Sunday, May 30, 2021

Putting Sabbath in Its Place

Below is a rough translation of Mark 2:23-3:6, the Revised Common Lectionary reading for the second Sunday after Pentecost. AND SOMETHING NEW: At the bottom of the post is a Prayer of Confession that is based on the OT reading from 1st Samuel. I'm trying to add some liturgical elements to my posts as I revise and refresh them

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. 
And now, on with the text! 

23Καὶ ἐγένετοαὐτὸν ἐν τοῖς σάββασινπαραπορεύεσθαιδιὰ τῶν σπορίμων, καὶ οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ ἤρξαντοὁδὸν ποιεῖντίλλοντεςτοὺς 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 grain.  
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,” which implies – along with most translations – that it was the plucking that becomes the activity in question. Syntactically, the verb “began” seems to go as easily with the infinitive “to make,” as the participle “plucking.” 
2. I suspect the NIV et al are interpreting that plucking the grain is the problem because of Jesus’ argument below about what David did when he was hungry.
3. On the plural “Sabbaths” see v.24, n.1. 
4. Notice that this first portion of the text is about when, namely the Sabbath. The next portion beginning in 3:1 relocates the story to a where, the Synagogue. I feel like the when and where, time and place, are intentionally correlative in these stories, so I call it "putting Sabbath in its place." 

24καὶ οἱ Φαρισαῖοι ἔλεγοναὐτῷ,Ἴδετί ποιοῦσιντοῖς 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 (“They said”) 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. 
2. The word “lawful” (ἔξεστιν), which appears here, in v.26, and in 3:4, makes an interesting study. It appears three other times in Mark - 6:18, 10:2, and 12:14. I need to do an etymological study of this term.  

25καὶ λέγειαὐτοῖς, Οὐδέποτε ἀνέγνωτετί ἐποίησενΔαυίδ, ὅτε χρείαν ἔσχενκαὶ ἐπείνασεναὐτὸς 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. Mark will use this term again in 12:10, 12:26, and 13:14. Each time there is more to simply reading that is important. 

26πῶς εἰσῆλθενεἰς τὸν οἶκον τοῦ θεοῦ ἐπὶ Ἀβιαθὰρ ἀρχιερέως καὶ τοὺς ἄρτους τῆς προθέσεως ἔφαγεν, οὓς οὐκ ἔξεστινφαγεῖνεἰ μὴ τοὺς ἱερεῖς, καὶ ἔδωκενκαὶ 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. Matthew (12:4) and Luke (6:4) do not include the reference to Abiathar. Theories abound. See this article by Morgan, C Shannon, “When Abiathar Was High Priest” (Journal of Biblical Literature, 98 no. 3 Sep 1979, p 409-410).
3. In the I Samuel narrative, 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. 
4. Incidentally, things did not go well for Abiathar after David’s death, since he was part of the failed plot to make Adonijah the king instead of Solomon. 
5. Come to think of it, I’m not so sure things ever went well for Abiathar. He is listed as both the son of Ahimelech and as the father of Ahimelech. He’s his own grandpa! 
I Samuel 30:7, “David said to the priest Abiathar son of Ahimelech, ‘Bring me the ephod.’ So Abiathar brought the ephod to David.” (Sim I Samuel 22:20)
I Chronicles 24:6, “The scribe Shemaiah …, and Zadok the priest, and Ahimelech son of Abiathar, ….” (Sim I Chronicles 18:16). 

27καὶ ἔλεγεναὐτοῖς, Τὸ σάββατον διὰ τὸν ἄνθρωπον ἐγένετοκαὶ 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. 
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 (“were saying”) and v.27 uses it to summarize Jesus’ answer (“was saying”). I suggest this was an ongoing conversation, rather than a one-time event. 

28ὥστε κύριός ἐστινὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου καὶ τοῦ σαββάτου.
hence the son of humanity 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. The anthropological comment is that the Sabbath is made for humanity, and not the other way around. The Christological comment follows that, insofar as the “Son of Man” is “Lord,” then the Son of Man is likewise Lord of the Sabbath. To some extent, the title “Son of Man” has always been fuzzy to me, but this text indicates that how we view humanity is tied to how we should hear that title.  

