15 And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. 16 When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 17 When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
18 Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” 19 Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. 20 The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.
21 “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. 22 And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.”
23 One sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” 25 And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? 26 He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” 27 Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; 28 so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”
After his encounter with the scribes and the healing of the paralytic, Jesus continues his teaching tour. As he he walking along, he calls a man named Levi, who just happens to be a tax collector.
Myers comments: "Levi, a customs official, will have represented a socially outcast - though economically secure - class. Distinct from so-called tax-farmers, who oversaw collection of the major land taxes and tributes, toll collectors were usually Jews under the employ of Roman or Herodian administrators...The toll collectors' widespread reputation for dishonesty, and the fact that they were bureaucratic representatives of the oppressive politico-economic order, meant they were a shunned caste in Judaism, even to the point of often being denied basic civil rights (Myers, 157)."
Jesus is again reaching out to those who have been cast out of the community. Here Levi, a toll collector, may have been in a state of social death, being denied active participation in the life of the community. Jesus includes him, and others labeled as sinners, in the realm of the kingdom of God.
Conflict with the Pharisees
The next three encounters (2:15-17; 18-22; 23-28) introduce Jesus' conflict with the Pharisaic movement. In these episodes we explore how "Jesus' direct action campaign confronts the central tenets of the Pharisaic holiness code: their rules of table fellowship, public piety, and maintenance of the Sabbath (Myers, 158)."
2:15-17 Conflict over Table Fellowship
In this episode, Jesus is reclining at the table with his disciples, tax collectors, and sinners. The English translation records that he is "sitting" at the table, but this alludes to a modern conception of eating. Here Mark has a specific table moment in mind. The Greek word katakeimai communicates that Jesus was "reclining at the table," a Hellenistic eating custom where one leans on the left elbow. This is a particular type of meal used by those with privilege to confirm, extend, and demonstrate their status within the community. This concept is known as table fellowship.
Table fellowship is an important concept for understanding some of the interactions we encounter in scripture. Table fellowship was a construct for social and status interactions in antiquity. It communicated your level of status and your place within the community.
Sinners, tax collectors, and the poor - those with no status - were not invited to participate.
The Pharisees - who had little status in the over all structure of society - would participate and model these meals to demonstrate what status they had amongst the people. The conflict arises when Jesus enters into a moment of table fellowship and does not play by the social norms or the Pharisees rules.
Myers argues that Mark is "'elaborating' the Pharisaic symbolics of the meal to reveal their real concern: not the welfare of the masses, but their own class status (Myers, 158)."
Jesus interacts and shares meal with those in need, those who do not have a place in the community (literally a place a the table). Jesus welcomes all to the table, offering a social wholeness previously denied to those labeled as outcasts.
"Jesus' concluding maxim in 2:17 unmasks the Pharisaic duplicity: for all their rhetoric about extending holiness to all of Israel, their practice betrays their commitment to rigid social boundaries between the 'righteous' and the 'sinner' (Myers, 158)."
Jesus has come to demonstrate true righteousness. Not the false, self-serving righteousness of the Pharisees.
2:18-22 Fasting and Conflict over Public Piety
Fasting was one way to show piety - demonstrating devotion to God - in a public way. In antiquity, life was more public. Private homes were the rarest form of housing. Others knew your daily patterns, eating habits, status, and familial practices. In other words, other would know you were fasting.
The Pharisees are calling Jesus' disciples for not fasting. Here we have another instance of the Pharisees potentially setting the rules and calling out/shaming others for not following. Thus calling their status within the community into question.
Myers cites Vincent Taylor: "The only fast enjoyed by the Law was that of the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29; cf. Acts 27:9), but additional fasts were observed by the Pharisees, twice in the week, on Mondays and Thursdays (cf. Luke 18:12...). Traditional fasts, commemorative of historical events...were also observed (Myers 159)."
The Pharisees have set other fasting times and membership in the community seems to be bound to participation. By not participating, Jesus again enters into a moment of conflict.
For Jesus, fasting is not the issue. It is how we draw the boundaries of community and recognize others in our midst. Jesus demonstrates that life in the community of the kingdom of God is more that religious hoops to jump through to demonstrate piety. Jesus is again breaking down barriers and extending the reach of community.
2:23-28 Picking Grain as Social Commentary on Access to Food
Jesus and his disciples are constantly on the move. This episode demonstrates that even Sabbath is not off limits to their journeying. On top of their traveling, the disciples are also picking grain to eat on the way. This brings about another conflict.
Jesus references 1 Samuel 21:1-6 when he describes the actions of King David, who was on a military campaign when he and his men ate the bread of the presence. They are literally on a mission from God (Thanks "Blues Brothers!)
Myers argues that "the point would seem to be that the disciples have a right to commandeer grain, because they too are on a campaign with Jesus, who will later be revealed as superior to David (Myers, 160)."
Access to food seems to be an issue here - one that transcends this moment and will return in Jesus' ministry. Jesus tells that Pharisees that David and his men took the bread because they "were hungry and in need of food (2:25)." Myers cites that "the hunger of the poor is explained in a symbolic way as setting Israel its central religious task, one taking precedence even over the duty of observing the Sabbath (Myers, 160)."
As the previous stories demonstrate, Jesus is willing to consume food in ways and with people that upset the religious leaders. He is defying the boundaries and limits that they have placed on access to food. He is challenging how they share resources with the poor and needy.
"First Jesus defended his (and his disciples') right to break bread with the social outcast (2:15-17). Then he asserts their freedom to ignore ritual noneating practices Fasting): such piety, after all, was a luxury for the affluent, not for the poor for whom hunger was an involuntary and bitter reality (2:18-22)! Now Mark escalates his attack: he justifies the disciples' right to break the law by procuring grain on the Sabbath in a situation of hunger (2:23-28) (Myers, 160)."
Access to food equals power. The Pharisees played some role in the distribution of food that was collected through the temple system. Access to food and its distribution is then a political activity - this still happens today!
"The disciples' commandeering grain against Sabbath regulations must from this perspective be seen as a protest of 'civil disobedience' over the politics of food in Palestine...Mark consistently argues that solidarity with the poor also means addressing oppressive structures (Myers, 161)."
We will encounter how food - access and distribution- and the kingdom of God intersect as we continue to follow Jesus.
Questions for Modern Day Disciples
1) How do we share food with others?
2) Who do we share food with?
3) How do we create systems and structures that get in the way of access to food for those in need?
4) How do we help break down these structures?
We will continue to encounter these questions as we see how Jesus continue to interact with food and how he shares it with others.
Next week we move on to chapter 3.
Blessings on the way!