Challenging Assumptions

Original Date: 
Sunday, January 15, 2017

Mark 2:1-3:6 Challenging Assumptions

A Different Way of Thinking
A few years ago, at the Seattle Special Olympics, nine contestants, all physically or mentally disabled, assembled at the starting line for the 100-yard dash. At the gun, they all started out, not exactly in a dash, but with a relish to run the race to the finish and win. All, that is, except one little boy who stumbled on the asphalt, tumbled over a couple of times, and began to cry.

The other eight heard the boy cry. They slowed down and looked back. Then they all turned around and went back, every one of them. One girl with Down's Syndrome bent down and kissed him and said, “This will make it better.” Then all nine linked arms and walked together to the finish line. Everyone in the stadium stood, and the cheering went on for several minutes. People who were there are still telling the story.

Now imagine, if you would, that you were there that day. In fact, let’s say that you had a son or brother competing in that race. As he went to line up for the race, you would have been shouting encouragement. You would have been cheering for him to win. That makes sense, right? It was, after all a race.

But what if, when all of the runners turned around to help the fallen competitor, you would have started shouting: “No! That's the wrong way! Go the other way, you can win!”? You would have been booed out of the stadium. People would have thought you were a real jerk.

How come? This was a race, you would think the point was to run to win, right? Isn't that the basic assumption of competition? And yet, in this particular instant, the basic assumptions no longer fit. If you had been there that day, your basic assumption that the point of competing is to win would have been challenged. Other things, like the importance of caring for one another, would have been revealed as more important.

Well, that’s what is happening in our scripture text this morning. Jesus is going to challenge some of our very basic assumptions. He’s is going to make us examine the way we think.

The common element in the four stories Maren just read is the opposition Jesus faces. In each of the little incidents we have recorded here, we see Jesus doing or saying something, only to be questioned or challenged by various religious leaders:
• Jesus tells the paralytic that his sins are forgiven, and the teachers of the law grumble about blasphemy.
• Jesus goes to a party, and the Pharisees mumble that He associates with riff-raff.
• The disciples of John and the Pharisees fast while the disciples of Jesus do not; and people wonder why Jesus and His followers are so unspiritual.
• Jesus gathers some food and heals a handicapped man on the Sabbath and the Pharisees accuse Him of breaking the law.
All of it leads up to that rather ominous sounding verse at the end, the one that says the Pharisees and the Herodians began to plot how they might kill Jesus. You can see how the shadow of the cross looms over Jesus’ entire life. Here we are, barely two chapters in, and already the conspiracy to kill Him is under way.

But Mark groups these stories together for another reason. I think he wants us to see ourselves in the opposition of these religious leaders. Because in each of these stories, the objections of the teachers of the law and Pharisees reflect common ways of thinking about the world. There are some basic assumptions that we all make, notions of how the world should work, that Jesus is here turning on their head.

If there is one thing the gospel of Mark makes clear, and this chapter in particular, it is that Jesus will challenge your assumptions. You cannot meet Jesus without examining the way you think. You cannot meet Him without having your categories changed. Meeting Jesus forces us to look beyond our limited sight range, to expand our traditions, and to open ourselves to the reality of grace.

So let’s give a brief look at each of these four stories. And with each one, I’m going to use this framework: I’m going to say: “I assumed…but Jesus is showing me…” Just like with that race in Seattle: “I assumed the point of competition was to win, but that race showed me that compassion was more important.” Here are four assumptions we tend to make, that Jesus is challenging.

My Deepest Need
So let’s begin like this: I assumed that physical needs come first… Or, to put it another way, I assumed that I knew what my greatest need is.

So, the first story is pretty familiar: There is a man who cannot walk. He has some friends who obviously care very deeply about him. They hear that there is this man named Jesus who has the ability to heal with a single word. So they decide they want to get their friend to Jesus. But when they find Jesus, there is such a large crowd that they cannot get their friend anywhere close to Him. So, undaunted, they climb up on the roof and make a hole. Then they lower their friend to Jesus’ feet.

