Updated: Sep 25, 2018
Take up thy Bed
Many of us are very familiar with this story. It’s been a classic in Sunday school for generations. But do we really understand what’s happening? As with rest of the Gospel we need to move beyond the quaint Sunday school version and examine this story with fresh eyes, connect them with what else is happening in Mark and connect it with the rest of scripture.
Now if you recall back earlier, we saw that the “entire city” of Capernaum was at the door. Now we see that Jesus fame has grown to the point where, as it says in verse 2, while Jesus was teaching, “there was no more room, not even at the door.” And it is this overflowing crowd that sets up the rest of the story for us.
A group of men come bringing with them another man, a paralyzed man to be healed by Jesus. Now, because of the crowds and because of their determination to see the task through, they are forced to enter the house through the roof, rather than through the door. Little did the people there know, but they are about to witness the first major conflict that will lead to the crucifixion of the Messiah.
The paralytic has clearly come to Jesus for healing, and yet, at least at first, Jesus does not give him what he wants. Instead of healing, He gives him forgiveness. The paralytic and his friends had come to Jesus in much the same way many of us do.
We reach out to God or to the church or religion in general because there is something wrong in our life. We are facing a difficult trial that we are unable to overcome and we need a little boost from God to get us over the hump so we can go back to pursuing the things that are really important to us, that fulfill us. We come to Jesus and say, this is my greatest need, my deepest wish,” and His response, as it is to the paralytic here is, “you need to go much deeper than that.”
What he’s telling the paralytic, by prioritizing his forgiveness over his healing is this: Whatever it is that’s troubling you, if I only remove that, it won’t be enough. There will always be another layer of dragon scales. You need to allow me to go deeper and remove the real problem. Anything less will not work.
Some of the religious leaders are present to witness this event and are left puzzled. “Who does this carpenter from Nazareth think he is? Only God can forgive sins,” they declare. So, their problem is not their theology. They are correct in that assessment. Their problem is in their logic. Only God can forgive sins, therefore this Jesus is blaspheming. However, that wasn’t the only option. The other was, only God can forgive sins, therefore He must be God! They refused to acknowledge that possibility.
In order to demonstrate the authority of His words, Jesus gives them a sign demonstrating the authority of His works. This is what he means by “which is easier? To say it or to do it?” So, He does the one they can see in order to prove the one they can’t. Psalm 103:3 declares, “God forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases.” And this is exactly what Jesus does and the order in which He does it.
He has this authority he says, because he is the “Son of Man” the divine figure in Daniel’s vision who dwells with God. The one who we are told is given authority and dominion and glory and a kingdom. The one whom all peoples and nations and languages shall serve. No wonder the people say, “We never saw anything like this!”
And we will find out later on in Mark’s Gospel, while for any other person it would be easier for them to declare forgiveness than to heal a lame man. For Jesus though, It will be infinitely more difficult to do what needed to be accomplished to secure forgiveness for this man that to repair his limbs.
Next we again see Jesus by the sea and He calls to Himself another disciple, this time Levi, the tax collector. And just as before, this man immediately hears the call and follows Jesus. Later Levi invites a number of people over to his house for what seems to be a conversion party of sorts. Among the invitees are Jesus and his disciples and then a number of other people in the same social strata as Levi: tax collectors and “sinners”. That is, Jews who did not abide with the Pharisees same strict following of their interpretations of the law. Now, likely they were not dedicated to obedience to God’s law either, but the reason they were labeled as “sinners” by the Pharisees was the disregard they demonstrated for their teaching in particular. In all likelihood some of them were interested in becoming disciples or were at least interested in Jesus and his teaching and that’s why they were there.
Naturally, the scribes and Pharisees are scandalized by the fact that Jesus would attend a feast with such a crowd as this. Again, proving that for all their zeal, their competence and understanding of God’s law and its purposes was lacking to say the least. When they ask the question, “Why does he eat with such people?” he answers, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Here we see Jesus using their own understanding of the words against them.
By saying this, Jesus was teaching that our zeal for God’s glory must mimic God’s own zeal for His glory. The Pharisees zeal had, for generations, caused them to separate themselves from “impurity” for separations sake. Whereas God’s concern for his own glory led him come down and visit sin diseased people and heal them. If our holiness only expresses itself in criticism for sinners and never for caring for them, it is no holiness at all. Holiness is not separation, it is kindness, love and compassion, love of God and love of neighbor.
And this sort of feasting with sinners is nothing new for God. Throughout the Old Testament God feasts with his people. Take this example from Deuteronomy 14,
Go to the place which the LORD your God chooses. And you may spend the money for whatever your heart desires, for oxen for sheep, or wine, or strong drink, or whatever your heart desires; and there you shall eat in the presence of the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household.
So when Jesus is accused later of being a glutton and a drunkard later on, he’s actually just continuing God’s behavior that He’s already demonstrated with his people in the Old Testament.
And so it is to this very day. We eat the bread and drink the wine with Jesus at the Lord’s Supper for no other reason than he is still THE physician and he still heals sinners. And since we get to sit around the Lord’s Table, who, we should ask, gets to sit around ours? God has invited us to eat and drink with him. Who do you invite to eat and drink with you? Would our practice of table fellowship ever be called into similar question? How are we to worship this so-called glutton and drunkard; this friend of tax collectors and sinners? Call up your local CRA/IRS agent and wine and dine them. Don’t know one of those? Start small; try your neighbor.
