Mark 3:6

Immediately on leaving the synagogue, the Pharisees and the Herodians united in laying a plot against Jesus, to put him to death.

playing nice is over
institutions will play along
at the banter level
a nod and a wink is good enough
until it is obvious the game can be gamed
with angry resistance
no longer pretending
everything will be alright
with so many not right now
now it is but a matter of time
until an ultimate schism
is enforced through death
no matter the cultural manner
authority eventually chooses death

We are about 11% of the way through Mark’s verses and the political realities of life come crashing in—Jesus is unmistakedly marked for death. The wildness of wilderness is stalking.

There is nothing new in this being a reality that cycles through our political life and the reign of Empire. Still, how is it that healing brings out the worst in us?

Whatever response can be made to this question, there is no question that a common enemy leads to strange alliances between groups that in ordinary times would have no association with one another. The antagonists mentioned ordinarily vie against one another for control of the community ethos.

While it doesn’t come through in a number of English translations, we are again with our old friend “immediately” (εὐθύς euthys). Jesus flits hither-and-yon, followers quickly come, healings seem instantaneous, and now a growing opposition to Jesus disordering the status quo is finally organized on a moment’s notice.

“What got him was nothing….” begins an e.e. cummings poem reflective of Ecclesiastes’ mantra of “vanity”. When truth is being told, its opposite is not a lie, but nothing. This is a major part of wilderness, the great “Nothing” in The Neverending Story by Michael Ende.

For decades wilderness has been growing in the USofA through the process identified by Stephen Colbert as “truthiness”. “Facts” are abandoned when faced with what we “Feel” should be the case. Data is erased by creed and doctrine. Civics classes are dismissed. Learning is to the test. Critical thinking is labeled elitist. In such an atmosphere traditionalists, accommodationists, bullies, supremacists, Fascists, and more conspire to settle into a pact that identifies and destroys anything and anyone contrary to their preferred order.

Mark 3:5

As they remained silent, Jesus looked around at them in anger, grieving at the hardness of their hearts, and said to the man,  “Stretch out your hand.” The man stretched it out; and his hand had become sound.

without a prayer
or a smile
a healing needed

without a reason
or hope
a needed healing

without mustard faith
only anger
healing’s need

without a friend
or ally
need’s healing

Friend and foe alike have been waiting for Jesus to bring the action forward. So far we simply have a question being raised to which there is no good response: is the Sabbath a most propitious time to taste restoration and extend it?

Into the scene as set, Jesus finally begins a slow burn. Glancing back and forth and through those gathered, their willingness to stand by, as if impotent, brought his sense of a loss of good news to a boiling point.

Any attempt, even Mark’s, to put this into words is doomed to failure. Anger is a wide-ranging word. We don’t easily associate it with a Jesus-meek-and-mild. Partly this is because we know we are not up to following a path of good news with the threat of military annihilation or community exile staring us in the face. Just how angry we are willing for Jesus to be is a marker of our trust in being a beloved among beloveds when there remains a stubborn dullness deep within us.

The word behind “anger” is ὀργή (orgē) which in other settings is used as descriptive of the “wrath” of G*D. In Luke, this is part of John’s angry calling out of those come to be baptized as “snakes” in need of a change deeper than a shedding of skin.

Unmitigated anger is wildness—let lose it would melt everyone’s face as in Raider’s of the Lost Ark. It may only be through a repeated experience of personal wilderness in the midst of social wilderness that this sort of wildness can be focused.

Whatever the process, the fury of being set up and “obdurate stupidity” (C.S. Mann) on the part of those watching and judging a man’s weakness, an instruction comes to simply hold out the withered hand. Without further ado, faith language, forgiveness, or any other reason given, a hand is healed. The end?

Mark 3:4

and to the people he said,  “Is it allowable to do good at the Sabbath – or harm? To save a life, or destroy it?”

don’t you just hate it
when your own petard
jumps out from behind
your own best laid plain

just when it appeared
our blame mechanism
was about to kick in
we were called to account

everyone knows rules
can be bent and parsed
until they’re barely recognizable
but that’s our back-room game

taking advantage of self-censorship
is not so easy out in the open
our self-contradictions leave us
unable to contradict behavioral details

Constructing a legal structure to deal with the big dualities of morality (do right; do wrong) or community relations (do good; do harm) is always problematic as Law as Law is always several cases behind. The combinations and permutations of life continually throw new challenges to static thinking. Interpretation and application are critical for ethical decisions.