It’s a pretty dramatic scene. If somebody suddenly came lowered down from the roof right now, I think that would be the end of the preaching, at least for a little while! And it’s pretty obvious that these men believe Jesus can heal their friend. That’s certainly what they are hoping will happen.

So it must have sounded pretty strange to them—not to mention to the poor guy on the mat, when Jesus says: “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

I’m guessing that’s not what they were expecting to hear. In fact, I’m guessing that if you could have interviewed this paralyzed man—before he met Jesus—he would have told you that his greatest need was physical. He would have told you that if he could just walk, all his problems would be solved. He believed he knew what his greatest need was, and if Jesus could just heal him, he’d be happy.

But Jesus is challenging a basic assumption here. He’s challenging the assumption that if what we think is our biggest problem went away, we’d be happy. So often we say to ourselves: “If only…” If only I had a better job, I’d be happy. If only my spouse was more attentive to my needs, I’d be happy. If only I lived in my dream home, I’d be happy.” But Jesus knows that our biggest problem is much deeper than that.

Timothy Keller quotes a columnist named Cynthia Heimel who observes that most of the celebrities she knows are deeply unhappy. She reflects on how hard they worked to chase the brass ring, the fame that they thought would make everything o.k., only to achieve and find that nothing changed. Then she says: “I think when God wants to play a really rotten practical joke on you, he grants your deepest wish.”

Keller then goes on to say, about this story in Mark:

You know what Jesus is saying to the paralyzed man? I’m not going to play that rotten joke on you. I’m not going to just heal your body and let you think you’ve gotten your deepest wish. (King’s Cross, p. 29-30)

Jesus is saying that we have a deeper need. A spiritual need. So I’ll put it like this: I assumed that physical needs come first…but Jesus is showing me that my greatest need is spiritual. What this man needed, and what we need, is Jesus.

Now, of course, the controversy in this story comes when the teachers of the law question Jesus’ right to forgive. He’s never met this man, this man has never sinned against him, so how can Jesus forgive him? God is the one against whom every sin is committed, so God alone has the authority to forgive sins. To which Jesus gives a demonstration. Verses 9-12:

9 Which is easier: to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’? 10 But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the man, 11 “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” 12 He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”

Jesus met the man’s greatest wish. He healed him. But in the process He demonstrated that what the man really needs—what we all need—is the one who has the authority to forgive our sins.

The Worst Person
Second assumption: I assumed that some people are beyond rehabilitation… I assume that some people are beyond hope.

This is the story of Jesus eating at Levi’s house. Levi—also known as Matthew-- was a tax collector.

Now, we need to understand what that means. When the Bible talks about tax collectors and mentions how disliked they were, there is a part of us which undoubtedly identifies. We aren't too crazy about paying taxes and certainly we sometimes feel a little ill-will towards those who are assigned to collect them. The IRS is not exactly a revered public institution.

But the antagonism that the Israelites felt towards tax collectors went beyond the mere fact that they took their money. You see, the money that the tax collectors took was for Rome, or for the puppet government Rome had installed under Herod. To the Israelites, the taxes they paid were just one more symbol of the oppression they were under as a conquered nation.

And so, if an Israelite became a tax collector, that meant he was siding with Rome. Tax collectors made a pretty handsome living, but most respectable Jews would never take the job because it meant betraying your national heritage. It meant actually helping the Romans in their oppression. To Jewish thinking, any Israelite who had agreed to become a tax collector had sold out his national identity, his religion, and his people for the sake of greed.

And now, here is Jesus asking a tax collector to become one of His closest followers. Here is Jesus sitting at the table in a tax collector’s home, laughing and having a good time with other tax collectors and the kind of people willing to be seen with them. It’s not surprising that the Pharisees would object. Verse 16:

16 When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

It is a widely held principle that "bad company corrupts good character." You can see why the Pharisees wondered about Jesus' judgment.

And the assumption here is that these people are irredeemable. They are just too far gone—too greedy, too selfish, too sinful—to ever change.

