Formations 01.20.2018: Reading Openly

Mark 2:13-22

Bayeux Tapestry Showing a Norman Banquet in England, detail

After a month of holiday traveling, it is the banquet table that I notice most readily in the passage. I’ve sat around at least four family tables this month, and I’ve remembered some others I’ve known. One, my grandparent’s dining room table in Mobile, has often been described as held up by a number of virtues. Among these were hospitality and contrariness.

Joan and Bill kept it well set with the good china. (The dishes would have to be hand washed anyway since they never had a dishwasher.) In the same way, there was always room for another chair—to seat family and friends, and also people whom Bill had met at the grocery store or the bookstore or any other number of places. Dinners at their house started late, and because time was no object, they continued long after people stopped refilling their plates.

This was time for discussion, which I learned at an early age was a synonym for argument. Our family includes the meaningfully religious and theologically informed skeptics. Some of our work orients our vision toward economic growth, and some of our work brings our attention to human nourishment. Under this are scars from much longer conflict. Add to that all our internal conflicts, and there was a recipe for fighting.

I mean to say that I heard people’s morality challenged, intelligence dismissed, etiquette mocked, and capacity for compassion questioned. That some got up early to clear the table and wash dishes, or that others took out the trash, reminds me this part of the table was not a grace for everyone in my family. But for me, it was. It meant I was part of something, even if I were wrong or immoral or unfeeling. Such deep conflict could only be reserved for the most loyal of relationships.

The banquet at Levi’s house raises questions among some religious leaders. Some wonder why he dines with representatives of Rome and sinners (v. 16). Others question his disciples’ choice not to fast (v. 18). Often we have seen these disagreements as proof of Jesus’ uniqueness. He models inclusiveness, we’ve interpreted, while those religious leaders are concerned about internal purity.

But this week I wonder if their vocal disagreement shows their commitment to each other. They are, after all, religious leaders in the same place and tradition, peers in a time of great transition and significant diversity.

As Judaism moved away from the temple—as a result of the exile and, later, Rome’s destruction of the second Temple—its rhythms and rituals came to be centered in the home, the table in particular. In Mark’s passage, a similar dynamic emerges as religious leaders gathered around the table and debated basic questions of covenantal identity and religious disciplines.

To be sure, there are differences between Jesus and these Markan religious leaders. Rather than accepting Jesus’ teachings by condemning his interlocutors, it might be worthwhile this week to model Jesus’ openness to those he disagrees with. We might even discover that the Pharisees and John’s disciples have some things to teach us about addressing disagreements that arise among neighbors.


• Who in your community do you fear interacting with, either because of their sinfulness or righteousness? Why?
• What disagreements seem most threatening to your sense of community and what is right?
• What practices might help you to engage these differences? What practices might help you to be open to different perspectives? What practices might help you to hold to what is right?

Reference Shelf

The Judaism of Mark and Jesus

The commonality of features in Judaism before 70 C.E. should not overshadow its widespread diversity. All agreed that Torah was central, but disagreements arose over how it should be interpreted. Few denied the importance of the sacrificial cult, but some questioned the legitimacy of how it was being carried out. Further disputes arose over such matters as the proper attitude towards the Roman overlords and who should be the spiritual leaders of the people. Ultimately, the very question of the true identity of Israel was at stake. A host of groups, such as the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, and the various unnamed groups reflected in the Pseudepigrapha arose, competing with one another for the allegiance of the people, and, hence, the right to define Judaism on their terms. This diversity, combined with the lack of a clear victor in this period, suggests that before 70 there was no single “normative” or “official” Judaism; rather, there were many “Judaisms.”

The fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. marks the beginning of the second period in the development of Judaism. … Torah scholars such as Gamaliel II gathered to formulate a Judaism which could exist without the Temple cult. Thus, they found counterparts to the various elements of the sacrificial system: the Temple would be replaced by the holy people; the priesthood by the holy man; the sacrifices by the holy way of life of the people. The holy way of life included religious duties, acts of kindness and grace beyond those commanded, and, especially, studying Torah. All Jews, therefore, would become like the sages.

Joseph L. Trafton, “Judaism,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1995), 478.

Traditional Changes

The pharisaic scribes were scandalized that Jesus was eating with “tax collectors and sinners” because by doing so he was crossing the boundary of clean/unclean, flaunting the religious customs of the day, and rendering himself unclean by doing so: “He that undertakes to be trustworthy . . . may not be the guest of an Amhaaretz” (m. Demai 2.2). When Jesus heard the scribes’ question, he responded with the proverb “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (2:17).

The rest of the verse applies the proverb to Jesus’ eating with the “tax collectors and sinners” by way of metaphor: “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (2:17). The saying belongs to a group of sayings in the Synoptic Gospels that begin with “I have come” and define Jesus’ mission. The scandal of this good news is both that Jesus justifies his eating with the outcasts and that he declares that he did not come to call the righteous. The Pharisees would have assumed that they were righteous. Indeed, “the righteous” may have been a self-designation of the Pharisees.

The tension and opposition in the saying in the latter part of v. 17—“not the righteous but sinners”—was typical of Jesus’ sayings. Over time, however, the tension was removed. When the righteous were no longer associated with the Pharisees but with believers, the negation “not the righteous” was omitted. Alternatively, the righteous magnified the power of God’s grace by pointing to their sinfulness. The history of the transmission of this saying, therefore, provides a fascinating study in how the tradition was domesticated so that it could serve the purposes of the church.

R. Alan Culpepper, Mark, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentaries (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2007), 86.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.


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