You likely know the expression friendly fire. It’s a tragic expression, really, because there is nothing ‘friendly’ in it at all. It is the horrible scenario in war where a soldier finds him or herself in the wrong place at the wrong time, shot at by their own fellow troops. But why mention this with reference to Mark’s gospel?
The Gospel of Mark is written to a group of suffering Christians, believers coming under attack from a hostile kingdom, an empire (the Roman Empire, to be precise) that doesn’t like them. One would think, therefore, that much of Mark would be about this attack; and it is. But, in fact, in the early chapters of Mark’s gospel, it is another attack, far more insidious, that receives the most specific attention, the attack by the religious people of the day, the leaders of Israel. This is ‘friendly fire.’ Those people were Jesus’s own peeps. They should have ‘got it.’ But they didn’t. Quite the opposite, when faced with Jesus, God incarnate, they attacked him. What should have been friendly, leaders of Israel recognizing their messiah, instead became friendly fire, except hardly so friendly.
The lesson for the church today: so many of us fear the oppression of the broader society. Yet in precisely such a context, because of that fear, Christians often end up attacking their own people first, the ones they do not feel are adamant enough about the cultural issue of the day. The biggest threat to the gospel comes, so often, from those inside the church. Now don’t get me wrong – purity matters, deeply. But those who set out to defend the church often attack the wrong people, just as it was in Jesus’ day – friendly fire.
Have you heard the old joke? A doctor came in to his patient and announced: “Sir I have some good news for you and some bad news”. The patient replied, “Give me the good news first.” “Well,” the doctor said, “I’m sorry to say that you only have 7 days to live.” “What on earth is the bad news?” he replied. “I should have told you 6 days ago.”
Mark’s gospel begins with some very good news in chapter 1, then some bad. The king has come, bringing his kingdom. There is more good news to go with this. The king is the one whose power and authority cannot be resisted, even by the most powerful beings in the universe. More than this, the king is a compassionate king, not one who will treat his own people lightly. He knows each of this own, he cares for them. But he does expect something from them. Because of this good news of who he is, the king expects his people to trust him and to announce from the rooftops, without fear, that he is indeed king!
So, what is the bad news? Not all will acknowledge this good news. Not all will think it ‘good.’ In fact, there will be not just violent opposition from evil people, but also a kind of insidious opposition, an opposition of a religious kind, an opposition that will try to dilute the power of what is occurring, an opposition attempting to undermine what the king expects his people to proclaim, making it even more difficult for them. Sometimes the violent and direct opposition can be bad. But sometimes the other kind can be worse, the slow burn, that insidious kind of opposition.
It sounds odd to say so, but we probably do best to note that writing an account of Jesus’s life – the Gospel of Mark – was for Mark more a means to an end than the end in itself. What Mark felt compelled to do was to encourage suffering Christians. The means he chose was to recount the story of Jesus’s life and ministry—Jesus the powerful yet compassionate king. This realization helps us keep Mark’s purpose firmly in mind, rather than just imagining that he sat down one day to summarize the life of Jesus.
Where did Mark’s idea of this king come from? The best way to make sense of Mark’s gospel is to read Isaiah 40-66, the story of a powerful king coming to liberate his people from their captivity under the power of an evil foreign ruler. This king will be different, we learn in Isaiah 42. He will be compassionate, not crying out in the street, not snuffing out a smoldering wick, not breaking a bruised reed. This king will gently carry the captives back, as chapter 40 says, with his victory so exciting (we read in chapters 40 and 41) that it is good news that must be proclaimed!
How do we know this is crucial to the story of Mark? Because right at the start of his book he launches everything off with a quote from Isaiah 40, a section which contains all the information we’ve just spoken about:
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,
“Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way,
the voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
(Mark 1:1–3, ESV)
Wanting to start with the good news, Mark tells us a tale of the king on chapter 1 that is fabulous! He is compassionate and kind, but he has authority too! So, all begins well.
But then comes the bad news in 2:1-3:6. The king’s rule is contested. Everything begins to go south, not because the king isn’t strong enough and not because he isn’t compassionate enough, but because he faces heavy resistance… starting with the insidious work of those who should accept him but don’t.
Then, finally, 3:7-12 is an upturn: having got the good news and then the bad news, Mark follows with good news again, returning, in a way, to summarize chapter 1.
