Mark 2:15-20 – 2:23-28, 3:1-6 – Two Sabbath Controversies


Mark 2:15-20


Two controversies over the Sabbath illustrate the expanse of Jesus’ authority and drive a wedge between him and the Pharisees and Herodians.


The Sabbath occupies an important place in the religious life of the Jewish people because according to Genesis 1 it is built into the fabric of creation. Rest on the Sabbath was seen as necessary for all of the world to function, and so traditions grew up to safeguard people from having to work on that day. While Jesus’ first healing in a synagogue on the Sabbath did not directly lead to controversy (1:21-28), the Sabbath quickly became a point of contention between him and other Jewish groups.

Just as with the controversy over fasting, the first Sabbath controversy involves the behavior of Jesus’ disciples. They make their way through a field of grain, plucking the ears as they go. It is somewhat unclear how exactly they have violated the Sabbath. Some have pointed to a prohibition against harvesting on the Sabbath, others to a prohibition against travel. Regardless of the precise violation, their behavior offends the Pharisees, who appeal to their teacher, Jesus. Rather than scold his disciples as the Pharisees hope, Jesus takes the opportunity to engage in a novel bit of biblical interpretation. He defends them by pointing to David’s eating of priestly bread with the implication that he is like David and finds himself in a time of need, thus excusing his followers’ behavior. If that explanation did not convince them, he goes on to make an even bolder claim: He is Lord of the Sabbath and thus he can decide whether something is lawful on the Sabbath or not.

This grand expansion of Jesus’ authority provokes the Pharisees and changes their views of his actions. Whereas amazement was the reaction the first time that Jesus healed on the Sabbath, this time the Pharisees are hoping that they can use a healing as an opportunity to accuse Jesus of being a breaker of Jewish law. He responds with anger and publicly shames them through the impressiveness of his healing deed. As a result, the Pharisees go out to plot with the followers of Herod in order to destroy Jesus. Thus, less than a quarter of the way through Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ life is already at risk.