Jesus is the cure for legalism (Mark 2:23–28)

If you hang around evangelical Christian circles long enough, you’ll eventually hear one angry person label another as a legalist. “Uh…what the heck’s a legalist?” you wonder. Well, that depends on who you talk to. In the opinion of many Christians, a legalist is simply someone who wants you to follow a rule that you don’t like. If anyone tries to tell you that you are doing something wrong, then that person is clearly a grim legalist who has not attained your state of blissful enlightenment. I recently sat down over coffee with a man who defended his decision to live with his girlfriend and neglect being a part of a local church on the basis that he wasn’t legalistic about it. Needless to say, I wasn’t as impressed with his righteousness as he was. If I insist that a professing believer follow God’s law, that isn’t legalism; it’s exhortation—and it’s commanded by God (e.g. 1 Corinthians 5).

So what is legalism, really? Well, that’s what we’re going to find out in today’s passage. Even better, when we do find out, we’ll get to know Jesus a little more.

» Read Mark 2:23–28

Our story takes place fairly early in Jesus’ ministry. Up until recently, Jesus has been popular among the Jewish people, and he’s fit their expectations of a Messiah—the Anointed One sent by God to rescue his people and set up his kingdom on earth. However, beginning in Mark chapter 2, Jesus has started doing things that upset the religious leaders of Galilee. He’s claimed all sorts of authority for himself—authority to forgive sins, to associate with sinners, to introduce a whole new life system in place of Judaism. What takes place on this particular day is going to anger them even further.

It’s Sabbath day, which means that it’s a day on which God has commanded the Jews to rest from their work (Exodus 20:8–11). Now, a popular religious faction of Jesus’ day, known as the Pharisees, are especially zealous about obeying God’s commandment. That zeal is a good thing! But the way they go about it is a problem. They’ve created a strict set of commandments which detail what one can and cannot do on a Sabbath day. For example, the Mishnah (Jewish oral tradition) prohibited weaving two threads together, tying a knot in a cord, writing two letters, kindling a fire, or even putting out a fire (!). The Pharisees obsess over defining what work means; obeying the Sabbath law at any cost has become a singular obsession to them.

Not surprisingly, they get upset when they discover that Jesus’ disciples have been gleaning grain from a field on a Sabbath day. Presumably, his disciples got hungry and wanted a snack. The Pharisees are shocked by this egregious violation of their man-made rules; they confront Jesus, sputtering, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?”

Jesus responds by insisting that God’s Word be the basis for making moral decisions. He’s not interested in their opinions of what’s right and wrong; he calls them to an absolute, objective standard. “Have you never read what David did?” he asks. This must have infuriated the Pharisees, since many of them probably had the entire Old Testament memorized! Apparently, though, they hadn’t learned much while reading it. Jesus explains the case of David eating the bread of the Presence in an emergency situation when he and his men were hungry (1 Samuel 21:1–9). Only the priests were supposed to eat this bread (Leviticus 24:5–9)! How could this possibly be “lawful”?

Jesus draws a parallel between the bread of the Presence and the Sabbath. In both cases, God had laid out the rules that his people should follow. However, he didn’t want them to adhere to the letter of the law while ignoring the spirit of the law. When obeying the rules would prevent a person’s physical needs from being met, it was lawful in that case to break the rules. Above all, the Lord wanted justice, kindness, and humility from his people (Micah 6:8).

Jesus insists, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” The Sabbath is God’s way of getting his people to slow down their busy lives, to rest and remember and reconnect with him. The Sabbath was made for the benefit of his people. It’s not an ultimate thing; it’s just a means to an end. It’s a little like the speed limit on a highway; speed limits are a means to a greater end—safety on the road. If you’re fastidiously keeping under the speed limit of 55 mph, but everyone around you is exceeding 75 mph, you’re not really following the law, because you’re creating an unsafe driving environment. Similarly, the Sabbath is a law that’s meant to benefit man. Jesus is telling the Pharisees, “Keeping the Sabbath is about what’s good for you—not about overloading people with a bunch of man-made rules.”

Then, Jesus adds something of tremendous importance. Considering the fact that the Sabbath was created to serve man, he says, “So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” Jesus is the Son of Man, the messianic figure from Daniel 7:13–14; he has been given a kingdom so that all nations will serve him. The Sabbath was made for mankind, and mankind was made for Jesus. He is Lord of all mankind, so therefore he is Lord of the Sabbath. He gets to define how the Sabbath should be carried out. Jesus is claiming tremendous, cosmic authority for himself.

