I have long been a student of Mark’s Gospel particularly.  And though there are parallels to consider, that passage in Mark 3 where Jesus heals the man with the withered hand in the synagogue on the Sabbath is a particularly potent scene, few I know realize.  On this Orthodox Easter Sunday, as the worldwide press observes the likes of Vladimir Putin celebrating Easter as he slaughters Ukrainian men, women, and children, I want to take the observation just a little deeper.

Am I the only one seeing this?  “The media” wants to juxtapose Putin’s holiday worship with his killing.  “The media” is uncovering this apocalypse!

While all my friends and family are busy loathing “the media,” “the media” are busy juxtaposing worship with killing, and I think that is quite apocalyptic.

Don’t you?

What does Jesus say about it?

This has me thinking of Mark 3 today.  I have led several people through a study of Mark 3, both in Sunday school and out.  In my experience, when we arrive at the terrible question Jesus raises there about whether it is lawful to do good or harm, to save a life or to kill, on the Sabbath, my Christian friends are all too eager to run to the Jewish law.  “What does the Talmud say?”  What is the law on Sabbath keeping?  What did Israel’s elders and teachers, the Rabbis, say about it?

And that is, of course, a good source of information.  We will want to incorporate that.  But it is not actually where the rub is to be had.

Israel’s law, God given at root, would have you do NOTHING on the Sabbath.  To say we will do good is already to encroach on it.  There are lots of good things you can do, but you have six days of the week in which to do them (see Luke 13:14).  But Jesus seems insistent about healing this man and doing so on the Sabbath.

Now… my good Christian friends seeking legal background/case law from the Rabbis on this are quick to note that there are accepted exceptions to the Sabbath law.  If your ox falls in a ditch or if your house caves in – basically, if life or property is in danger – then you have an exception.  You can save a life.  But this withered hand does not qualify for that loophole.

I don’t know about you, but if Jesus wants to be peaceful in this hostile situation, he really can wait until the next day to perform this healing miracle.  The man’s withered hand can wait another day.  But Jesus isn’t interested in waiting.  Instead, he urgently wants to confront the hostile situation with his healing love, and it will get him into hot water.  The end of the pericope tells us that the Herodians and Pharisees (normally political strange bedfellows) unite against him to “destroy” him.

And anyway, who said anything about doing harm?  Who said anything about killing??  Why is Jesus bringing these notions to bear on the confrontation???


This has me running to I Maccabees 2:40-41 (and actually the whole contextual story in which that passage is found).

This is a bit confusing, I think, for Protestants who have no use for the Apocrypha, but keep in mind that even if some of these texts are not worthy of canonization, they nonetheless set the New Testament stage.  Jesus knew these texts, and I believe this one is an important background for Jesus’s confrontation in Mark 3.

The Maccabees (especially Judas (one of the Maccabee brothers)) become legendary warriors among Jews of the intertestamental period.  In fact, Judas, in some respects, is the first in a long list of “messiahs” or maybe messianic wannabes that stretches out over most of a 300-year span of Jewish history.  Jesus Christ, the Messiah Christians claim as the one true Messiah, falls fairly close to the middle of that span which ends about 150 years after Jesus with bar Kochba, who was endorsed by Rabbi Akiba.

Think of it.

Judas was a hero.  He became the boogey man of the empire and basically won Israel independence with lasted more than 100 years.  His work opened up Israel’s messianic hopes during the time of speculation foretold in the prophecies of the Book of Daniel.  Winning independence for his people surely marked him as a contender for God’s special anointed – sort of right in line with King David of old.

We find his story in the opening chapters of the Book of I Maccabees.  And one of the main features there is the stress the people of God put on following God’s law.  Right when the empire comes to desecrate God’s people and law, the true believers would rather die than trespass it – especially things like circumcision, diet, and Sabbath keeping.  In fact, these three laws particularly came to demarcate the true believers from the traitors.

In fact, those who refused to obey the empire and cling to God’s law paid dearly.  If a mother was found having her baby circumcised, they killed the baby and hung it from her neck as she was killed in turn.

Just imagine the temptation to fail God’s law – to fall short of the glory!  You and your baby could live, but if you chose to honor God, then you would die a most tragic death.  For those families that chose death over dishonor, they became the “true believers” – as I call them.  Those who chose dishonor were traitors of their people and their God.

