The Essential Jesus: His Life & Teaching

Conflict with Religious Leaders

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Gary DeLashmutt

Mark 2:13-28


Comparing the mentality of Jesus versus the mentality of the Pharisees highlights three conflicts: 1) conflict over Jesus' associates; 2) conflict over fasting; and 3) conflict over the Sabbath. The Pharisees emphasize separation from sinners, impersonal ritualism, and keeping minor external rules. Jesus emphasizes initiation with sinners, having a personal relationship with God, and loving people. Jesus' way of living can be motivated and empowered by his love in our lives.


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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. Once again, we will use Mark’s gospel as our base text. 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 Mark 3:6). This conflict continued over the next 3 years—until it led finally to 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, there were irreconcilable differences between them. Jesus loved them--but he hated the religious mentality they promoted, and he fought it literally to his death.

Unfortunately, the religious mentality of the Pharisees has infected Christianity. In fact, it can infect every church (including Xenos) and every individual Christian (including you and me). In order to avoid this infection, we must understand and reject the religious mentality. That’s why this passage is so important. The specific conflicts here between Jesus and the Pharisees highlight the irreconcilable differences between biblical Christianity and the religious mentality. Let’s look at these conflicts--not only to understand the specific disagreements, but also the root difference in mentality.

Conflict over Jesus’ associates

Read 2:13-15. The fact that Jesus included Levi as one of his disciples, and that he included many of Levi’s friends as his followers was utterly scandalous to the Pharisees.

Tax-collectors were “notorious sinners.” They worked for hated Rome (backed up by Roman soldiers) and were on total commission. The rabbis called them “licensed robbers” and “wild beasts in human form.” They were excommunicated from the synagogues and viewed as 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. Like a lot of people (including many of us), he was probably looking for love in all the wrong places. And when heard Jesus, he recognized the love he had been looking for. And when he entrusted himself to Jesus, Jesus’ love changed his life. When Jesus gave him the opportunity to join his band of workers, he was delighted to quit his job to do so. Probably the party in 2:15 was thrown by Levi to celebrate his salvation—and was a great opportunity for him and Jesus to invite his friends to believe (and many did).

But 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 things:

The only people who are beyond the reach of Jesus’ forgiveness and healing are the self-righteous! The issue with Jesus is never 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!

The root conflict here was between Jesus’ insistence on initiating God’s love toward “sinners” vs. religion’s insistence on “separation” from them. (The Pharisees even developed a “sin kooties” theology to justify their separation!) In the end, we must choose which is more important: to make it as difficult as possible for us to sin (Pharisees) or to make it as easy as possible for people to come to Christ (Jesus).

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 bequeath to them a love of this in their own lives, you have failed with your children no matter how “safe” you have kept them!

“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!

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. They fasted twice a week, and this was just one part of a huge emphasis on ritual observance, which they viewed as central to personal piety. 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.”

So the root conflict is over two different ways to relate to God: Jesus’ emphasis on relating personally to God vs. Religion’s emphasis on relating to God impersonally through ritual observance.

You may be thinking, “But the Old Testament prescribed relating to God through rituals.” That’s true--God gave them hundreds of rituals to observe, and he carefully regulated how they observed them. But the reason he did this is not because he prefers rituals over relationship. God always wanted to indwell his followers with his Spirit so they could know him personally. But sin separates us from God and makes this impossible. So God taught his people to relate to him through rituals that were prophetic pictures of how his Messiah would one day to pay for their sins and liberate them to relate to him personally. In fact, the Old Testament itself recognized that this was an inferior and temporary arrangement until Messiah came (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 deeply personal love relationship! You can’t miss this contrast if you read the Old Testament and New Testament: 100’s vs. 2; detailed prescription vs. little detail; predictive vs. commemorative.

The good news is this personal love relationship with God through Jesus. Why is Christianity virtually equated with ritual observance? Why does the church 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 make 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. We cannot embrace a ritualistic Christianity without betraying our leader!

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 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 the consecrated bread of the Old Testament temple was to be eaten only by priests, it was right for the priests to give this bread to David and his men when they were hungry.

Read 2:27,28. Note briefly yet another Messianic claim in 2:28. As the Messiah (cf. Dan. 7:13), 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 become 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 and explain rabbinic law against healing non-critically ill people on the Sabbath). When lesser laws become more important than meeting human needs, this is religious wickedness that Jesus went out of his way to reject and oppose!

What’s the root conflict? Jesus’ ethical priorities (“majoring in majors”) vs. Religion’s reversed ethical priorities (“majoring in minors”).

See Jesus in Matt. 23:23-26. The “weightier provisions” are costly love for other people (seeking justice for the poor and oppressed, showing mercy to those who have wronged you, being faithful to love people who annoy you and test your patience). 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.”

Religion tends to focus on external and keepable rules, masking human selfishness while ignoring the really important ethical issues. Christian religion is full of this reversal of ethical priorities. EXAMPLES:

Fundamentalist after Sunday night “road-warriors” CT: “But I saw people smoking!” Which is more important--to stop smoking or reach the lost?

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!”

Youth leader after elders called on him to reprove a recent convert for saying “S___” during his baptism testimony: “I will reprove him, but I will also have to reprove the tattle-tales who told you--but who never share their faith.”

Church sermons that thunder away at watching PG-13 or R-rated movies--but never a sermon against materialism, forgiving, etc.

“I haven’t cut anyone off in traffic, cheated on my taxes, etc.” But have you initiated God’s love toward anyone?

The ethical priority of Christianity is a lifestyle of sacrificial, other-centered love! This kind of love is impossible to live out unless we stay in living touch with God’s love for us and in humble dependence upon his Spirit. Let’s make sure that we major in majors!

Copyright 2004 Gary DeLashmutt