Please read Mark 2:1-3:6
Imagine you are inside your local prison. You have just been sent down for a long sentence, the gates have clanged shut behind you and it dawns on you that you will have many years to get used to these walls and bars, this dreary routine. If only there was some way out! Time passes; and then one day you are told you have an unidentified visitor. Another do-gooder come to tell me to mend my ways, you think gloomily as you slouch along behind the warder to the visiting room. Your visitor seems glad to see you. As you sit down with him he smiles and hands you a very official looking document. ‘Whatever is this?’, you ask him. ‘Look at it’, he says. ‘It’s what you’ve longed for – it’s a full and complete pardon for all your crimes. You are free to go!’ Well, this seems like good news, but surely it’s a bit too good to be true! You study the document more carefully. ‘Hold on, whose signature is this at the bottom?’ ‘Oh’, says the visitor, ‘That’s me. I’m pardoning you, you’re free to go.’ Now, your visitor has no identification – no badge, no uniform – apparently he is just a member of the public. What are you going to say? Who is this strange man who can wander in and claim to tell me that I’m free to leave, simply on his say-so? Who does he think he is?
That is exactly what happens at the beginning of Mark 2 when Jesus looks at a man lying paralysed on a mattress and tells him ‘Your sins are forgiven. You’re free’! Who does he think he is, to dare to claim that he can forgive people their sins? And that is just the first of this series of five stories, concluding in 3:6, which are linked together by the theme of opposition to Jesus and his ministry. Jesus’ opponents are challenging his authority: first to forgive sins, then to break the traditional religious rituals and finally to redefine the Jewish Sabbath. Mark is particularly concerned with the opposition Jesus faces: he emphasises it as part of his very stark portrayal of the challenges which Jesus’ followers can expect to face. In 11:27-12:40 we will find that just before Jesus’ death he faces another round of opposition on much the same ground.
The first story, in 2:1-12, takes place in Capernaum by Lake Galilee. Jesus has been touring the region, moving from place to place, but has now decided to come home for a while. Probably he has entered quietly, under cover of darkness, and is once more based at the house of Andrew and Simon Peter where he stayed before. But his presence cannot be long concealed (v.1). Word soon gets out and once more the crowds gather. After all, it is only a few weeks since he was last here, that Saturday night when it seemed the whole village assembled outside the house and everyone who was sick or controlled by an evil spirit was healed on the spot (1:33-34). Very soon, there is Jesus inside the house, the house full of people and crowds around the door and at every window so that no-one else can even get near (v.2).
Jesus is not actually healing today. Time and again Jesus makes it clear his priority is to declare this message: the Kingdom of God is near. But now here come some new arrivals: a group of five men, four of them struggling along supporting the four corners of a simple mattress on which lies their paralysed friend. Maybe they missed their chance when Jesus was here before, or maybe his disease is very recent, but they are not going to miss him again. They haul their friend up the steps onto the flat roof and then they begin to dismantle the roof of the house – which probably consists of wooden rafters, straw and clay – with their bare hands. Imagine how you would feel if you had a house full of visitors, and suddenly there is a noise overhead, a few lumps of plaster come crashing down and the next you know, a cheery face appears through a fresh hole in the ceiling! I think you would remember the day. In all likelihood, this is Simon Peter’s own house and this is his own eye-witness account.
