Opinion

Mark’s Gospel provides a legal loophole for providing sanctuary. Will Christians use it?

A wheat field in Oregon in July 2013. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/Ian Sane

Javier Flores, an undocumented Mexican immigrant facing deportation, sought and received sanctuary in the Arch Street United Methodist in Philadelphia. Flores cradles his 4-year-old son, Javier, with his wife, Alma, and daughter Adamaris standing by his side, inside the church where he was granted sanctuary on Nov.13, 2016. Photo courtesy of Philly.com/Ed Hille

(RNS) A recent “60 Minutes” segment highlighted various Christian communities offering sanctuary to undocumented immigrants. Among other things, those engaged in such “illegal” actions were asked about their obligation as Americans to follow the law.

Though they gave respectable answers, I was amazed no one directly quoted the Christian Gospels on the subject.

The Gospel of Mark provides one saying of Jesus directly applicable to this situation. But when we examine subsequent uses of that saying in the other Gospels, we can see why none of the “60 Minutes” interviewees dared quote that particular verse.

Mark gives four consecutive conflict stories in Chapter 2. Each begins with Jesus or his followers saying or doing something provoking a confrontation with his “enemies.” After describing the conflict, Jesus says or does something to resolve the issue. For instance, he cures the paralytic or reminds people of his commitment to “call sinners.”

A biblical illustration of “plucking heads of grain” on the Sabbath from the Gospel of Mark. Image courtesy of Creative Commons/Sweet Media

In verse 23, the righteous followers of the Mosaic Law confront him about the habit of “plucking heads of grain” on the Sabbath. These Pharisees demand to know, “Why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”

Mark’s Jesus settles the conflict by employing three arguments. First, they’re not the first Jews to break laws. He reminds the Pharisees that no one criticized King David and his men for eating forbidden sacrificial bread when they were running away from Saul. Then he adds as “Son of Man” he has power to do what he darn well pleases on the Sabbath.

It’s his second argument that created problems for some early Christian communities and continues to do so today.

“The Sabbath,” Jesus insists, “was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” In other words, God doesn’t first create laws, and then create humans to obey them. God creates humans, and then creates laws to help them live fulfilled lives.

Mark’s Jesus is convinced that when a law does not help us achieve such fulfillment, we have no obligation to obey it. He expects his followers to judge every law and regulation on whether people are helped by it or hindered by it. No Christian is expected to obey a law just because it’s a law.

Though this response definitively resolves this particular conflict with the Pharisees, it seems to have created another conflict in at least two other gospel communities.

Biblical scholars are convinced that Mark’s Gospel is the first of our canonical four and that both Matthew and Luke had a copy when composing their own Gospels. Each generously copies from his evangelical predecessor. But each also “redacts” the material lifted from that manuscript — that is, they frequently alter Mark’s passages to fit the theology they’re trying to convey. And they do so independently. As far as we can tell, Matthew never read a copy of Luke and Luke doesn’t seem to have known Matthew’s Gospel existed.

Each of Mark’s successors copies his Sabbath grain-plucking story almost exactly the way Mark originally penned it.

A depiction of the four evangelists in the Papal Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

Matthew, for instance, writing for a Jewish/Christian audience, redacts Jesus’ arguments by adding one about not criticizing temple priests for breaking the Mosaic Law by working on the Sabbath. But each deliberately leaves out Jesus’ most cogent justification of his disciples’ actions: his conviction that his followers aren’t created to obey laws; laws are created to help people. People’s welfare is always to be at the top of our moral hierarchy.

Why would Matthew and Luke deliberately leave out that statement?

Scholars usually come up with two reasons. First, the early Christian authors simply don’t have the same passion for the actual words of Jesus. The evangelists are much more interested in what Jesus is saying during the day and age they’re composing their Gospels than in what the historical Jesus said 40 or 50 years before.

The Jesus Christians encounter in the Gospels is no longer a first-century Palestinian Jew.

Second, this particular saying seems to be “too hot to handle” for many communities. How does one judge what laws and regulations are helpful and what are harmful? A law, for instance, that tears my family apart might offer great security to your family.

Luke and Matthew simply seem to have judged Jesus’ most powerful argument in favor of lawbreaking unworkable in the concrete situations they and their communities encountered. They were convinced there’d always be someone who’d employ it for his or her selfish benefit instead of for the common good. So they concentrated on Jesus’ other arguments, leaving out the one that created problems.

But through the centuries, their omission created other problems. Christian leaders frequently encouraged us to zero in on the Apostle Paul’s advice to the mid-first-century Christian community in Rome to “be subordinate to the higher authorities” (Romans 13:1). Forgetting that the apostle penned these words before the start of the empire’s widespread church persecutions, it provided Christians with a moral loophole: Do what the law says and forget about the injustices the law creates.