Sometimes we need to hear good news first, to have it reiterated. That’s Mark 1 and then Mark 3:7-12. Jesus is king. Jesus is on the throne. Even if it doesn’t look like he is in charge of this world and in charge of our lives, we can and must trust him. This is the good news we need to keep in mind, and often we need to hear it first… and then hear it again and again. Sometimes if we watch too much news, all we get is a steady dose of bad news about the world. This is not necessarily healthy. We need to continually be reminded of the good news, so we do not despair. Then we can look at the bad news and see it clearly, in context.
Sometimes the worst kind of resistance is ‘friendly fire’, now meaning resistance not from true allies, but from avenues that seem to be friendly. We see exactly this as we look more closely at the message of Mark 2:18-3-12.
Who are these who resist the king’s work? Was it not the Romans, they who ruled and would brook no other king? Interestingly the Romans don’t really get much attention in Mark. In Mark’s gospel, the Romans are probably best equated with the forces of evil, the work of demons, whom Jesus brushes aside time and again with just a word.
In fact, these main resistive forces are not human. Nero was throwing Christians to wild beasts, which is why in Mark 1 we read that Jesus was driven out into the wilderness with the wild beasts. One would think that if Mark was writing to Christians suffering under the hands of Nero, he would want to name names. But Mark recognizes that our battle is ultimately not against flesh and blood, but against evil forces. This is sobering, helping us to realize the extent of the battle.
The second main point of resistance which immediately gets attention in Mark 2:1-3:6 is not the Romans, but the ‘insiders,’ as it were, people who should so appreciate the coming of Jesus but do not, i.e., the Jewish authorities.
Another feature of Mark’s gospel is his great love for physical locations, his use of them to mark out similar things happening. The sea is often a place for the good news to be preached and for people to be called into the kingdom. The synagogue and sabbath (for reasons we will get to in a moment) tend to be where/when resistance takes place, and the house is a mixed bag, where both good and bad can take place. So, in 2:1-12, inside the house, some good things take place, a man has his sins forgiven and he gets healed. But also, there is disturbing resistance here: the religious leaders reckon Jesus as a blasphemer. In 2:13-17 the action then moves to the lake and Levi is called, a repeat of the evangelistic callings in chapter 1 where the other disciples are set apart to be fishers of men. But then things move into Levi’s house, where some good things happen (he mixes with needy people.), but also some bad things happen too (he is judged by the Jewish leaders for doing so). This, then, brings us to our section in question.
Mark 2:18-22 is one of the few places in Mark where we are not told the location. Is it still in Levi’s house? Clearly, Mark 2:18 starts a different topic and involves new characters: we read in v. 18 that a new group of people come to ask Jesus a pointed question:
18 Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came and asked Jesus, “How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?” 19 Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. 20 But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast. 21 “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse. 22 And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.”
This non-stated location makes Mark 2:18-22 ‘feel’ more general, more universal, and thus that it makes a general profound statement about what is happening.
Also, the question these “people” ask is a tricky one. John the Baptist has been a very positive figure in Mark so far, but the Pharisees have not. And yet, here the two are grouped together in opposition to Jesus. What this does is give Jesus a chance to point out how he is part of alternate eras, a changing of the guard. The old way, the way of old covenant Israel, is not the way of things. Indeed, the old way and the new way do not mix! If one put a new patch onto an old garment, then it will tear the old garment when it shrinks. And, similarly, if one pours new wine into an old wineskin it will burst.
What begins to become clear is that Jesus is in the process of doing something new and profound, something that is not necessarily of a different character to the old—we still have a garment and its patch, wine and a wineskin—but within such continuity is also discontinuity.
What are we to make of this? The opposition so far in chapter 2, the ‘bad news,’ has all centered on the Jewish leaders and how they question Jesus. Now Jesus drops the bombshell of ‘friendly fire,’ i.e., that Israel (of all places!) is not necessarily the place where Jesus and his people will find the most support. What seems to go together does not necessarily go together as you might think it would. This leads naturally to the next section of Mark 2, which extends this theme further:
23 One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” 25 He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? 26 In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.” 27 Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”
Notice where the action goes next? It moves to a new time, the Sabbath, the Jewish day of rest, which like the synagogue, is often portrayed by Mark as negative. And here indeed is a negative interaction. Jesus walks along and picks grain in a field, but the Pharisees question why he is doing what is against the law. Jesus’s answer is extraordinary. He draws attention to the Old Testament. But in doing so he draws attention to a part that seems to speak to a discontinuity within the continuity—the king, king David, seems to have the right to reinterpret who may eat. Notice how Jesus himself states that the eating of the consecrated bread was only lawful for the priests. But David is king of this moment, and so Jesus applies this to himself (as it were) as the new king. He is Lord even of the Sabbath!