Fortunately for them, the four friends have chosen just the right spot to dig, because now here comes the man on his mattress dangling and swaying until he lands right in front of Jesus (vv.3-4). It is fortunate because there are some people in the room who certainly wouldn’t be impressed if a loaded mattress landed in their laps! These men (v.6) are the teachers of the law, the scribes who first appeared in 1:22. They are the professionals: legal experts, theologically trained to sniff out error. They are not here by accident. It seems they are on a fact-finding mission, a commission of inquiry sent down from religious headquarters in Jerusalem to track down the rumours about a man called Jesus who is operating around Galilee. Undoubtedly, as they sit there like judges, they are very suspicious. So the mat reaches the floor. The crowded room falls silent. The man lies rigid: he can’t move. The law teachers pick crumbs of clay off their white robes. Four faces peer expectantly down from above. What will Jesus say? v.5: ‘Son, your sins are forgiven’! If it was quiet before, you could hear a pin drop now. The shock arises not for the reason we might have thought: we might be surprised because we’d think a paralysed man needs healing, not forgiving. But these people understand there could be a link between the sin in someone’s life and their physical condition. They understand what many do not: that sin means rebellion against God; and only God can set us free from the prison it creates by forgiving us. Nothing can be more urgent than that. It’s not the idea of forgiveness that shocks them but the fact that Jesus claims to be handing it out in his own right. They know there is only One who can forgive sins – God himself. For anyone else to claim they can forgive is like you or I marching into a jail and handing out free pardons to the prisoners.
This far at least, the law teachers are right to think as they do (v.7). The Jews were very clear on this. One God, one authority, one place to deal with sins – the judgement seat of God. They were right. What Jesus has just said is blasphemy: he is claiming to hold the authority of God. They don’t say it aloud, but Jesus knows; and perhaps that should have suggested something (vv.8-9). Notice how Jesus says this. He does not condemn the teachers. Their point is a fair one. Any of us who believes in God ought to ask the same question. So in v.9 Jesus comes back with a question of his own, a technique he uses often. What is the answer? Obviously, it is easy to say words. The question is really: which of these is easier to do? To forgive, or to heal an incurable illness with a simple word? The answer, of course, is that neither is easier, because both are impossible, for a man on his own. Both are impossible, and this is indeed blasphemy – unless Jesus himself carries the very authority of God.
At this point in Mark’s narrative, a tricky question of interpretation arises. To whom is Jesus speaking in v.10a? ‘Son of Man’ is a title that Jesus adopts for himself. It originates with the vision in Daniel 7:13-14, where Daniel sees ‘one like a son of man’ coming into the presence of God and being given authority, power and an everlasting kingdom. Understood in that way, the title therefore carries great weight and implies great claims; but on the other hand, the phrase ‘Son of Man’ actually means no more than ‘member of the human race’. So it is really a rather ambiguous expression, well suited to Jesus who is being so cautious about revealing his identity. The tricky question here in v.10, therefore, is this: Would Jesus, at this point in his ministry, make such an open declaration of his own authority – especially in front of his opponents? Even as late as a few days before his death, Jesus refuses to be so open with them (11:33). It seems much more likely, and it makes better sense of the broken sentence structure which comes over even in the English translation, that v.10a is an ‘aside’ by Mark, addressed to his own readers, pointing out to them that the Jesus they follow does indeed possess the authority to forgive. Then in v.10b the story itself resumes
In front of the whole crowd, in the face of the lawyers lined up by the wall, and without even a touch from the hand of Jesus, the paralysed man rises to his feet, bends down again, rolls up his mattress, puts it over his shoulder and makes his way out through the throng (vv.11-12). So which is easier? The point is that the healing proves Jesus is genuine. Although the Old Testament prophets occasionally healed people, no real prophet ever claimed to forgive sins. But Jesus does! Now it is up to the crowd and the teachers of the law to draw the correct conclusions. The fact that Jesus has healed the man with a word excludes the possibility that he is a harmless madman. The fact that he lives a humble life and accepts the rejects of society excludes the possibility that he is an evil tyrant (for even Hitler spoke with authority). The only option left is the hardest one of all – that he is actually who he claims to be, he is what the Bible points us to: he is the man who is God.
