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Bible Commentaries

Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture
Mark 2

 

 

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Verses 1-12

Mark

CHRIST’S AUTHORITY TO FORGIVE

Mark 2:1 - Mark 2:12.

Mark alone gives Capernaum as the scene of this miracle. The excitement which had induced our Lord to leave that place had been allowed ‘some days’ to quiet down, ‘after’ which He ventures to return, but does not seem to have sought publicity, but to have remained in ‘the house’-probably Peter’s. There would be at least one woman’s heart there, which would love to lavish grateful service on Him. But ‘He could not be hid,’ and, however little genuine or deep the eagerness might be, He will not refuse to meet it. Mark paints vividly the crowd flocking to the humble home, overflowing its modest capacity, blocking the doorway, and clustering round it outside as far as they could hear Christ’s voice. ‘He was speaking the word to them,’ proclaiming His mission, as He had done in their synagogue, when He was interrupted by the events which follow, no doubt to the gratification of some of His hearers, who wanted something more exciting than ‘teaching.’

I. We note the eager group of interrupters.

Mark gives one of the minute touches which betray an eye-witness and a close observer when he tells us that the palsied man was carried by four friends-no doubt one at each corner of the bed, which would be some light framework, or even a mere quilt or mattress. The incident is told from the point of view of one sitting beside Jesus; they ‘come to Him,’ but ‘cannot come near.’ The accurate specification of the process of removing the roof, which Matthew omits altogether, and Luke tells much more vaguely, seems also to point to an eye-witness as the source of the narrative, who would, of course, be Peter, who well remembered all the steps of the unceremonious treatment of his property. His house was, probably, one of no great pretensions or size, but like hundreds of poor men’s houses in Palestine still-a one-storied building with a low, flat roof, mostly earthen, and easily reached from the ground by an outside stair. It would be somewhat difficult to get a sick man and his bed up there, however low, and somewhat free-and-easy dealing with another man’s house to burrow through the roof a hole wide enough for the purpose; but there is no impossibility, and the difficulty is part of the lesson of the incident, and is recognised expressly in the narrative by Christ’s notice of their ‘faith.’ We can fancy the blank looks of the four bearers, and the disappointment on the sick man’s thin face and weary eyes, as they got to the edge of the crowd, and saw that there was no hope of forcing a passage. Had they been less certain of a cure, and less eager, they would have shouldered their burden and carried him home again. They could well have pleaded sufficient reason for giving up the attempt. But ‘we cannot’ is the coward’s word. ‘We must’ is the earnest man’s. If we have any real consciousness of our need to get to Christ, and any real wish to do so, it is not a crowd round the door that will keep us back. Difficulties test, and therefore increase, faith. They develop a sanctified ingenuity in getting over them, and bring a rich harvest of satisfaction when at last conquered. These four eager faces looked down through the broken roof, when they had succeeded in dropping the bed right at Christ’s feet, with a far keener pleasure than if they had just carried him in by the door. No doubt their act was inconvenient; for, however light the roofing, some rubbish must have come down on the heads of some of the notabilities below. And, no doubt, it was interfering with property as well as with propriety. But here was a sick man, and there was his Healer; and it was their business to get the two together somehow. It was worth risking a good deal to accomplish. The rabbis sitting there might frown at rude intrusiveness; Peter might object to the damage to his roof; some of the listeners might dislike the interruption to His teaching; but Jesus read the action of the bearers and the consent of the motionless figure on the couch as the indication of ‘their faith,’ and His love and power responded to its call.

II. Note the unexpected gift with which Christ answers this faith.

Neither the bearers nor the paralytic speak a word throughout the whole incident. Their act and his condition spoke loudly enough. Obviously, all five must have had, at all events, so much ‘faith’ as went to the conviction that He could and would heal; and this faith is the occasion of Christ’s gift. The bearers had it, as is shown by their work. It was a visible faith, manifest by conduct. He can see the hidden heart; but here He looks upon conduct, and thence infers disposition. Faith, if worth anything, comes to the surface in act. Was it the faith of the bearers, or of the sick man, which Christ rewarded? Both. As Abraham’s intercession delivered Lot, as Paul in the shipwreck was the occasion of safety to all the crew, so one man’s faith may bring blessings on another. But if the sick man too had not had faith, he would not have let himself be brought at all, and would certainly not have consented to reach Christ’s presence by so strange and, to him, dangerous a way-being painfully hoisted up some narrow stair, and then perilously let down, at the risk of cords snapping, or hands letting go, or bed giving way. His faith, apparently, was deeper than theirs; for Christ’s answer, though it went far beyond his or their expectations, must have been moulded to meet his deepest sense of need. His heart speaks in the tender greeting ‘son,’ or, as the margin has it, ‘child’-possibly pointing to the man’s youth, but more probably an appellation revealing the mingled love and dignity of Jesus, and taking this man into the arms of His sympathy. The palsy may have been the consequence of ‘fast’ living; but, whether it were so or no, Christ saw that, in the dreary hours of solitary inaction to which it had condemned the sufferer, remorse had been busy gnawing at his heart, and that pain had done its best work by leading to penitence. Therefore He spoke to the conscience before He touched the bodily ailment, and met the sufferer’s deepest and most deeply felt disease first. He goes to the bottom of the malady with His cure. These great words are not only closely adapted to the one case before Him, but contain a general truth, worthy to be pondered by all philanthropists. It is of little use to cure symptoms unless you cure diseases. The tap-root of all misery is sin; and, until it is grubbed up, hacking at the branches is sad waste of time. Cure sin, and you make the heart a temple and the world a paradise. We Christians should hail all efforts of every sort for making men nobler, happier, better physically, morally, intellectually; but let us not forget that there is but one effectual cure for the world’s misery, and that it is wrought by Him who has borne the world’s sins.

