Delight Shines in the Darkness

“Who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked … but his delight is in the torah of Yahweh.” In my previous post in this series, I suggested that Jesus as “the man” of Psalm 1 perfectly delighted in Yahweh and his torah. In Psalm 1, this man is not only positively delighting, but actively not participating in the normal ethos of human relations—the counsel of the wicked, the way of sinners, the seat of scoffers. How is this possible? How can a person who lives with other people not participate in the typical ways humans relate to one another, particularly the desires to have what others have, to compete for objects, wealth, reputation and prestige, and devotion from others, all at the expense of others, all leading to typical conflicts and even violence among us? That is exactly the situation that Jesus faced daily in his life. One approach is to withdraw from society. The ancient sect at Qumran along the Dead Sea chose exactly this route and sought to script their way to righteous living through an instruction manual called The Community Rule (abbreviated 1QS for those who have read and studied the Dead Sea Scrolls). Yet that very rule built in punishments for breaking the rules. Even in isolation, perfection was not possible, as all monastic movements know.

Jesus not only did not isolate, but he actively engaged those around him. Jesus’s intense delight in his Father served to expose the hidden motivations of those he interacted with, especially the motivations of those who claimed to be most devoted to God. By not counseling with the wicked, by not participating in the way of sinners, by not sitting with the scoffers, Jesus brought their character to the light. And what that light exposed was not pretty. There are many examples in the Gospels, but I will simply highlight several from the Gospel of Mark.

Somewhat early in the Mark’s gospel, Mark writes of Jesus teaching to a crowd in Capernaum inside a house when the roof opened and a paralytic man was lowered by four friends (Mark 2:1-12). Jesus told the man his sins were forgiven and the Jewish legal experts who were present went crazy, calling his words blasphemous against God, because “who is able to forgive sins except the one God?” (v. 7). Then Jesus “knowing in his spirit what they were thinking says to them, why are you arguing in your hearts? Which is easier to say, your sins are forgiven, or arise, take up your bed and walk, but so you might know that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on earth—he says to the paralytic, ‘I say to you, rise up, take your bed and walk’” (v. 9-10). The man did walk and all were amazed because no one had seen this before. Jesus’s active ministry of forgiveness and healing brought to light the theological presuppositions about God and perhaps even the leaders’ envy at the popularity of Jesus. Jesus was focused on the paralytic and his needs, but the legal experts were fixated on Jesus and scoffed at his words. By bringing their thoughts to light, Jesus not only presented a contrast to the crowd, but invited the scoffers to participate in the important task he was focused on.

Later in the same chapter (Mark 2:23-28) members of the Pharisees were actually spying on Jesus and his disciples as they ate grain in a field on the Sabbath day. They accused the disciples of breaking the Sabbath, a punishable offense. Jesus responded and simply gave an example from the Hebrew Bible where David had done something even more forbidden, taking the bread of the Presence from the tabernacle to eat (see 1 Sam 21:1-6). Jesus then pronounced that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Just for some brief background, the Pharisees had developed a whole set of regulations they believed would keep people from breaking the Sabbath “no work” rule. They considered picking grain to eat as one of these rules, though it was not present in the Torah. But Jesus considered grain as God’s provision, already prepared to eat, and Deut 23:25 expressly allowed the plucking of grain by hand from another’s field. His disciples were hungry, the grain was there to eat. By invoking the common authoritative scriptures with the Pharisees, Jesus showed his delight in Scripture and brought to light the moralistic legalism the Pharisees sought to impose on others to make themselves look more religious. The Pharisees believed they were acting in the right, but Jesus went to the heart of the issue, and in so doing was inviting them to rethink their understanding of Torah by looking to him as a model—“so the Son of Man is also the lord of the Sabbath.”

The third example comes in the very next passage, Mark 3:1-6. Jesus entered the synagogue—likely the one in Capernaum—where a man with a withered hand was attending. Mark tells us “and they (the Jewish leaders) were closely observing Jesus whether he would heal the man on the sabbath, so they might accuse him.” Let’s think about this verse before proceeding. The leaders had already counseled together with a plan. They were already angered by Jesus’s exposure of them in the previous incidents, now they proceeded to entrapment. But instead of backing down, Jesus exposed them further with a fundamental question. After requesting the man to get up, Jesus asked, “is it permitted to do good on the Sabbath, or to do evil? To save or to kill?”(v. 4) The leaders were silent, Mark tells us. They knew any answer to Jesus’s questions would undermine their plot. The story proceeds, “Jesus, gazing around them with anger, grieving at their hardness of heart, says to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand,’ and he stretched it out and his hand was restored” (v. 5). Most take the phrase “with anger” to refer to Jesus, but it was the leaders who were angry. Jesus was grieved at their heartlessness. Once again, they were fixated on Jesus, but Jesus was focused on the needs of the man. In acting rightly, Jesus exposed the “counsel of the wicked.”

Mark closes the story in v. 6 with “and after leaving the Pharisees immediately gave counsel against him to the Herodians, so they might destroy him.” Jesus’s exposure of their true motivations beneath the veneer of service to God (which they may well have been convinced of), led them down the path of sinners: they counseled with others in power to ostracize and destroy the one who was exposing them for who they were.

During this period of Lent 2021, we might ask ourselves if we are delighting in the words of the Bible and meditating on them, or are we caught up in the way of sinners. Are we following Jesus in actively living a life of devotion to God in spite of the human chaos around us?

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