What, then, is the reaction on the day, as the crowd find their voice, as the teachers sit there in judgement, as the man walks away and his friends celebrate on what is left of the roof? The law teachers will soon be back. In this story, they’ve merely grumbled quietly; but the accusation of blasphemy won’t go away. Even when they see the evidence with their own eyes, as they do here, most of the religious leaders will never accept the verdict. To them Jesus is dangerous, subversive, a threat to their own position. In the end he simply has to go. This cycle of five stories sees the intensity of opposition steadily mounting: eventually it will lead to Jesus’ crucifixion. The crowd’s reaction is described in v.12. They have seen the healings before, though this is probably the most spectacular yet. They have heard Jesus teach before. What is new is the pointer to who Jesus really is. They praise God because they now see his hand clearly at work in Jesus and they begin to glimpse that he is something more than a prophet and healer. But do they really make the connection? Sadly, from what follows it seems that most of them do not.
How would you feel if your name became a byword for betrayal? In the years before the Second World War, Vidkun Quisling was a gifted Norwegian diplomat, army officer and politician. But in 1933 he founded the Norwegian Nazi party; and when Nazi Germany invaded his country in April, 1940, Quisling attempted to seize power. He betrayed his own people, urging them not to resist the invasion; he managed to delay the mobilisation of the army. Later the Germans made him head of state of occupied Norway. Not surprisingly, at the end of the war he was tried and executed for high treason. And now in the dictionary a quisling is defined as a traitor who serves the enemy occupying his country. In the time of Jesus, there was a group of professionals who fitted the word ‘quisling’ perfectly. At a time when their country was occupied by Rome, and the area of Galilee where they lived had a puppet government, these men made their living by exploiting their own people and helping the occupiers to do their dirty work. Not surprisingly, they were detested. These lowest of the low were the tax collectors; and in vv.13-17 Jesus meets one.
We have seen Jesus meeting outcasts before. At the end of ch1, he meets a man with leprosy; he reaches out across the barriers to touch the man and bring the outcast in. We saw that Jesus is not bothered about the barriers that cut people off – not in the least. But now the picture is worse. In this story, Jesus meets a tax-collector named Levi; and astonishingly, he holds out his hand to him as well. Elsewhere (see Matthew 9:9-13), Levi is known as Matthew: that is not a mistake, it simply reflects that fact that people often had more than one name, even then – in fact we have examples from inscriptions with first names and surnames listed. Whereas the man in the other story had no choice about his leprosy – it was hardly his decision to become an outcast – Levi has made exactly that choice for himself. He has volunteered to do the dirty work, knowing full well what the consequences will be. We need to see this from the point of view of an ordinary Jew in Galilee. Levi is in the pay of Herod Antipas who rules Galilee under Rome’s overlordship. So unlike Zacchaeus, that other famous tax-collector down south in Jericho (see Luke 19:1-10), Levi does not work directly for the Romans. Most likely Jesus encounters him on the edge of Capernaum, on the northern shore of Lake Galilee, at the point where people coming in from the neighbouring territory enter Antipas’ realm. There they will come across Levi collecting customs duties on whatever they are carrying. Now that may sound innocent enough, until you realise how these tax-collectors actually operate. Levi will have paid a fixed fee to buy the tax franchise for that spot. It’s a bit like paying to run a burger stand at a festival, only rather more sinister, because he is now free to charge people whatever he can screw out of them to increase his profits.
For our ordinary first-century Jew, then, a tax-collector is offensive in at least three ways. Firstly and most obviously, they are notoriously dishonest and corrupt. Secondly, they are objectionable because their job brings them into constant contact with Gentiles, who are unclean; that means the tax-collectors are likely to be permanently unclean as well. The Talmud, that great multi-volume compendium of rules and commentary, lists tax-collectors with murderers and robbers and disqualifies them as witnesses in court. Thirdly, they are quislings, working for the establishment, for the Herods who are known as a gang of criminals and are only puppets of the Roman overlords. So anyone with an ounce of patriotism, even if he has no time for religious rules, is still going to hate these people.
