In the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel we see that Jesus of Nazareth has quickly become quite popular. News about him, his authoritative teaching, and his miraculous powers has spread to the point where it becomes difficult for him to openly enter a town (1:45).
Here in chapter two, Mark relates four different episodes that show us that Jesus was not just popular but also rather controversial. His actions are surprising and repeatedly questioned by both the common people and by the religious establishment. Note:
- “Why does this man speak like that?” (v. 7)
- “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (v. 16)
- “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” (v. 18)
- “Why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” (v. 24)
Jesus’ answers to these questions reveal much about his identity. For he shows that (1) he has the ability to forgive sins, (2) his mission is to associate with sinners, (3) his message necessarily alters religious expectations, and (4) he even claims authority over the Old Testament law. These are scandalous revelations of Jesus.
JESUS’ ABILITY TO FORGIVE SINS
In our first story we find Jesus back in Capernaum and at home, probably a reference to Peter’s home mentioned in Mark 1:29. The entire city had watched as he healed many diseased people (1:32-34), so we are not surprised to read that when word got out that Jesus had returned a large crowd had gathered at the door. But this time Jesus is not performing miracles. He is “preaching the word” to the people. It was his message that was most important; the miracles only supported the message he preached.
The sizeable audience has created a big problem for one man, a paralytic who desperately wanted to get near to Jesus. Believing that Jesus was able to heal him, four men carried him to the roof of the house, made an opening in the roof and lowered the man down before Jesus’ feet.
Sin and Sickness
Jesus, having observed the faith of these desperate men, makes this surprising statement. “Son, your sins are forgiven.” His statement is surprising for at least two reasons. First, the man is obviously not asking for forgiveness of sins but for healing of his disease. So why does Jesus say this to him?
The most obvious answer is because Jesus knows that this man’s physical problems are a result of his spiritual problems. There is a direct relationship between this man’s sins and his sickness. Now the Bible makes it clear that this is not always the case in sickness (note the teaching of the book of Job as well as John 9:2-3), but it also affirms that it certainly may be (e.g. Num 12:9-15; 1 Cor 11:30). Since this is the only time we read of Jesus prefacing a healing with a declaration of forgiveness, we may assume that in the case of this paralytic, his sickness was caused by his sin.
What was true for this man specifically is true for all of us generally. Our illnesses point to a deeper reality of a fallen world and to the truth that we can do nothing to save ourselves. It was this man’s faith that led to his healing—not his faith itself but rather his faith in Jesus. He came desperately to the only one he believed could save him, and in this he shows us the way to salvation of both body and soul
The Charge of Blasphemy
The second reason why Jesus’ declaration of forgiveness is surprising is the simple fact that in the Bible, God is the only one who ever forgives sins.
I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake,
and I will not remember your sins. (Isa 43:25)
So when Jesus declares the paralytic to be pardoned from his sins he is assuming a prerogative that only God possesses. The scribes accuse him of blasphemy.
Blasphemy was a serious charge in Judaism. It carried with it a capital offence (Lev 24:10-16) and it would in fact be the basis on which Jesus would later be condemned (Mark 14:64). Blasphemy is robbing God of his power and majesty, either by claiming to do what only he can do or by denying him the right to do what only he should. It is essentially declaring one’s self to be God (John 10:33).
Now there would be two ways for Jesus to clear himself of the charge of blasphemy. He could argue that God is not the only one who has the right to forgive sins. But he doesn’t take that approach. The reason is obvious. In any offence, who is the one who has the right to forgive? None other than the offended party. And since in every sin God is the party most offended (Psa 51:4) it would be impossible for anyone else to share that right. [When we announce pardon in our worship service it is always in reference to God’s declaration, not our own.]
So Jesus proves he is not blaspheming by proving that he has the authority to forgive this man’s sins. “Which is easier,” he challenges the scribes, “to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’?” (v. 9). Both are quite difficult from our perspective. But it is far easier to declare one forgiven because it would be difficult, if not impossible, to prove that the man had indeed been forgiven. So if Jesus can do the “harder” task of healing the man, then he can do the “easier” task of forgiving the man’s sins. With a simple word, he heals the man (vv. 11-12).
And Jesus proves that he has the ability in himself to do what only God can do. He who heals physical diseases and commands evil spirits is also the Savior of sin-sick souls.
JESUS’ ASSOCIATION WITH SINNERS
In our next episode (vv. 13-17) we find Jesus teaching again along the Sea of Galilee. There he encounters a man named Levi who was “sitting at the tax booth.” Most likely Levi was a customs agent, whose job was to charge import duties on goods brought through town on the nearby trade routes. It was a prosperous job but not one respected by the Jewish community since tax gatherers were regarded as collaborators with the Romans.
Tax Collectors and Sinners
So when Jesus calls Levi to follow him in similar fashion to how he called his first disciples, and then when Jesus goes to Levi’s home to share a meal with him and other “tax collectors and sinners,” the scribes of the Pharisees are shocked. They wonder how a religious leader could eat with tax collectors and other “sinners.”
Eating with someone, in those days as well as in our own, signifies intimate fellowship and acceptance. Observant Jews would never do this with “unclean” sinners (Acts 11:3). They believed that such close association would pollute their own righteous standing before God. Sinners needed to repent and become ritually pure before table fellowship was permitted. But Jesus deliberately associated with them without requiring moral repentance as a prerequisite for his love and acceptance. This was scandalous!
