Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Putting Sabbath in Its Place

Below is a rough translation of Mark 2:23-3:6, the Revised Common Lectionary reading for Sunday, May 31, 2015. I consider this one of the key texts in all of the gospels to understand Jesus’ relation to his tradition, particularly to the law. Jesus’ operating principle is that the Sabbath (and, with that, I am reading all of the law and the rituals of holiness) was created for humanity, and not the other way around.
- The idea that ‘humanity was made for the Sabbath’ continues to be a wildly popular theology that God created the law and humanity needs to live up to it or else we are lost. In that theology, God is chiefly known as holy, and humans have to achieve a certain level of holiness – through following laws or practicing purity rituals - to be acceptable to God.
- The alternative theology, which Jesus poses here, is that ‘the Sabbath was made for humanity.’ In that sense, God is chiefly known as love and the laws and purity rituals are for humanity’s own good. Or, even better, they offer ways that humanity can respond to God’s grace with gratitude.
But, first to the text!

23 Καὶ ἐγένετο αὐτὸν ἐν τοῖς σάββασιν παραπορεύεσθαι διὰ τῶν σπορίμων, καὶ οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ ἤρξαντο ὁδὸν ποιεῖν τίλλοντες τοὺς στάχυας.
And it happened on the Sabbaths he passed through the sown fields, and his disciples began to make a way plucking the ears of corn.  
ἐγένετο: AMI 3s, γίνομαι 1) to become, i.e. to come into existence, begin to be, receive being 
παραπορεύεσθαι: PMInf, παραπορεύομαι, 1) to proceed at the side, go past, pass by 
ἤρξαντο: AMI 3p, ἄρχω, 1) to be chief, to lead, to rule 
ποιεῖν: PAInf, ποιέω, 1) to make 
τίλλοντες: PAPart npm, τίλλω, 1) to pluck, pluck off 
1. One interpretive decision is to identify what, exactly, is the Sabbath violation that the Pharisees will raise about the disciples. Is the problem that they are forging a path or that they are harvesting food? The NIV says “as his disciples walked along, they began to pick heads of grain.” But, it seems that the verb “began” goes most easily with the infinitive “to make,” not the participle “plucking.”
2. I suspect the NIV is implying that plucking and even threshing the grain is the problem because of Jesus’ argument below about what David did when he was hungry.

24 καὶ οἱ Φαρισαῖοι ἔλεγον αὐτῷ, Ἴδε τί ποιοῦσιν τοῖς σάββασιν ὃ οὐκ ἔξεστιν;
And the Pharisees were saying to him, “Look, why are they doing on the Sabbaths that which is not lawful?”
ἔλεγον: IAI 3p, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
Ἴδε: imperative of εἶδον (eidon) to see) used as an interjection, lo! behold!
ποιοῦσιν: PAI 3p, ποιέω, 1) to make 
ἔξεστιν: PAI 3s, ἔξεστι, 1) it is lawful
1. “Sabbaths” is plural here and in v.23. In vv.27 and 28, it will be singular. (Mark’s use of the plural for Sabbaths is a word study in itself.) Add that to the imperfect (“They were saying”), rather than a simple aorist past tense and it might be that this was an ongoing contention that comes to a head on this particular occasion, rather than a simple one-time event.

25 καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς, Οὐδέποτε ἀνέγνωτε τί ἐποίησεν Δαυίδ, ὅτε χρείαν ἔσχεν καὶ ἐπείνασεν αὐτὸς καὶ οἱ μετ' αὐτοῦ;
And he says to them, “Have you never comprehended what David did when he had need and hungered he and the ones with him?
λέγει: PAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
ἀνέγνωτε: AAI2p, ἀναγινώσκω, 1) to distinguish between, to recognise, to know accurately,  to acknowledge  2) to read 
ἐποίησεν: AAI 3s, ποιέω, 1) to make 
ἔσχεν: AAI 3s, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold
ἐπείνασεν: AAI 3s, πεινάω, 1) to hunger, be hungry 
1. ἀναγινώσκω can be interpreted “read,” but it implies more than a simple familiarity with a story. Some kind of distinction and accuracy in understanding the meaning of the story seems implied. Of course they had read the story. They just did not see the significance of David’s actions, doing that which was not “lawful,” for their own way of apprising lawful actions.