III. Note the snarl of the scribes.

‘Certain of the scribes,’ says Mark-not being much impressed by their dignity, which, as Luke tells us, was considerable. He says that they were ‘Pharisees and doctors of the law . . . out of every village of Galilee and Judaea and Jerusalem itself, who had come on a formal errand of investigation. Their tempers would not be improved by the tearing up of the roof, nor sweetened by seeing the ‘popularity’ of this doubtful young Teacher, who showed that He had the secret, which they had not, of winning men’s hearts. Nobody came crowding to them, nor hung on their lips. Professional jealousy has often a great deal to do in helping zeal for truth to sniff out heresy. The whispered cavillings are graphically represented. The scribes would not speak out, like men, and call on Jesus to defend His words. If they had been sure of their ground, they should have boldly charged Him with blasphemy; but perhaps they were half suspicious that He could show good cause for His speech. Perhaps they were afraid to oppose the tide of enthusiasm for Him. So they content themselves with comparing notes among themselves, and wait for Him to entangle Himself a little more in their nets. They affect to despise Him, ‘This man’ is spoken in contempt. If He were so poor a creature, why were they there, all the way from Jerusalem, some of them? They overdo their part. The short, snarling sentences of their muttered objections, as given in the Revised Version, may be taken as shared among three speakers, each bringing his quota of bitterness. One says, ‘Why doth He thus speak?’ Another curtly answers, ‘He blasphemeth’; while a third formally states the great truth on which they rest their indictment. Their principle is impregnable. Forgiveness is a divine prerogative, to be shared by none, to be grasped by none, without, in the act, diminishing God’s glory. But it is not enough to have one premise of your syllogism right. Only God forgives sins; and if this man says that He does, He, no doubt, claims to be, in some sense, God. But whether He ‘blasphemeth’ or no depends on what the scribes do not stay to ask; namely, whether He has the right so to claim: and, if He has, it is they, not He, who are the blasphemers. We need not wonder that they recoiled from the right conclusion, which is-the divinity of Jesus. Their fault was not their jealousy for the divine honour, but their inattention to Christ’s evidence in support of His claims, which inattention had its roots in their moral condition, their self-sufficiency and absorption in trivialities of externalism. But we have to thank them for clearly discerning and bluntly stating what was involved in our Lord’s claims, and for thus bringing up the sharp issue-blasphemer, or ‘God manifest in the flesh.’

IV. Note our Lord’s answer to the cavils.

Mark would have us see something supernatural in the swiftness of Christ’s knowledge of the muttered criticisms. He perceived it ‘straightway’ and ‘in His spirit,’ which is tantamount to saying by divine discernment, and not by the medium of sense, as we do. His spirit was a mirror, in which looking He saw externals. In the most literal and deepest sense, He does ‘not judge after the sight of His eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of His ears.’

The absence from our Lord’s answer of any explanation that He was only declaring the divine forgiveness and not Himself exercising a divine prerogative, shuts us up to the conclusion that He desired to be understood as exercising it. Unless His pardon is something quite different from the ministerial announcement of forgiveness, which His servants are empowered to make to penitents, He wilfully led the cavillers into error. His answer starts with a counter-question- another ‘why?’ to meet their’ why?’ It then puts into words what they were thinking; namely, that it was easy to assume a power the reality of which could not be tested. To say, ‘Thy sins be forgiven,’ and to say, ‘Take up thy bed,’ are equally easy. To effect either is equally beyond man’s power; but the one can be verified and the other cannot, and, no doubt, some of the scribes were maliciously saying: ‘It is all very well to pretend to do what cannot be tested. Let Him come out into daylight, and do a miracle which we can see.’ He is quite willing to accept the challenge to test His power in the invisible realm of conscience by His power in the visible region. The remarkable construction of the long sentence in Mark 2:10 - Mark 2:11, which is almost verbally identical in the three Gospels, parenthesis and all, sets before us the suddenness of the turn from the scribes to the patient with dramatic force. Mark that our Lord claims ‘authority’ to forgive, the same word which had been twice in the people’s mouths in reference to His teaching and to His sway over demons. It implies not only power, but rightful power, and that authority which He wields as ‘Son of Man’ and ‘on earth.’ This is the first use of that title in Mark. It is Christ’s own designation of Himself, never found on other lips except the dying Stephen’s. It implies His Messianic office, and points back to Daniel’s great prophecy; but it also asserts His true manhood and His unique relation to humanity, as being Himself its sum and perfection-not a, but the Son of Man. Now the wonder which He would confirm by His miracle is that such a manhood, walking on earth, has lodged in it the divine prerogative. He who is the Son of Man must be something more than man, even the Son of God. His power to forgive is both derived and inherent, but, in either aspect, is entirely different from the human office of announcing God’s forgiveness.

For once, Christ seems to work a miracle in response to unbelief, rather than to faith. But the real occasion of it was not the cavils of the scribes, but the faith and need of the man and His friends; while the silencing of unbelief, and the enlightenment of honest doubt, were but collateral benefits.

V. Note the cure and its effect.

This is another of the miracles in which no vehicle of the healing power is employed. The word is enough; but here the word is spoken, not as if to the disease, but to the sufferer; and in His obedience he receives strength to obey. Tell a palsied man to rise and walk when his disease is that he cannot! But if he believes that Christ has power to heal, he will try to do as he is bid; and, as he tries, the paralysis steals out of the long-unused limbs. Jesus makes us able to do what He bids us do. The condition of healing is faith, and the test of faith is obedience. We do not get strength till we put ourselves into the attitude of obedience. The cure was immediate; and the cured man, who was ‘borne of four’ into the healing presence, walked away, with his bed under his arm, ‘before them all.’ They were ready enough to make way for him then. And what said the wise doctors to it all? We do not hear that any of them were convinced. And what said the people? They were ‘amazed,’ and they ‘glorified God,’ and recognised that they had seen something quite new. That was all. Their glorifying God cannot have been very deep-seated, or they would have better learned the lesson of the miracle. Amazement was but a poor result. No emotion is more transient or less fruitful than gaping astonishment; and that, with a little varnish of acknowledgment of God’s power, which led to nothing, was all the fruit of Christ’s mighty work. Let us hope that the healed man carried his unseen blessing in a faithful and grateful heart, and consecrated his restored strength to the Lord who healed him!


Verses 13-18

Mark

THE PUBLICANS’ FRIEND

Mark 2:13 - Mark 2:22.