When I read this story, I have to admit, I can identify with the Pharisees. I mean, I’m in a profession where I want to help people. I want to bring hope to people who are in hopeless situations. But if I’m being honest with you, there are some people I look at and I just think: “There is no way…”

Can you identify with that? Can you admit to that? Sometimes I think of it as putting people in buckets. I have this bucket into which I can put people who are O.K. They are people who are pretty easy to get along with, generally behave in an acceptable way. Then I’ve got a second bucket for all the people I’m not so sure about. They’re a little rough around the edges, but with time and a little work they can be o.k. But then I’ve got a third bucket, and into that bucket go the people that I just don’t see any hope for. People whose behavior is so distasteful, so despicable, that there is no way—in my opinion--anything good can come from them.

And to these Pharisees, tax collectors were definitely third bucket people.

But here is Jesus’ response: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

It's almost as if Jesus is telling the Pharisees to worry less about what affect these tax collectors will have on Him and think a little bit more about what sort of affect He will have on them.

The comparison He makes is simple, but effective. As a general rule, healthy people have no need of a doctor. The doctor's job is to deal with the illnesses and complaints of sick people. In the same way, if Jesus has come to call sinners to repentance and to invite the outcasts into the kingdom of God, then we should expect that it would be sinners and outcasts with whom He would spend His time. That's His mission, that's why He came.

And the real danger here is if you put yourself in the righteous category. If you decide that you belong in one of those first two buckets, that you’re healthy, then you’ll never visit the doctor yourself. You might just get so busy looking down your nose at other people in judgment that you miss the symptoms of sin sickness within yourself.

So, back to the assumption: I assumed that some people are beyond rehabilitation… but Jesus is showing me that it is only the people who realize they are sick who visit the doctor.

Jesus refuses to write anybody off as eternally lost. He does not disagree with the conclusion that they are sinners, but He refuses to let that label stand in the way of His reaching out and offering forgiveness. He reverses the Pharisees' categories--seeing these people not as outcasts to be shunned and looked down upon, but as candidates for divine grace to be sought out and befriended.

The Bridegroom
Third assumption: I assumed that my performance earned me favor with God… I thought I could win God’s approval by behaving a certain way.

The next episode centers on fasting. Verse 18:

18 Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came and asked Jesus, “How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?”

At that time many of the religious leaders in Israel went without food on both Mondays and Thursdays as an expression of mourning over the sins of Israel. The idea behind fasting is that when the hunger pains come, the one fasting will be reminded to pray and turn his attention towards God. It is a spiritual discipline designed to increase communion with God and show devotion towards Him.

But Jesus' disciples were not fasting. Why not? the Pharisees wondered. Weren't they spiritually inclined? Didn't they mourn for Israel's sins and long for redemption? The implication behind the question is that the disciples are not working hard enough to earn God’s approval. If they really wanted to get on God’s good side, you know they would fast.

Jesus’ answer emphasizes the unique moment in history He represented:

19 Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. 20 But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.”

During the wedding, when the groom is present, no one fasts. A wedding is a time for celebration, not for introspective spiritual endeavors. To fast in the presence of the groom would be an insult to him. It is only after he is gone, and the wedding party is over, that the wedding guests return to their practice of fasting.

The point is that the disciples are in a situation unique to their particular place in history. They have no need of fasting as a spiritual discipline in order to increase communion with God, because God Himself was there with them. As long as Jesus, the bridegroom, was with them, it was an occasion for joy. There would be time for fasting later.

But I think Jesus is making another point. By comparing Himself to the bridegroom, Jesus is taking the spotlight off His followers and putting it on Himself. It is not their adherence to a certain set of religious practices that matter, it’s their relationship with Him.

As Christians, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking it is how well we perform certain religious practices that matters in our relationship with God. Whether it is fasting, or keeping a regular prayer time, or reading our Bibles, or attending church, or volunteering for our favorite mission—we tend to think that when we are doing a good job of those things, then we must have God’s approval; and when we are doing a poor job with those things, then we must have God’s disapproval.

