Summary: What are we to do with the Old Testament?
“The time has come,” Jesus said, “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (1:15)
That was Jesus’ great announcement that is at the start of Mark’s gospel, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. And with that great announcement, the battle-lines were drawn, not just by Jesus, but also by the self-appointed religious authorities. They had clearly demarcated who ‘the sinners’ were (who needed to repent), and who ‘the righteous ones’ were. They were pretty rigorous in seeking to honour God by doing the right stuff. The problem, as they saw it, was that the people were carrying on sinning, living far from God. If only people would return to God through personal holiness, then God would bring them back from spiritual exile and transform their standing in the world… no longer the tail, rather they would become the head again. So they studied the Scriptures and then drew a circle demarcating what it meant to be one seeking to be righteous… and on the outside, the sinners. To their constant frustration Jesus, who they thought should’ve been one of their closest allies, kept hanging out with sinners which surely only encouraged them in their sin when they needed to be ostracised like spiritual lepers. Why didn’t he join them in their circle and in their pointing?
To them, the Law, the Torah, was a like a circle to be drawn around the faithful remnant, the righteous ones. That was their view of what it meant to be a light to the nations. We follow YHWH, look at us! What it looked like to be Jewish can be summed up in three terms: ‘circumcision’, ‘food laws’, and ‘the observance of days’. These things summed up the circle that demarcated the righteous ones from the goyim/the gentiles/the sinners. If you started to blur these core distinctions how would anyone know who God’s chosen people were? And so you will see those terms crop up together in Paul’s writings when he talks about what it now looks like to be one of the people of God redefined around Jesus, rather than those three core signifiers. And here in Mark 2:18-3:6 we come against one of the three, the issue of the observance of days… fasting on certain days and observing proper Sabbath rest.
Now, here in the three short scenes in today’s reading, we have Jesus making some huge claims about himself.
- “I am the bridegroom” (which in light of Hosea 2:19,20 is a claim to be God).
- ‘I am a new king David’ (v.25) (when asked about his companions gleaning corn on the Sabbath). His story about David only holds if he saw himself as equal or greater than David, otherwise people would say, ‘Yeah, but THAT was KING David’.
- Then Jesus basically references himself as “Lord of the Sabbath” (2:28). You get the picture…
The question coming out of today’s reading is, ‘What do we do with the Old Testament, specifically the OT Law/Torah?’ Christians and non-Christians have asked me this question, not so much in regard to clothing fabric specifications, but in relation to kosher foods, in relation to tattoos, in regard to length of hair, in regard to OT characters having multiple wives, in regard to male circumcision, in regard to the Sabbath, and so on.
Some people say, ‘Now Jesus has arrived, why do we even bother with the Old Testament? Let’s not look at Passover or Exile.’ We could pretty much tear out more than two-thirds of our bible and content ourselves with reading the words of Jesus in red-letters (don’t get me started on red-letter bibles!) and we could include the implications of the good news regarding his death and resurrection mapped out in the epistles. And just bin the rest. But before we do that, just be warned that Marcion was labelled a heretic for suggesting that in the second century AD.
Specifically in regard to the Law - the Torah - many Christians view all that stuff as basically God’s first attempt to bring righteousness that failed because the people of Israel were just too sinful, so plan B was to send Jesus. And with that, the church has replaced Israel. And at first glance it could be that Jesus suggests the same, v.21,22, the old garment is torn, the old wineskin is not fit for purpose… what we need is a new wineskin.
Even though we may not tear out the Old Testament, we may be a practical Marcionite, only turning to the Old Testament for cherry-picked morality tales and selective personal promises of prosperity and blessing.
Other people, don’t think that Israel has been dumped and replaced, rather many Christians see Israel as special and almost that the Jewish nation has a special route of their own to God that doesn’t require them to acknowledge Jesus as their Kingly Messiah. However, I would suggest that Jesus is clearly not interested in building a Zionist state or a specific land demarcated on the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean. When we read the New Testament we see that Jesus inaugurates a new family, a new people, where he speaks of inheriting the whole earth, God’s kingdom breaking the old barriers and borders. New wine bursting old skins!