This is the man Jesus meets as he makes his way from the side of the lake, back home to Capernaum, no doubt still followed by a considerable throng (vv.13-14). Levi sits there by the road ready to demand payment from any likely looking victims: we can imagine everyone shuffling past on the other side of the street. But Jesus is different. He walks up to Levi, this quisling, and says, Follow me! You can almost hear the sound of jaws dropping. And Levi actually gets to his feet and goes with Jesus. Much remains unsaid: we don’t know what runs through Levi’s mind; we don’t know what else is said; but we do know that Jesus has called and Levi has answered.
In the next scene, here is Jesus having dinner at Levi’s house. Most likely he has thrown a party for his colleagues and associates to come and meet this amazing man who has broken through the triple barrier of religious prejudice, politics and morality and asked for his company (vv.15-16). There are spies at the party – Pharisees. If anyone is to object to Jesus consorting with undesirables, it will be the Pharisees, who now make their first appearance in Mark’s gospel. They represent the party who are most passionate about following the Jewish Law and all the extra regulations that tradition has added to it. Within that Pharisee group, their legal professionals – the teachers of the law – are the ones who actually make the rules. ‘Sinners’ is what they call anyone who does not take the rules as seriously as they do. They are watching Jesus closely; and frankly they don’t like what they see. No true Jew, still less anyone who claims to be a teacher, a Rabbi, should have anything to do with these common people, these ‘people of the land’ (in Hebrew, the am ha’aretz), as they dismissively title them; let alone these tax collectors, who are corrupt, unclean and serving the enemy.
But now Jesus lays his cards on the table. ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’ (v.17). Clearly, Jesus is not saying that the Pharisees are OK. In other places (such as 7:6-13) he makes it abundantly clear that the Pharisees’ religion is very sick. Jesus is adopting their own language, which divides people into ‘righteous’ and ‘sinners’, ‘OK’ and ‘not OK’. In other words, ‘If you think you are fine, if you think you are so healthy, all right; but kindly let me get on with looking after the sick.’ Jesus has come for those who know they need him. Most of the people at the party may not feel that; but Levi certainly does. He knows he’s a sinner; and Jesus has come and found him. The Pharisees have missed the point. They think they are simply dealing with someone who is breaking their rules. In fact, Jesus is doing far more than that. This meal with Levi points to something much greater. Look closely at v.15 and you will see that it’s Jesus, not Levi, who is the focus, even the host, of the party; and here are the ordinary people of the land, the undesirables, the rejects, gathered together to celebrate his coming. There is a strong hint here of something the Old Testament prophets look forward to: in the future time when God breaks into history and establishes his Kingdom on earth, one way it is described is as a banquet, a party which God will throw for his people – the messianic banquet as it was known. You find this theme in various places in Isaiah, especially in 25:6-8. This is one of many points where Mark’s narrative alludes to Old Testament themes without saying so explicitly. In this he is unlike Matthew, who usually points out to us the ways in which Jesus is fulfilling the prophecies. So here is the Messiah, hosting a party not for the elite but for all comers, the sign that God is breaking in, that his Kingdom is coming to earth, and we have just a foretaste of the golden age which is still to come. The Pharisees don’t see that; they don’t see that they themselves are just as much sinners as the people they despise; they simply see a list of rules which Jesus is shredding. But Jesus has come to make strangers into friends, to build bridges instead of barriers as people join his Kingdom.
The story which immediately follows (vv.18-22) simply hammers that message home. v.18 gives us the challenge. The rules about fasting are a good example of what the Pharisees have done to the Law God gave in the first place. The Law lays down only one day a year for fasting – the Day of Atonement. But by the time of Jesus, pious Jews are fasting two full days every week – Mondays and Thursdays. In their mind, therefore, Jesus should take the lead and do the same. Jesus’ answer is interesting. He doesn’t say, Wait, you’ve gone a bit too far, I think you should tone it down a bit. We find his answer in vv.19-20. Fasting in the Bible is generally connected with mourning, or deliberately humbling yourself before God; or else it’s a response to disaster. Jesus is saying, Why should my friends fast at all while I am here? That would be like starving at a wedding! At the same time, by using this illustration of himself as the bridegroom, Jesus is dropping another hint about his true identity. Yes, the time will come when Jesus is taken away, first when he dies, then when he ascends to the Father; and that will be a time for sadness: fast then, by all means. The Kingdom of God is breaking in, but the time for the real party, the never-ending party, still lies in the future. Until then, there will still be times of sadness and pain – time for struggle, time when fasting is absolutely right – not because it’s Thursday, but because sometimes it’s a helpful thing to do. But for now, says Jesus, my friends have got me here. It’s all about me! Don’t you understand: this is not about keeping your beloved rules, as if God is more impressed with you when you’re hungry?
