Like any good storyteller Mark loads the gospel with conflict. People came and objected that Jesus and his disciples did not fast the way John the Baptist and his disciples did. See how the self righteous overlook the power of God in their midst and nit pick over little religious details? It’s the same today.
Mark now introduces the nuptial imagery that echoes throughout the gospel. This is one of the most powerful themes running through the story in many different images and events. Jesus compares himself to a bridegroom. To understand the nuptial imagery in the gospel we need to understand the Jewish wedding customs. A marriage would be arranged between the groom and the bride’s father. The young man would come to the bride’s h0me and make a contract with the girl’s father. The groom would pay a “bride price”. They would have a meal together and drink on it in a small ceremony.
The groom would then return to his home. The girl would prepare for marriage. The groom would build a home within his father’s house for them to live in once married. When the time for the wedding arrived the groom with his family and groomsmen would process to the bride’s house–at night by torchlight. They bride’s family would welcome him. There would be a ceremony and the marriage would be consummated. Then all would return to the groom’s house for the wedding feast.
When Jesus refers to himself as the bridegroom he is implying that the groom is making the engagement visit. He is welcomed by the bride’s family and there is celebration, not fasting. “The bridegroom being taken away from them” refers to the time when he returns to his father’s house to prepare a place for his bride. This is echoed in John’s gospel where Jesus says, “In my Father’s house are many rooms. I am going to prepare a place for you so that where I am there you may be too.” (Jn 14)
Jesus uses the illustration of the patch on cloth and wineskins and new wine to say the same thing in a different way: Just as a new chapter of life opens up with a betrothal and marriage, so something new is being given to the world. The old legalism of the Jews doesn’t work anymore and it would be just as useless trying to keep only to the Jewish laws as it would be to sew a new patch on an old garment or put new wine in old wineskins. He’s saying the old dispensation of legalism is over. The old way is a worn out garment and a dried up, cracked and leaky wineskin.
There will be trouble ahead! People don’t like change. They are wary of what’s new. The establishment especially do not like their authority undermined.
Now the Pharisees pick a fight with Jesus. There were several groups within the Jewish religion of Jesus’ time. The Pharisees were the hyper religious, pious and traditionalist group. The scribes were the academics–the scholars of the law. The Saducees were the ruling class. They were well connected, well off and worldly. Then there were the Zealots. They were the political activists of their day. They wanted to overthrow the Romans and didn’t mind using violent means. There were also the Essenes–a kind of religious order who led an enclosed life of prayer.
There were very detailed rules about how to keep the Sabbath day holy. You were not to work on the Sabbath. So the scribes and Pharisees had worked out that you could only walk so many paces. You could not harvest grain. You could not pull your ox out of a well if he had fallen in, but you could help him climb out. You get the idea. Therefore the Pharisees criticize Jesus because as they were walking through a field he and his disciples grabbed some grain as a snack.
Jesus contradicts them with a great one liner. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Several things come together here. First of all, Mark shows the conflict rising. Now, not only the scribes, but the Pharisees also are lining up against Jesus. Second, Jesus takes authority not only over Satan and demons. He not only teaches with authority, but he also takes authority over the Jewish law. In openly flouting the law he shows himself to be either the master of the law or an open lawbreaker and criminal. Try to imagine how subversive he is! He’s wildly popular with the people and not only flouting the law, but replying with one liners that sound like disrespectful sarcasm. This is not going to end happily.
The third point about this story is even more remarkable. Again Jesus uses the term “Son of Man”, and this time he states clearly that he is the master of the law. “The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” What does he mean by this? First of all, it is compared and contrasted to his first Son of Man statement earlier in the chapter. There the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins. Now the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath. So together Jesus teaches that he is the Lord of the Law and the one who can forgive sins that break the law.
Furthermore, what does this phrase “Lord of the Sabbath” mean? In the Genesis creation story we learn that God himself established the Sabbath day as part of the created order. (Gen 2:3) God is the Lord of the Sabbath. Remember the Jews knew their Old Testament back to front. For Jesus to refer to himself as “Son of Man” as we saw yesterday, was a reference to a prophecy in Daniel of the supernatural Son of God Messiah. Now he calls himself the “Lord of the Sabbath” and the Jews would have understood him perfectly. He was claiming to have the same authority as God himself.
This comes straight after the story where the Scribes said, “Who can forgive sins but God himself?” and Jesus claims the authority to do so. If you ever hear the silly notion that “the idea that Jesus was the divine Son of God is nowhere stated clearly in the gospels and that Jesus never made that claim for himself and that this theory was added much later by a Gentile Christian audience” forget about it. As soon as you begin to study the gospel you see that the claims of divinity for Jesus are right up front and clear from the opening of the gospel.
He does not say, “Hello. I am the Son of God.” Instead the message is proclaimed through his words and works. Every story in the gospel echoes with this reality. The question is there time and again and is pounded home through the whole story. The question: who is this man? And it is in the adventure of reading the gospel that we discover him and meet this astounding person afresh and anew, and as we encounter him we encounter God.