Nobody Expects the Pharisaic Inquisition! (Mark 2:23-28)

by The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund on March 10, 2021

There’s an old Monty Python bit where a man and a woman are talking, and the man speaks too fast to be understood.  The woman keeps asking him for clarification on what he’s trying to say, and then in frustration with all the questions the man says, “I didn’t expect a sort of Spanish Inquisition!”  Dramatic horns blare, and then in burst three ‘Spanish Inquisitors’ in severe clerical garb.  “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!” one of them cries, and the skit is off and running.  It is quintessential absurd British humor.

 

While this passage from Marks’ Gospel isn’t quite that absurd, it’s close.  Jesus and his disciples are walking through some grainfields on the sabbath, and as they walk his disciples pluck heads of grain (2:23).  Suddenly, as if leaping out from behind a row of corn, a group of Pharisees appears and asks, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” (2:24)  You can almost hear the question in Michael Palin’s smugly accusing voice.  Nobody expects the Pharisaic Inquisition!

 

The setup for this story is incredibly contrived.  For Jesus and his disciples to be walking through grainfields doesn’t raise an eyebrow, but for there to be a band of Pharisees out there just waiting for them is ridiculous.  It would be as though you were out at the ranch in the deer blind early one Sunday morning, and suddenly your vicar or maybe a Professor of Old Testament just popped out from behind a live oak and started shrieking questions about whether you were going to make it back in time for church.  It’s a funny skit about cranky church people, but it’s not something that happens in real life.

 

This story caricatures the Pharisees, a group with whom Mark the Evangelist was clearly competing.  We learned last week a little of who the Pharisees were, so today we’ll skip most of that and take a look at what Mark’s point might be.  We’ll address three questions today: what is and is not permitted on the sabbath; how Mark shows Jesus beating the Pharisees at their own game; and why Mark puts this scene in a grainfield of all places?

 

First, what can you do on the sabbath?  There are two biblical texts that are helpful here.  The first is Deuteronomy 23:24-25.  These verses make it clear that if you walk through your neighbor’s farm, whether a vineyard or field of grain, you are allowed to eat whatever you pick with your hands.  However, you are not allowed to fill a container with grapes or to harvest whole bushels of grain with a sickle.  The point is that nobody is allowed to prevent their neighbor from satisfying their immediate hunger from the fruits of the land, and that those who are hungry are not allowed to take more than they immediately need.  This is a ‘daily bread’ kind of provision, and it appears to be what Jesus and his disciples are doing.  Clearly, the Torah is deeply concerned with ensuring hungry people can eat.  It’d be a bit like saying, “if you’re grilling hamburgers, and someone wanders into your backyard, they’re allowed to take a burger from the grill, but not to fill up a Tupperware container with them.”

 

But there’s nothing about the sabbath there, only an emphasis on making sure people can eat.  This brings us to another text, Exodus 34:21.  This one makes it clear that you are not to farm on the sabbath, “even in plowing time and in harvest time you shall rest.”  Plowing time and harvest time would’ve been some of the most critical times for doing farm work, yet the Torah says even then, the sabbath is the sabbath.  So, clearly, the Torah also doesn’t intend for folks to start making lots of exceptions to sabbath observance. 

 

But what do you do if there are hungry people on the sabbath who aren’t farming (as in Ex. 34:21) but simply picking by hand to fill their bellies (as in Deut. 23:24-25)?  There is a tension in the Torah here: you can’t farm, but can you do what Jesus and his disciples are doing?  This is the kind of tension that Pharisees, who are experts at oral interpretation of the Torah, would want to resolve by way of argument. 

 

This brings us to our second task: how Jesus beats the Pharisees at their own game.  Jesus’ response to the Pharisaic Inquisition begins with a little barb: “Have you never read…?” (Mark 2:25).  The Pharisees are well-educated experts, and so Jesus begins by calling their expertise into question.  Jesus then gets pretty freehanded with his biblical interpretation.  The story Jesus references is 1 Samuel 21:1-6.  Jesus says that David and his followers were hungry and in need of food, so they entered the house of God and ate the holy bread, which would normally have been off limits to them (Mark 2:25-26).  “Why shouldn’t we do the same?” Jesus asks.


What Jesus doesn’t say is that that there’s nothing about the Sabbath in the David story, that David only takes the bread after talking to the chief priest, and that David (along with his followers) was an outlaw in the midst of a war at the time—an outlaw who would eventually become the rightful king.[1]  It may be worth noting that there was precedent for making exceptions to sabbath regulations during times of war.  (See 1 Maccabees 2:29-41.)  Is Jesus suggesting that he and his followers are like outlaws in the midst of a kind of war, and that like David, he himself will one day become the rightful king?

 

Maybe, but these might be some large interpretive leaps.[2]  It may be more likely that Jesus is simply outdoing the Pharisees at their own kind of interpretation.  We saw last week that one of the Pharisees’ goals was to open up ritual observance of purity regulations (and therefore holiness) to everyone, not just priests in and around the Temple in Jerusalem.  When Jesus references David and his followers eating the “bread of the presence” (2:26), Jesus calls attention to a scriptural moment when non-priests ate bread belonging to God that only priests were allowed to eat (Ex. 25:30, Lev. 24:5-9).

 

It seems to me that’s the kind of move a Pharisee might actually like: take what is usually restricted to priests in the sanctuary and expand it to include others.  Jesus uses their own interpretive strategy against them: if bread offered to God on a sanctuary altar can be given to non-priests, then how much more can freestanding grain in a field be given to hungry people on the sabbath?[3]  Jesus argues that the sabbath exists for humanity, not the other way around.  He concludes his response to this Pharisaic Inquisition by saying “the Son of Man is Lord even of the sabbath” (2:28).  We’ll return to this phrase in future weeks.

