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Controversially Compassionate

Updated: Jan 14, 2023

This is the last sermon I preached at the church I left earlier this year. I thought I'd publish it in case it was helpful to anyone wrestling with Mark chapter 2 and 3 and whether Jesus got the name of a High Priest in the OT wrong! Let me know what you think, either by watching the video or reading the script below. As with prior sermon posts, my script doesn't always match with the video exactly and the grammar isn't always brilliant as I write my scripts around how I speak - hopefully any poor grammar doesn't affect the meaning too much but let me know if it does!

On my first day ever in Guildford, I was 16 and here on my own to visit the university for an open day to see if I wanted to apply for it. I’d come off the train station and was using a basic map. What I didn’t know at the time was that there were two exits from the station and I came out the main one while the map to the university was directing me from the smaller exit. I started following what I thought was the road to the university and while I was confused that not everything matched up, I could seem to make it work, that was until I ended up on the High Street and nothing looked like a university campus. A very kind local explained to me that I’d basically been reading the map incorrectly and needed to go back to the station and find the other exit. Now I know there are at least three routes onto the campus, two of which are faster than the one the university map showed me that day but I’m not bitter…

I know I’m not the only person to do this with a map – when I was a teacher, I used to help with some expedition skills and teaching students to read maps. We would regularly hear on expeditions – ‘we should be here’ and see students attempting to match where they were with the map even though it was making them more lost. They had to learn to trust that the map was accurate and if they looked carefully there was enough detail for them to find where they were but also where they needed to get to.

Just as we can leap from thinking we are in a specific place on a map before matching the map with the world around us, we can make conclusions from reading a passage in scripture without figuring out if our conclusions match what the author meant the audience to hear in their time and culture. This might seem odd to you, that if this is God’s word then surely it should be clear and obvious what God means. I have found a perspective change helpful, that instead of seeing the bible as an instruction manual or a book of answers, it is an arena where we can wrestle with God and if you know of the story of Jacob, we will come out with a limp, but we will be changed and transformed to know God better and be more like Jesus. I pray that through the next half hour or so you’ll see how this works and that God will speak through his word this morning.

We’re continuing in our Mark series in Mark 2 starting at verse 13 and ending in chapter 3 verse 6.

Mark 2:13-17 - Eating with sinners…

13Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. 14As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. ‘Follow me,’ Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.

15While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him.

16When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’

17On hearing this, Jesus said to them, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but those who are ill. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’

These initial passages in Mark are all about controversy. Two weeks ago we heard Chris tell us of the first controversy, that Jesus has the authority to forgive sins. In the passage we are covering today we will see three more controversies: who should Jesus associate with, should Jesus’ disciples fast, and should Jesus’ disciples follow the Sabbath like the pharisees expected.

This first passage that we have read connects with Jesus’ authority over sin. The Pharisees had put up laws that stopped them associating with certain parts of society in case they were made ritually unclean which would hinder their access to the temple for long periods of time. Jesus was showing that in his kingdom, instead of being made unclean by eating with sinners he brought them healing and life. Jesus was showing that his gospel was for those who considered themselves sinners, a position of humility that the Pharisees could not accept.

Jesus’ actions show that God comes into the world of the sinner, the one who recognises they can’t keep up with the expectations of the world or the perfection of a holy God and need someone to bring forgiveness and life to them.

When we read this story who do we see ourselves as? What do we say about Jesus? We can regularly place ourselves with the tax collectors and sinners because we know that is the right answer. We all know the passage that says we fall short of the glory of God and therefore God comes into our lives and welcomes us in. That is, after all, the good news of the gospel.

But the flipside of that is that when the gospel comes into our lives, or even if it hasn’t, we can very quickly become pharisees… quick to disassociate with certain people in case our reputation gets tarnished, and we might be seen to be breaking some Christian rules.

Is our church, this group of followers of Jesus, a place for the sinner to find their welcome? I believe it is, but we need to keep asking that question as I know in my own heart, I can easily flip into being a pharisee in how I view others.

Lets keep reading – Mark 2:18-22 – Fasting

18Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came and asked Jesus, ‘How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?’19Jesus answered, ‘How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. 20But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.

21 ‘No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse. 22And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.’