26 πῶς εἰσῆλθεν εἰς τὸν οἶκον τοῦ θεοῦ ἐπὶ Ἀβιαθὰρ ἀρχιερέως καὶ τοὺς ἄρτους τῆς προθέσεως ἔφαγεν, οὓς οὐκ ἔξεστιν φαγεῖν εἰ μὴ τοὺς ἱερεῖς, καὶ ἔδωκεν καὶ τοῖς σὺν αὐτῷ οὖσιν;
How he entered into the house of God in the time of high priest Abiathar and ate the bread of the presence which is not lawful to eat except by the priest, and gave also to the ones being with him?”
εἰσῆλθεν: AAI 3s, εἰσέρχομαι, 1) to go out or come in: to enter 
ἔφαγεν: AAI 3s, ἐσθίω, 1) to eat 
ἔξεστιν: ἔξεστι, 1) it is lawful
φαγεῖν: AAInf, ἐσθίω, 1) to eat 
ἔδωκεν: AAI 3s, δίδωμι, 1) to give  2) to give something to someone 
1. It is not clear how exactly to interpret the preposition ἐπὶ. If Abiathar had actually been the priest who gave David the “bread of the presence” in I Samuel 21, then the preposition might be “in the presence of.” But, it was Ahimelech who shared the holy bread with David, not Abiathar. So, unless Mark is mistakenly saying “Abiathar” instead of “Ahimelech,” the preposition might mean that it was during Abiathar’s tenure, not in his actual presence.
2. Ahimelech allows David and his men to eat the holy bread only after ensuring that they were holy, by which he meant they had kept themselves from women.
3. Incidentally, things did not go well for Abiathar after David’s death.

27 καὶ ἔλεγεν αὐτοῖς, Τὸ σάββατον διὰ τὸν ἄνθρωπον ἐγένετο καὶ οὐχ ὁ ἄνθρωπος διὰ τὸ σάββατον:
And he was saying to them, “The Sabbath came into being for the human and not the human for the Sabbath;
ἔλεγεν: IAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
ἐγένετο: AMI 3s, γίνομαι 1) to become, i.e. to come into existence, begin to be, receive being  
1. The verb γίνομαι is very versatile. I am going with “came into being” because Jesus seems to be talking about the purposive origin of the Sabbath, just like the Gospel of John speaks of the purposive origin of the world in Jn.1, using γίνομαι.
2. Again, the difference between the imperfect and the aorist may be overblown, but v.24 uses the imperfect to describe the Pharisee’s criticism of the disciples and v.27 uses it to summarize Jesus’ answer. I wonder if that implies that this was an ongoing conversation, rather than a simple one-time event.

28 ὥστε κύριός ἐστιν ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου καὶ τοῦ σαββάτου.
hence the son of man also is lord of the Sabbath.
ἐστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
1. I am reading this as a conclusive Christological comment that follows the anthropological comment of v.27, making our understanding of the “lord”/“son of man” coinherent with our understanding of “humanity.” And since the point of v.27, in my reading, is that Sabbath (and by implication other laws and rituals) are in order to humanity, and not the other way around, I read the καὶ as making v.28 correspond with v.27.

1 Καὶ εἰσῆλθεν πάλιν εἰς τὴν συναγωγήν. καὶ ἦν ἐκεῖ ἄνθρωπος ἐξηραμμένην ἔχων τὴν χεῖρα:
And he entered again into the synagogue. And a man was there having the withered hand;
εἰσῆλθεν: AAI 3s, εἰσέρχομαι, 1) to go out or come in: to enter 
ἦν: IAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
ἐξηραμμένην: PerfPPart asf, ξηραίνω, 1) to make dry, dry up, wither 
ἔχων: PAPart nsm, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold
1. We have two participles. ‘Having’ describes the man; ‘withered’ describes the hand.

2 καὶ παρετήρουν αὐτὸν εἰ τοῖς σάββασιν θεραπεύσει αὐτόν, ἵνα κατηγορήσωσιν αὐτοῦ.
And they were observing him if on the Sabbaths he will heal him, in order that they might accuse him.
παρετήρουν: IAI 3p, παρατηρέω, 1) to stand beside and watch, to watch assiduously, observe carefully
θεραπεύσει: FAI 3s, θεραπεύω, 1) to serve, do service  2) to heal, cure, restore to health
κατηγορήσωσιν: AASubj 3p, κατηγορέω, 1) to accuse 
1. Apparently “they” (I assume the Pharisees, per v.6) still do not comprehend the story of David and the holy bread. The sinister part is that they see this man with a disability, not as a person whose life would be greatly enhanced were his hand to be healed, but as the bait in a trap to catch Jesus violating a law.

3 καὶ λέγει τῷ ἀνθρώπῳ τῷ τὴν ξηρὰν χεῖρα ἔχοντι, Ἔγειρε εἰς τὸ μέσον.
And he says  to the man having the withered hand, “Rise into the midst.”  
λέγει: PAI 3s,
ἔχοντι: PAPart dsm, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold
Ἔγειρε: PAImpv 2s, ἐγείρω, 1) to arouse, cause to rise 

