Mark 2 is a fascinating chapter which begins with the story of a paralyzed man and his four friends (2:-12). When the four friends hear about Jesus’ ability to heal others, they stop at nothing for the chance to heal their friend: they carry him to the house where Jesus is staying, and finding it too full to get in… so they climb up on the roof, tear the shingles off, and lower the man down where Jesus heals him.
St. Jerome sees in the man’s physical paralysis an image of spiritual paralysis – a man who cannot get to God by his own efforts – who needs the help of others to get there. What Jesus does is cure him of both, saying: “Son, your sins are forgiven” (2:5). This causes no small amount of controversy with the Pharisees, because who (other than God can forgive sins? Remembering that St. Mark is emphasizing the fact that Jesus is God and man, his choice of words reflects the fact that Jesus is healing both kinds of paralysis in this man: whatever spiritually may be keeping him from God as well as that which was physically ailing him. He does this not because the man was paralyzed due to his sin (or that of anyone else in his family), but rather because Jesus was proving His words by actions (2:11-12): “But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” —he said to the paralytic—”I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.”
Keep in mind that Jesus’ first response has more to do with his first concern: our spiritual paralysis: Jesus is more concerned with healing us from our sin than He is our physical ailments. In those moments He chooses (Mark 1:40) to heal those ailments, it’s because He knows that this healing is the best way to heal us from sin… if and when He allows these sufferings to continue, it is for the same purpose.
Next, we have the scene of Jesus calling Levi (AKA Matthew), the tax collector (2:13-17). In the first century, tax collectors were reviled – and for good reason. First of all, a man like Levi in accepting this position was collaborating with the Roman occupation and collecting taxes for Caesar. This was seen as a betrayal by the Israelites. Additionally, as a tax collector, one was given the tax of raising a certain quota of funds for the government, and they were able to charge an additional “commission” for themselves. All citizens living in Roman borders were obliged to pay whatever taxes were demanded by the tax collectors… and so it became a very profitable venture for those who took the job, as they achieved great prosperity by dishonest means.
It’s no accident that one of Jesus’ chosen disciples is deliberate (2:17) “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” It’s a reminder that we are never beyond His help and that His mission is to everyone – even those we have great difficulty with. St. John Chrysostom interprets the above passage in this way: “I am not come that they should continue sinners, but that they should change and become better.”
This chapter ends with two discussions that Jesus has with the Pharisees regarding fasting (2:18-22) and the Sabbath (2:23-27). Regarding fasting, Jesus does not ask his disciples to fast while they are with Him. His reasoning behind it seems to be twofold. First of all, there was a significant amount of fasting being done in hopes that God would send the Messiah: this is Jesus, and it would seem strange to fast for someone they already have, the Bridegroom (an image that is echoed in St. Paul’s writings and the book of Revelation). Second – and more importantly for us – it has more to do with Jesus’ desire that our fasting takes on new meaning. This is reflected in his image of the cloth and wineskins. What Jesus has come to renew means that we can’t just continue to do what the Israelites had always done, but that we need to allow Christ to renew our old practices and habits. What is clear – and marks a beautiful connection between the Old and New Testaments – is that now that Christ is gone, we are still obliged to fast.
As the sign of the original covenant between God and Adam, the Sabbath was given to God for our good. However, the scruples of the law in Jesus’ day had made it almost oppressive in what was a source of ongoing conflict between Jesus and some of the religious leaders of His day. We believe that there is a hierarchy of laws, and that certain things take precedent even over religious practice. For example, if you were on your way to Mass somewhere and came across a baby drowning in a river, your moral obligation to save this child’s life may mean you will be late or even miss Mass, but clearly in God’s eyes, to ignore this act of charity out of a misguided sense of devotion misses the point of why we go to Mass. (This isn’t to say that things like the Mass or the Sabbath aren’t important, as we do need these sacred moments to draw closer to God making our acts of charity possible, but rather that they shouldn’t become an excuse to avoid or ignore a kindness to another). In explaining this, Jesus was saying that he has the authority to override Sabbath discipline – a discipline that is still taken seriously by Jewish men and women today. Mark is once again emphasizing that Jesus is the Son of God, in the way He chooses to teach and speak about sacred things. What is interesting is that the means by which he claims that authority, calling Himself “Son of Man” is an expression that occurs 69 times in the synoptic Gospels. The original image has its origin in Daniel 7:13, when the prophet describes “one like a son of man” coming down on the clouds of Heaven, going up to God’s throne, with dominion and glory over all people and nations.“ It’s the kind of image you find again in the book of Revelation where we meet the Son of Man upon His throne, finally exercising the rule which we await in joyful hope (an image we ought to be keeping in mind during this season of Advent!)