By calling a publican, Jesus shocked ‘public opinion and outraged propriety, as the Pharisees and scribes understood it. But He touched the hearts of the outcasts. A gush of sympathy melts souls frozen hard by icy winds of scorn. Levi {otherwise Matthew} had probably had wistful longings after Jesus which he had not dared to show, and therefore he eagerly and instantly responded to Christ’s call, leaving everything in his custom-house to look after itself. Mark emphasises the effect of this advance towards the disreputable classes by Jesus, in his repeated mention of the numbers of them who followed Him. The meal in Matthew’s house was probably not immediately after his call. The large gathering attracted the notice of Christ’s watchful opponents, who pounced upon His sitting at meat with such ‘shady’ people as betraying His low tastes and disregard of seemly conduct, and, with characteristic Eastern freedom, pushed in as uninvited spectators. They did not carry their objection to Himself, but covertly insinuated it into the disciples’ minds, perhaps in hope of sowing suspicions there. Their sarcasm evoked Christ’s own ‘programme’ of His mission, for which we have to thank them.

I. We have, first, Christ’s vindication of His consorting with the lowest.

He thinks of Himself as ‘a physician,’ just as He did in another connection in the synagogue of Nazareth. He is conscious of power to heal all soul-sickness, and therefore He goes where He is most needed. Where should a doctor be but where disease is rife? Is not his place in the hospital? Association with degraded and vicious characters is sin or duty, according to the purpose of it. To go down in the filth in order to wallow there is vile; to go down in order to lift others up is Christ’s mission and Christ-like.

But what does He mean by the distinction between sick and sound, righteous and sinners? Surely all need His healing, and there are not two classes of men. Have not all sinned? Yes, but Jesus speaks to the cavillers, for the moment, in their own dialect, saying, in effect, ‘I take you at your own valuation, and therein find My defence. You do not think that you need a physician, and you call yourselves ‘righteous and these outcasts ‘sinners.’ So you should not be surprised if I, being the healer, turn away to them, and prefer their company to yours.’ But there is more than taking them at their own estimate in the great words, for to conceit ourselves ‘whole’ bars us off from getting any good from Jesus. He cannot come to the self-righteous heart. We must feel our sickness before we can see Him in His true character, or be blessed by His presence with us. And the apparent distinction, which seems to limit His work, really vanishes in the fact that we all are sick and sinners, whatever we may think of ourselves, and that, therefore, the errand of the great Physician is to us all. The Pharisee who knows himself a sinner is as welcome as the outcast. The most outwardly respectable, clean-living, orthodoxly religious formalist needs Him as much, and may have Him as healingly, as the grossest criminal, foul with the stench of loathsome disease. That great saying has changed the attitude towards the degraded and unclean, and many a stream of pity and practical work for such has been drawn off from that Nile of yearning love, though all unconscious of its source.

II. We have Christ’s vindication of the disciples from ascetic critics.

The assailants in the second charge were reinforced by singular allies. Pharisees had nothing in common with John’s disciples, except some outward observances, but they could join forces against Jesus. Common hatred is a wonderful unifier. This time Jesus Himself is addressed, and it is the disciples with whom fault is found. To speak of His supposed faults to them, and of theirs to Him, was cunning and cowardly. His answer opens up many great truths, which we can barely mention.

First, note that He calls Himself the ‘bridegroom’-a designation which would surely touch some chords in John’s disciples, remembering how their Master had spoken of the ‘bridegroom’ and his ‘friend.’ The name tells us that Jesus claimed the psalms of the ‘bride-groom’ as prophecies of Himself, and claimed the Church that was to be as His bride. It speaks tenderly of His love and of our possible blessedness. Next, we note the sweet suggestion of the joyful life of the disciples in intercourse with Him. We perhaps do not sufficiently regard their experience in that light, but surely they were happy, being ever with Him, though they knew not yet all the wonder and blessedness which His presence involved and brought. They were a glad company, and Christians ought now to be joyous, because the bridegroom is still with them, and the more really so by reason of His ascending up where He was before. We have seen Him again, as He promised, and our hearts should rejoice with a joy which no man can take from us.

Next, we note Christ’s clear prevision of His death, the violence of which is hinted at in the words, ‘Shall be taken away from them.’ Further, we note the great principle that outward forms must follow inward realities, and are genuine only when they are the expression of states of mind and feeling. That is a far-reaching truth, ever being forgotten in the tyranny which the externals of religion exercise. Let the free spirit have its own way, and cut its own channels. Laughter may be as devout as fasting. Joy is to be expressed in religion as well as grief. No outward form is worth anything unless the inner man vitalises it, and such a mere form is not simply valueless, but may quickly become hypocrisy and conscious make-believe.

III. Jesus adds two similes, which are condensed parables, to deal with a wider question rising out of the preceding principles.

The difference between His disciples’ religious demeanour and that of their critics is not merely that the former are not now in a mood for fasting, but that a new spirit is beginning to work in them, and therefore it will go hard with a good many old forms besides fasting.

The essential point in both the similes of the raw cloth stitched on to the old, and of the new wine poured into stiff old skins, is the necessary incongruity between old forms and new tendencies. Undressed cloth is sure to shrink when wetted, and, being stronger than the old, to draw its frayed edges away. So, if new truth, or new conceptions of old truth, or new enthusiasms, are patched on to old modes, they will look out of place, and will sooner or later rend the old cloth. But the second simile advances on the first, in that it points not only to harm done to the old by the unnatural marriage, but also to mischief to the new. Put fermenting wine into a hard, unyielding, old wine-skin, and there can be but one result,-the strong effervescence will burst the skin, which may not matter much, and the precious wine will run out and be lost, sucked up by the thirsty soil, which matters more. The attempt to confine the new within the limits of the old, or to express it by the old forms, destroys them and wastes it. The attempt was made to keep Christianity within the limits of Judaism; it failed, but not before much harm had been done to Christianity. Over and over again the effort has been made in the Church, and it has always ended disastrously,-and it always will. It will be a happy day for both the old and the new when we all learn to put new wine into new skins, and remember that ‘God giveth it a body as it hath pleased Him, and to every seed his own body.’


Verse 19

Mark

THE PUBLICANS’ FRIEND

THE SECRET OF GLADNESS

Mark 2:19.

