The past two evenings, our Evening Prayer lections from the second chapter of Mark have shown Jesus and the Temple authorities in conflict as to ritual observance of the Law. To the Pharisees and Scribes, it was a person’s moral duty to observe the Law with exact precision. To err, would render one ritually unclean, unable to enter the Temple, and make them a societal outcast. Over and over, Jesus challenged them as to their legalism, demonstrating to them what the Law looked like when seasoned with mercy.
Tonight’s reading from Mark turns up the heat in a way we have not yet seen. We might think this reading is about healing on the sabbath, but that is secondary to what has Jesus and the Pharisees staring at each other in silence. For the first time in these encounters we observe an emotional Jesus, seething with frustration. The gospel writer says, “Jesus looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart.”
I would say that this story is about identity. The founder of our community, Richard Meux Benson once said: “In the presence of Jesus mankind beholds not merely the power of God but the possibility of man; not only what God is in Himself but what God meant man to be.”[i] The Pharisees spent their lives learning the law and enforcing it to the best of their abilities in order to keep Israel a holy nation. And Jesus certainly did not disagree with their zeal. In Matthew’s gospel we hear Jesus say: ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.[ii]
In his commentary on this passage, theologian N.T. Wright remarks that the Law, including the keeping of Sabbath, was a mark of identity for a people who had been persecuted simply because of who they were. The Sabbath spoke to freedom and the great Day of Rest when God would liberate Israel. It identified the faithful as God’s own people and therefore the commitment to the Law was necessary in order to live into that identity.[iii] He continues: “This attitude, as so easily happens when religion and nationalism are wedded tightly together, spilled over into popular attitudes even toward fellow Jews.”[iv] The question of identity became tricky as different interpretations of Law began to cast suspicions about who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out,’ and the Temple authorities protected their power and authority to make those decisions. Perhaps, this ‘hits close to the bone’ these days as we have watched a pandemic kill more than 4 million people worldwide, the senseless murders of our black brothers and sisters at the hand of public servants, and the toxicity of our public discourse which has resulted in a constitutional crisis and made us more isolated from and suspicious of our neighbors.
Jesus message was that holiness was not determined by being set apart as morally superior to others but rather by exhibiting the highest attribute of God, what was known in Hebrew as chesed, which is translated as loving-kindness or compassion.[v] This is what Jesus exhibited in each of these encounters with the Scribes and Pharisees. These men, groomed since a young age to shepherd their flock, did not recognize the characteristic that most defined the God to whom they belonged. This is what pained Jesus so intensely and in an act of mercy, Jesus restored the man’s hand to health, tangibly reflecting back to these men the very image in which they were created.
Jesus gospel message was that we were all created in the image of God, with the capacity to mirror the same loving-kindness that is God’s essence, that is chesed. We show this by following his example: by being merciful, engaging each other with compassion, listening to each other intently, and when necessary asking God for the courage to speak truth to power. When we do, we join God’s mission of justice, healing, and restoration so that we may all have sabbath in Him.
I close with these words of William Shakespeare:
“The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest. It becomes
The thronèd monarch better than his crown.
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings,
But mercy is above this sceptered sway.
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings.
It is an attribute to God himself.
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.”[vi]
Year One; Saturday; Epiphany 1
[i] Benson, Richard Meux, and G. T. Pulley. A Word of Father Benson for Every Day. A. R. Mowbray and Co., 1932.
[ii] Matthew 5:17
[iii] Wright, Tom. Mark for Everyone. Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.
[v] Winters, Charles L., ed. Education for Ministry, Year Two: New Testament. The University of the South. 1977.
[vi] Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616. The Merchant of Venice. Harlow, Essex, England :Longman, 1994.
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