Jesus makes the point even clearer with the little parables in vv.21-22 about patching clothes and storing wine. In these days, people might own two sets of clothes at most; if one of them goes into holes it’s a calamity. Knowing how you patch those holes is vital. You don’t take your worn old coat and patch it with a brand new piece of cloth that hasn’t been shrunk. If you do, you’ll get a bigger hole than you had before. Similarly with the leather bags that wine is kept in: again, not a luxury item but something you need when drinkable water is often hard to find. You get some new wine, still fermenting, with the gas bubbling out of it: what do you keep it in? Not the stiff, unyielding old wineskins that are on the point of cracking. All you will end up with if you do is a flood on the floor.
Obviously, Jesus is not giving us his top ten household tips here! He is saying you can’t fit him into your religious box. He doesn’t match up to your old, rule-bound religion. You need a new set of clothes, a new set of wineskins to put the new wine in. The Pharisees simply failed to see that Jesus’ arrival changed everything. They saw him as just another teacher who was a bit out of line. Plenty of people today look at Jesus and that is all they see. He breaks a few taboos, offers us some positive values: well, add him to the mix, put him in there with Gandhi, and Mohammed, and perhaps a guru, or maybe just some wise words from your friend down at the pub, because everyone has useful things to say. Jesus makes it crystal clear that is not his way. His coming changed everything. He is unique.
The natural way that people think is to live by a set of rules. If they have some sense of God, and nearly everyone does, they feel that if they can keep these rules then God will be pleased. It’s a comfortable way to think because it means you know what’s expected of you. That is what the Pharisees were doing in Jesus’ time. They had their rules, they were all in the book, and they devoted their lives to keeping them. They knew where they stood and it made them feel healthy. Today there are millions who do much the same. In Islam, it’s a question of performing five key actions. Say the right words, give away some money, pray five times a day, fast one month per year, go on a pilgrimage at least once in your life: do all that and God will be pleased with you. It’s a comfort zone.
But people in churches do this too. Go to Mass, go to Communion, be respectable, say the right words, sponsor charities, keep lots of external rules and you will be OK. The story of Levi points in exactly the opposite direction. If you ever want proof that God doesn’t choose people because they are good, here it is. An outcast, a collaborator; and Jesus says to him, Follow me. A hundred years later, opponents of the Christian faith were still trying to discredit Jesus because he had associated with people like Levi. But Levi the traitor – Matthew – becomes one of his closest followers, one of the Twelve. His name goes down in history as the writer of one of the four gospels. Jesus came for the sinners, not the self-styled righteous.
Humans as well as dead animals can become fossilised! A fossil can look so life-like that you’d think it could walk or swim away at any moment, but in reality it is long dead, hardened, totally incapable of moving or responding or any kind of life. It takes hundreds or thousands of years for dead animals to become fossils. But people are very often fossilised when they are still alive! Not their bodies – it is their spirits that are fossilised; what the Bible calls a hardened heart. What could be worse than being fossilised while your body is still alive? But without Jesus in our lives, that is what we are. These five opposition stories are about people who are fossilised, people Jesus meets who simply will not respond to his love and grace, even when they see him in the flesh.
