Reflections on Mark 3:1-6 Part 2

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"He stretched it out, and his hand was restored." (Mark 3:5)


The First Contrast: Jesus, the Pharisees and the Law

The Law (Torah) was given in order to direct man in his relationship with God and with his fellow man. God reveals himself to be man-centred so that man can become God-centred for man’s own well-being and for that of society. It was essentially in the interest of man that the Law was given. It was never meant to be a burden to him or stifle life but to give and aid life. In Deuteronomy 30:19 we are faced with the choice between life and death. The Law was the guardian of life; it showed the way to a correct relationship with God, the source of life (Psalm 36:9). This was highlighted at the end of the previous chapter in the words of Jesus: “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”. Ironically the Pharisees were standing in the presence of the source of life (John 14:6; John 6:53, 54). With their oral traditions the religious leaders of the time had turned the Law into something that stifled life. The Pharisees, by their man-made traditions, had distorted the very God-given and life-giving purpose of the Law. 1

There was common ground between Jesus and the Pharisees. They all upheld that the Law was divinely instituted and necessary for man. Jesus had not come to abolish the Law as he himself made quite clear (Matthew 5:17). We would expect the religious leaders to be on his side. However, they had their own interests, their esteem and power over people to defend. They saw Jesus as a threat to this. Situations of this nature have always existed. It sometimes happens that someone in authority, either in the secular world, or in our own religious communities, is unable to make room for a new presence and sees it to be provocative and threatening where no threat or provocation is intended.

The Pharisees held the Law (Torah) in the highest esteem but, together with the Law, they also considered the Oral Law essential to ensure the correct understanding and application of the Law in everyday life, personal, social and religious. However, the Oral Law, the regulations and commentaries, were of human origin, not divine. It is important to make this distinction if we are to understand correctly the conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders of the time and not accuse Jesus of flouting the Law, as the Pharisees did and as the Jews still do to this day.

The conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders of the day were over the Oral Law and its stifling interpretation of the divine Law. It made the people depend on the rabbis and this is one reason why the rabbis strongly refused to codify these rules and commentaries. These leaders became the indispensable intermediaries between the Divine Law and the people. The coming of Jesus threatened that dependence by undermining what in the Oral Law was not in the best spiritual and physical interests of man. Jesus opposed that which made man dependant on the letter of the Law but, at the same time, drove him further away from the spirit of the Law. In the clash between Jesus and the religious leaders we have the clash between, on the one hand, genuine spirituality and, on the other, literalism and legalism. With Jesus we have the dawning of a new covenant. It is the new wine that cannot be contained in old wine skins (Mark 2:22). These just burst at the seams. The old wine skins, the religious leaders and their traditions, are incompatible with the new wine that has come with the arrival of Jesus. It has an explosive, revolutionary effect. It is the New Covenant of the Spirit:
a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Corinthians 3:6)
Jesus came to reveal, in both his person and in his ministry, how to relate to the Law and it was this that constitutes the fundamental difference in approach between Jesus and the Pharisees. It is an essential difference; it is the difference between life nourished and life stifled, between life and death: “And he said to them, ‘Is it lawful on the sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?’” (v. 4). The Pharisees were not so much interested in defending the Law as defending their own position and teachings and in catching Jesus out. They were seeking to condemn he who had come to heal and save. Jesus, on the other hand, came to reveal the mercy and compassion of the Father: ‘you are merciful to all, because you can do all things’ (Book of Wisdom 11:23). 2

Life is what Scripture is all about, life is what Jesus stands for, he is life (John 14:6). Jesus and the Pharisees are travelling in opposite directions. The Pharisees suffer from the Nicodemus syndrome and need to be born again. Jesus is offering that new life which frees people from spiritual death rooted in the status quo of the letter of the Law and legalism.

By calling the man to come forward Jesus focuses attention on him, thereby creating a dramatic situation that is potentially provocative; it makes sure the Pharisees did not miss the point. He addressed them with the heart searching question: “Is it lawful on the sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” (v. 4)

In the use of the word ‘lawful’ he is clearly recalling the previous episode when the Pharisees asked: “why are they doing what is not lawful?” (Mark 2:24). This episode is therefore a continuation of the previous discussion in chapter two. Jesus is turning the tables on them. He highlights the fundamental issue of good or evil, life or death. He could understand what was in their minds just as he could with the scribes when he healed the paralytic. They could not answer Jesus’ question: ‘they were silent’ (v.4).

The silence of the Pharisees denotes their embarrassment. If they said it was lawful to heal they would actually be going against their own rules and regulations. If, on the other hand, they said it was not lawful they would clearly go against the main purpose for which the Law was given, for good and for life. They had no choice but to remain silent. They could discern a fundamental incompatibility between their man-made rules and regulations and the divine spirit of the Law. Verse 6 underlines the inevitable conclusion of their lack of concern for human life: “they sought how to kill him”. Their traditions had brought them along the road of death and destruction, their one thought, their obsession, was now how to kill Jesus. The actions of Jesus are man-centred, the Pharisees were law-centred (with a small ‘l’).


1 This Oral Law was codified by Rabbi Judah the Prince about 200 AD.  This is called the Mishnah. Later, over the centuries, the discussion and commentaries on the Mishnah, the work of the various rabbis, were put into writing and formed the Talmud.
2 The Book of Wisdom is one of the Deuterocanonical books in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. These are not part of the Hebrew Bible but were part of the Septuagint. They were generally, but not universally, accepted as canonical. They were accepted as canonical until the 16th century. The Synod of Hippo (393) considered them canonical and this was ratified by the Council or Synod of Carthage of 397 (28th  August) . The Protestant tradition considers them apocrypha.  Eusebius wrote in his Church History (c. 324 AD) that Bishop Melito of Sardis in the 2nd century AD considered the Deuterocanonical Wisdom of Solomon as part of the Old Testament and that it was considered canonical by Jews and Christians alike.

Augustine (c. 397 AD) writes in his book On Christian Doctrine (Book II Chapter 8) that I and II Maccabees, Tobias, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus are Canonical books. Pope Innocent I (405 AD) sent a letter to the bishop of Toulouse citing the Deuterocanonical books as a part of the Old Testament Canon.

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