4 καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς, Ἔξεστιν τοῖς σάββασιν ἀγαθὸν ποιῆσαικακοποιῆσαι, ψυχὴν σῶσαιἀποκτεῖναι; οἱ δὲ ἐσιώπων.
And he says to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save a life or to destroy?” But they were silent.
λέγει: PAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
Ἔξεστιν: PAI 3s, ἔξεστι, 1) it is lawful
ποιῆσαι: AAInf, ποιέω, 1) to make 
κακοποιῆσαι: AAInf, κακοποιέω, 1) to do harm  2) to do evil, do wrong 
σῶσαι: AAInf, σῴζω, 1) to save, keep safe and sound, to rescue from danger or destruction
ἀποκτεῖναι: AAInf, ἀποκτείνω, 1) to kill in any way whatever  1a) to destroy, to allow to perish
ἐσιώπων: IAI 3p, σιωπάω, 1) to be silent, hold one's peace 
1. They still do not comprehend the David episode. Or else, they do get it, but they do not want to say it aloud because they would rather catch Jesus than honor the original meaning of the Sabbath. This is really a rather simple question.

5 καὶ περιβλεψάμενος αὐτοὺς μετ' ὀργῆς, συλλυπούμενος ἐπὶ τῇ πωρώσει τῆς καρδίας αὐτῶν, λέγει τῷ ἀνθρώπῳ, Ἔκτεινον τὴν χεῖρα. καὶ ἐξέτεινεν, καὶ ἀπεκατεστάθη ἡ χεὶρ αὐτοῦ.
And having looked around him with anger, grieving at the callousness of their hearts, he says to the man, “Stretch out the hand.” And he stretched, and his hand was restored.
περιβλεψάμενος: AMPart nsm, περιβλέπω, look round about
συλλυπούμενος: PMPart nsm, συλλυπέω, (λυπέω with σύν): to grieve or afflict with another
λέγει: PAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
Ἔκτεινον: AAImpv, 2s, ἐκτείνω, 1) to stretch out, stretch forth  1a) over, towards, against one
ἐξέτεινεν: AAI 3s, ἐκτείνω, 1) to stretch out, stretch forth 
ἀπεκατεστάθη: API 3s, ἀποκαθίστημι, 1) to restore to its former state  2) to be in its former state 
1. This is not the only time Jesus does a good deed out of anger. In Mark 1:40-45, I would argue that Jesus cleanses a man out of anger. (See my notes at http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2012/02/compassion-or-anger-how-do-you-read-it.html)
2. This could read “the hardness of their hearts,” but the gospels sometimes use sclerosis with καρδίας (resulting in the transliterated term cardio sclerosis). Here the noun is πωρώσει, which could be ‘hardness,’ but refers to the knotting callous that hardens over fractured bones.
3. It is interesting that Jesus is both angry (ὀργῆς) and grieving (συλλυπέω).

6 καὶ ἐξελθόντες οἱ Φαρισαῖοι εὐθὺς μετὰ τῶν Ἡρῳδιανῶν συμβούλιον ἐδίδουν κατ' αὐτοῦ ὅπως αὐτὸν ἀπολέσωσιν.
And the Pharisees exited immediately with the Herodians taking counsel about him how they might destroy him.
ἐξελθόντες: AAPart npm, ἐξέρχομαι, 1) to go or come forth of 
ἐδίδουν: IAI 3p, δίδωμι, 1) to give 
ἀπολέσωσιν: AASubj, 3p ἀπόλλυμι, to destroy, cause to perish.

1. Is it lawful on the Sabbath to save a life or to destroy it? Jesus saves a life (since σῴζω in the fullest sense means to ‘make whole’), but the Pharisees and Herodians plot to destroy (ἀπόλλυμι) a life. We see what Mark did there.


  1. I really enjoyed your Pentecost reflection, Mark, so I came by to look at this week's post. But my version (?) of the RCL has John 3:1-17 as the Gospel reading - ??

    1. There are two options this week, Brint, depending on whether one is going with a "Trinity Sunday" text (Jn.3) or First Sunday after Pentecost (Mark 2).

  2. Hi Mark,

    I know this is a little old, but we're going to be swinging back here in due time. I'm working on a June sermon, and I'm thankful for your exegesis here. As I was working on it, I was struck by ὀργῆς and how it could be considered here. I wonder if it has a built in, longer term indignation. I think you allude to that with some of the more extended nature in v. 24.

    It just makes me wonder how provocative the healing was, and what implications that might have. If this was a flashing anger or a rage, it gives a different perception of a Jesus aggrieved and so exhausted of hardheartedness that he finally snaps and performs a healing.

    I've tried in my sermon to consider less about Sabbath and more about how we hunker down in our well-worn paths and miss the grace beyond laws. But I'm curious to hear more about your perception of Jesus' anger.

    1. Hi RevAWRA,
      I'll be happy to ruminate with you on this, but it will be closer to the date when the text comes up. I'm in one of those 'swamped' seasons these days, schedule-wise.
      Thanks for your reflection and thanks for giving me some grist for the mill down the road.


If you want to leave a comment using only your name, please click the name/url option. I don't believe you have to sign in or anything like that by using that option. You may also use the 'anonymous' option if you want. Just be nice.

Blog Archive