Inward out- Tuesday, second week in ordinary time- Mark 2: 23-28

Inward out- Tuesday, second week in ordinary time- Mark 2: 23-28

The setting of the fourth controversy story, in a set of five, deals with the Holy Day of the Sabbath. For the Jews, the Sabbath was a big deal.  Judaism was set apart by two characteristic things, the Sabbath and circumcision. These were outward signs of what should have brought inward grace. Unfortunately for the Jews these continued to be external traditions.

The Sabbath law was very complicated for it even determined how many steps one could take. To complicate this even more the Jews began a collection of oral traditions which they attached to the scriptures. These they recorded in a book called the Mishnah which had no less than 12 tractates, 39 different prohibitions; things you could not do on the Sabbath. Among the many such prohibitions, four are connected with today’s Gospel; you could not reap, thresh, winnow or prepare a meal. However, according to the law, it was okay to pluck heads of grain by hand (Deuteronomy 23:25). Read also the ‘law of gleaning’ in the book of Ruth.

Interestingly the Pharisees criticized the disciples of Jesus and not Him directly. Besides eating grain in the gratified they should have picked on Him for breaking other laws of the Sabbath like exceeding the distance covered on the Sabbath (which incidentally the Pharisees broke too as they were shadowing Jesus). However, they chose rather to limit themselves to the actions of His disciples which they construed as working on the Sabbath.

 Jesus’ response begins with the classic lines, “Have you never read?”. Nine times, throughout the New Testament, Jesus said this to His opponents. It is they who should have known their scriptures yet they had become slaves to traditions rather than the scriptures themselves.  His response however is from an Old Testament analogy from 1 Samuel 21:1-6 and here in we find ourselves with certain textual problems.

According to 1 Samuel 21 the high priest was Ahimelech who was the father of Abiathar. This is a mistake that Mark makes in his Gospel.  Like Luke in his Gospel, Mark gets some historical data confused. However In Leviticus24: 5-9 we read how twelve cakes were set out in two rows before God in the tent and later consumed by the priests. In 1 Samuel 21: 1-6, the priest gave the sacred bread to David because there was no other bread there. David did not take it by force or even on his own initiative.

The point of the narrative is not so much in the details but in the message. Jesus is asserting divinity over human traditions linked to the Sabbath.  In stating that the Sabbath was made for humans, Jesus in effect subordinates the Sabbath observance to human needs. Note that the Sabbath is not subordinated but its human traditions around it are. Jesus’ focus is on the inner joy of the Sabbath not the outward traditions and observances.

We make it about the outward and not the inward

Fr Warner D’Souza

References from the JBC

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