Throughout Mark chapter 2 Mark has used several conflict stories to teach on important topics. In 2:1-12 used the conflict over the healing of the paralytic to reveal Jesus’ authority to forgive sins. In 2:13-17 the conflict between Jesus and the scribes of the Pharisees revealed Jesus’ love for sinners. Finally, in 2:18-22 the conflict concerning fasting made the priority of Jesus’ new message clear. Now, as we prepare to look at Mark 2:23-28, we will continue to following Jesus around and we will see another conflict story. This time the conflict focuses on the subject of religious practice.
Sometimes we don’t think much about our own religious practice, but we all make everyday choices based on what we believe. That is what religious practice is. It is simply how we live out our theological beliefs in both formal religious activity and everyday life. The truth of the matter is that most of us really don’t like to be told how to live out these beliefs. We want to worship the way that we want, with the music that we like, and the kind of preaching that we enjoy. If we don’t like what the church has to offer in these area we simply pack up and leave. This kind of thinking is really a reflection of our individualistic culture. In the areas where we have freedom to work out how we are going to practice our beliefs we often crown our personal preferences as the king. The classic example of this is that old Baptist church-which probably only exists in sermon illustrations-that split over the color of the carpet.
The problem with this kind of attitude, as we will see in Mark 2:23-28, is that it ignores a very important truth. It ignores the fact that Jesus, as God, has authority over our religious practices. In other words, our focus is not to be on our own preferences as we seek to live out the Christian life. Our focus is always to be centered upon Christ, and the demands that He makes upon our lives. As Christians we do have a great deal of freedom in many areas of religious practice. The Bible, unlike many religious books, does not tell us exactly how to live out the details of our lives. Instead, the Bible provides for us a grid through which we are able to make the proper decisions. This means that we must not only understand the details of Scripture, but we must also understand how to practically apply those truths in our everyday lives. It was on this point that the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees arose. The Pharisees misunderstood what the bible said, and they made their own preferences the final authority for religious practice. When they confronted Jesus with their wrong thinking Jesus not only properly explained what the bible really said, He also established His own authority over religious practice.
I. The religious practice in question – the Sabbath (v. 23)
The religious practice in question here is the observance of the Sabbath. Mark makes this very clear from the beginning when the first thing that he says is that the events he is reporting on happened on “one Sabbath.” This means that sometime between Friday evening and Saturday evening Jesus “was going through the grainfields” with his disciples. In Matthew’s account we learn that Jesus’ disciple got hungry during this journey. Since they couldn’t stop at a McDonald’s, they began to pluck heads of grain to eat. Luke describes this process in a little more detail in Luke 6:1. In order to get to the edible part of the wheat they had to rub off the chaff with their hands. Because the chaff was lighter than the grain they could then blow the chaff out of their hand and eat what was left.
This may seem pretty strange to us; you might even think that what Jesus’ disciples were doing was stealing. However, this was a very normal practice and it was totally legal in ancient Israel. Deuteronomy 23:25 explains what the law said about this practice:
If you go into your neighbor’s standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbor’s standing grain.
This law was intended to be a help to travels who had run out of food, and individuals struggling to provide for themselves. A great example of this kind of practice is the way that Boaz provided for Ruth and Naomi in Ruth 2.
Clearly, what the disciples were doing was perfectly legal. But was it legal for them to do this on the Sabbath? Since the creation of the world God has intended for man to set aside specific time for rest and spiritual rejuvenation (Genesis 2:3). Additionally, when God formed the nation of Israel He formalized this period of rest by giving the people a law. In Exodus 20:9-10 it says,
Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates.
This period of rest was now the Sabbath, which literally means to “cease” or “stop.” During this period of Sabbath the people were commanded to rest from the normal activity and focus on God. However, as France notes:
While the principle of sabbath observance was agreed upon by all Jews, problems arose over what this meant in practice. The OT offered the positive principles that the day was to be holy (with special prescribed sacrifices), and that it was to be a time of rest, together with the negative corollary that no work should be done on it. It was on this negative aspect that debate centred. What was ‘work’? While the OT contains several illustrations of sabbath prohibitions (Ex. 16:22-30; 34:21; 35:2-3; Nu. 15:32-36; Ne. 10:31; 13:15-22; Je. 17:21-22), these did not add up to a comprehensive definition of ‘work’, and the need for a fuller definition was soon felt….”
In other words, everyone believed in the same Sabbath but not everyone agreed on how that Sabbath was to be observed. This is where the conflict arises in this passage and this is where we will resume our study of Mark next week.
R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark : A Commentary on the Greek Text
(Grand Rapids, Mich.; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 2002), 143.