Sunday, May 6, 2012

Jesus Eats with Pharisees

On Sunday mornings I've been teaching a church class about the way the Gospels present the life of Jesus. Over the past couple weeks, we've been exploring his conflicts with the Jewish religious leadership during his ministry. I've made a couple of discoveries that I thought worthy of sharing--though, as I've said many times, I'm not an NT scholar and so these points are probably well-known among those who research such things.

As far as I can tell, the conflicts between Jesus and the Pharisees et al. began, at least according to the Synoptics, with the healing of the paralytic carried by his four friends (Mark 2 / Matt. 9 / Luke 5). Actually, it wasn't the healing that caused problems so much as the offer of forgiveness of sins, which was the first thing Jesus said to this paralytic--"Son, your sins are forgiven" (Mark 2:5). As soon as they heard that, the scribes (Mark 2:6 / Matt. 9:3) and the Pharisees and teachers of the law (Luke 5:17) began to question how this man could claim to do something only God could do (Mark 2:7).

In all three Synoptics (I leave John aside for now) this story is presented as the initial point of conflict between Jesus and the Jewish religious leadership. Certainly in Mark, nothing happens before this that could remotely be classified as a controversy with religious leaders. But that's not too surprising since only one chapter of Mark comes before this episode. Matthew relates the story at the beginning of ch. 9, so there is much more potential that I'm overlooking something in the first eight chapters, but again I find no controversy. Luke puts the story half-way through ch. 5. Before this point, Luke does relate some trouble that Jesus experienced in a synagogue in Nazareth, and this very possibly involved some 'religious leaders', but in fact none are referenced, and Luke speaks only of 'all in the synagogue' as being filled with rage and wanting to kill Jesus (4:28-29). So, it seems that in all three Synoptics Jesus' offer of forgiveness to the paralytic is to be seen as the instigation of conflict between Jesus and the religious leadership.

[The episode of this paralytic is located at the home of Jesus in Capernaum, where a crowd of people--Pharisees and scribes among them--gathered to hear Jesus teach. One wonders what the Evangelists intend for us to think about why the scribes and Pharisees joined the others in Jesus' home. Were they at this time excited by the prospect of the kingdom of God coming through this one about whom such great things had already been reported as we read about in Mark 1?]

Now, I've been using this class at church as an excuse finally to read N. T. Wright's Jesus and the Victory of God (Fortress, 1996). In the ninth chapter of this book, Wright identifies four major symbols of Judaism--sabbath, food/purity, circumcision, and Temple--and he points out that three of these (not circumcision) featured prominently in controversies between Jesus and the Pharisees (p. 393). The first dispute--about the forgiveness extended to the paralytic--could be interpreted as a response to the symbol of the Temple, where forgiveness of sin was supposed to be offered by God (cf. Mark 2:7--where does God forgive sins?). The Sabbath controversy in Mark is especially prominent in two stories (2:23-28; 3:1-6), and the food/purity laws become the focal point in Mark 7:1-23.

Now, my second discovery. Luke alone among the Synoptics--as far as I can tell--relates three episodes in which Jesus has a meal with Pharisees. Luke 7:37-50 finds Jesus instructing Simon the Pharisee on the relationship between love and forgiveness after a 'sinful' woman wet Jesus' feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. At that time Jesus offered forgiveness to this woman, prompting those with him to ask, "Who is this who even forgives sins?" Thus, this particular meal parallels the controversy surrounding Jesus' offer of forgiveness to the paralytic, which could be interpreted in relation to the symbol of the Temple.

The second meal Jesus takes with a Pharisee in Luke is in 11:37-54. Jesus did not ceremonially wash before the meal, leading to a controversy over the relevance of these purity customs. Thus, this meal corresponds to the episode in Mark 7 (which finds no parallel in Luke).

The third meal is in Luke 14 on the Sabbath. Jesus heals a fellow and thus stirs trouble, corresponding to the other Sabbath controversies related in Mark 2-3.

So, the three meals that Jesus has with Pharisees in Luke each highlights a particular controversy Jesus had with the Pharisees in relation to three symbols of Judaism: Sabbath, Temple, and Purity. These controversies are related in Mark, Matthew, and sometimes Luke in other stories, but they are also concentrated in these meal accounts in Luke.

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