Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Purity to Compassion in Three Stories From Mark (Part III)

Finally! I'm taking the time to finish this almost forgotten series (even if, in order to do it, I have to type one-handed with a toddler climbing all over me, while watching/listening to the concert DVD David Byrne Live at Union Chapel, London to keep him relatively sedate - writing and parenting are not always compatible!). To catch back up, check out Part I and Part II.

Our third story, found in Mark 3:1-6, comes immediately after the second story, and combines elements from both of the first two stories. It, like the first story, is a healing story. But it, like the second story, also concerns Jesus' relationship with the Sabbath laws. In the NRSV it reads:

Again he [Jesus] entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, "Come forward." Then he said to them, "Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?" But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

Before we treat this text, I should note that both Matthew and Luke take this story from Mark. While Luke doesn't really change anything from Mark's version, Matthew contains a significant addition which we ought to discuss. Matthew 12: 9-14 reads:

He [Jesus] left that place [where he and his disciples had picked grain on the Sabbath, another story taken from Mark, whose version I treated here] and entered their [as in, belonging to the Pharisees in question] synagogue; a man was there with a withered hand, and they asked him, "Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?" so that they might accuse him. He said to them, "Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath." Then he said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other, But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.

The big change in Matthew's story is that it has Jesus, in discussing the hypothetical fallen sheep, not so subtly reminding the Pharisees of Deuteronomy 22:4(albeit with the animal in question changed).

That verse from Deuteronomy is part of a series of moral duties toward neighbors, found in chapter 22 verse 1 through 4. The first three verses concern wandering animals, and essentially say that if you see anything belonging to your neighbor wandering astray, you must return it to your neighbor. This law applies to the sheep which Jesus mentioned (Deut. 22:1), but is also universalized (Deut. 22:3) to include even garments of clothing and anything else that could be lost.

Then we reach the fourth verse, which more closely parallels Jesus' hypothetical example, though it mentions donkeys and oxen rather than sheep. In the Jewish Study Bible it reads:

If you see your fellow's ass or ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it; you must help him raise it.

In other words, the entire community has a moral duty to help their neighbor, a member of the community, if that neighbor's animal has fallen. This moral duty should be the primary concern of the community, even on the sabbath. And Matthew's Jesus, in implying that the Pharisees would honor this law to the letter, have set some precedent for choosing compassion over purity in their interpretation of the law in the case of competing duties.

If then, they are willing to choose compassion over purity (that is, obeying one's moral duty to one's neighbor instead of obeying the letter of the Sabbath law) in the case of a fallen animal, why should they not make the same choice in the case of a crippled man? Do they not have a moral duty to that man which is even stronger than their duties concerning his property, the hypothetical fallen sheep?

While Matthew's Jesus clearly chastises the Pharisees, making them so angry that they plot to kill him, he at least tries to find some common ground with them. In reminding them, through his example of the fallen sheep, of an interpretation of the law which they might both agree on, his is using a shared position to try to help them to understand his position on healing on the Sabbath.

But Mark's Jesus makes no such attempt to find a common ground. He enters into the Pharisees synagogue, contradicts their teaching, attacks their character, and defies their religious laws, openly mocking their authority within their own community.

The synagogue was, after all, their turf, not his. Yet he calls the man with the withered hand to "come forward," and then asks the teachers of the law a pointed, almost polemical, question:

"Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?"

This is not an idle question. In fact, it may not be a question at all, its grammar notwithstanding. It seems much more like a statement, and a powerful polemical one, which sets up a very harsh dichotomy.

If in Jesus' ministry he makes a sharp distinction between purity and compassion, affirming compassion and rejecting purity (as it was understood in his day, and as it has often been exercised in his name - such as when a Baptist college in Kentucky, the University of the Cumberlands, expelled a student for being gay, ejecting him from their midst out of a fear that his identified "impurity" might make their entire group impure), he is here furthering that distinction in a most inflammatory way:

Imagine, if you will, two columns. One the one side you have Jesus, on the other side his enemies, the "villains" of our Gospel stories, the Pharisees. In Jesus statement which masquerades as a question, he places good on the side of Jesus, and harm on the side of the Pharisees; saving life on the side of Jesus, killing on the side of the Pharisees; compassion on the side of Jesus, purity on the side of the Pharisees.