1Καὶ εἰσῆλθενπάλιν εἰς τὴν συναγωγήν. καὶ ἦνἐκεῖ ἄνθρωπος ἐξηραμμένηνἔχωντὴν 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. It is an interesting battle of the pericopes. Whoever added chapter divisions sees this story as a new beginning. Whoever set the lection sees this as a continuation of the previous story. 
2. We have two participles. ‘Having’ describes the man; ‘withered’ describes the hand. 
3. We have relocated from a field to a synagogue. Richard Horsley argues that we should see a synagogue as something like a town hall, a gathering place, that can indeed be used for worship but is broader than a worship space and is not a "mini temple." He points out that Mark never uses the term ekklesia. 
4. Ezra Gould argues that the use of the participle ἐξηραμμένηνἔχωντὴν means that it is not a defect from birth, but something that happened more recently. There is a tradition that named this man as a stone mason, and therefore unable to work because of the hand deformation.

2καὶ παρετήρουναὐτὸν εἰ τοῖς σάββασιν θεραπεύσειαὐτόν, ἵνα κατηγορήσωσιναὐτοῦ. 
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. 
2. The fact that this is a story about the appropriate way of observing Sabbath, I agree with the lection committee’s decision to join this story with the previous story as one pericope.
3. As in 2:23 above, and 3:4 below, “the Sabbaths” is plural.
4. Mark’s only other uses of κατηγορέω (accuse) is in 15:3-4, when the chief priests accuse Jesus of many things before Pilate. 

3καὶ λέγειτῷ ἀνθρώπῳ τῷ τὴν ξηρὰν χεῖρα ἔχοντιἜγειρεεἰς 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 
1. Jesus brings the man front and center. That’s a textbook definition of “moxie.” 

4καὶ λέγειαὐτοῖς, Ἔξεστιντοῖς σάββασιν ἀγαθὸν ποιῆσαιἢ κακοποιῆσαι, ψυχὴν σῶσαιἢ ἀποκτεῖναι; οἱ δὲ ἐσιώπων
And he says to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbaths 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. Unless they are willing to transgress centuries of interpreting the David story as the right thing, then how could they challenge this healing as the right thing? 
2. The alternatives of doing good or doing evil suggest that in a moment of potential healing there is no 'neither' ground. 

5καὶ περιβλεψάμενοςαὐτοὺς μετ' ὀργῆς, συλλυπούμενοςἐπὶ τῇ πωρώσει τῆς καρδίας αὐτῶν, λέγειτῷ ἀνθρώπῳ,Ἔκτεινοντὴν χεῖρα. καὶ ἐξέτεινεν, καὶ ἀπεκατεστάθηἡ 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. While this is Mark’s only use of the word ὀργῆς, it is not the only time Jesus does a good deed out of intense passion. In Mark 1:40-45, I would argue that Jesus cleanses a man out of anger. (
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). According to, this is the NT’s only use of συλλυπέω, so it’s hard to see what the nuances of the term might be. The combination of terms might lead us to a mixed kind of sad, maddening frustration. 

6καὶ ἐξελθόντεςοἱ Φαρισαῖοι εὐθὺς μετὰ τῶν Ἡρῳδιανῶν συμβούλιον ἐδίδουνκατ' 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, 3pἀπόλλυμι, to destroy, cause to perish.
1. Is it lawful on the Sabbath to save a life or to destroy it? Jesus saves a life, but the Pharisees and Herodians plot to destroy a life. We see what Mark did there. 
2. Pharisees were reformers according to strict interpretations of and adherence to the law, like synagogue-based progressives. Herodians are less known historically, so our thinking about them is mostly guided by their name. Some think these particular Herodians would be Galilean aristocracy interested in maintaining order. 
Pharisees and Herodians would not usually have a comfortable alliance, but will conspire again in 12:13 - raising another trap question about paying taxes. 

I suggested in my opening remarks that the disputation over the Sabbath is really emblematic of the whole purpose and meaning of the law in general. If that is the case, the Pharisees’ words, motives, and actions – as the narrator describes them – are compelling depictions of what happens when someone is so bent on keeping the particularity of the law that they are willing to overlook the sheer joy of a man’s withered hand being restored. They are compelling depictions of what it means to focus on the exactitude of the letter and to miss the spirit of the law entirely. They are compelling depictions of why “the law” could either be a life-giving source of joy and instruction or a life-demeaning source of judgment and an onerous burden. 