This part of our Lord’s answer to the question put by John’s disciples as to the reason for the omission of the practice of fasting by His followers. The answer is very simple. It is-’My disciples do not fast because they are not sad.’ And the principle which underlies the answer is a very important one. It is this: that all outward forms of religion, appointed by man, ought only to be observed when they correspond to the feeling and disposition of the worshipper. That principle cuts up all religious formalism by the very roots. The Pharisee said: ‘Fasting is a good thing in itself, and meritorious in the sight of God.’ The modern Pharisee says the same about many externals of ritual and worship; Jesus Christ says, ‘No! The thing has no value except as an expression of the feeling of the doer.’ Our Lord did not object to fasting; He expressly approved of it as a means of spiritual power. But He did object to the formal use of it or of any outward form. The formalist’s form, whether it be the elaborate ritual of the Catholic Church, or the barest Nonconformist service, or the silence of a Friends’ meeting-house, is rigid, unbending, and cold, like an iron rod. The true Christian form is elastic, like the stem of a palm-tree, which curves and sways and yields to the wind, and has the sap of life in it. If any man is sad, let him fast; ‘if any man is merry, let him sing psalms.’ Let his ritual correspond to his spiritual emotion and conviction.

But the point which I wish to consider now is not so much this, as the representation that is given here of the reason why fasting was incongruous with the condition and disposition of the disciples. Jesus says: ‘We are more like a wedding-party than anything else. Can the children of the bridechamber fast as long as the bridegroom is with them?’

The ‘children of the bridechamber’ is but another name for those who were called the ‘friends’ or companions ‘of the bridegroom.’ According to the Jewish wedding ceremonial it was their business to conduct the bride to the home of her husband, and there to spend seven days in festivity and rejoicing, which were to be so entirely devoted to mirth and feasting that the companions of the bridegroom were by the Talmudic ritual absolved even from prayer and from worship, and had for their one duty to rejoice.

And that is the picture that Christ holds up before the disciples of the ascetic John as the representation of what He and His friends were most truly like. Very unlike our ordinary notion of Christ and His disciples as they walked the earth! The presence of the Bridegroom made them glad with a strange gladness, which shook off sorrow as the down on a sea-bird’s breast shakes off moisture, and leaves it warm and dry, though it floats amidst boundless seas. I wish now to meditate on this secret of imperviousness to sorrow arising from the felt presence of the Christ.

There are three subjects for consideration arising from the words of my text: The Bridegroom; the presence of the Bridegroom; the joy of the Bride-groom’s presence.

I. Now with regard to the first, a very few words will suffice.

The first thing that strikes me is the singular appropriateness and the delicate, pathetic beauty in the employment of this name by Christ in the existing circumstances. Who was it that had first said: ‘He that hath the bride is the bridegroom, but the friend of the bridegroom that standeth by and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. This my joy therefore is fulfilled’? Why, it was the master of these very men who were asking the question. John’s disciples came and said, ‘Why do not your disciples fast?’ and our Lord reminded them of their own teacher’s words, when he said, ‘The friend of the bridegroom can only be glad.’ And so He would say to them, ‘In your master’s own conception of what I am, and of the joy that comes from My presence, you have an answer to your question. He might have taught you who I am, and why it is that the men that stand around Me are glad.’

But this is not all. We cannot but connect this name with a whole circle of ideas found in the Old Testament, especially with that most familiar and almost stereotyped figure which represents the union between Israel and Jehovah, under the emblem of the marriage bond. The Lord is the ‘husband’; and the nation whom He has loved and redeemed and chosen for Himself, is the ‘wife’; unfaithful and forgetful, often requiting love with indifference and protection with unthankfulness, and needing to be put away, and debarred of the society of the husband who still yearns for her; but a wife still, and in the new time to be joined to Him by a bond that shall never be broken and a better covenant.

And so Christ lays His hand upon all that old history and says, ‘It is fulfilled here in Me.’ A familiar note in Old Testament Messianic prophecy too is caught and echoed here, especially that grand marriage ode of the forty-fifth psalm, in which he must be a very prosaic or very deeply prejudiced reader who hears nothing more than the shrill wedding greetings at the marriage of some Jewish king with a foreign princess. Its bounding hopes and its magnificent sweep of vision are a world too wide for such interpretation. The Bridegroom of that psalm is the Messiah, and the Bride is the Church.

I need only refer in a sentence to what this indicates of Christ’s self-consciousness. What must He, who takes this name as His own, have thought Himself to be to the world, and the world to Him? He steps into the place of the Jehovah of the Old Testament, and claims as His own all these great and wonderful prophecies. He promises love, protection, communion, the deepest, most mystical union of spirit and heart with Himself; and He claims quiet, restful confidence in His love, absolute, loving obedience to His authority, reliance upon His strong hand and loving heart, and faithful cleaving to Him. The Bridegroom of humanity, the Husband of the world, if it will only turn to Him, is Christ Himself.

II. But a word as to the presence of the Bridegroom.

It might seem as if this text condemned us who love an unseen and absent Lord to exclusion from the joy which is made to depend on His presence. Are we in the dreary period when ‘the Bridegroom is taken away’ and fasting appropriate? Surely not. The time of mourning for an absent Christ was only three days; the law for the years of the Church’s history between the moment when the uplifted eyes of the gazers lost Him in the symbolic cloud and the moment when He shall come again is, ‘Lo, I am with you alway.’ The absent Christ is the present Christ. He is really with us, not as the memory or the influence of the example of the dead may be said to remain, not as the spirit of a teacher may be said to abide with his school of followers. We say that Christ has gone up on high and sits on ‘the right hand of God.’ The right hand of God is His active power. Where is ‘the right hand of God’? It is wherever His divine energy works. He that sits at the right hand of God is thereby declared to be wherever the divine energy is in operation, and to be Himself the wielder of that divine Power. I believe in a local abode of the glorified human body of Jesus Christ now, but I believe likewise that all through God’s universe, and eminently in this world, which He has redeemed, Christ is present, in His consciousness of its circumstances, and in the activity of His influence, and in whatsoever other incomprehensible and unspeakable mode Omnipresence belongs to a divine Person. So that He is with us most really, though the visible, bodily Form is no longer by our sides.