Note one other thing, a theme from Isaiah 40-66 that we mentioned already, which has already been emphasized throughout Mark, the theme that the king is a compassionate king. There are undertones of this theme here as well. What is the principle behind the law, i.e., this law or any law for that matter? The good of people. God does not just make up laws for the sake of it. So, the Sabbath is made for people, not people for the Sabbath. This section clarifies that Jesus is both the compassionate king and the Lord, doing as he wishes, just as David did. Combining the two, Mark’s report emphasizes that what Jesus chooses to do is to allow what is helpful to people on the Sabbath.
All this takes us directly to the next section, the beginning of chapter 3, a section occurring in the synagogue (let the reader understand), but which also (as we soon learn) happened on the Sabbath:
Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. 2 Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. 3 Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.” 4 Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent. 5 He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. 6 Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.
Here the hostility rises even further beyond the passages we have seen so far. Now the ‘friendly fire’ turns into outright hostility. Notice again, consistent with Isaiah 40-66, Jesus is the compassionate king. He wants desperately to heal this poor man. But even before we are told about Jesus’s desire to help one in trouble, we learn that the religious leaders had more evil motives. They were watching Jesus to try and find something to accuse him. They find it in this: Jesus wants to heal the man on the Sabbath. He tries to reason with them. But they will not listen to reason. They simply want to bring Jesus down. Yet Jesus will not have it. He is determined to do what is best, what is compassionate on the Sabbath. He tells the man to stretch out his hand and to be healed. And the response? The religious leaders determine that they must destroy Jesus and actually go out to plot how.
Here we see the climax of the ‘bad news.’ It has been building for a long time, but now it reaches its full climax, with plots underway to have Jesus killed—obviously preemptive of what actually happens when Jesus is betrayed and crucified.
There is one more thing to be done before this section finishes, 3:7-12, the return to the good news of Mark 1. Remember that in Mark 1 it was all pretty much good! Jesus doing miracles, calling people who responded by listening, Jesus preaching the good news. But then things turned bad; things became mixed. It is time to at least remind us how things were as a way of marking out a division. But what has happened in between Mark 1 and Mark 3:7-12 has been a steady decline under the power of ‘friendly fire.’
We are now positioned to apply this section of the book of Mark today.
Consider friendly fire in the life of the Christian church today. We know in the early church that some of the most painful moments were not caused by the pagans persecuting Christians, but by Jewish Christians giving Gentile Christians a hard time, trying to force them to follow Judaism. Isn’t this ironic? Isn’t this quite amazing – that sometimes those who should be your greatest friends can somehow turn out to be your most painful enemies!
The German New Testament scholar Ernst Käsemann liked to point this out. The beginning of Christianity was marked by a challenge to the establishment of the day. Why should we imagine that things should change after the first century? Religious institutions so quickly become stuck in tradition. We see this in the period leading up to the Reformation, with the Protestant Reformers seeking to challenge the Catholic Church by going back to what scripture says—making sure that tradition does not lead us astray.
Should we perhaps be just as wary of this today? So often the people we are most wary of are those obviously opposed to us. But what about those more subtly opposed, what about those actually seeking to make trouble while apparently seeking to just keep us on the right path. Here we could think of political institutions that on the one hand may be upholding certain biblical principles, while also unraveling others. Here we must be careful not to strain out the gnats while swallowing camels. And what about even our own churches? One of the great challenges in Mark is to not be afraid of preaching the real good news of Jesus as king. But how many of our churches drag us away from connecting to those on the outside through many in-house programs.
This brings us to a second related point. We can so easily become worldly when it comes to the character of leadership. What kind of king was Nero? He was brutal, evil. But Jesus was a completely different kind of king—compassionate and kind. How often do leaders in our churches preach in ways that deconstruct themselves? How much can church leaders today be tempted to just be as worldly in our leadership as those we see in secular businesses and politics? Perhaps there need to be more “wounds from a friend,” encouragement and challenge for our leaders to be more Christ-like!
But third, let us point out that ‘friendly fire’ is never ‘friendly.’ It is never good, and it never serves the glory of God. Sometimes we are very worried about just keeping the status quo. But what about the truth of God and his kingdom, one that upended the status quo and, if we would only let the concept of semper reformandabe true, must upend our status quo as well?
It seems to me that if only we were willing to be more ruthlessly biblical, not putting up with shortcuts here there and everywhere, we might just find the kingdom of Jesus more realized in our midst. The context here is battle, and the easiest thing for us to do is name names, to throw stones at those on the outside. But maybe it is time to get our own house in order, just a little more than we are inclined to do!