The feasting that is taking place here with Jesus and his disciples is going to lead into the next dispute, which is again, another question about what is right and lawful. But here we go from feasting to fasting.
The scene is set by telling us that both the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees were fasting. Then the question is raised, “Why don’t your disciples fast?” This accusation, while on the outside, is directed toward his disciples, is a thinly veiled criticism of Jesus Himself. Basically, “How can you claim to be a great spiritual leader when your disciples come in third place on piety podium?”
But, as always, the real concern of Jesus is not over what men think other men should do, but rather what God thinks they should do. While there are any number of acceptable reasons for going through a season of fasting, Jesus himself did so in the wilderness for forty days, the only prescribed day of fasting in God’s law was for one day each year on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29-34). So, to insist on any other fasting as necessary and binding, as the Pharisees did, was to go beyond God’s Law. To try and out-do God with man-made traditions.
But we must not be Pharisaical and self-righteous to the point where we say, “We would NEVER do such a thing as that!” Well that might be true with the particular instance of fasting. But there are plenty of other areas of our belief and practice where we can run the risk of binding people’s consciences by adding to what scripture says in terms of eating and drinking, dress, music style, bible translations or any number of things.
Look, the Apostle Paul was confident enough in God’s word to say to Timothy, “Everything you need to know to be a true man of God is in here” (2 Tim. 3:15-17). So to try and require anything else of people is to have this Pharisaical attitude that says, “I know better than God.”
And as justified as Jesus would have been simply making this appeal to the standard of God’s Law, that’s not how he makes the case for the practice of his disciples. He instead tells another parable of sorts. He likens himself to a bridegroom and his disciples to his groomsmen. It would be just as inappropriate for the groom’s best man to refuse to eat and drink at his stag party as it would for his disciples to participate in ceremonial mourning, which is what fasting represents, while the Messiah is with them.
There will be a time for his disciples to mourn when, as Jesus says, “the bridegroom is taken away.” A foreshadowing of what Isaiah the prophet said about the suffering servant, “by oppression and judgement, he was taken away” (Isaiah 53:8). But Jesus doesn’t only talk about how it is inappropriate for his disciples to fast, but also how the legalism and man-made traditions of the Pharisees are incompatible with the Gospel.
He compares these two things, man-made religion and the Gospel of grace to a new patch on an old garment and new wine in an old wineskin. Trying to combine the two just ends up making both worse. Therefore, Jesus is giving everyone the choice. Their old wineskin of man making the ultimate contribution for his own salvation or my new wine, the Gospel of grace, and unmerited favor that leads to your salvation. The choice remains the same today.
Now you may think that Jesus had stirred the pot enough already, but this is really only the beginning. The next two stories increase the level of conflict significantly. The first one, which concludes chapter 2 being when some of Jesus disciples are found picking grain as they passed through a field on the Sabbath.
We must remember that Jesus knows exactly what he’s doing. As we saw last episode, if he’d wanted to avoid conflict, he would have taken measures to do so. No, this time Jesus has come out with the express purpose of making the Pharisees upset. He’s doing things, right in front of their noses, that he knows will start trouble because he wants to use the opportunity to expose how they’ve been abusing God’s Law and to free God’s people from this oppression.
Many read the gospels here and in other places and think that Jesus is opposed to the Sabbath, or is at the very least making new exceptions to when it is acceptable to ignore the Sabbath rules. If this were true, then Jesus would basically be in agreement with the Pharisees in their interpretation only just slightly less strict. The Pharisees had very strict rules in regards to Sabbath keeping, but in very dire circumstances, like is someone were starving or about to die, you could make an exception.
Jesus doesn’t agree with this assessment of the Sabbath at all. He doesn’t think the Pharisees are mostly right but have just gone a little too strict. They’re missing the basic principle of Sabbath all together. Jesus doesn’t think that healing on the Sabbath is an exception to the norm. The whole purpose of Sabbath-keeping was doing good, healing, helping and giving rest to the weary. The Sabbath laws require Israelites to give rest to their sons, servants, animals and even the land itself.
And that’s exactly what Jesus does on the Sabbath. He gives rest by raising people from their sick beds, cleansing lepers and healing withered hands. In another place, Jesus will tell the Pharisees that the law allows them to get their ox out of the ditch on the Sabbath because being stuck in a ditch would be about as restful for your ox as it would be for you. So, get it out of there so it can rest. Do not think here that Jesus is attacking Jewish Sabbath keeping because he thinks it’s wrong. He is attacking their Sabbath keeping because they’re not actually keeping it.
Many of us, while believing differently, often act in the same way as the Pharisees. We think we can prove ourselves to God and to other people through our work. But as long as we’re trying to do that we will never find rest. Only in the Gospel do we find true rest. After creating the world, God said, “It is finished!” and rested on the seventh day and because of this pattern we have rest from our physical work and from our work of trying to prove ourselves to man by it. After redeeming the world on the cross, Christ said, “It is finished!” and so, because of this, we can rest from our spiritual work of trying to prove ourselves to God.
Come to the great physician and be healed. Come to the bridegroom and be loved. And come to the Son of Man, the only one who truly has the authority and power to do the work necessary to provide forgiveness and make all things right.
For an audio version of this chapter by chapter installment click here.
 For a wonderfully poetic version of this story, see Eustace’s dragon skin being removed by the Lion Aslan in C.S. Lewis’, “Voyage of the Dawn Treader”.