Jesus is being watched quite closely and because he was baptised by John, the pharisees are noting that his actions are different from John’s teaching. Instead of fasting, they are feasting! Jesus is asked why this is the case and Jesus gives them a few mini parables.

Jesus’ use of the bridegroom has two aspects to it. First off is the obvious one we can spot easily, fasting is often linked to mourning and this would be the opposite of how one is expected to act at a wedding feast. Everyone is expected to enjoy the food with the bridegroom, joining in with the joy of the festivities.

Then there is a second statement which points towards Jesus’ and the Pharisees scriptures – what we call the Old Testament or the Hebrew Bible.

Jesus says in verse 20,

“The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.”

The prophet Jeremiah wrote this:

“And I will silence in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride for the land shall become a waste.”

Jesus is pointing to his mission. That he will die, rise again, and ascend into heaven and Jerusalem will face judgement and destruction. This judgement and destruction happened in AD70 when Rome destroyed Jerusalem and the early church was scattered across the empire. It is also true that we are still ‘in that day’ that fasting is a part of the Christian life that we often don’t discuss but is said as an expectation that ‘when you fast’ to do so without bringing attention to it.

Jesus carries on with more mini parables about not putting on new cloth on an old garment or new wine into old wineskins as both will end up being worse off and unusable. Jesus is using these parables to say that his mission is a new thing. We who have grown up in the church may jump to connect this to us, that we need to be transformed and born again to be made a Christian. Unfortunately that is importing where we think we are rather than reading the map that we are given carefully.

Mark is reiterating the fact that Jesus’ mission is a new thing. This has echoes of the prophet Isaiah in chapter 43 where God states,

“See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”

Who is making a way in the wilderness in Mark 1? Do you see it?

This new thing cannot be kept within the confines of the law as the pharisees perceive it. If they continue to try and follow the map, importing where they think they are rather than understanding where they really are, they will end up missing out on the wedding banquet. Their efforts to contain this new thing will end in disaster. These mini parables are about Jesus and his mission and not about us.

This takes us into the next part of the passage – Read 2:43-28

23One Sabbath Jesus was going through the cornfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some ears of corn. 24The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?’

25He answered, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need?

26In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.’

27Then he said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.’

This is where the map in front of us and the world around us don’t match easily. When you look at 1 Samuel 21, you’ll notice there are some obvious details that are different from how Jesus tells the story. There are many who have jumped to a conclusion that this must mean Jesus or Mark, or the source Mark used (which is thought to be Peter), got something wrong and therefore we cannot say Mark’s record is trustworthy. Many of the issues people have simply come down to misreading the map. We assume the gospel should conform to our modern Western standards of writing history and quoting Old Testament stories. I’m sorry to burst your bubble but Jesus is not speaking here in a context that is Western or modern!

It was a regular practice for a rabbi to adapt a well-known story, even a biblical one, as a commentary to make a point or show a way to live. This is called a midrash. Being exact in repeating the story isn’t the point, in fact it is often the differences that are designed to force the listener to revisit the scriptures that are familiar to them.

The first point of contention is that David’s interaction in 1 Samuel 21 is with Ahimelech not Abiathar. Mark quotes Jesus as saying ‘in the time of Abiathar the high priest’. Read on to 1 Samuel 22 and you will find that Ahimelech is killed by a servant of King Saul for helping David. Abiathar, one of Ahimelech’s sons, escapes to tell David. The position of High Priest would be handed down through the family so as soon as Ahimelech was killed, Abiathar became the High Priest. The story as Jesus tells it is in the time of Abiathar which is still accurate. Even more than that, the difference should make us dig into what Jesus is saying - ‘Abiathar’ means ‘my father gives abundance’ where as ‘Ahimelech’ means ‘my brother is king’. Jesus is using the name Abiathar to point those who are listening to the abundance found in the father who even blesses those who pick grain on the Sabbath.

The second contention is that the disciples weren’t clearly hungry and so it is totally different to the story about David who needed food to survive. But again, the difference does not imply a mistake. Jesus isn’t using this story to make a point about life and death situations but highlighting inconsistency in the Pharisees. Deuteronomy 23:25 specifically allows picking grain by hand on the Sabbath so the disciples had not broken a law but had not followed the Pharisee’s tradition. King David, who the Pharisees honoured, did break the law by eating bread reserved for the priests. So, while the Pharisees honour David they should have no problem with the disciples picking grain.

