behind external righteousness and ritual observance. They know nothing of that righteousness that is the gift of God; they know nothing of the righteousness that is by faith from beginning to end. Like Saul before his conversion they are trusting in their own law-based righteousness, a righteousness that will never satisfy the requirements of the holy God, and a righteousness that will never bring full assurance to the human heart.

Task #2: Read Philippians 3:1-11.

How do these verses contrast human ‘righteousness’ and the ‘righteousness’ that is from God and by faith? And, which ‘righteousness’ are you trusting in and rejoicing in?






B. JESUS AND THE LAW – Mark 2:18-22

John's disciples were fasting. The Pharisees and their disciples were fasting. The disciples of Jesus were not. This has the people puzzled. Zechariah 8:19 tells us that the Jews fasted four times a year, in the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth months. In addition some of the feast days involved fasting, and individuals fasted for a variety of religious reasons. What is under question in Mark 2 was probably one of those four fasts mentioned in Zechariah. It was a religious, ritual exercise engaged in by people who considered themselves religious. It was part of the piety expected of a good Jew.

But here are Jesus and his disciples not doing the expected religious thing, and the people want to know why. Jesus answers them with three riddles.


B.1 The riddle of the bridegroom (Mark 2:19,20).
‘How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them?’  In these verses Jesus teaches that as long as he is with his disciples they cannot fast. It is inappropriate. It is incongruous. It is impossible. To have him with them is an honour that calls for feasting and joy, not mourning and fasting. There will be a time for that, but not now, not while he is with them.

Tucked away in this riddle is Jesus' unspoken knowledge of his true identity - an identity that transcends all that human beings see as religious obligation. He, the Son of God, is with them. How can they possibly fast? All the bells on earth should be ringing! All the flags should be flying! All the hearts of men should be overflowing with joy! They cannot fast, for God is with them!


B.2 The riddle of the new patch on the old garment (Mark 2:21), and the riddle of the new wine in old wineskins (Mark 2:22).
These two riddles point to the practical stupidity and ineffectiveness of adding new to old. It can be tried, but it doesn't work: the new is wasted and the old destroyed in the attempt. Ritual fasting belongs to the ‘old’: the gospel of Jesus is the ‘new’. The old focus of ritual observance and external ceremony cannot sustain the addition of the ‘new’ inner, spiritual life given by Jesus. Nor can this new life of following Jesus survive intact if attached to the ‘old’. There is an in-built dynamic of destruction if an attempt is made to combine the two.

All of the ritual, ceremonial observances were but shadows waiting for the coming of the reality which is Christ (Colossians 2:16,17). To hold to these old foreshadowings of Christ and to attempt to hold also to Christ, is as foolish and impossible as attempting to hold onto the bus stop sign and also board the bus. Destruction is inevitable. Once the bus has come the bus stop sign has no more significance. We leave it behind. Jesus knows that he is the one anticipated and prophesied in the Jewish ritual and ceremonial law, and that in his coming all of that is rendered redundant. It pointed to him. Now he has come. It no longer has any purpose.


B.3 The significance of Jesus’ riddles
These three riddles highlight the two central elements of the gospel of Jesus Christ: his identity and his saving work.  The people can’t understand why he does not fit into any of their religious ‘boxes’. They are disturbed because they cannot categorize him. He is obviously not ‘a sinner’. He is obviously not a Pharisee. He is obviously not focused on the trivial details of ‘law’ like the teachers of the law. Why does he not fit under any label? Why does he not walk any party line?

Because he is beyond labelling, he is beyond categorizing. He stands alone.

About the first riddle:
Jesus is ‘the bridegroom’. Not one of many – not the ‘friends of the bridegroom’, not the guests of the bridegroom. But the bridegroom – the unique and most important one of all.  Even here, however, in referring to his identity, Jesus includes reference to his death and burial – a time for mourning is coming, a time when the bridegroom will be taken away from them.

About the second and third riddles:
He is the fulfilment of the law and the prophets: the ultimate hope of all prayer and all fasting. He is the LORD our righteousness. He is the Passover lamb. He is the Sabbath. He is the New Moon festival. He fulfils both the legal requirements of the law and the ritual symbolism of the law. There are not two alternative ways of salvation – the law or Jesus. There is only one way – Jesus. And he procures salvation for us by perfectly keeping the righteous requirements of the law and by completely fulfilling everything symbolised in the rituals prescribed by the law.