That Presence which survives, which is true for us here to-day, may be a far better and more blessed and real thing than the presence of the mere bodily Form in which He once dwelt. We may have lost something by His going away in visible form; I doubt whether we have. We have lost the manifestation of Him to the sense, but we have gained the manifestation of Him to the spirit. And just as the great men, who are only men, need to die and go away in order to be measured in their true magnitude and understood in their true glory; just as when a man is in amongst the mountains, he cannot tell which peak is the dominant one, but when he gets away a little space across the sea and looks back, distance helps to measure magnitude and reveal the sovereign summit which towers above all the rest, so, looking back across the ages with the foreground between us and Him of the history of the Christian Church ever since, and noticing how other heights have sunk beneath the waves and have been wrapped in clouds and have disappeared behind the great round of the earth, we can tell how high this One is; and know better than they knew who it is that moves amongst men in ‘the form of a servant,’ even the Bridegroom of the Church and of the world. ‘It is expedient for you that I go away,’ and Christ is, or ought to be, nearer to us to-day in all that constitutes real nearness, in our apprehension of His essential character, in our reception of His holiest influences, than He ever was to them who walked beside Him on the earth.

But, brethren, that presence is of no use at all to us unless we daily try to realise it. He was with these men whether they would or no. Whether they thought about Him or no, there He was; and just because His presence did not at all depend upon their spiritual condition, it was a lower kind of presence than that which you and I have now, and which depends altogether on our realising it by the turning of our hearts to Him, and by the daily contemplation of Him amidst all our bustle and struggle.

Do you, as you go about your work, feel His nearness and try to keep the feeling fresh and vivid, by occupying heart and mind with Him, by referring everything to His supreme control? By trusting yourselves utterly and absolutely in His hand, and gathering round you, as it were, the sweetness of His love by meditation and reflection, do you try to make conscious to yourselves your Lord’s presence with you? If you do, that presence is to you a blessed reality; if you do not, it is a word that means nothing and is of no help, no stimulus, no protection, no satisfaction, no sweetness whatever to you. The children of the Bridegroom are glad only when, and as, they know that the Bridegroom is with them.

III. And now a word, last of all, about the joy of the Bridegroom’s presence.

What was it that made these humble lives so glad when Christ was with them, filling them with strange new sweetness and power? The charm of personal character, the charm of contact with one whose lips were bringing to them fresh revelations of truth, fresh visions of God, whose whole life was the exhibition of a nature beautiful, and noble, and pure, and tender, and sweet, and loving, beyond anything they had ever seen before.

Ah! brethren, there is no joy in the world like that of companionship, in the freedom of perfect love, with one who ever keeps us at our best, and brings the treasures of ever fresh truth to the mind, as well as beauty of character to admire and imitate. That is one of the greatest gifts that God gives, and is a source of the purest joy that we can have. Now we may have all that and much more in Jesus Christ. He will be with us if we do not drive Him away from us, as the source of our purest joy, because He is the all-sufficient Object of our love.

Oh! you men and women who have been wearily seeking in the world for love that cannot change, for love that cannot die and leave you; you who have been made sad for life by irrevocable losses, or sorrowful in the midst of your joy by the anticipated certain separation which is to come, listen to this One who says to you: ‘I will never leave thee, and My love shall be round thee for ever’; and recognise this, that there is a love which cannot change, which cannot die, which has no limits, which never can be cold, which never can disappoint, and therefore, in it, and in His presence, there is unending gladness.

He is with us as the source of our joy, because He is the Lord of our lives, and the absolute Commander of our wills. To have One present with us whose loving word it is delight to obey, and who takes upon Himself all responsibility for the conduct of our lives, and leaves us only the task of doing what we are bid-that is peace, that is gladness, of such a kind as none else in the world gives.

He is with us as the ground of perfect joy, because He is the adequate object of all our desires, and the whole of the faculties and powers of a man will find a field of glad activity in leaning upon Him, and realising His presence. Like the Apostle whom the old painters loved to represent lying with his happy head on Christ’s heart, and his eyes closed in a tranquil rapture of restful satisfaction, so if we have Him with us and feel that He is with us, our spirits may be still, and in the great stillness of fruition of all our wishes and fulfilment of all our needs, may know a joy that the world can neither give nor take away.

He is with us as the source of endless gladness, in that He is the defence and protection for our souls. And as men live in a victualled fortress, and care not though the whole surrounding country may be swept bare of all provision, so when we have Christ with us we may feel safe, whatsoever befalls, and ‘in the days of famine we shall be satisfied.’

He is with us as the source of our perfect joy, because His presence is the kindling of every hope that fills the future with light and glory. Dark or dim at the best, trodden by uncertain shapes, casting many a deep shadow over the present, that future lies, unless we see it illumined by Christ, and have Him by our sides. But if we possess His companionship, the present is but the parent of a more blessed time to come; and we can look forward and feel that nothing can touch our gladness, because nothing can touch our union with our Lord.

So, dear brethren, from all these thoughts and a thousand more which I have no time to dwell upon, comes this one great consideration, that the joy of the presence of the Bridegroom is the victorious antagonist of all sorrow and mourning. ‘Can the children of the bridechamber mourn, while the bridegroom is with them?’ The answer sometimes seems to be, ‘Yes, they can.’ Our own hearts, with their experience of tears, and losses, and disappointments, seem to say: ‘Mourning is possible, even whilst He is here. We have our own share, and we sometimes think, more than our share, of the ills that flesh is heir to.’ And we have, over and above them, in the measure in which we are Christians, certain special sources of sorrow and trial, peculiar to ourselves alone; and the deeper and truer our Christianity the more of these shall we have. But notwithstanding all that, what will the felt presence of the Bridegroom do for these griefs that will come? Well, it will limit them, for one thing; it will prevent them from absorbing the whole of our nature. There will always be a Goshen in which there is ‘light in the dwelling,’ however murky may be the darkness that wraps the land. There will always be a little bit of soil above the surface, however weltering and wide may be the inundation that drowns our world. There will always be a dry and warm place in the midst of the winter, a kind of greenhouse into which we may get from out of the tempest and fog. The joy of the Bridegroom’s presence will last through the sorrow, like a spring of fresh water welling up in the midst of the sea. We may have the salt and the sweet waters mingling in our lives, not sent forth by one fountain, but flowing in one channel.