When reading this in parallel with Matthew’s recording in Matthew 12, Jesus is highlighting that even the priests who perform sacrifices on the Sabbath are breaking the law if the Pharisees are right.

And that is the point, the Pharisees are not right, the High Priest has the authority to suspend the Sabbath law for situations they deem appropriate and to explain this Jesus quotes the Pharisees’ own texts,

‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath’.

Jesus is stating that he has the authority of the High Priest, a theme that we don’t have time to go into here but is what the whole book of Hebrews is about.

Not only is Jesus comparing himself to the High Priest but also makes a claim that he is ‘Lord of the Sabbath’ which goes beyond the High Priest to the authority of God himself because the Sabbath was given by God in Genesis 1 and 2.

The Pharisees had made it impossible to keep up with all the laws and missed the entire point of the Sabbath. Their hypocrisy was turning God into a demanding God not one of gracious abundance where humanity could find their rest.


1 Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. 2And they watched Jesus to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3And he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come here.”

4And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. 5And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6 The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

Having discussed Sabbath law, Mark records the practical outworking of Jesus’ mission on a Sabbath. Jesus sees a man who cannot use his hand and asks those who are questioning him a question about the law. His question exposes the Pharisees and their laws – it was acceptable to save a life under their laws, but you could not heal non-life-threatening issues which included praying for healing.

If the Pharisees affirmed that it was acceptable to do good by healing then they highlight they cannot consistently hold to their own traditions, if they deny that Jesus could heal then they expose themselves as lacking compassion.

It is this lack of compassion and unwillingness to see their own hypocrisy that causes Jesus to be both angry and grieved. It is Jesus’ exposing their hypocrisy that makes them want to destroy Jesus.

As we come into land, here are some conclusions from the map in front of us:

  1. God loves the sinner. That in Jesus, God risked his reputation to associate himself with those who were deemed unreligious, sinners and unclean. His kingdom brings hope and restoration to those who find themselves unable to keep up with the rules and regulations religions place on them.

  2. God’s kingdom cannot be contained in rules and laws, and it needed God to become man to show that a new thing was happening that will bring disaster on those who try to limit it by law or restrict others coming to know God’s love.

  3. We will find our sabbath rest in the great high priest Jesus who is lord of the sabbath and has the power to heal and bring rest to all those who are weary.

As we understand the map better, where do we go from here?

There are two paths we can wander on over the next week. The first is reflecting on the Pharisees. We can think poorly of the Pharisees but the more I dig into scripture, the more I find myself realising I can often be far more Pharisaic than I care to admit.

How do I view those who seem to live lives that are sinful in that they don’t live as Christians are called to?

How often do I declare different ideologies as wrong but lack compassion for those who have those ideologies?

How easy, in this age of social media, is it to attack and belittle without thought of the person we’re engaging with.

How quickly we demand people live in specific ways before we’ve shown them who Jesus is and how much he loves them.

Do we show there is life and love and hope to be found in Jesus before we tell people they need to change the way they live?

We must be careful not to form our own laws and traditions that show God to be a demanding God rather than the gracious one who loves all and wants all to find their rest in him. It is from our love for God and our rest in him that the obedience follows, otherwise it all just becomes a new law.

The second path to think about this morning is where do you find your rest? The sabbath is a pointer to the hope we have that one day we will have complete rest in new creation where we will dwell with God and heaven will come to earth in full. The principle of stopping work and resting is still a vital part of the Christian life because it is in stopping that we are able to spend time with God.

While we do believe that God can bring his rest now into our lives that can heal anxieties and restlessness, we are still in a world that struggles to rest and there is a continual striving, even amongst Christians to work, to be available through our phones and social media, to be busy.

A challenge for all of us is to find a time to put all your technology away and out of reach and make space for a walk or read a physical bible. Do anything that removes the distractions we face in this busy culture that we are part of.

Jesus models this rest repeatedly through the gospel as he goes into the wilderness to pray and he invites us to join him there.

Lets pray.

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