Our salvation is not a matter of law plus grace. It is not possible to join together the imperfect righteousness of man and the perfect righteousness of Jesus. As a way of salvation, the perfection of Christ is disempowered and destroyed when combined with our imperfection. Our salvation depends on grace alone and Christ alone.


Task #3: Answer these questions:

[1] What caused the Pharisees’ criticism in Mark 2:23-28?


[2] How did Jesus respond to their question?


[3] What upset the Pharisees in Mark 3:1-6?


[4] Describe Jesus’ response to their hardness of heart.


The question about fasting is followed by two incidents involving the Sabbath. In these Jesus openly displays his authority over the law.

C.1 Picking and eating grain on the Sabbath
In Mark 2:23-28 the Pharisees criticize Jesus because his disciples are picking corn on the Sabbath. Jesus refers them to David's action in which he broke the law in order to feed his hungry men. He points out to the Pharisees that, contrary to their understanding, the Sabbath was made to serve man, not man to serve the Sabbath. That which was intended by God to be a rest had been made by their law into a bondage. The Sabbath was instituted by God to demonstrate to the Jews that their relationship to him as his chosen people rested entirely on his gracious action (see Exodus 31:13 and Ezekiel 20:12); by their traditions they had made Sabbath-keeping the means by which they merited his approval.

Task #4: What do Exodus 31:13 and Ezekiel 20:12 teach about the Sabbath?




It is as if Jesus said to the Pharisees ‘Look! I know what I'm doing when I let my disciples pick corn to eat on the Sabbath. I tell you it's quite okay. I'm not going to bind my men to all your trivial rules and regulations. That's not what the law of God's about at all. I know. It's my law!’  But he doesn't say it like that. He simply says: ‘So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.’ If they accept it, they accept it; if they don't, they don't.

For deeper thought: not only is Jesus the Lord of the Sabbath, he is actually the deep meaning of the Sabbath. Check out Colossians 2:16,17.  He himself is our rest.

For extended study on the Sabbath go to these pages:



C.2 Healing on the Sabbath
That they didn't accept Jesus' claim to have authority over the Sabbath becomes evident in Mark's next account in 3:1-6. The scene is the synagogue. The Pharisees are there, waiting to find fault with Jesus. The man with the shrivelled hand is there, needing to be healed. Jesus is there, the one who has the power to heal, the one who claims to be Lord of the Sabbath. Will he submit to their Sabbath law? Or will he stand in authority over it? He meets the problem head on, despising the eagerness in which the Pharisees wait to accuse him. He makes the man stand up where all can see him. He shoots a loaded question at the Pharisees: ‘Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?’

Not one dared to answer him. Either answer from their lips would condemn them, and Jesus knows it.

Mark describes Jesus as both angry and deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts.

They are deliberately looking for a reason to accuse Jesus [3:2].
They are intentionally watching to see if he will heal on the Sabbath [3:2].
They lack compassion even when confronted by human suffering [3:3].
They do not admit their error even when given the opportunity [3:4].
Their hearts are stubborn [3:5].

Jesus knows the Sabbath law. Jesus knows the purpose and meaning of the Sabbath. He knows how far away these Pharisees are from enjoying the deep peace and the deep grace of God embedded in the Sabbath. They have made the Sabbath a burden instead of a blessing, not only for themselves but also for others.
[Although they do not know it their hearts are more shrivelled and disabled than the hand of the man who stands before them. How readily Jesus would have healed them also, but they were not willing.]

Jesus refuses to be subject to them. He refuses to be bound by their misinterpretations of the law. He refuses to allow their ignorance to dictate his actions, to undermine his authority, to curb his compassion. He knows who he is. He knows the law. He knows the intention of the law. By his word he heals the man.

So threatened are the Pharisees by what to them seems like a high-handed disregard of the law, they go out and begin to plan Jesus' death. They see clearly what Jesus is doing, but it doesn't enter their minds that he actually has the right and authority to define and interpret the law of God. To them he is just a man, usurping for himself the authority of God.

 Task #5: Answer these questions:

[1] How does Jesus’ attitude to the Sabbath law demonstrate his divine identity?


[2] What do you think caused Jesus the deepest grief?


[3] What made it so difficult for the Pharisees to even tolerate Jesus?