The theme of wilderness exemplifies the difficulties. Here practicalities take precedence over precedents and protocols established through the years. There is no time to lose if we are to survive the latest outbreak of famine or other dis-ease. In wilderness settings law is made up as it goes.

Given an occupation by Empire, Law is the easiest way to placate the powers that be—both extending their power and putting off a show-down testing that power. Both overseer and subjugated have a stake in law-keeping.

Jesus’ question carries echoes of the Great Question of Deuteronomy 30:15-18: Having life and death set before you, which will you choose? This question is originally followed by an urging to choose that which brings life. What will bring life back to a hand, to all of Israel? This relationship between the individual and community is a more dynamic question than what is currently on the books and how closely it can be hewn to.

This is a question that must be responded to in every generation and context. It is still a question within and between religious communities of every faith.


Mark 3:3

“Stand out in the middle,” Jesus said to the man with the withered hand;

silence is death
visibility is healing

between secrets and flaunting
relationships grow

I see you there
even when you don’t

your belovedness shines
before you see it

reflected and refracted
in other smiles

come stand alongside me
we’re better together

in such a small invitation
a new world begins

In a time of insistence that the Messiah will only come if Israel keeps true to the Sabbath and other honorings of G*D, Jesus breaks open a conversation about the purpose of Sabbath by bringing a fraught situation to a head. A helpful way for a tense situation to be resolved is for the elephant in the room to be acknowledged. Jesus’ insider/outsider location can help begin a larger conversation. If he doesn’t act, he’s over. If he does act, he will be charged with provoking or picking a fight.

“Come here, where you can be seen.” These are simple enough words but they turn the scene from a script to a play.

Whether dealing with the wilderness of having lost one’s identity or use of one’s whole body or just one part of it, it doesn’t make a great deal of difference if a healing seems to come out of the blue or whether it is intentionally set up. In the face of the trauma of having lost one’s community as well as one’s place within it a healing can be fantasized as being a good thing, but it can also be an equivalent to the current curse of trying to reestablish life after conviction for a felony. You may be quite able to work only to find a little box on an application form that will likely put you out of the running even before you have an interview or can demonstrate your ability.

We don’t know anything about this person with a non-usable hand. Was he purposely invited to be present or was it sheer happenstance? What will we find out about him during a healing? What do we hear about his experience after the fact? Nothing. There is nothing here but an example to be used by Jesus. Being a specimen carries its own place of being-of-no-account. Healed or not, wilderness identity abides.

Mark 3:2

And they watched Jesus closely, to see if he would cure the man on the Sabbath, so that they might have a charge to bring against him.

we know our enemies
better than ourselves
no not better better
but predictable better
they are consistent
in their mean ways
while we always have
a virtuous reason
for changing for the better
we see them approach
and can see it in their eye
disruption dismay disorder
they can’t help themselves
so we wait and watch
with a constancy
all our own
giving no option
and no quarter

As suspected, it is not just Jesus and a man with a withered “hand”. This is our own story as well. We are not alone. That done in secret will be revealed. Opponents will gladly give us enough rope to hang ourself.

In this public setting, the “they” who are paying attention cannot be limited to opponents. Even supporters will have a reason to be interested in what is going to happen and how it will play out.

One of the things that keeps everyone intrigued is that it is difficult to keep up with Jesus. His itinerary and agenda behind that still appear rather arbitrary, unscripted, and chaotic. His is not a straight-line, connect-the-dots, approach.

The Pharisees have a home-field advantage in the synagogue. After all, their interpretation of Mosaic Law does fulfill a significant community function—refereeing religious boundaries. Jesus has already been warned (2:24) to watch what he does on the Sabbath because humans do not have authority or ability to change Sabbath rules intended even for G*D. Will the warning have Jesus step-down or will it trigger him to stretch the meaning of Sabbath one more time? Will a game between Jesus and the Pharisees come to an end with a Pharisee victory? Will there be a walk-off home run by Jesus?

Word will likely soon be travelling through the community that there is about to be a fight. Even those not initially present will sense that something is up and come running to see the car-wreck, the show-down. Since the last military action by Romans or resistance by the Zealots, this has got to be what will be talked about in the market for days or weeks. To be able to chime in about what you saw and heard will be important for a claim to fame.

