Conflict with Religious Leaders
Repeat series theme. This morning we will look at the beginning of what became a major theme in Jesus’ public ministry – His conflict with the religious leaders of Israel. We will use Mark’s gospel as our base text (2:14-3:6). About one year into His public ministry, Jesus collided head-on with the Pharisees and their scribes – and this collision quickly escalated to a death plot (explain 3:6). This conflict continued over the next two years, culminating in Jesus’ arrest, illegal trial and execution.
What was it about Jesus that was so threatening to them? What was it about them that was so offensive to Jesus? On the surface, they had much in common (monotheism; Old Testament; Jewish). But at the root level (e.g., what God is like; what spirituality is), there were irreconcilable differences between them. Jesus loved them – but He hated the religious mentality they promoted, and He opposed it literally to His death.
Unfortunately, the religious mentality of the Pharisees infected Christianity very soon after Jesus’ departure, and it has dominated the church ever since. It tends to infect every church (including Xenos) and every Christian (including you and me). In order to avoid this infection, we must be able to identify and then reject the religious mentality. That’s why this passage is so important. The three specific conflicts here between Jesus and the Pharisees highlight several root differences between biblical Christianity and the religious mentality. Let’s see . . .
Conflict over Jesus’ associates
Read 2:14,15. The fact that Jesus included Levi as one of His disciples, and that He included many of Levi’s friends as His followers was unusual to say the least.
Tax-collectors were “notorious sinners.” They worked for hated Rome (treason) and were on total commission (greed). The rabbis called them “licensed robbers” (which they were) and “wild beasts in human form” (which they were not). They taught that they were unredeemable. Although rich, their Jewish countrymen would not associate with them or touch their money because this would make them ceremonially unclean. So they tended to throw lavish parties for one another. No self-respecting rabbi would be caught dead with a tax-collector, let alone make one of them his disciple or hang out with his friends!
But Levi and his friends were not a lost cause to Jesus! For all of his sinfulness, Levi evidently was a spiritual seeker. (This was evidently not the first meeting between Levi and Jesus). When he heard Jesus teach and (perhaps) interacted with him, he recognized what he had been looking for. And when he entrusted himself to Jesus, His love changed his life. When Jesus gave him the opportunity to join His band of workers, he decided to quit his job to do so. Probably the party in 2:15 was thrown by Levi to celebrate his salvation and “retirement.” It was also a great opportunity for him and Jesus to invite his friends to believe (and many did).
Did the Pharisees rejoice because of this man’s changed life? Did they ask Jesus, “What are you teaching that has such a wonderful effect on these people?” No! Read 2:16. They were grossed out that He would even associate with such people.
Jesus’ reply to their objection is so instructive (read 2:17). Who ever heard of a doctor who refused to treat patients for fear of their germs? Note two root conflicts:
The Pharisees believed that people’s bad/recurrent sins made them ineligible for God’s kingdom. But Jesus taught that the only people who are ineligible for God’s kingdom are the self-righteous! The issue with Jesus is never how or how much you’ve sinned – it is always and only if you are willing to admit you need forgiven. But self-righteousness can tie Jesus’ hands and render even almighty God impotent to help you! What about you? Do you insist that you’re a good person? Jesus can’t help you! Are you ready to admit that you’re a sinner/sick? Then the Doctor is ready to make a free house call (explain how to receive Christ)!
“Bad sinners make good Christians” because they so appreciate God’s love. Levi became known as Matthew – author of the first gospel! The even greater miracle is that God can even heal Pharisees (PAUL)!
Religion emphasizes separation from “sinners” (“Pharisees” means “separated ones”). But Jesus emphasized initiative toward “sinners.” In the end, we must choose which is more important: to make it as difficult as possible for us to sin (religion) or to make it as easy as possible for people to come to Christ (Christianity). Yes, it is important to have a sober respect for sin’s destructive power – but when that concern results in walling yourself off from irreligious people, it is more sinful than anything those irreligious people do!
Should you stay out of situations that you know you can’t handle? Yes. But how are you initiating with such people so they can see and hear the love of Christ? Concern for holiness/moral purity that excludes loving initiative with “pagans” is a contradiction in terms!
Should you protect your children from morally risky situations? Yes. But how are you modeling active loving involvement with “pagans” and helping them reach out to such kids? Unless you model to them a love of this in their own lives, you have failed with your children no matter how “safe” you have kept them!
Conflict over fasting
Read 2:18. John the Baptist’s disciples were fasting out of mourning, because John had recently been arrested by Herod and was in danger of execution. The Pharisees fasted for a totally different reason. Their twice-a-week fasts were just one part of a huge emphasis on ritual observance, which they viewed as central to worship and spirituality. That’s why they were aghast that Jesus wasn’t emphasizing this with His disciples.