But what Jesus is saying is that what really matters is our relationship with Him. Not that any of those things are bad, mind you, they can all help us in our relationship, but the performance that matters is what Jesus has done for us. I’ll put it like this: I assumed that my performance earned me favor with God…but Jesus is showing me that His performance is the one that matters. It is what Jesus has done for us, not what we do for Him, that earns our way with God.

Fourth: I assumed that rules must always be kept… That is to say, I assume nothing is more important than keeping up appearances.

The final story in our passage for today is actually two stories, but they are about the same thing. In the first, Jesus’ disciples are walking from one village to another on the Sabbath when they pluck a few heads of grain for a snack. What they were doing was a perfectly acceptable practice on any other day of the week. The farmers didn’t mind travelers pulling a head of grain here and there. And it’s not like they were actually harvesting. It hardly qualifies as work.

And yet, according to the strict Pharisaical understanding of what it meant to keep the Sabbath, they were breaking the law. The Sabbath was one of the things that made Israel unique among all the other nations of the area, and so they had built up an extensive list of rules to make sure it was being observed, and the disciples were not following those rules.

In response, Jesus says this:

27 Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”

In other words, the Sabbath is not God. We were not created to keep the Sabbath. Keeping the Sabbath was never intended to be an end in itself. It is given for our good, for our benefit, as a day of rest in which we can renew our communion with God.

The Pharisees are guilty of putting the letter of the law ahead of the principle. Putting rules ahead of people. Their assumption was that the most important things are rules. "Do this..." "Don't do that..." What they missed was that God gives rules because He is concerned about people. People always come first.

This is further emphasized in the next incident Mark records. Another Sabbath, Jesus is at the synagogue, and a man with a deformity in his hand comes in. Clearly, it is a set-up. The religious authorities want to see if Jesus will flout the law by healing on the Sabbath. But Jesus doesn’t care. He has the man stand up front, where everyone can see him, and He again challenges assumptions:

4 Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent.

The implications of the question are obvious. These Pharisees are plotting to hurt Jesus. They are looking for a reason to accuse Him--have Him arrested and killed. Jesus, on the other hand, is about to heal a man with a debilitating handicap. Which, Jesus was asking, was a more appropriate activity for the Sabbath day which was so sacred to them?

It all goes back to the principle behind the Sabbath's existence. The Sabbath was a day given for humanity's benefit, as a day of rest, renewal and restoration. What could be more appropriate on the Sabbath than helping another human being overcome a difficult handicap?

So, back to the assumption: I assumed that rules must always be kept… but Jesus is showing me that people are more important than rules.

It's not that rules or the law were unimportant to Jesus--notice that He never did break the 4th commandment--but compassion and mercy directed towards others were far more important than any blind adherence to some legal code.

All too often we make this error of the Pharisees. We know God's rules--rules which were given for our good--and we stick to them so closely that we forget about helping people. We allow the rules to become ends unto themselves. Whether it is communicating to someone that Sunday is a day for renewing our soul in the worship of God, or helping someone else see that sex is a gift from God which is best reserved for marriage, we must not insist on the rule without also helping people see the principle behind it. After all, the important thing is not the law, but people--and helping them to live in the grace of God.

Jesus is At the Center
And so, finally, I need to ask, which of your assumptions is Jesus challenging this morning? What categories in your way of thinking is He asking you to change? Do you think that if your fondest wish were granted you would be happy, or do you see that your greatest need is Jesus? Is there a certain class of people which He wants you to see--not as sinners but as people who can be forgiven? Are you depending on your own performance to make you right with God, or are you depending on the bridegroom? Do you need to remember that people--and not the rules--are the most important thing?

Like that Special Olympics race in Seattle, things are not always as they seem to our clouded perception. Sometimes there are more important things than our limited assumptions allow us to see. We need to listen to Jesus--and to imitate Him--in order to see His grace at work in the world.