The plot thickens, breath is held, lines prepared—Action!

Mark 3:1

On another occasion Jesus went in to a synagogue, where there was a man whose hand was withered.

holy places fill with hopeless cases
they hold in carefully constructed niches
reasons to disbelieve hope’s percentages

there are times when no choice
comes to a choice between
some version of holy and suicide

should we decide to continue
all our withered hopes and dreams
contract to the limits of holiness

in the dark we freeze from rebelling
accept our wilderness lot
active waiting settles into memory

withered hand and heart
disrupted dreams and desire
tamed by candle and chant

“Again” Jesus comes to a synagogue. Mark’s writing style wants us to pile more one synagogue and Sabbath experience on top of previous times. This helps prepare us for a next visit.

Even though being in a synagogue on a Sabbath is expected behavior, it appears that Jesus is intentionally participating in religio-political theatre as we run through a familiar pattern of challenge and response. His choice of location to initiate a confrontation with a variety of traditions is telling.

A withered hand is likely to be connected to a withered wrist. By extension the whole arm could be withered or a whole life. Our tendency to take one physical flaw and blow it out of proportion is legendary. Simply listen to a teen have their life destroyed by a pimple.

A further connection is with Israel which has withered under the onslaught of Empire (Rome) or any land under physical or economic occupation by any external or internal Empire down to the present. If we consider the Temple in Jerusalem as a hand that has withered and can no longer be raised in prayer of praise or supplication, these healings do have a political component and not just a personal one.

There are community consequences for only having one hand, only being half there. Culturally there is a private hand and public hand and when both functions have to be done by only one hand, suspicions arise that make everyone uncomfortable.

In two short lines a scene is set and we begin to anticipate its unfolding. At the same time, Mark’s style of jumping and returning does keep us engaged. How will it resolve this time?

Mark 2:28

so the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”

Sabbath designation takes place
in real time and space

flies on a body measure death
in real life and breath

Lords of each regularly come and go
riding high and ending low

Sabbaths and flies can be honored
on their own terms not on order

The traditional translation here is “Son of Man” rather than “Human One”. It is that “One” added to “Human” that makes it difficult to deal with this many years after the writing.

We can stick with the Human language with humans having mastery or decision-making power regarding sabbath and its implementation.

We can move toward Son of Man and Human One as variants on apocalyptic imagery of Daniel and Revelation with a much larger-than-life reference.

We can also see this term as a third-person reference to Jesus that separates him from regular humans as the Human human.

People with differing theological perspectives and ecclesial traditions will find this more divisive than unifying. An argument can quickly break out about High and Low Christology.

Here we acknowledge that the community following Jesus took liberties with their engagement of Hebraic language and traditions and interpreted Jesus messianically and apocalyptically.

Our preference is to use the translation from The Five Gospels:

The sabbath day was created for Adam and Eve,

not Adam and Eve for the sabbath day.

So, the son of Adam lords it even over the sabbath day.

While this better connects with the creation story it probably is a radical jump that Mark would balk at. Our excuse for Mark’s usage is that this is just a too-memorable couplet for an author to lose. Let’s chalk it up to a remembrance by Peter, once again speaking hyperbolically before considering the nuance.

Because you are reading slowly, aloud, this is an opportunity for Mark’s reader to respond by coming to a tentative resolution of their relationship with all that goes into an Israelite Sabbath and their willingness to hold tradition or an agreed upon discipline loosely.

Mark 2:27

Then Jesus added,  “The Sabbath was made for people, and not people for the Sabbath;

sabbath is a sharing
a partnership
a time pause
an evaluation

sabbath stands outside
ready to receive
a perspective
a result

sabbath is found
by G*D for G*D
by us for us
by me for me

sabbath was not created
for purpose
for exploitation
for anything

sabbath is present
every seventh second
seventh decade
seventh era

Around we go. This is a good place to remind ourselves of the mystery of speaking multiple languages. A Translator’s Handbook on the Gospel of Mark by Robert G. Bratcher and Eugene A. Nida reports:

Such aphoristic expressions as occur in this verse are almost always difficult to translate because of (1) their shortness (much is left implicit), (2) the double meanings of words involved (it is one thing to speak of man being ‘made’, but for ‘a sabbath to be made’ is often quite a different matter), and (3) the somewhat tenuous relationship to the context. In this instance the context assists materially in the understanding of the passage, but this is not always true, and even in this instance what is evident to the translator may not be equally clear to the reader.

