Lectionary Readings: Deuteronomy 5:12-15; 2 Corinthians 4:6-11; Mark 2:23–3:6
PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE: GOSPEL READINGS: MARK 2:24 and 3:6
Current reading: Mark 2:24: At this, the Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the sabbath?”
Current reading: Mark 3:6: The Pharisees went out and immediately took counsel with the Herodians against him to put him to death.
SPECIAL NOTE RE. MARK 3:6 — We suggest using the Lectionary’s “Shorter Form,” i.e., Mark 2:23-28
The Lectionary allows a choice of readings between a “Longer Form” (Mk. 2:23–3:6) and a “Shorter Form” (Mk. 2:23-28). Using the “Shorter Form” avoids Mark 3:6, which casts the Pharisees in the worst possible light as wanting Jesus killed. Note that this indictment comes very early in Jesus’ ministry. Why Mark made this accusation against the Pharisees, and why so early in his Gospel, is a serious puzzle to biblical scholars. When we come to the trial of Jesus, there is no mention of the Pharisees being “out to get” Jesus, neither in Mark, nor in any of the other Gospels.
After reading the next section, “What Else is Problematic About These Two Readings?”, see if it makes sense to you to avoid Mark 3:6 by using the “Shorter Form.”
WHAT ELSE IS PROBLEMATIC ABOUT THESE TWO READINGS?
In many dictionaries, the word “Pharisee” is defined as “hypocritical,” “self-righteous,” “outwardly but not inwardly religious.” This very negative way of looking at the Pharisees has become imbedded in our very thought patterns so that, for most of us, when we hear the word “Pharisee” we immediately think “hypocrite,” “sanctimonious,” “legalist,” “one who preaches but doesn’t practice.” It is very common in sermons, both in Catholic and Protestant churches, to hear the Pharisees described as if they were the “bad guys” in contrast to Jesus and his disciples, the “good guys.” Since the Pharisees were leaders in the Jewish community, it may be tempting for those who hear these readings to extend this negative view to all Jews, including our Jewish neighbors today.
No one would deny that there were tensions and disagreements between Jesus and at least some of the Pharisees. The Pharisees had their program for the reform of Palestinian Judaism, whereas Jesus had different ideas. These disputes over the best future direction for the Jewish community may well have led to heated exchanges between them.
According to many scholars, however, the unflattering portrayal of the Pharisees found in Mark and elsewhere in the New Testament is very one-sided and does not take into account their positive characteristics and contribution to the spiritual life of their day.
The Pharisees in Jesus’ time were a lay movement, outside the Temple administration, whose goal was to renew and extend the observance of Jewish practice in society. According to Josephus, the (roughly contemporary) Jewish historian, they were popular among the common people. They were predecessors of the rabbis, who authored the Talmud, the spiritual classic still treasured by Jews today. They produced extraordinary leaders, like Hillel, who was admired for his brilliance, patience, goodness and scholarship. A famous story about him says that, when asked to recite the whole Torah while standing on one foot, he is credited with answering, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah. All the rest is commentary.”
Why, then, do the Gospel accounts tend to lump the Pharisees together and portray Jesus as sometimes excoriating them?
One explanation that New Testament scholars give is that arguing with highly inflated language was the style of that day. Another is that the heightened language was provoked by the intense rivalry between members of the nascent and quickly-growing early Church and the Pharisees, who alone (after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE) remained as major competitors of the Christians as interpreters of the Hebrew scriptures. “Mark was written at a time when, sadly, Christians and Jews were beginning to experience each other less as brothers and friends and more as enemies.” (Professor Robert J. Daly, S.J., “Removing Anti-Judaism from the Pulpit: Four Approaches,” in Kee and Borowsky, Removing Anti-Judaism from the Pulpit (N.Y.: Continuum, 1996), pg. 56)
WHAT CAN A MINISTER DO?
Modify the wording in the readings
For Mark 2:24: At this, some of the Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the on the sabbath?”
For Mark 3:6 (in case you decide to read it, rather than using the “Short Form,” which we recommend): Jesus’ opponents among the Pharisees went out and immediately took counsel with the Herodians against him to put him to death.
PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE: GOSPEL READINGS: MARK 2:27
Current reading: Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath . . . “
This is not directly anti-Judaic, but it is sometimes construed as an idea that Jesus thought up or invented and which is not present in Judaism. It carries an anti-Judaic tone when this thought is interpreted as in opposition to the (supposed) sabbatical (and “inhuman”) intransigence of “the Pharisees” or of Judaism as a whole.
However, the first reading, from Deuteronomy 5:12-15, shows precisely Israel’s (and God’s) sabbath concern for “man,” for human beings, for human welfare. In that passage, not only are the free Israelites not to “work” on the sabbath, but their children, their slaves, and even their animals are also to rest, because “you were once slaves in Egypt.”
WHAT CAN A MINISTER DO?
It probably would be good to point out in the homily that Jesus was speaking in harmony with a long Jewish tradition, not in opposition to it.