by Daniel Harrell
A few months back I started a sermon series on the red-letters in Mark’s gospel—you know, the ones that demarcate the sayings of Jesus for those who own red-letter Bibles. Interest in these red letters has been sparked of late by a book entitled Red-Letter Christians by the popular author and sociologist Tony Campolo. Written in time for this year’s presidential campaign, Campolo asserts that to be a red-letter Christian is to have a high view of Scripture, to believe that Jesus is alive and that salvation can be had through faith in him—but it also means that you have a passionate commitment to social justice which inevitably leads to an intense involvement in politics. Now I should mention that “Red-Letter Christians” tend to be Democrats (ironic given that the letters are red). I am registered Republican. But as far as I can tell Jesus was neither Democrat nor Republican, despite efforts by both parties to make him their running mate. Still, Campolo is right about this: Jesus’ words did carry political implications.
Take the opening salvo from Mark chapter 1: “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” On the one hand, you read this and interpret it as Jesus speaking primarily about heaven and personal salvation. But when you look more closely, especially at the word near, and you discover that it’s a word that could also be translated as at hand, or even right here. Suddenly you wonder whether Jesus is speaking about something other than heaven out there, or even heaven in your heart. For his original audience here in Mark, Galilean Jews chafing under brutal Roman rule, to hear that the rule of God had arrived could not have been construed as anything other than a radical denouncement of the current administration. This is what made it such good news—and what made it political. Jesus announces that Rome’s time is up. God’s kingdom has come.
The word kingdom is politically charged. It implies power, and specifically, the power to control. In regard to Rome, kingdom power meant military power, control by brute force. For the Jews of Jesus’ day, his pronouncement of God’s coming power fueled their hope for deliverance. But they’d been hoping for a long time. Too long for some of them. Among the Jews were those called Zealots, people who believed that they needed to hurry God’s kingdom along and that the only way to do that was through open revolt. Others, known as Pharisees, opted for a cultural war. Bring on God’s kingdom by righteous legislation. Follow all the rules and thereby compel God to reward. Still others, the Herodians mentioned here, figured that if God was going to take his time they might as well take advantage. Cozy up to the Romans and reap the benefits of proximity to political clout, even if it means burying your faith under a basket for a while, or even burying it in the ground.
For each of these groups—Zealots, Pharisees and Herodians—kingdom-come implied controlling power. Whether through violence, legislation or accommodation, the end game was all about getting your fingers on the buttons. And therefore Jesus says repent. Instead of the usual violent rebellion, it was time to show the pagans what the true God was really like, not by fighting and violence but by loving one’s enemies, turning the other cheek and going the second mile, even if that road led to its usual end; namely, crucifixion. Rome used crosses to squelch insurrection and thereby expose the futility of political resistance, as well as to execute the death sentence on rebels. But by contrast, Jesus used the cross to expose the futility of Roman and religious violence, while executing a sentence of forgiveness on his crucifiers. Christ accepts rejection and injustice and responds with resurrection. In his kingdom, peace is not made and kept through the shedding of enemies’ blood, but by the king shedding his own blood. In doing so, the cross becomes the ironic symbol of victory through defeat.
Amidst the intoxication of controlling power, the ironic power of the cross endures. Perhaps you watched Barack Obama and John McCain being interviewed by purpose-driven pastor Rick Warren. I found it surprising that the candidates chose a church for their first joint appearance (even if they didn’t appear together). Among the questions Warren asked each was what it meant to be a follower of Christ. Obama responded by saying it means that “Jesus Christ died for my sins, and that I am redeemed through Him. He is a source of strength and sustenance on a daily basis. It also means an obligation to embrace not just words but, through deeds, the expectations God has for us. It means acting justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with our God.” McCain concurred. He said that being a Christian means “that I’m saved and forgiven.” He went on to tell a story of his Vietnam war imprisonment and torture and how at one point a Vietnamese guard entered his cell and quietly loosened ropes that McCain’s interrogators were using to torture him. Later, on Christmas Day, McCain said this same guard walked over again and drew a cross in the dirt with his sandal in order to let him know that he was a Christian too.