Our joy will sometimes be made sweeter and more wonderful by the very presence of the mourning and the pain. Just as the pillar of cloud, that glided before the Israelites through the wilderness, glowed into a pillar of fire as the darkness deepened, so, as the outlook around becomes less and less cheery and bright, and the night falls thicker and thicker, what seemed to be but a thin, grey, wavering column in the blaze of the sunlight will gather warmth and brightness at the heart of it when the midnight comes. You cannot see the stars at twelve o’clock in the day; you have to watch for the dark hours ere heaven is filled with glory. And so sorrow is often the occasion for the full revelation of the joy of Christ’s presence.

Why have so many Christian men so little joy in their lives? Because they look for it in all sorts of wrong places, and seek to wring it out of all sorts of sapless and dry things. ‘Do men gather grapes of thorns?’ If you fling the berries of the thorn into the winepress, will you get sweet sap out of them? That is what you are doing when you take gratified earthly affections, worldly competence, fulfilled ambitions, and put them into the press, and think that out of these you can squeeze the wine of gladness. No! No! brethren, dry and sapless and juiceless they all are. There is one thing that gives a man worthy, noble, eternal gladness, and that is the felt presence of the Bridegroom.

Why have so many Christians so little joy in their lives? A religion like that of John’s disciples and that of the Pharisees is a poor affair. A religion of which the main features are law and restriction and prohibition, cannot be joyful. And there are a great many people who call themselves Christians, and have just religion enough to take the edge off worldly pleasures, and yet have not enough to make fellowship with Christ a gladness for them.

There is a cry amongst us for a more cheerful type of religion. I re-echo the cry, but I am afraid that I do not mean by it quite the same thing that some of my friends do. A more cheerful type of Christianity means to many of us a type of Christianity that will interfere less with our amusements; a more indulgent doctor that will prescribe a less rigid diet than the old Puritan type used to do. Well, perhaps they went too far; I do not care to deny that. But the only cheerful Christianity is a Christianity that draws its gladness from deep personal experience of communion with Jesus Christ. There is no way of men being religious and happy except being profoundly religious, and living very near their Master, and always trying to cultivate that spirit of communion with Him which shall surround them with the sweetness and the power of His felt presence. We do not want Pharisaic fasting, but we do want that the reason for not fasting shall not be that Christians like eating better, but that their religion must be joyful because they have Christ with them, and therefore cannot choose but sing, as a lark cannot choose but carol. ‘Religion has no power over us, but as it is our happiness,’ and we shall never make it our happiness, and therefore never know its beneficent control, until we lift it clean out of the low region of outward forms and joyless service, into the blessed heights of communion with Jesus Christ, ‘Whom having not seen we love.’

I would that Christian people saw more plainly that joy is a duty, and that they are bound to make efforts to obey the command, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always,’ no less than to keep other precepts. If we abide in Christ, His joy ‘will abide in us, and our joy will be full.’ We shall have in our hearts a fountain of true joy which will never be turbid with earthly stains, nor dried up by heat, nor frozen by cold. If we set the Lord always before us our days may be at once like the happy hours of the ‘children of the bridechamber,’ bright with gladness and musical with song; and also saved from the enervation that sometimes comes from joy, because they are also like the patient vigils of the servants who ‘wait for the Lord, when He shall return from the wedding.’ So strangely blended of fruition and hope, of companionship and solitude, of feasting and watching, is the Christian life here, until the time comes when His friends go in with the Bridegroom to the banquet, and drink for ever of the new joy of the kingdom.


Verses 20-22

Mark

THE PUBLICANS’ FRIEND

Mark 2:13 - Mark 2:22.

By calling a publican, Jesus shocked ‘public opinion and outraged propriety, as the Pharisees and scribes understood it. But He touched the hearts of the outcasts. A gush of sympathy melts souls frozen hard by icy winds of scorn. Levi {otherwise Matthew} had probably had wistful longings after Jesus which he had not dared to show, and therefore he eagerly and instantly responded to Christ’s call, leaving everything in his custom-house to look after itself. Mark emphasises the effect of this advance towards the disreputable classes by Jesus, in his repeated mention of the numbers of them who followed Him. The meal in Matthew’s house was probably not immediately after his call. The large gathering attracted the notice of Christ’s watchful opponents, who pounced upon His sitting at meat with such ‘shady’ people as betraying His low tastes and disregard of seemly conduct, and, with characteristic Eastern freedom, pushed in as uninvited spectators. They did not carry their objection to Himself, but covertly insinuated it into the disciples’ minds, perhaps in hope of sowing suspicions there. Their sarcasm evoked Christ’s own ‘programme’ of His mission, for which we have to thank them.

I. We have, first, Christ’s vindication of His consorting with the lowest.

He thinks of Himself as ‘a physician,’ just as He did in another connection in the synagogue of Nazareth. He is conscious of power to heal all soul-sickness, and therefore He goes where He is most needed. Where should a doctor be but where disease is rife? Is not his place in the hospital? Association with degraded and vicious characters is sin or duty, according to the purpose of it. To go down in the filth in order to wallow there is vile; to go down in order to lift others up is Christ’s mission and Christ-like.

But what does He mean by the distinction between sick and sound, righteous and sinners? Surely all need His healing, and there are not two classes of men. Have not all sinned? Yes, but Jesus speaks to the cavillers, for the moment, in their own dialect, saying, in effect, ‘I take you at your own valuation, and therein find My defence. You do not think that you need a physician, and you call yourselves ‘righteous and these outcasts ‘sinners.’ So you should not be surprised if I, being the healer, turn away to them, and prefer their company to yours.’ But there is more than taking them at their own estimate in the great words, for to conceit ourselves ‘whole’ bars us off from getting any good from Jesus. He cannot come to the self-righteous heart. We must feel our sickness before we can see Him in His true character, or be blessed by His presence with us. And the apparent distinction, which seems to limit His work, really vanishes in the fact that we all are sick and sinners, whatever we may think of ourselves, and that, therefore, the errand of the great Physician is to us all. The Pharisee who knows himself a sinner is as welcome as the outcast. The most outwardly respectable, clean-living, orthodoxly religious formalist needs Him as much, and may have Him as healingly, as the grossest criminal, foul with the stench of loathsome disease. That great saying has changed the attitude towards the degraded and unclean, and many a stream of pity and practical work for such has been drawn off from that Nile of yearning love, though all unconscious of its source.