Fellowship with Jesus
When asked why he eats with tax collectors and sinners Jesus might have responded, “with whom do you say I ought to eat?” Their answer could well have been, “not with sinners, but with the righteous.” But Jesus explained his decision to eat with this motley crew in verse 17.
Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.
As strange as it would be for a physician to refuse to be around sick people, it would be just as odd to find the Savior refusing to minister to sinners. This was of course his mission, and the implications for Jesus’ followers are obvious since our mission is the same as his was. We, too, should be those who are known as “a friend of sinners” (Matt 11:19).
But we don’t associate with sinners first for the sake of mission. We associate with sinners first for the sake of our own need. For until we see ourselves as sinners we will not see our need for Jesus. This was the problem the scribes and Pharisees had. They considered themselves to be the righteous ones, but it was precisely their perception of being righteous that prevented them from being in fellowship with Jesus. The irony of righteousness is that if you try to attain it you will fail and the only way to attain it is to give up trying to achieve it on your own.
What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. (Rom 9:30-31).
The good news of the gospel is that it is Jesus’ love and acceptance of you that enables you to repent, to give up trying to be righteous by your own efforts. John Stott summarizes this point by noting that “God does not love us because Christ died for us; Christ died for us because God loved us.” God cannot love you any more than he already does, so he invites you to fellowship with him. Only when you realize how badly you need this gracious love will you find yourself in fellowship with this “friend of sinners.”
JESUS’ ALTERRING OF RELIGIOUS EXPECTATIONS
In our third story (vv. 18-22), Jesus is questioned when it is observed that his disciples, unlike those of the Pharisees and John the Baptist, were not fasting. The Law required fasting only on the Day of Atonement, but religious Jews added other days of fasting. Jesus responds with three short parables.
The Wedding Feast
First he turned the question around with the analogy of a wedding feast. A wedding celebration typically lasted seven days. Food and wine abounded and it would be an insult to the bride and groom for the wedding guests to do fast during this time. Jesus explained that as long as the bridegroom was present, fasting was inconceivable, but the days would come when the bridegroom would be taken away from the wedding guests and days of fasting would resume. Jesus is clearly referring to himself as the bridegroom, a part depicted by God in the Old Testament (Isa 5:1; Hos 2:19).
The Unshrunk Cloth
Next Jesus points out that “no one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made” (v. 21). In other words, new, unshrunk material is incompatible with old, worn-out garments.
The Old and Fresh Wineskins
Similarly, if one put new, unfermented wine into old wineskins that had already been stretched to capacity by previous fermenting wine, then when the new wine began to ferment the skins would continue to expand and would eventually burst, ruining the aging wine.
A New Paradigm
These three parables, told in defense of ignoring established religious expectations, combine to teach us that in Jesus we have a new religious paradigm. He and his message are not something that can be added to existing structures; rather, everything else must be adjusted to fit him. Making room for Jesus will take no less commitment than forsaking all routine business for the celebration of the wedding feast. And if we try to combine this new, radical message of Jesus with our old religious ways, the results will be disastrous.
JESUS’ AUTHORITY OVER THE LAW
If Jesus is bold in altering religious expectations, he becomes even more scandalous in this final episode (vv. 23-28). For now it is not just tradition he breaks but Old Testament law. As he and his disciples pass along a field of grain, the disciples began to pluck heads of grain and eat. But it was the Sabbath day, and the Fourth Commandment commanded the Jews to abstain from every kind of labor. The Jewish historian Philo wrote that this command included
every species of plant and tree; for there is no shoot, and no branch, and no leaf even which it is allowed to cut or to pluck on that day, nor any fruit which it is lawful to gather; but everything is at liberty and in safety on that day, and enjoys, as it were, perfect freedom, no one ever touching them, in obedience to a universal proclamation. (Life of Moses 2.22).
The Pharisees note the offence: “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” (v. 24).
For his defense Jesus appeals first to biblical precedent. In 1 Samuel 21 we read of King David who, while in need of food, was allowed to eat the holy bread from the Tabernacle. Jesus draws this conclusion in verse 27, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” He explains that the Law was not meant to burden humanity with unnecessary obligations but rather to aid and sustain and even enhance life.
The Pharisees would not have had a fundamental disagreement with this point, but it was what Jesus said in verse 28 that was quite scandalous. Jesus concludes, “So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” This is the second time we have seen the title used in this chapter (see v. 10) and we won’t see it again until the second half of the book where it will show up nine more times. Every time we read Jesus using this title it includes the definite article, “the Son of Man,” and one cannot help but recall the son of man referenced in Daniel 7:13-14.
I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.
Here again we find Jesus claiming divine authority. As the Son of Man he has the authority of God to preside over the Sabbath laws. He does not despise God’s law but he demonstrates that God’s law finds its fulfillment only in relation to Jesus, who is its Lord.
Conclusion: The Scandalous Jesus
The scandal of Jesus in these four stories, then, is the scandal of him putting himself in God’s place. If he has no right to be there, it is indeed blasphemy (v. 7). But if Jesus has this kind of authority then the only way to know God is to know this Jesus. Jesus shows us that fellowship with him is only possible when we turn from our self-righteousness and look to him as our only hope for ultimate healing. He shows us that everything we believe about God must be filtered through him, both our religious traditions and even our biblical interpretations. Jesus is the watershed of all religious perspectives; how we treat Jesus and his commands will be the basis for how God will treat us.
 Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, electronic edition (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), comment on Mark 2:14.
 John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ, 20th Anniversary ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2006), 172.
 James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002), 97.