Rick Warren said that the purpose for his interviews was to promote civility during this year’s election campaign. Presumably, shared faith should trump the temptation to sling mud. To be brothers in Christ means loving your brother as you love God, and partaking of all that spiritual fruit—like kindness and self-control—that makes any disagreement manageable. Yet we all know how seldom this works. From the first Corinthians on, Christians have been at each other’s throats: Catholics fighting Protestants, Congregationalists fighting Baptists, Baptists fighting Baptists. And that’s even without mentioning the discord common with most any run-of-the-mill church committee. We call it church politics. And thus it’s no surprise that brothers Obama and McCain, despite their unity in Christ, are already ripping each other. We’ve come to expect no less. Rick Warren said that Americans believe in the separation of church and state, but not in the separation of faith and politics. He meant that what we believe governs our politics. But in reality, I think more often it works the other way around. Our politics govern what we believe.
I got to thinking this watching the drama of last week’s introduction of Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin. For political conservatives (many of whom are Christians), Palin’s piety and penchant for packing heat was just what the Dr. Dobson ordered. But then came the curve ball regarding her teenage daughter’s pregnancy. Typically, conservatives would explicitly censure such behavior, being strong advocates of policies that promote teenage sexual abstinence. But toward Governor Palin’s daughter, any censure was all but nonexistent. I wondered, would these same conservatives have been equally subdued had the teenage mother been, say, a young Chelsea Clinton, or even more to the point, an older Malia Obama? On the other hand, political liberals (many of whom are Christians) oppose legislating abstinence. They champion women’s rights but could say nothing in support of a Republican, so instead they lobbed a few Jon Stewart grenades of sarcasm—likening Bristol Palin to Jamie Lynn Spears. They then chastised McCain for irresponsibly vetting an obviously irresponsible parent as a running mate—something they never would have done had the pregnant daughter belonged to their party’s nominee.
Jesus and the Pharisees shared a common faith. Both were of chosen stock, both traced their ancestry to Abraham, both worshipped at the Temple and regarded the Law as God’s sacred word, and both looked toward God’s deliverance from Roman oppression. And both remembered the Sabbath day and kept it holy. Yet their politics diverged deeply—evidenced here in regard to the Sabbath. As much as sexual conduct headlines contemporary political news cycles, Sabbath conduct did so in Jesus’ day. Sabbath was a core aspect of Israel’s identity. It was the tangible thing that set them apart from their pagan oppressors. As with Christians who refuse to work on Sundays, Pharisaic Jews kept Sabbath as a way of drawing their line in the cultural sand. Yet since the Romans were apparently fine with letting their Jewish subjects keep their Sabbath for the most part, it wasn’t much of a line. For the Pharisees, however, strict Sabbath observance succeeded as a political ploy. By sticking to the Sabbath the Pharisees could look like they were sticking it to Rome. By keeping the Sabbath better than everybody else they could project an image that they were better than everybody else. They cornered the market on both power and prominence—and piety too, since to keep Sabbath kept you in God’s graces.
And they pretty much got away with it until Jesus showed up and started messing with their Sabbath setup. Of the five conflicts recorded between Jesus and the Pharisees so far in Mark, three have to do with the Sabbath. Chapter 3 opens with Jesus again going to synagogue. This time the Pharisees were ready. Like a rival party eager to dig up some dirt on their opponent, Mark describes the Pharisees as “looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely.” All they needed to do was to catch Jesus bending the law, then they could spin it and discredit him as a lawbreaker. On this particular Sabbath, a man with a paralyzed hand was present. In Leviticus, the law forbid any man with any defect from approaching God, including a man with “a crippled foot or hand.” Now technically, this prohibition applied only to priests offering sacrifices in the Temple. But by the time we get to Jesus’ day, the legal restriction had likely generalized into a social discrimination. If it’s bad for a paralyzed priest to sacrifice in the Temple, it can’t be good for a man with a shriveled hand to show up in synagogue. It wasn’t forbidden, but like a man showing up in church without a shirt, everybody noticed—and disapproved.