No wonder they plotted with the Romans to kill him! It is one thing to teach another way of being religious to your closest disciples. It is another thing altogether to enter into the sacred teaching space of the established religious authorities, and not only challenge their teachings, but openly mock and defy them.

But the Pharisees had, in keeping and even expanding the letter of the law, perhaps forgotten that the law exists to serve God's people, and not the other way around. So one of their own, part of their religious community, within their own synagogue, has a withered hand. And Jesus has come to their synagogue, seen the crippled man, and had compassion on him. But it is the Sabbath. The demands of purity and compassion conflict. Compassion says that the community has a moral obligation to help and to heal. Purity says that the community has a religious duty to keep Shabbat, the Sabbath day holy.

Mark's Jesus sees the conflict, and realizes that the gathered Pharisees will keep their precious Sabbath, even if it means blowing this chance for one of their own to be made whole. Then Mark uses one of the most powerful Biblical images, when he says that Jesus "looked around at them in anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart."

The heart, according to Marcus Borg (from whom I've been borrowing too much lately - he reads just like me, only more so!) is a much more powerful metaphor in the Bible than it is in our everyday usage. It is "a comprehensive metaphor for the self (italics mine)," which encompasses and underlies our entire being. A closed heart, and hardened heart, is a heart which is incapable of moving or bending, it is inflexible, petrified, and as such, dead. It cannot be moved to compassion. It cannot see anything new. It is certain, and so cannot change.

Someone with a hardened heart cannot grow closer to God, because they cannot grow or change. Growth requires a willingness to change, to be moved, to acknowledge that you don't yet have a perfect understanding, and probably never will.

The Pharisees in this story already knew God. They had an experience of God and a relationship with God. That experience was within the system of purity laws, and the relationship was based on the purity laws which gave rise to that experience. The laws were from God, and the means by which to approach God and enter into relationship with God. They were the constant, the given, that which cannot be challenged or changed. The experienced God in purity, and by striving for purity participated in the nature of God, as they understood it.

But Jesus came into their space, and challenged their understanding of God, their relationship with God, and the way in which those two impact their actions. Jesus, of course, had an excellent critique. He called them to look at the fruit of their religion. They chose a strict observance of the Sabbath over the well being of one in their community. They chose a certain observance of the law over the health of one of their own.

But, too often the Pharisees are given too rough a treatment over this. We all ought to be able to relate to them, even if they are, in the Gospel stories, the enemies of Jesus. That's because we, too, are often the enemies of Jesus. We, too, choose to cling to our precious doctrines even when they are no longer serving our needs or the needs of our communities. We, too, have our hearts so hardened on the subject of religion that if Jesus were to enter into our church, mock our pastor, defy our ritual and call our entire way of being religious into question, we might plot to kill him, too.

So, if we see compassion as the way of Jesus, we must learn how to show compassion to those who reject the value of compassion - even if the Gospel writers do not always have Jesus being compassionate to the compassionless! We must fight the lack of compassion within ourselves rather than judging it in the lives of others. We must, in other words, be able to see some of the Pharisees in ourselves, and fight the Pharisee within rather than the Pharisee without. That often means having compassion for our external Pharisees.

Many of you know that I was briefly the pastor of a small country church in rural Kentucky. Not exactly a safe place for a city liberal! That church was a perfect example of the purity focus in religion. I tried to teach them another way to be religious. They, obviously, did not take kindly to that. Even though numbers and giving went up in my time there, many of the people in the church were certain that their survival as a church depended on getting rid of me. That is because God called them to be a pure people, and my teaching was impure. As such, my presence within their church could at any moment bring God's condemnation down upon that church.

Since I left that church, and then professional ministry altogether, I have often judged them for being so, well, judgmental. Their actions brought about a great deal of pain and confusion. But as I read this story from Mark, and as I saw the ways in which they were very much like the Pharisees in the story, I had no choice but to reinterpret what happened there.

I can see why the Gospel writers painted the Pharisees as villains. They must have certainly done Jesus a great deal more harm than my Phariseical church did me. But I wonder how Jesus would have felt about such an unsympathetic portrayal. Mightn't the Jesus who taught compassion have had more compassion on them that the Gospel writers are inclined to mention? Mightn't he have seen how hard they tried to honor their experience of God; how faithfully they clinged to their way of being religious?