Prayer of Confession
The song Saranam, Saranam, (#789 in the Glory to God and #40 in Global Songs for Worship hymnals) is either Indian or Pakistani in origin. The word "saranam" can mean "I take refuge" or "I surrender." This Prayer of Confession is written to sing the first two verses of "Saranam, Saranam" in a contemplative tone, with the last verse following the Assurance of Pardon in a livelier tone. The song works in both respects. 

Introduction to Prayer: The story of Israel demanding a king is one of those moments in the Scriptures when God relents to our demands, even though they are wrong-headed. A better way to pray is for us to come to God, acknowledging that God is wise and we are not. As we pray this evening, let us come surrendering to God’s will. Please remain seated as we begin our prayer by singing song #789, “Saranam, Saranam.” (vv. 1-2)
Let us pray: 
God of all wisdom: We surrender. 
We surrender the arrogance of presuming that we know what is best.  
We surrender the hope of drawing you into our way of thinking. 
We surrender the idea that our voice matters more than others. 
We surrender the assumption that our perception of truth is truth. 
We surrender the privilege of sophisticated words or turns of speech. 
We surrender the hardness of our hearts. 
We surrender the closed doors of our minds. 
We surrender. We lay down our struggles against you. Unconditionally. Amen. 

Friends, hear this good news: In Christ, God forgives us in our foolishness, our pride, and our arrogance and fills us with new life. Let us stand and sing our joyful response.... 
"Saranam, Saranam", v.3. 


  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.

    2. Hello again, RevAWRA,
      Now that I've been updating the blogpost on this text, I'm ready to think more with you about this. Of course, it is always thin ice to try to get behind a text and anticipate too closely what one is thinking. In this case, Mark deems it important to name what people are thinking. In v.2, the Pharisees clearly are intending to trap Jesus, which Mark describes perfectly with "callousness of their hearts" in v.5. And, in v.5, Mark uses both 'ὀργῆς' and 'συλλυπέω,' which is a very compelling and complex combination. It invites us, I think, to do exactly what you are doing and wondering together how Jesus is inclined toward this issue. Per my opening and closing remarks, I think it goes to the heart of all kinds of judgmental uses of the law, ancient and current.
      Thanks for your comment.

  3. Amongst other intriguing things in these two episodes, I'm curious about Jesus' action in getting this man (why a withered hand?) to stand 'in the middle' (not up front). The man would have felt very uncomfortable and probably used to hiding his deformity not having attention drawn to it. He is literally surrounded, and surrounded by 'the experts' who argue about Torah. Jesus seems to be making the point that the Sabbath is about human beings and not about observing laws because they are laws or about having theological debates as to where the boundaries lie with such laws. Jesus' question in v4 ceases to be merely 'theological' because now there's a real human being standing in front of them. They have the decency to be silent. I might condemn or judge certain people who are different to me, but it's hard to do that to their face.
    By making such a person stand 'in the middle', I am forced to face her/him. etc etc.

    1. Rick, thank you for this pointed reflection. It brings into focus how humanity tends toward dehumanizing individuals or groups and then we rationalize our thoughts and behaviour with the "law". For me it begs questions....why really do humans dehumanize? What do we gain by doing so? why are we so afraid of love and choose calloused hearts instead?

    2. Rick and Nicole:
      Yes and yes...I've always been interested in the bringing the man to the "middle" of the community. Would have been incredibly uncomfortable for the individual and the community! Now we must face together our law and compassion, or lack thereof, together. My mind goes to averted gazes, awkwardness and perhaps those two emotions Mark (Davis and gospel) highlight: anger and grief. Some in the community undoubtedly feel one and some feel the other - a divided house - which if I'm not mistaken is a phrase we will deal with in next week's gospel. Thank you all!

  4. Thank you so much! Your thoughtful exegesis ties it all together. This prayer of confession is beautiful and a tiny congregation in Indiana will be using it this week.

    1. Thank you. Blessings to you and your mighty congregation in Indiana.


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