The Handbook was copyrighted in the United Kingdom in 1961. Translation relies upon time as well as conventions. Here the spelling is “sabbath” which today’s spell-checkers automatically change to “Sabbath”. Such a small question of jots-and-tittles brings a different feel to the relationship of “Sabbath” and “humans”. In some ways it would be much easier to read if the capitalization were “sabbath” and “Humans”.

Now we are beginning to step into the whole divine human (θεῖος ἀνήρ – theios aner) or G*D Partner or theosis drive which doesn’t fit particularly well with Mark but was alive and well in his era and has advocates in this time.

Given all the connections to this point about healing, exorcism, and teaching that occur on an important religious day—Sabbath—this question of Human/sabbath relationship is one that does call out for clarification.

Mark 2:26

how he went into the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the consecrated bread, which only the priests are allowed to eat, and gave some to his comrades as well?”

taken for me
taken for you

two distinct rationales
needing parsing and clarity
within a manipulative wilderness

left to their own devices
it won’t be long before you
is only a longer spelling of me
you taken me taker

hopefully hungering temptations
will be revealed
as variants on a theme

we are together in this
eucharistic partners

The Jewish Annotated New Testament, edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, reflects on this verse:

This typical controversy story involves a legal challenge, presented as petty and mean-spirited, and a pithy rejoinder that transcends the legal challenge to address the underlying human need. Before that response, however, the text includes a scriptural and legal argument: if David could supersede law to meet human needs, so could Jesus and his disciples. However Mark does not accurately follow the biblical text, 1 Sam 21.1–6, making the question—have you never read?—perhaps accidentally ironic. David acts alone in 1 Samuel, does not act from hunger, and does not enter the house of God to eat the bread of Presence. Further the priest is Ahimelech, not Abiathar. Pharisees would also not likely be out in the fields on the Sabbath to observe behavior, so the story, like other conflict stories in the Gospels, is likely created to define the identities of Jesus’ followers and their opponents.

Here is our opportunity to reflect on how easy it is to shave just a little bit off a story to further advance our over-investment in a particular perspective. It is small steps as these small slights to a common history that eventually lead to gaps too large to step back over.

A part of the wrestling here is with the limits of irony and sarcasm. An appeal to the ironic is a relatively common way of avoiding an apology or saying, “I’m sorry”. Is all, including sarcasm, fair in a game of religious differences? Is this really a zero-sum game that calls for a deep fundamentalism at the heart of every religious tradition?

Honor consensual reality before taking advantage of it.

Mark 2:25

“Have you never read,” answered Jesus,  “what David did when he was in need and hungry, he and his companions –

too often caught
yesterday’s gift forgotten
today danger looms
blockading perspective
it’s my responsibility

remembers to share
intersecting pathways
depths and movements
possibilities available now
caught and applied

“Said” is too neutral a word in this scene, Consider something closer to “retorted” or “responded in kind”.

If Jesus has not recently been on retreat it would be understandable that he is using arrogant rhetoric intended to end an argument before it can be lost. It would be expected that any Pharisee worth their salt would know all the stories about David. The reader might also be expected to know any David reference.

From this it is not unreasonable to see a glint in Jesus’ eye as he readies his return trap.

This anticipatory sparkle continues a long history of a question/counter-question form of argumentation among the Rabbis. Such back-and-forth questions as these offer a possibility to put us on track to reason together. Unfortunately, this same process can also be condescending rather than honest and deepen divides.

It will be important to be scrupulous in picking and choosing what, out of a common pot, is going to be focused upon. When we are coming from different perspectives but want to claim ourselves as the primary interpreter of history, we are but a step away from revisionism in its most difficult sense. So it is that differing Orders were formed within Roman Catholicism; a multitude of Lutheran Reformations reformed away from one another; United Methodists are using differing strands of their Wesleyan heritage to find yet another way to split apart. Without agreement on various pictures of an elephant by blind-men, we dissect the soul out of life. Simply naming David, like naming Jesus, does not give any assurance that we are talking about the same David or Jesus or Torah or Muḥammad or ….