The last two stories in this group – 2:23-3:6 – are about Jesus and the Sabbath; and again we find people accusing him: ‘Why is he breaking the rules?’ These people’s hearts are fossilised; they will not see or recognise who Jesus is. This passage contains a strong warning for people like that. Both stories take place on the Sabbath day, that is Saturday, which was the Jewish day of rest. Look at vv.23-24. Now this seems innocent enough, so what is the problem? The Law decreed that on the Sabbath, no work should be done. That rule made sure that no-one could force you to work on the day and everyone, even including the animals, had a complete day off every week. But the tradition has added to that a whole superstructure of additional regulations. The religious experts have ‘helped’ by dividing ‘work’ into thirty-nine major categories, just so everyone can be sure what they are not allowed to do. Category number three involves reaping. In fact to a really sharp legal mind, the disciples are breaking three Sabbath regulations here. By picking off heads of corn, rolling them in their fingers and then chewing them, they are (a) reaping, (b) threshing and (c) preparing food on the Sabbath day. And the Pharisees spot them.
What, we may well ask, are the Pharisees doing out for a walk on the Sabbath? Almost certainly, they are there to spy on what Jesus and company are up to. By the way, in case you’re wondering what kind of high-powered binoculars the Pharisees are using, remember these fields would be very small, unlike the huge prairies we know today, so it would be easy to stand at the edge of the field and see what is going on. For the Pharisees, the most legally-minded of all the Jews, this presents another great opportunity to get at Jesus, because obviously if his disciples are cheerfully breaking all these rules, that does not reflect very well on their leader. That is why they address Jesus, not the disciples. Jesus responds in vv.25-26 with a question of his own, which may sound strange to us and to which we will return in a moment. But first, we need to deal with an apparent problem in v.26. Abiathar was not actually high priest at the time of the story. It was his father Ahimelech that David spoke to. Abiathar became high priest soon afterwards and was much better known than his father. The most likely solution to the problem is that the Greek construction used here can perfectly well mean ‘in the section of the story relating to Abiathar the high priest’ instead of literally ‘in the time when Abiathar was the high priest’.
Let us return to the story itself. How does it relate to the issue of Jesus and the Sabbath? The story comes from 1 Samuel 21:1-6. David is on the run: he goes to the priests and he persuades one of them to give him and his companions the special bread from the altar of God, which only the priests are supposed to eat. Jesus says, Look, one of your biggest heroes, David who became the great King, did something much worse than this, and no-one condemned him. In fact, even what David did was a very minor breach of the Law: the priest freely gave him the bread, after all. The point is that meeting human need is more important than keeping every letter of the Law; and once again, the Pharisees can’t see that. They are blind, hardened. Behind that there is a bigger point. These religious experts have made the Sabbath an intolerable burden on ordinary people. The Sabbath is a gift from God. It was important, yes – keeping it special is one of the Ten Commandments. It was the world’s first law on workers’ rights and it has protected untold millions of people from exploitation down through three and a half thousand years. God gave us the Sabbath because he knows how easily people exploit one another and he knows we need guaranteed rest. We work best in that seven day rhythm. In western society today, and especially in Britain in the last twenty years, that protection is being removed in the name of freedom. It’s actually rank stupidity. We all need a day a week that is set apart and completely different from the rest: for most of us that ought to be Sunday, but if it can’t be Sunday it should be another day. If we are Christians, we should reject the notion that every day is the same – that is simply not how God has made us: his gift of the Sabbath proves it.
This is what Jesus means by v.27. But for the Pharisees, the Sabbath is not a gift, it’s a blank space just waiting for more rules to define it, rules that go well beyond any need or common sense. They have forgotten that it’s a sign of God’s grace, his kindness. The same stubbornness, the same hardness, prevents them from seeing Jesus for who he really is. Jesus’ conclusion comes in v.28. Yes, he is Lord, he has authority, even over applying one of the Ten Commandments. That implies that he is far more than the Pharisees bargained for and much more than they want to hear; so they set up a trap. All through these five stories there is a gradual ramping up of the opposition, starting from quiet questioning, running through open accusation and eventually, as we’ll now see, a murder plot.
