Week of Nov. 1

Church Machine or Christ’s Ministry?

Read: Job 20; Mark 3-4

“And he said to them, ‘Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save a life or to kill?’ But they were silent.”
Mark 3:4, ESV


We hear much about "systemic" injustices in our age and many folks recoil when they hear the term. It means "something that is spread throughout, affecting a group or system, such as a body, economy, market or society as a whole." The moral issue surfaces regularly throughout the world.

We see, for example, the Nigerian SARS violence and subsequent protests as people call for better governance. People in China are protesting governmental control of the media and the elimination of voices that call attention to social injustices. Americans have seen protests erupt across the nation calling for an elimination of various types of systemic injustice.

This moral concern runs deeply in institutional structures, and people are often crushed by the weight of these workings. The church in Mark's day knew such injustice and was encountering persecution, so Mark calls attention to Jesus' actions in behalf of oppressed people. Judaism had grown to impose heavy and unnecessary burdens upon people. Jesus addresses a number of broad religious injustices that were laid upon the people and that kept them from free access to the Father (cf. Matthew 9:36). We have one such example in our focal passage today.

A Biblical Lens

We need to establish our context, or we may miss the point that Mark seeks for us to receive. Our focal passage in 3:1-6 concludes a wider section that began in 2:1. Mark presents to us five different “conflict” stories that I will group beneath a heading that is entitled “The Authority of the Son of Man” (2:10). There is controversy over Jesus healing a paralytic (2:1-12), eating with sinners (2:13-17), fasting (2:18-22), picking grain on the Sabbath (2:23-28), and healing on the Sabbath (3:1-6). The last two areas of conflict may be grouped beneath a sub-heading of “Sabbath Controversies.”

Look closely at the nature of Christ’s claim by focusing on the various controversies. He claims total authority as the "Son of Man," which infuriated the religious leaders. The title “Son of Man” occurs only two times before 8:31 (here and in 2:28), then it appears twelve times from that point forward. This was the title that Jesus used to disclose who he was to his disciples. This pronouncement is the critical point in the encounter with the scribes and, in my view, of all of the conflict narratives.

On the one hand the rubric expresses his humanity (Psalm 8:4), and, on the other hand, it refers to messiah (Daniel 7:13-14; see also Mark 8:38; 13:26-27; 14:62). [EBC]. Jesus uses the phrase to “define his messiahship on his own terms” (EBC). He made it clear that he held authority to forgive sins. He, in fact, holds authority over all things. He holds power over all the ways that this broken world impacts us physically, socially, and spiritually.

Physical maladies represent one such area of human brokenness, and Jesus showed compassion by healing people (1:23-25, 30, 32-34). However, there was the broader concern that Mark was keen to call to attention. The conflict over Sabbath observance shows this to be the actual emphasis (see 3:1-2). Sabbath observance was a key area of Judaism because it showed a difference between Jews and Gentiles (NAC).

Jesus was considered to be too “liberal” for the tastes of the Pharisees, so they sought to eliminate him (3:6). People do this politically in our country, but other nations know how violent religious people can become. James Brooks believes that Mark may present this encounter to show the Christians who read the book of their freedom in Christ with regard to observance (NAC; cf. Galatians 4:10; 5:1, 13). The Sabbath restrictions had so encumbered religious practice that regard for human need was roadblocked. Jesus tears down the walls of prohibition and raises the view to the higher general principle of doing good and preserving a life.

A Moral Pathway

There was a time in church life when the doors were open Sunday through Saturday. Calendars were packed with Sunday worship, various meetings, Bible studies, and fellowship. So much for a day of rest! People literally spent their entire Sundays at church. Weekdays were loaded with choir rehearsals, small group Bible studies, committee meetings, outreach, and more fellowships. Throw in weddings and funerals and things became quite stressful.

There was a great amount of energy expended to recruit people and to keep then involved in several areas of service. There also was resistance anytime someone suggested a change. Sometimes, folks were considered to be less than committed if they did not attend and serve in some way. The moral reasoning was simply that the machine must be kept running so that people will keep coming and be blessed.

Churches, if they are not careful, may become so hyper-focused on “doing the ministry” that they soon lose sight of those for whom the ministry activities are to bless. Leaders often work like crazy to keep the ministry machine running. If someone suggests that the organization is hurting people, then leaders often resist the call to examine the moral value in all of the effort. Does this sound familiar?

I recall a woman who approached me, her pastor, with great timidity and humility in order to make a request. She wished to begin a ministry in a local park for which there was no budgeted money and, as I recall, it would meet at a time when other church activities were scheduled. I looked and listened, and I immediately saw Jesus in her intentions. I also heard his voice in her words. I gave her a blessing and pledged to pray over the effort to reach folks who had no church. The ministry was aptly named, “Tree of Life.” That ministry grew and thrived while many other “programs” were dying on the vine. Hmm. I guess the moral point is to ask, “What ministry are we supporting?” Is it “The “Tree of Life,” or “Dead Trunk and Dying Branches?”

My soul, if American businesses can turn quickly in a pandemic to change from making thingamajigs (i.e. gadgets) to producing mechanical ventilators and personal protective equipment in order to save lives, then the church can and should do the same. If the above “Dead Trunk and Dying Branches” identifies your church, then I suggest that you begin to search for Jesus in your midst. He is surely there doing good and saving lives, so get behind his ministry.

For Your Journaling

1. In what type of ministry are you engaged? You may discover that you are most involved in keeping a system in place rather than immersing yourself in the lives of needy souls. Make changes as the Lord directs.

2. Churches grow and develop systems to sustain that growth, which is beneficial in many ways. However, it becomes important for the church to make certain that the noise of the “system” does not drown out the cries of human need (cf. Acts 6:1-7). How will you make certain that the eyes, hands, and heart of your church remain dedicated to ministering to people in Christ’s name?

May all your paths be straight,
Larry C. Ashlock