A wheat field in Oregon in July 2013. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/Ian Sane

In our present situation – 11 million people are being unconscionably neglected, exposed to perils Jesus would find morally reprehensible. Offering sanctuary to such individuals isn’t selfish. It’s just a way of carrying on the work and ministry of Jesus, who reminds us that welcoming the stranger is a mandate of Christian faith.

Should anyone challenge such actions on legal grounds, I suggest we invite them to temporarily put down Matthew, Luke and Paul, and encourage them to peruse Mark 2, no matter the problems it creates.

(The Rev. Roger Vermalen Karban, a Catholic priest in the Diocese of Belleville, Ill., is a Scripture scholar and widely published writer)

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Roger Vermalen Karban

21 Comments

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  • The heart of the Law, and its observance is not about being bound by a routine/rubric such as one would find in superstitions, but is by how it reflects our love of God/Jesus and how it glorifies Him.

    Luke 14, is one that touches on many points to ponder too.

  • Why did Catholic Church change Sabbath to Sunday? They used to execute people for keeping 7th Day Sabbath. https://www.amazon.com/Andreas-Fischer-Sabbatarian-Anabaptists-Reformation/dp/0836112938

    David and men kept law
    5 David replied, “Indeed women have been kept from us, as usual(F) whenever[b] I set out. The men’s bodies are holy(G) even on missions that are not holy. How much more so today!”

    Seems like priest is advocating whatever individual believes is “legal” depends on their interpretation of law of “love”.

  • Your premise for evaluating the gospels seems to be based on the revisionist idea that, “Mark,” “Luke,” and “Matthew” are not whom they purport to be. This is an old and tired argument. There is no reason to suppose that the authors are not who they claim to be. In that instance, though it is generally agreed that Mark’s Gospel came first, based on information received from Peter, Matthew would have no need to borrow from Mark in order to compose his own Gospel, though Luke would naturally consult anyone who was either an eyewitness to Christ’s life, or a second generation individual closely allied with the Christian community. Jesus was an apt teacher, and His message to the Jewish authorities of His day would not markedly differ from what He taught through the offices of the inspired composers of the New Testament, including Paul. Therefore, teaching regarding such issues as you raise must be taken within the contextual whole of the New Testament. Additionally, if your reading of the text is sound, it does not bar those who approach it that way from the consequences that might come from the world, which is another lesson Jesus’ taught. I think this is a matter of individual conscience where one must weigh one’s obligations to the suffering and one’s obligations to the state. If the laws are unjust, let us change the law. If in the individual case the pilgrim is a law breaker or threat to the societal order, let us consider that as well.

  • And yet its walls were breached and the city was routinely conquered by successive world powers.

    I am not opposed to walls, fences or barricades on our southern border to keep out violent gangs, criminals or terrorists. The issues include costs and effectiveness. I’m less concerned with ordinary workers seeking jobs Americans won’t do. We need a large percentage of them and we ought to give them documentation. The focus if this article is Christian compassion which many Christians, especially fundamentalists, lack.

  • It’s walls were breached because God allowed it because of their disobedience Jim.
    I wouldn’t say Christians lack compassion. We just know more about satan than you care to admit.

  • That is the one thing Christian fundamentalists lack. Compassion. Only someone who has no compassion is okay with tearing apart families.

  • A veritable smörgåsbord of issues to choose from, but I’ll stick (mostly) to one. Do Christians really need a “moral loophole” in scripture to justify protecting the weak? Yes, these people, all of them poor, the vast majority trying to make a better life for their families, committed a minor crime – a misdemeanor – entering the country. Is this really enough to prompt good people who call themselves Christian to abandon them? Does Christian compassion – enough to take risks – end at the national border or jailhouse door?

    Laws are not always moral, and outlaws are not always despicable. Moreover, if you must look for loopholes in an allegedly moral book to resolve your moral conflicts, maybe the book isn’t as reliable a guide to moral behavior as you thought.

  • I probably know just as much about the Bible’s Satan as you do – I just don’t take mythology seriously.

  • Tell that to the Jewish population of Warsaw and Lodz from 1939-44. Or at least the few remaining survivors.

  • I asked my chaplain about this. His response was two fold. “Cherry picking verses for a predetermined outcome.”

    And he sent me to this: Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For
    rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do
    wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do
    what is right and you will be commended. 4 For
    the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do
    wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They
    are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the
    wrongdoer. 5 Therefore,
    it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of
    possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. (Romans Ch 13)

  • So what you’re basically saying is your chaplain prefers his cherry-picked verses, rather than this priests’, for a predetermined outcome. Thanks.

  • This is somewhat afield from the gist of the article’s argument, but I try to check the sources of Biblical arguments. The story in Mark about David’s taking sacrificial bread is a complete error on the part of the author of Mark. If you check the source in 1 Samuel 21, you will see the priest’s name was Ahimelek and the five loaves of bread were OK for David’s men to eat because they had “kept themselves from women.” The men’s bodies were holy because they were on a military mission. So the priest GAVE HIM THE CONSECRATED BREAD. Let the experts who quote scripture for their arguments check their accuracy!

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