Jesus’ response is two-fold:
Read 2:19,20. Jesus answers why His disciples aren’t fasting like John’s disciples. Fasting is an appropriate expression of mourning – but Jesus’ disciples shouldn’t be mourning. He is the bridegroom (a messianic metaphor – see Isa. 61:10). It will be appropriate for His disciples to fast when He is taken away from them (first allusion to his violent death) – but not now while He is with them!
Then in 2:21,22, Jesus answers why His disciples don’t fast like the Pharisees (read). His point is very radical. “I haven’t come as one more rabbi to reform your ritualistic way of relating to God; I have come as Messiah to inaugurate a whole new way to relate to God.”
The root conflict is over two ways to relate to God: Religion’s emphasis on relating to God impersonally through ritual observance vs. Jesus’ emphasis on relating personally to God.
You may be thinking, “But the Old Testament prescribed relating to God through rituals.” That’s true – God gave them dozens of rituals to observe, and He carefully regulated how they observed them. But why did He do this? Not because He preferred rituals over relationship. or as a means of earning His acceptance. The rituals were an instructive device – teaching us about the seriousness of our dilemma with God, and providing prophetic pictures of how He would one day resolve this dilemma (SACRIFICIAL SYSTEM). In fact, the Old Testament itself recognized that this was an inferior and temporary arrangement until Messiah came (read Jer. 31:31-34).
But now that Jesus has come and fulfilled these pictures, the emphasis on ritual has been replaced by the real thing – being indwelt by God’s Spirit and relating to God in a love-trust relationship! You can’t miss this contrast if you read the Old Testament and New Testament: Dozens vs. 2; detailed prescription vs. little detail.
Why then is Christianity virtually equated with ritual observance? Why do most churches place such an emphasis on liturgy, baptism, communion, holy days, Lent, priests, etc.? Ritualistic Christianity fundamentally misrepresents the gift that Jesus died to make available to us! Ritualism turns Christianity from a joyous, exciting personal relationship with God to an impersonal, boring, lifeless system of rituals that makes God a distant figure.
I would not be a Christian today if someone hadn’t corrected this misconception. I hated Christianity because going to church services was like going to a museum or a weekly funeral service commemorating its dead founder. I am so thankful that someone told me that this was not Christianity at all, that Christianity was a life-changing relationship with the living Christ! That message changed my life! Jesus led the way and gave His life to liberate us from ritualism. Let’s follow Him into this freedom!
Conflict over the Sabbath
Read 2:23,24. This is an example of one more man-made Pharisaic rule. The Old Testament law specifically allowed poor people to do this (Deut. 23:25). But the rabbi’s created a vast set (39 Talmudic tractates) of Sabbath no-work laws, including prohibitions against this practice because they defined it as “reaping” and “threshing.”
The fascinating thing is that Jesus could have replied by simply pointing out Deut. 23:25. But He replied in a way that made a different point. Read 2:25,26. Even though only the priest could eat the consecrated bread, it was right for the priests to give this bread to David and his men when they were hungry.
Read 2:27,28. As the Messiah (“Son of Man”), Jesus claimed the authority to interpret and apply God’s will about the Sabbath. But His main point is that even divinely sanctioned ritual laws aren’t as important as human need. God gave the Sabbath to His people to meet their need for rest, not to be a straight-jacket of rules that prevented them from resting!
This is why Jesus goes on the offensive on this same point in 3:1-5 (read; explain rabbinic law against healing non-critically ill people on the Sabbath). When lesser laws become more important than meeting human needs, Jesus always opposed this (see Matt. 9:13).
Note two root conflicts:
Religion’s ethical priorities are ritual observance and rule-keeping vs. Jesus’ ethical priorities are relational compassion and sacrificial love. See Jesus in Matt. 23:23-26 (read). The “weightier provisions” are justice (seeking justice for the poor and oppressed), mercy (to the downtrodden and those who have wronged you), and faithfulness (to reflect God’s character through the above). The Pharisees tithed their garden herbs, but they didn’t love people – and Jesus condemns this as “straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel.” “Christian” religion is full of reversed ethical priorities. EXAMPLES:
Tony Campolo to fundamentalists concerning 3rd world famine victims: “They’re starving, and you don’t give a damn. And what’s worse, you are more upset that I just said ‘damn’ than that these people are starving!”
Fundamentalists who never miss church, but pursue materialism and rationalize sexual immorality.
Religion tends to focus on external and keepable rules – masking and preserving human selfishness, while ignoring the really important ethical issues (Col. 2:23). “Christian” religion looks like this. EXAMPLES:
Badgering new Christians to stop smoking and using off-color language vs. working with the Spirit against more damaging sins (sex; lying; drugs; etc.).
Omissive “niceness” vs. sacrificial love. “I haven’t cut anyone off in traffic, cheated on my taxes, etc.” But have you initiated God’s love toward anyone? Are your leaders “nice” omitters – or rough-around-edges lovers?
The ethical priority of Christianity is a lifestyle of sacrificial, other-centered love toward God and people! This kind of love is impossible to live out unless we are indwelt by and live in dependence upon God’s Spirit (Gal. 5:16,22).