That, of course, doesn't make them less wrong, and it doesn't take away the harm their way of being religious inflicted on the people who couldn't live up to their standards for purity. But it does make them more tragic and sympathetic characters, whose best intentions were still not enough.

When we think that we understand God, we become like those who cast out or grind down the one's who disagree with their vision of God. Our hearts become hard, inflexible, and dead. A little compassion for the Pharisees in our lives might just keep us from becoming Pharisees ourselves.


Troy said...

Very powerful. I don't even know where to begin.

You embrace textual criticism (Mk primacy; influence of the evangelist on depiction of the Pharisees)but still preach the gospel using the gospel text. In fact, it could be argued, you distill a more pure gospel from Mark. I guess this kind of preaching happens elsewhere; it feels mostly new on my end.

This is such a fantastical story; I find it hard to believe it was imagined or mythically constructred without any historical kernel. I will, say, though, it's hard to imagine the Pharisees seeing such a sign and still doubting Jesus. Probably they believed miracles could have more than one spiritual source (as in the Beelzebub controversy in Mk). Doubt in the face of sign is also in John at least, if not all four gospels.

The heart of this sermon is the distinction you make between purity and compassion. This contrast is repeated in so many gospel narratives. I don't know if the Pharisees misunderstood the law (did Jesus really 'break' Torah by healing the man?) or if, as you seem to argue here, they simply were blinded by tradition, ritual, a sense of revelation and personal purity.

One thing I do think: humans like to feel clean, like to believe they are capable of knowing what constitutes the moral life and even able to live it. Sometimes they'll defend that illusion with destructive tenacity.

Now, I'm waiting for the series you do on Matthew's sermon on the mount.

This is great S. It truly touched me. I'll read the other two Mark posts tomorrow. Thanks. A loving spirit pervades this entire thing.


Sandalstraps said...

If the Gospel story are in any way a reflection of history (and if they aren't then there isn't anything at all we can say of history as it relates to Jesus) then the Pharisees did not doubt that Jesus was very powerful, and had the power to perform miraculous healings. In the text we looked at here, for instance, the Pharisees do not doubt that Jesus will heal the man with the withered hand. In fact, they anticipate it.

But they do doubt that Jesus' ministry comes from God. And it is easy to see why they do. His ministry is the anitithesis of their ministry; his focus the inverse of their focus. And they have experienced God authentically in the way that Jesus opposes and inverts.

To move the situation into our day: picture a man boldly walking into your church, during the service, and taking over. This man drowns out your priest, and teaches the opposite of what your priest has always taught. Worse, he compares the way in which you and your group have always experienced God to "doing harm" and even "killing."

Such a man might have great power, but if you think that your way of experiencing God comes from God, you probably wouldn't think that the power in question came from God, as it would be openly challenging your way of experiencing God.

Religion is by its very nature conservative, seeking to conserve the values, traditions, rituals, beliefs - the entire experience of the presense of God - of the past. As such it performs a great service, making sure that we are connected to the broader human experience, the wisdom of those who have gone before us.

But this conservative nature fights innovation, even when the innovation in question represents a valid criticism of the past, and a correction on the errors of the past. Jesus represented innovation, and so to the conventionally religious people of his day he could not have represented God, since he called they way in which they described God (and, as such, to them God's very self) into question. He offered a different way, and that different way must have been a threat to the people for whom the old way of being religious was working.


This is not really a new or even uncommon way of preaching, though when I preach (rather that write) I don't often preach in this way. When I preach I usually pick a story, tell the story, and then extract a few meanings from the story. I don't often get into textual criticism, because that opens wounds which need not be opened.

What I mean by that is that if we see meaning rather than truth-value (or, as Borg puts it, literal history) as the primary concern of a passage, then we need not address the issue ofwhether the passage reflects events which literally happened at some point in history. As most people in churches see the Bible as more of a history text than a series of myths (which sometimes reflect history), you don't need to correct that view to their face to get them to see the benefit of looking for meaning in the text; asking better questions than just "Did this happen?"

But here I'm not trying to impose my views on a church for whom a different way of being religious still works, so I have a great deal more freedom. That's one of the reasons why I feel good to have left professional ministry. I don't have to find a way to communicate to people who are not as disillusioned as I am with the views I grew up with.