Perhaps an usher walked over and asked the man to take a seat in the back, so as not to bother the more respectable worshippers. But Jesus calls the paralyzed man to the front. The Pharisees watched, Mark writes, “to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath.” It’s surprising to note that the issue is not Jesus’ ability to heal; the Pharisees conceded Jesus could do that. Funny, you’d think that being able to make paralysis disappear would have made Jesus a compelling candidate to the Pharisees, but politics doesn’t work that way. Jesus’ view of the kingdom meant losing power and that was not on the Pharisees’ platform. And therefore the Pharisees labeled Jesus healing as work. Ask any doctor and they’ll tell you that healing is work, hard work. And God prohibited work on the Sabbath. But if all healing comes from God, and Jesus healed on the day God prohibited it, then something more was at stake. For Jesus to heal on the Sabbath might suggest that God was on his side rather than theirs. The debate begins. Jesus asks: “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” This was a no-brainer. It is always lawful to do good on the Sabbath. It is lawful to do good every day, just as it is unlawful to do evil or to kill any day. Why don’t the Pharisees answer? Because politics does not allow you to agree with your opponent.
Typically we interpret this conflict as one between law and grace; as if somehow Jesus considered keeping Sabbath superfluous. But that’s not true. Jesus kept Jewish law. The conflict is not between the law and grace, but over how to interpret the law; specifically here, what it means to save a life. Already it was accepted principle by all parties that “any danger to life takes precedence over the Sabbath.” For the Pharisees, this principle allowed one to perform CPR on the Sabbath, even though you’d have to work to do it. I remember one vivid occasion when a beloved member of our church collapsed in his pew just as I was beginning to preach my sermon. I stopped and rushed to his side with the doctors in the house. We dialed quickly 911, and then prayed as we waited for the ambulance to arrive. Nobody objected to my completely skipping the sermon that day (Some people were glad). But what about those of you who aren’t dying, you just feel like it. You’re worried about school, or who have just lost your job, or are in a troubled relationship or wish you had a relationship to be troubled about; you’ve got some chronic something you cannot get rid of. Maybe you’re not listening anyway because what you need is for someone to talk with rather than listen to, someone to pray for you and make things better. Should I stop preaching so we can do that? I don’t know, maybe some Sundays I should.
This man’s paralyzed hand is not life-threatening in the literal sense. Yet in every other sense, his disability threatened his living. To be disabled brought on social and religious prejudice, it labeled him defective and disfavored by God. It also left him poor since in that society, the loss of a hand would mean the inability to work. To this man, for Jesus to heal his hand would save his life in every other way. And since it is lawful to save a life on the Sabbath, Jesus says to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Jesus does not flout the law here; he rightly interprets it and rightly upholds it. And just to make perfectly clear that he has the authority to do that, Jesus heals by simply speaking, which technically speaking, is not work. He heals with a word, just like God heals—which is where Jesus’ authority comes from. Jesus further justifies his claim from chapter 2: “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”
Of course the Pharisees, like any party in power, could not allow for this. And because politics makes strange bedfellows, they conspired with the Herodians about how to take Jesus out—the Herodians, Jews who’d hopped into bed with their Roman oppressors, setting aside convictions the Pharisees were so adamant about guarding. And not only that. Though your NIV omits it, Mark uses the word immediately in verse 6, suggesting that the so-called guardians of the Sabbath do their harmful conspiring on the Sabbath. Politics govern beliefs. In verse 5, Jesus looked at them in anger and grieved their stubborn hearts. Other Bibles translate it “hardness of heart,” hearkening back to the Israelites of old who never could embrace the genuine overtures of God’s grace. We forget that Jesus did not come to fight the Pharisees, but to save their lives too.