The Pharisees are obsessed with the law, but they’ve forgotten who the law was written for. They’ve placed law above Lawgiver. And that’s the essence of legalism. We aren’t supposed to follow God’s law out of a grim sense of moral responsibility; we’re supposed to follow it because we love and worship a Person. Don’t obsess over the law. Obsess over a Person—Jesus of Nazareth, Lord of the Sabbath.

Jesus will not be the cherry on top (Mark 2:18–22)

Back in high school, I used to work the drive thru at a local Steak n Shake restaurant. True to the name, Steak n Shake has two specialties—steakburgers, which are basically glorified hamburgers, and milkshakes. I definitely developed a taste for Steak n Shake food after working there for a year and a half. I tried out all the shakes and made up my mind which was the best (side-by-side strawberry and orange). To this day, a milkshake just doesn’t seem complete to me unless it’s topped with whipped cream and a maraschino cherry.

I know not everyone likes those cherries, but I love ’em. They’re just the thing to complete a milkshake or a sundae or just about any dairy dessert. They’re a perfect complement to all those death-inducing sugar-and-fat concoctions. The cherry really doesn’t change the dessert all that much. You simply toss it on top to make it a little bit better than it was before.

The temptation for us is to treat Jesus like that cherry on top. Sometimes, we are willingly deceived into believing that Jesus doesn’t demand all of our lives. We think we can go on living how we’ve always lived, while tacking on Jesus as sort of a bonus that makes us feel all warm and spiritual inside. For example, I may go to church on Sunday and call myself a Christian, but in my heart I may find my identity in my career; I’m willing to sacrifice any relationship in order to advance in my field, my performance review is more important to me than God’s evaluation of me, and my mood depends almost entirely on how my day at work went.

That doesn’t sound very attractive, does it? Let’s take a different approach, then. Perhaps I think that pleasing God is all about doing all the good Christian things that good Christians do. I give exactly 10% of my money to the church, take notes from the sermon, listen to Christian radio, vote Republican, and look down my nose at everyone who doesn’t line up with my self-invented religious ideals.

» Read Mark 2:18–22

The really dedicated Jews of Jesus’ day—the Pharisees—would have fit this description pretty well. One of the things a good Pharisee did was fast twice a week. In the Old Testament, the only time fasting was commanded was on the annual Day of Atonement, when the sins of the nation of Israel were atoned for by animal sacrifice. Any other fasting was voluntary. However, there’s a funny thing about voluntary good deeds—they end up being reshaped into moral standards by people who want to look better than others. So naturally, fasting twice a week became the sort of thing that any respectable Jew would do.

Jesus, on the other hand, wasn’t interested in perpetuating a man-made system of righteousness. He had authority over men, so he would not submit himself to their arbitrary rules. His fellow Jews became concerned about this, and they asked him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” Like any good rabbi, Jesus responded to their question with a question of his own: “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?” Jesus leaves no doubt that he is the bridegroom in this analogy. Weddings were a big deal in that culture; they were a time of feasting and celebration and joy. No one—not even the most austere rabbi—would ever fast during a wedding feast! So Jesus can answer his own question, “As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.”

That’s why Jesus doesn’t want his disciples to fast. The practice of fasting is not a custom expressing celebration; it’s a custom expressing need. It communicates a longing for something, whether a longing for forgiveness or divine help or favor with God. Jesus says that those who truly follow him will direct their fasting toward him; they fast because they long for him to be among them and to act on their behalf. And in fact, he says, “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.” For the first time, Jesus predicts that he will be killed, and then his disciples will mourn their loss of him. Once again, they will fast. But for now, he is with them, and there is no need to fast.

Then Jesus introduces an unexpected twist. He compares the Judaism of the Pharisees to an old garment or an old wineskin. When a new patch is sewn on an old garment, it shrinks and tears the garment. When new wine is put in an old, brittle wineskin, the new wine ferments, expands, and bursts the skin. In the same way, Jesus is explaining, “You can’t just add me to your religion. I will burst it apart. You can’t keep fasting unless your fasts are directed toward me as an expression of longing for me to be with you. You have to abandon your old way of trying to please God and start following me instead.”

Jesus will not be the cherry on top of your old way of doing things. If you try to fit him into your good, moral lifestyle, he will burst it apart. He will tear your life to pieces. He doesn’t fit. Jesus insists that you identify yourself with him, that you long for him more than anything or anyone else. If you try to follow his commandments, to love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself, you will quickly find yourself a broken failure. Turn to him for help, submit to his authority, cry out for the Holy Spirit to empower you, and you will find the joy of being with the Bridegroom.