II. We have Christ’s vindication of the disciples from ascetic critics.

The assailants in the second charge were reinforced by singular allies. Pharisees had nothing in common with John’s disciples, except some outward observances, but they could join forces against Jesus. Common hatred is a wonderful unifier. This time Jesus Himself is addressed, and it is the disciples with whom fault is found. To speak of His supposed faults to them, and of theirs to Him, was cunning and cowardly. His answer opens up many great truths, which we can barely mention.

First, note that He calls Himself the ‘bridegroom’-a designation which would surely touch some chords in John’s disciples, remembering how their Master had spoken of the ‘bridegroom’ and his ‘friend.’ The name tells us that Jesus claimed the psalms of the ‘bride-groom’ as prophecies of Himself, and claimed the Church that was to be as His bride. It speaks tenderly of His love and of our possible blessedness. Next, we note the sweet suggestion of the joyful life of the disciples in intercourse with Him. We perhaps do not sufficiently regard their experience in that light, but surely they were happy, being ever with Him, though they knew not yet all the wonder and blessedness which His presence involved and brought. They were a glad company, and Christians ought now to be joyous, because the bridegroom is still with them, and the more really so by reason of His ascending up where He was before. We have seen Him again, as He promised, and our hearts should rejoice with a joy which no man can take from us.

Next, we note Christ’s clear prevision of His death, the violence of which is hinted at in the words, ‘Shall be taken away from them.’ Further, we note the great principle that outward forms must follow inward realities, and are genuine only when they are the expression of states of mind and feeling. That is a far-reaching truth, ever being forgotten in the tyranny which the externals of religion exercise. Let the free spirit have its own way, and cut its own channels. Laughter may be as devout as fasting. Joy is to be expressed in religion as well as grief. No outward form is worth anything unless the inner man vitalises it, and such a mere form is not simply valueless, but may quickly become hypocrisy and conscious make-believe.

III. Jesus adds two similes, which are condensed parables, to deal with a wider question rising out of the preceding principles.

The difference between His disciples’ religious demeanour and that of their critics is not merely that the former are not now in a mood for fasting, but that a new spirit is beginning to work in them, and therefore it will go hard with a good many old forms besides fasting.

The essential point in both the similes of the raw cloth stitched on to the old, and of the new wine poured into stiff old skins, is the necessary incongruity between old forms and new tendencies. Undressed cloth is sure to shrink when wetted, and, being stronger than the old, to draw its frayed edges away. So, if new truth, or new conceptions of old truth, or new enthusiasms, are patched on to old modes, they will look out of place, and will sooner or later rend the old cloth. But the second simile advances on the first, in that it points not only to harm done to the old by the unnatural marriage, but also to mischief to the new. Put fermenting wine into a hard, unyielding, old wine-skin, and there can be but one result,-the strong effervescence will burst the skin, which may not matter much, and the precious wine will run out and be lost, sucked up by the thirsty soil, which matters more. The attempt to confine the new within the limits of the old, or to express it by the old forms, destroys them and wastes it. The attempt was made to keep Christianity within the limits of Judaism; it failed, but not before much harm had been done to Christianity. Over and over again the effort has been made in the Church, and it has always ended disastrously,-and it always will. It will be a happy day for both the old and the new when we all learn to put new wine into new skins, and remember that ‘God giveth it a body as it hath pleased Him, and to every seed his own body.’


Verses 23-28

Mark

WORKS WHICH HALLOW THE SABBATH

Mark 2:23 - Mark 2:28. - Mark 3:1 - Mark 3:5.

These two Sabbath scenes make a climax to the preceding paragraphs, in which Jesus has asserted His right to brush aside Rabbinical ordinances about eating with sinners and about fasting. Here He goes much further, in claiming power over the divine ordinance of the Sabbath. Formalists are moved to more holy horror by free handling of forms than by heterodoxy as to principles. So we can understand how the Pharisees’ suspicions were exacerbated to murderous hate by these two incidents. It is doubtful whether Mark puts them together because they occurred together, or because they bear on the same subject. They deal with the two classes of ‘works’ which later Christian theology has recognised as legitimate exceptions to the law of the Sabbath rest; namely, works of necessity and of mercy.

Whether we adopt the view that the disciples were clearing a path through standing corn, or the simpler one, that they gathered the ears of corn on the edge of a made path as they went, the point of the Pharisees’ objection was that they broke the Sabbath by plucking, which was a kind of reaping. According to Luke, their breach of the Rabbinical exposition of the law was an event more dreadful in the eyes of these narrow pedants; for there was not only reaping, but the analogue of winnowing and grinding, for the grains were rubbed in the disciples’ palms. What daring sin! What impious defiance of law! But of what law? Not that of the Fourth Commandment, which simply forbade ‘labour,’ but that of the doctors’ expositions of the commandment, which expended miraculous ingenuity and hair-splitting on deciding what was labour and what was not. The foundations of that astonishing structure now found in the Talmud were, no doubt, laid before Christ. This expansion of the prohibition, so as to take in such trifles as plucking and rubbing a handful of heads of corn, has many parallels there.

But it is noteworthy that our Lord does not avail Himself of the distinction between God’s commandment and men’s exposition of it. He does not embarrass himself with two controversies at once. At fit times He disputed Rabbinical authority, and branded their casuistry as binding grievous burdens on men; but here He allows their assumption of the equal authority of their commentary and of the text to pass unchallenged, and accepts the statement that His disciples had been doing what was unlawful on the Sabbath, and vindicates their breach of law.

Note that His answer deals first with an example of similar breach of ceremonial law, and then rises to lay down a broad principle which governed that precedent, vindicates the act of the disciples, and draws for all ages a broad line of demarcation between the obligations of ceremonial and of moral law. Clearly, His adducing David’s act in taking the shewbread implies that the disciples’ reason for plucking the ears of corn was not to clear a path but to satisfy hunger. Probably, too, it suggests that He also was hungry, and partook of the simple food.