This is the setting for Judas Maccabee, who we find is one of the greatest war heroes of all Israel’s history.  He and his family were among the zealous true believers who stood up against the evil empire, risking it all.  But he also proved to be a valiant strategist who could kill more imperial troops than ever imagined.  The empire actually became scared of him!

But there was something of an Achilles heel in his strategy.  In fact, it came to light in the passage I cited above.  The empire came after the Jews on a Sabbath day, and these same zealots who could whip your ass on Friday or Sunday would not lift a finger to save their own lives on Saturday because they were zealous for God’s law.  So, after the first Sabbath battle, when so many great heroes were lost so easily, Judas and his army reassessed, and they decided it was necessary to kill on the Sabbath.

Now… all of this happened roughly 150 years before the Jesus you and I follow came into that synagogue confronting Pharisees.  It’s also a bit confusing because the hero’s name is Judas, and we are familiar with another Judas (Judas Iscariot) who was a traitor to Jesus and not a hero at all.  So, it is important that you sort those things out if you are going to follow my drift here.

Thus, I ask you to consider, for a moment, the American Civil War of the 1860s.  All across the South, for 150 years since that war, good southerners are apt to name their sons after General Lee.  How many boys do you know with Lee for a middle name to this day?  IF you can fathom that, you can see how Judas Iscariot got his name too.

But that leaves us with one more wrinkle to iron out.  Jesus is asking these confrontational questions about “do harm” or “kill” seemingly out of the blue.  But that is not actually the case.  As I stated before, Jesus, and basically all of his contemporaries, were very familiar with I Maccabees.  And this deep irony posed there about whether it is lawful to kill on the Sabbath.

These true believers had been willing to die for God’s law suddenly became willing to break the law in order to kill so that they could then obey it.  That is a concept that does not actually compute EXCEPT for the fact that Judas and his brothers won the war and won independence from the empire!  God seemed to have blessed this exception to the law!  But it still is a matter of ongoing debate down through time.

Think of such an ongoing debate in our culture today.  If I say the words “Roe v. Wade” to you, I instantly tap into an ongoing debate that you already have an opinion about.  I might argue the point with you in the comments on this blog.  Then if a thousand years from now, digital archaeologists uncover our debate, they will have to piece together the background of it, whereas you instantly know what I am talking about.

When Jesus asks, “Is it right to kill on the Sabbath?”, he is tapping into an ongoing debate which you and I must contextualize.  I think I Maccabees does that.

So, here we have Jesus in a synagogue for weekly worship, healing a man in an unlawful manner, upsetting Pharisees who are zealous for the law, but those same men are from that camp who would endorse a messiah who would break the law to kill on the Sabbath!  And in fact, at the end of the pericope, they go out, still on a Sabbath, and plot Jesus’s destruction!  That is how they wind up spending their Sabbath!  Jesus, on the other hand choses to break a Sabbath law (much like he did at the end of chapter 2 in Mark, btw), only he is doing good!  This choice puts this Messiah in company with those who died for God’s law – including those mothers who died with their dead babies hung from their necks!

Jesus is juxtaposing hearts in worship!

That is essentially what “the media” is doing today with Vladimir Putin!

And I want to join “the media” in this one.  I also want you to search your heart on this Sunday (for most of us the Sunday AFTER Easter) and decide how you want to approach Russia and WWIII.  In fact, how do you approach Democrats for that matter?  Are you doing good or harm?  Do you want to save a life or kill?

Jesus is confronting us today!

If it wasn’t Jesus’s way even after what he knows about Judas Maccabee, then we now know where we stand too.

Are you joining with Herodians and Pharisees to destroy Jesus too?

Think about it.  (Carefully.)

One comment

  1. laceduplutheran · April 25

    I utilized Judas Maccabees in my Palm Sunday Sermon. Maccabees means “the Hammer”. Jesus came into Jerusalem not to drop the hammer, but to have the hammer dropped on him. 1 Maccabees 2 records Judas’ father on his deathbed saying “Pay back the Gentiles for what they have done” referencing the desecration of the Temple by Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Jesus in contrast offers forgiveness and grace, and love of enemies, not killing and destruction in a temple, like the Maccabees sought to do. So many contrasts. Still a contrast that is present today sadly. Oh how little humanity has learned in the last 2000 years.


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