There was a surprising level of anger in our Bible study group the other night.
We were studying Mark 2:13-3:6, and looking at four controversies between Jesus and religious leaders (particularly the Pharisees). We discussed the Pharisees’ religious background: they were very serious about keeping God’s law—so serious, they built up a whole bunch of other laws to protect themselves from going anywhere near breaking God’s law. For example, to protect themselves from breaking commandment #4 (don’t work on Saturday), they had a rule that one mustn’t even look into a mirror on the Sabbath because one might see a grey hair and be tempted to pluck it out, which might be construed as ‘work’. Our group sympathized with them a little: in much the same way that a modern Christian might make a blanket rule not to drink alcohol or visit a pub to protect himself from the possibility of causing offence or temptation to an alcoholic Christian brother, the Pharisees made rules to help them to honour God in all areas of life.
So we could understand why the Pharisees were upset with Jesus. We could see their point, for example, in Mark 2:16, where they saw Jesus pushing the boundaries in the company he kept. Recently in our own city (Wollongong), there has been a corruption scandal, involving (among other things) local government officials having meals with property developers in highly suspicious circumstances. When the Pharisees saw Jesus eating with tax collectors and notorious sinners, they were probably quite suspicious as well. The next two objections from the Pharisees (2:18-28) seem a bit more trivial, but you could still see their point. Of course, we knew the Pharisees were misguided, but they were godly and faithful Israelites, weren’t they?
The Bible study was going really well: it was friendly, we were learning about interesting aspects of ancient Judaism, we were gaining some understanding of the religious thought-world of the Pharisees, and we were also enjoying delicious little chocolate sticks. But then out of nowhere, close to the end of the study, there was anger! It took us by surprise. It didn’t come from me or any of the group members; it came from the most surprising quarter: Jesus himself! Faced with the possibility of healing a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath, Jesus said:
“Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. (Mark 3:4-5)
We had a bit of a think, and then my wife Leonie* (who often puts things well) said, “Maybe it’s like the situation in Burma”. We looked at her. What did she mean? She went on: “Well, in Burma at the moment, there are these officials who are trying to keep control of their country, so they’ve been obstructing international aid coming in to help the millions of cyclone victims. They don’t care how many of their people die, as long as they keep control. In effect, they have been causing the deaths of their own people. Doesn’t that make you angry?”
What was going on? What had we missed? Why was Jesus so angry at the Pharisees? Sure, they were a little misguided, and their rules seemed a little trivial, but they meant well. Weren’t they trying to honour God genuinely by their rules? At least they weren’t paedophiles or corrupt property developers.
We realized, then, that Jesus had a very different take on the Pharisees. The Pharisees may have been well-intentioned in their religious observances —they may have been trying to honour God genuinely—but that didn’t matter: when push came to shove, they were more interested in their religion than in giving life and healing to a man in need. Jesus exposed what was truly in their hearts. In reality, according to Jesus, their religious observances and teachings were harming and even killing their own people, and keeping them from salvation (3:4). Jesus is angry and grieved at them.
What makes you angry?
* In case you’re wondering, Leonie is now known by her middle name, Bronwyn.