 

Third, we’ve already seen that the setup for this debate about the sabbath is wholly contrived.  Mark as a storyteller goes out of his way to put Pharisees out in the grainfield where they would not actually be.  Why?  Why not a more believable setting like a town marketplace, maybe?  Or why not just have the Pharisees ask Jesus a direct question in a synagogue, which Mark clearly sees as a possibility (Mark 3:1-6, for example)? 

 

Mark may be playing to his audience: rural, agrarian folks in Galilee who live at or not much above the subsistence level in regards to security.  Remember last week, when Jesus used the image of patching an old cloak to make a point?  It’s poorer folks, not wealthy elites, who would be familiar with patching old clothes.  There’s a similar dynamic at work here.  Not only do we see Jesus in the grainfields where many rural Galileans worked, but Jesus and his disciples pluck grain by hand to eat it—which is something folks who are insecure in regards to food may often have had to do, especially those forced to work someone else’s land and not their own.

 

But this scene isn’t just an example of Mark depicting Jesus and his disciples as amongst the common folks of Galilee; it’s also an illustration of symbolic protest by the Jesus movement against those in power, represented here by the Pharisees, who are not acting in the best interests of ordinary people.  There are several aspects to this, not least of which is the history of imperial invasion Galilee had suffered for generations by the time of Mark’s writing.  Invading empires taking land and giving it to the veterans of their wars; Jewish families having to resort to tenant farming on other people’s land; younger sons having nothing to inherit and resorting to work as hired day laborers.[4]  The Pharisees aren’t the cause of many of these land/agriculture problems, but from Mark’s perspective, they’re not helping solve them and are in some ways making it worse. 

 

How? We saw last week how the Pharisees had a long, pro-Jewish history of resisting not only Rome but also the Sadducees.  You’ll recall that the Sadducees consolidated their power in Jerusalem, the Temple in particular.  Part of this dynamic meant that the Sadducees argued that all the agricultural tithes of grain, wine, and the like had to be brought to Jerusalem first and then distributed appropriately.  The reforming Pharisees, however, emphasized local control of tithed grain and other agricultural products.  Keep Galilean produce in Galilee.  So far, so good.

 

However, once the grain was cut from the stalk, it became subject to certain purity codes which determined what grain was fit for consumption; these codes were the purview of the Pharisees.[5]  Thus, while the Pharisees helped make sure that more Galilean grain stayed physically in Galilee, they were also increasing their own power over a food supply they themselves weren’t likely involved in growing.  The Pharisees’ reform efforts didn’t actually do all that much to make Galilean peasants more secure in regard to food.[6]  A loose analogy might be to say that, if the Sadducees are like the bishop and diocesan staff in San Antonio, then Pharisaic reforms might increase the power and security of parish clergy across the diocese, but not necessarily do much tangible good for the laity.

 

All these dynamics are conjured by the grainfield, the symbolic site both of God’s providence and of Galilean struggles for survival and power.  Jesus and his followers are in the grainfields on which (along with the sea and its fish) their lives depend, plucking grain and freely eating it, and all in defiance of religious leaders who should be on their side but who (at least in Mark’s view) are too busy shoring up their own power.  Moments like this give us a clue as to who Mark sees as the real core of the early Jesus movement—poorer rural folks—and this is part of what makes Mark’s Gospel so unique and powerful: “Mark’s story of Jesus stands virtually alone among the literary achievements of antiquity for one reason: it is a narrative for and about the common people.”[7] 

 

We’ve done a lot of background work this week and last.  Next week, we’ll tie some threads together from these first two chapters and see how chapter 3 starts off with a bang: we have our first conspirators against Jesus.  The plot thickens!

 

God’s Peace,

Fr. Daniel+


[1] Mark also has Jesus say Abiathar was the high priest at the time, when it was actually Abiathar’s father Ahimilech.  Doh! Compare Mark 2:26 and 1 Samuel 21:1-2.

[2] However, it could be that Jesus and his disciples are shown here as “commandeering” grain in a way similar to David’s commandeering holy bread during military action.  It’s worth noting that Jesus will later “commandeer” an ass (11:3) and be revealed as greater even than David (12:35).  See Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: a Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (20th anniversary edition, 10th printing, Dec 2017) Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2008, 160.

[3] If we read this with our Christian doctrinal glasses on, we might even read this as a subtle suggestion from Jesus that grain in a grain field is to him as bread offered to God in a sanctuary is to God, and that Jesus’ disciples are like the priests of that same sanctuary.  This is not Mark’s point; it is simply an analogy that is available to us later Christians as we turn to scripture for articulating our own full-blown Christian doctrines, which are necessarily beyond Mark’s immediate concerns.  However, if, in our own day, we focus on Jesus’ divinity in the interest of doctrine, as this analogy does, we risk obscuring Mark’s real historical emphasis on actual human hunger and the very real concern over food.  I offer this as an example: our ongoing temptation as Christian readers of ancient texts like Mark is to focus on Jesus’ divinity and not on the actual historical realities with which Jesus engaged.

[4] Recall the “hired men” left behind in the fishing boats with Zebedee in Mark 1:20.

[5] We've already seen how issues of bodily purity were adjudicated by priests and could determine one’s level of social inclusion.  (Recall the story of the leper Jesus cleanses in Mark 1:40-45.). There’s a similar issue here, only the issue is the food supply. 

[6] See Myers noted above, 161.

[7] Ched Myers, noted above.  See page 39.

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