Note, too, the tinge of irony in that ‘Did ye never read?’ In all your minute study of the letter of the Scripture, did you never take heed to that page? The principle on which the priest at Nob let the hungry fugitives devour the sacred bread, was the subordination of ceremonial law to men’s necessities. It was well to lay the loaves on the table in the Presence, but it was better to take them and feed the fainting servant of God and his followers with them. Out of the very heart of the law which the Pharisees appealed to, in order to spin restricting prohibitions, Jesus drew an example of freedom which ran on all-fours with His disciples’ case. The Pharisees had pored over the Old Testament all their lives, but it would have been long before they had found such a doctrine as this in it.

Jesus goes on to bring out the principle which shaped the instance he gave. He does not state it in its widest form, but confines it to the matter in hand-Sabbath obligations. Ceremonial law in all its parts is established as a means to an end-the highest good of men. Therefore, the end is more important than the means; and, in any case of apparent collision, the means must give way that the end may be secured. External observances are not of permanent, unalterable obligation. They stand on a different footing from primal moral duties, which remain equally imperative whether doing them leads to physical good or evil. David and his men were bound to keep these, whether they starved or not; but they were not bound to leave the shew bread lying in the shrine, and starve.

Man is made for the moral law. It is supreme, and he is under it, whether obedience leads to death or not. But all ceremonial regulations are merely established to help men to reach the true end of their being, and may be suspended or modified by his necessities. The Sabbath comes under the class of such ceremonial regulations, and may therefore be elastic when the pressure of necessity is brought to bear.

But note that our Lord, even while thus defining the limits of the obligation, asserts its universality. ‘The Sabbath was made for man’-not for a nation or an age, but for all time and for the whole race. Those who would sweep away the observance of the weekly day of rest are fond of quoting this text; but they give little heed to its first clause, and do not note that their favourite passage upsets their main contention, and establishes the law of the Sabbath as a possession for the world for ever. It is not a burden, but a privilege, made and meant for man’s highest good.

Christ’s conclusion that He is ‘Lord even of the Sabbath’ is based upon the consideration of the true design of the day. If it is once understood that it is appointed, not as an inflexible duty, like the obligation of truth or purity, but as a means to man’s good, physical and spiritual, then He who has in charge all man’s higher interests, and who is the perfect realisation of the ideal of manhood, has full authority to modify and suspend the ceremonial observance if in His unerring judgment the suspension is desirable.

This is not an abrogation of the Sabbath, but, on the contrary, a confirmation of the universal and merciful appointment. It does not give permission to keep or neglect it, according to whim or for the sake of amusement, but it does draw, strong and clear, the distinction between a positive rite which may be modified, and an unchangeable precept of the moral law which it is better for a man to die than to neglect or transgress.

The second Sabbath scene deals with the same question from another point of view. Works of necessity warranted the supercession of Sabbath law; works of beneficence are no breaches of it. There are circumstances in which it is right to do what is not ‘lawful’ on the Sabbath, for such works as healing the man with a withered hand are always ‘lawful.’

We note the cruel indifference to the sufferer’s woe which so characteristically accompanies a religion which is mainly a matter of outside observances. What cared the Pharisees whether the poor cripple was healed or no? They wanted him cured only that they might have a charge against Jesus. Note, too, the strange condition of mind, which recognised Christ’s miraculous power, and yet considered Him an impious sinner.

Observe our Lord’s purpose to make the miracle most conspicuous. He bids the man stand out in the midst, before all the cold eyes of malicious Pharisees and gaping spectators. A secret espionage was going on in the synagogue. He sees it all, and drags it into full light by setting the man forth and by His sudden, sharp thrust of a question. He takes the first word this time, and puts the stealthy spies on the defensive. His interrogation may possibly be regarded as having a bearing on their conduct, for there was murder in their hearts [Mark 2:6]. There they sat with solemn faces, posing as sticklers for law and religion, and all the while they were seeking grounds for killing Him. Was that Sabbath work? Whether would He, if He cured the shrunken arm, or they, if they gathered accusations with the intention of compassing His death, be the Sabbath-breakers?

It was a sharp, swift cut through their cloak of sanctity; but it has a wider scope than that. The question rests on the principle that good omitted is equivalent to evil committed. If we can save, and do not, the responsibility of loss lies on us. If we can rescue, and let die, our brother’s blood reddens our hands. Good undone is not merely negative. It is positive evil done. If from regard to the Sabbath we refrained from doing some kindly deed alleviating a brother’s sorrow, we should not be inactive, but should have done something by our very not doing, and what we should do would be evil. It is a pregnant saying which has many solemn applications.

No wonder that they ‘held their peace.’ Unless they had been prepared to abandon their position, there was nothing to be said. That silence indicated conviction and obstinate pride and rooted hatred which would not be convinced, conciliated, or softened. Therefore Jesus looked on them with that penetrating, yearning gaze, which left ineffaceable remembrances on the beholders, as the frequent mention of it indicates.

The emotions in Christ’s heart as He looked on the dogged, lowering faces are expressed in a remarkable phrase, which is probably best taken as meaning that grief mingled with His anger. A wondrous glimpse into that tender heart, which in all its tenderness is capable of righteous indignation, and in all its indignation does not set aside its tenderness! Mark that not even the most rigid prohibitions were broken by the process of cure. It was no breach of the fantastic restrictions which had been engrafted on the commandment, that Jesus should bid the man put out his hand. Nobody could find fault with a man for doing that. These two things, a word and a movement of muscles, were all. So He did ‘heal on the Sabbath,’ and yet did nothing that could be laid hold of.

But let us not miss the parable of the restoration of the maimed and shrunken powers of the soul, which the manner of the miracle gives. Whatever we try to do because Jesus bids us, He will give us strength to do, however impossible to our unaided powers it is. In the act of stretching out the hand, ability to stretch it forth is bestowed, power returns to atrophied muscles, stiffened joints are suppled, the blood runs in full measure through the veins. So it is ever. Power to obey attends on the desire and effort to obey.

 


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Bibliography Information
MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on Mark 2:4". Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mac/mark-2.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, October 16th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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