In this last story (3:1-6) we find Jesus in the synagogue on another Sabbath day. Probably this is Capernaum, though we can’t be sure. In the congregation, before the service starts, sits a man who has lost the use of one hand through some kind of wasting disease: it’s useless now, and most likely it prevents him from earning his living effectively. But it seems he is here for a reason (vv.1-2). Have his enemies planted the man, knowing that Jesus will be here today? If so, they have chosen him carefully. He will make a good test case. Their rules are clear: you can work on the Sabbath in an emergency, if there is an immediate risk to life. Healing definitely counts as work in their eyes; but there is no emergency here. Why, this man can easily come back tomorrow to be healed! Once again, they are spying, making an injured man the bait for their trap.
Jesus’ response will be forthright (v.3). For the man, perhaps, this is embarrassing; but Jesus is taking his opponents on directly and it is necessary that everyone can see what is going on. Moreover, if the man wants to be healed, it’s important that he is willing to stand up and show his faith in Jesus publicly. The tension mounts as the man makes his way out to the middle of the crowded room. Everyone’s eyes are fixed on the scene being played out. Jesus knows exactly what is at stake here: he knows what they are waiting for and what is likely to follow. Once again he asks a question – a dual question (v.4). The Pharisees can’t really answer, because in their hardened minds, a healing today is an evil, not a good. And a ‘killing’ is just the idea that is appearing in their minds. So they say nothing, and keep watching, as Jesus heals the man (v.5). For the first time in many years, perhaps, he is able to straighten that useless hand; and as he does, it is instantly restored to full health. A man is set free from a condition that has devastated his life; it has happened publicly, in the middle of a crowded synagogue; it’s wonderful; and to the Pharisees’ disgust, it has happened on the Sabbath day, and that’s all that matters.
The Pharisees, in fact, are so appalled that Jesus is breaking their Sabbath rules that they are even prepared to kill him. They immediately begin to make plans with their temporary political allies, the supporters of Herod, to kill Jesus (v.6). The Pharisees are worried that their religion is being subverted. The Herodians (whom we will meet and discuss further in ch 12) are worried that Jesus will start a revolt and the Romans will come and crush it, along with everything else in their path. Neither group is bothered about the true identity of the man they so easily condemn. The reason, as v.5 clearly states, is the stubborn hardness of their hearts. Their religion of rules and respectability has taken the place of a living faith in God.
Jesus’ response to that unbelief is a model for his people today. Look again at v.5. His enemies have been looking at Jesus, studying his every move. But now he returns the compliment and as he gazes around the room he does so he is filled with two emotions. He is angry; and he is filled with grief at their hard hearts. When our friends reject what we tell them about Jesus, over and over again, how does it make us feel? We live in a world where everyone’s opinion is said to count for the same. If it works for you, OK, but don’t push your ideas onto me. That’s what we are told. Jesus would not accept that attitude. When he meets such hardness, he responds with both anger and grief: anger that people can be so hard, so indifferent to God’s grace, so closed to his love; and deep distress at what this hardness is going to do to them. Do we feel the pain that so many are rejecting our Saviour, or have we believers become a little hard-hearted ourselves, so there is really nothing to upset us?
There is also a powerful warning in these stories for those who are still spiritually fossilised. Whatever their appearance – however long they may go on coming to church, meeting with Christians just as if they were one too – the day is coming when every one of us will stand before Jesus Christ and our genuineness or deadness will be clearly exposed. Revelation 20:11-15 speaks of a great white throne and One sitting on it, and all the dead, great and small, standing before the throne to be judged. Long ago, on that day in the synagogue, Jesus looked round at the people with hardened hearts, the ones who were rejecting him, and he was angry. How will he look at you then, on that great day? The good news is that Jesus can bring even a fossilised, stone-dead heart to beating life.
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