Sunday, January 14, 2024

Sermon: "Read the Room", Mark 2:18-22 (23-3:6) (January 14, 2024)

If you’re especially observant, you may have noticed that today’s scripture reading is a direct continuation from last week’s reading. The truth is that the Narrative lectionary actually included most of this passage in the lectionary for last week. It was a lot of scripture to tackle in one sermon, so I chose to focus on just the first half. But if I’m being ENTIRELY honest, I also didn’t want to deal with the second part – especially the metaphor of the new cloth/old clothes and new wine/old wineskin.

I’ve always struggled to make sense out of this part. First of all, it feels like a complete non-sequitur: One minute, Jesus is talking about religious practices, and then the next, out of nowhere, he pivots to home economics? I’m lost. Secondly, the most common explanation that I’ve heard for this metaphor is uncomfortably supersessionist: it claims that Jesus is explaining how his “new teachings” aren’t compatible with “old habits” (in other words, Jesus’ teachings are supposed to “supersede” Jewish Law). Not only is this in direct contrast to what Jesus says elsewhere in the gospels, but the idea that Christianity has come to replace Judaism is a dangerously twisted misunderstanding of scripture.

So, I hear you asking, if I dislike this metaphor so much, why did I include it as today’s scripture reading instead of skipping over it as I’d planned? Because, as usual, the Holy Spirit thought it would be funny to thwart my plans, and she drew me back to this passage in spite of my protestations. It’s really hard to say “no” to the Holy Spirit. So here we are.

To be honest, I find it a lot more difficult to explain this passage as a non-sequitur than to believe that it’s just rotten theology. Bad scriptural interpretation happens all the time, but the idea that the intentionally concise and fast-paced gospel of Mark would insert two seemingly unrelated verses in the middle of the second chapter seems farfetched at best. Everything else Jesus says in this chapter is a direct response to a question that had just been posed to or about him; he’s going out of his way to help people understand his actions in terms that they could appreciate and accept. It doesn’t make much sense for him to suddenly interject an ambiguous metaphor that sends essentially the opposite message – “My way of doing things is better than your way; deal with it!”

In order to figure out what Jesus might actually be saying here, it helps to step back a bit look at the bigger picture of Mark’s narrative. If we read Mark 2:1 through 3:6 as a single unit, a pattern begins to emerge: we have three increasingly confrontational accounts of Jesus’ actions being questioned, bookendsed by two accounts of miraculous healings, with this metaphor smack dab in the middle. In each vignette of this carefully constructed section – including the two healings – someone complains, “He can’t do that! It’s against the rules!” and Jesus says, “Those rules aren’t meant to be applied like that in this situation.”

The primary conflict in this scriptural unit is the tension between legalism and context. Jesus isn’t denying the law; he’s simply insisting that there’s more to being faithful than JUST following it to the letter. True, it’s not generally a good idea to associate with a “bad crowd”…unless you’re there to help them. True, fasting is a faithful practice of repentance…unless it’s distracting you from a time that God may be calling you to celebrate. True, work is forbidden on the Sabbath…unless it’s necessary to meet an important need.

If we read the double metaphor of the new patch and the old wineskins as the capstone of this narrative unit, instead of as a marginally related aside, it becomes the linchpin that connects everything back to this unifying theme. When you try to apply the law without consideration of the context, it just winds up causing more damage – like when you try to repair old clothes with a new patch or pour new wine into old wineskins. Each time the legal experts call out the “incorrect” behavior that Jesus is openly engaged in, Jesus retorts, “Read the room! That’s not what this moment calls for!” It turns out that context matters – yes, even in religion. ESPECIALLY in religion.

This would be like trying to use a Phillips head screwdriver with a slotted screw. Can you imagine someone claiming that a “real” construction worker ONLY uses Phillips head screwdrivers because they’re more precise? It may be true, but it’s not helpful in a situation where you only have access to slotted screws.

Or it’d be like trying to treat cancer with psychotherapy. Can you imagine someone claiming that if you were “really” concerned with your health, you’d treat your cancer with talk therapy because mental health is critical to overall health? It may be true, but it does nothing to address that particular disease.

Or it’d be like trying to convince someone to turn to God by telling them how much God hates everything they do. Can you imagine someone saying that if you were a “real” Christian, you’d interpret the Bible literally because the Bible is authoritative? Or you’d reject vaccinations because God is in control? Or you’d exclude certain people because God’s righteousness is uncompromising? Those things may all be true, but they do very real damage when applied legalistically in each of those contexts.

Wait, what’s that?...You say you CAN imagine someone saying those things?...Oh. Hm. Well, THAT’S a problem.

Because this isn’t just me proof-texting my own theology with this one passage; this is a theme that’s repeated throughout scripture time and time again. Thanks to Ecclesiastes 3 (and, of course, The Byrds), we all know that “to everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.” It wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that this includes a time to adhere closely to religious laws, and a time to “read the room.” Later in three out of the four gospels, towards the end of his earthly life, Jesus defends a woman who anoints him with expensive perfume by drawing attention to the immediate context – “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.” [1] And in 1 Corinthians,[2] the Apostle Paul, formerly a legalistic persecutor of Christians himself, acknowledges the importance of meeting people where they are for effective ministry, explaining, “I have become all things to all people so that I could save some by all possible means.”

A new patch isn’t bad in and of itself, but when it’s added without consideration of the context, it causes damage. An old wineskin isn’t bad in and of itself, but when it’s used without consideration of the context, it causes damage. In the same way, religious rules aren’t bad in and of themselves, but when they’re applied without consideration of the context, they can cause damage. The Law was originally given to humanity to help us live according to God’s unchangeable values – of mutual care, of inclusion, of health, of new life – but unsurprisingly, we’ve gotten a bit lost along the way, tending to miss the forest for the trees. So, Jesus’ ministry was spent reminding us how to care for people first and foremost, just as God does – and demonstrating that such actions will ultimately fulfill the Law’s intention every time.

God doesn’t change; righteousness doesn’t change; the Law doesn’t change…but then again, neither does love. And love is the GREATEST of all the commandments. In order to share a love that doesn’t change with people that very much do, we HAVE to be able – and willing – to “read the room” like Jesus. We HAVE to be able to let the Good News be news-that-is-actually-good for folks whose needs are different than ours. We HAVE to know when a situation calls for an old patch, and when it calls for a new one. There is a time and a place for both within God’s Law.

This means that we have to “read the room” BEYOND our walls if we want to continue being the Church in the world. Our context is changing – not especially quickly, but much faster than we might like. We have to let go of the things that mean “church” to us if they don’t demonstrate love. We have to let go of the traditions, the teachings, the habits, the expectations, and the rules (both spoken and unspoken) if they aren’t meeting the needs of those most desperate to hear Good News. We have to embrace change if we want to remain faithful in God’s work.

As those sent out by Christ, our job is to preserve what matters and rework what doesn’t in order to meet the needs around us, even when it means facing accusations of blasphemy. We can stand strong in our actions, because Jesus is clear: context matters more than orthopraxy. Good News matters more than orthodoxy. People matter more than things – including the Law. These are God’s priorities, and so they should be ours, too. Read the room, friends – and as long as you always choose to act out of love, rest assured that you’ll always wind up on the right side of God’s Law. Amen.


[1] Mark 14:3-9, CEB; Matthew 26:6-13; John 12:1-8.
[2] 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, CEB.

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