Some churches have a huge billboard which proclaims, JESUS IS THE ANSWER! I have no quarrel with that sentiment. However, it is more in line with the New Testament to say, "Jesus is the Question." We see the enigma of Jesus in today's Gospel. Before examining the implications of him breaking the Sabbath law, let me explain why we should approach him first as a question.
I remember being blown away when I read The Everlasting Man. In that book G.K. Chesterton discusses the popular image of "gentle Jesus, meek and mild." If one reads the New Testament without preconceptions, a very different figure emerges - more ferocious than meek more unpredictable than gentle. As Chesterton points out, the honest response to Jesus would be "stark, staring incredulity." Did he really do that? How could he say something so preposterous?
Today's Gospel (Mk 2:23-3:6) contains an example of Jesus' inflammatory rhetoric. It starts out mildly enough. Jesus' disciples are hungy so they pick some grain for a rough and ready meal. However, they thus violate a minor sabbath regulation. Jesus initially gives a humanistic defense, "The sabbath is made for man, not man for the sabbath." But in doing so he evokes the example of King David feeding his men on the sabbath with the temple bread. Is Jesus saying he is as great as David? No, he says much, much more: That he, the Son of Man (cf. Dan 7:13) is Lord of the Sabbath. A bold declaration, but not the first time Jesus throws down the gauntlet. Last Sunday we heard him identify himself as the bridegroom in whose presence the rules of fasting are suspended. That self-identification comes on the heels of his assertion that he has authority to forgive men's sins.
Confronted with such claims, we cannot avoid the Jesus question. Is this man a blasphemer as the scribes and Pharisees concluded? Or is he...God? Only you can respond to something so momentous; I cannot decide for you. But I urge you not to imagine you can find some safe "middle ground.*" Jesus has dramatically raised the ante. If you want a seat at the table, you must be prepared to bet all.
Jesus indeed is the question. But along with the enigma of Jesus, we have to face a related puzzle - man himself. In today's second reading (2 Cor 4:6-11) St. Paul says we are like clay pots which someone has filled with precious diamonds, gold, emeralds - a treasure greater than the fortune of Bill Gates. Each man senses his own potential, the incredible reach of the human soul. Yet at the same time we know our own fragility. Shakespeare expressed it this way:
The Second Vatican Council takes up this theme in the magnificent document, Gaudium et Spes. May I suggest it for your reading during these days before Lent, especially what it says about the riddle of human existence? I have been reflecting on it constantly since my mom's death five weeks ago. For me there is a terrible disproportion between my mom's death and everything else. In that moment after waking and before full consciousness it will strikes me, "Ma is dead." After that realization, how strange to pick up the day's activities. The riddle of human existence presses upon me.
No writer can help us confront that riddle more than Blase Pascal. He describes it in a way that leads to Christ:
"The greatness and the wretchedness of man are so evident that the true religion must necessarily teach us both that there is in man some great source of greatness and a great source of wretchedness. It must then give us a reason for these astonishing contradictions.**"
When you finish Guadium et Spes I challenge you to read what Pascal has to say about the grandeur and misery of man - not of man in general but your very existence. It may help you to then consider the question of Jesus and that, yes, he is the only answer.
*It does no good to back shift the question by saying his disciples exalted him to divine status. For example, some people assert that John's gospel has a "high christology" while the earlier Gospels have a "low christology." However, the above claims to divinity come from the first chapters of Mark which, according to most scholars, is the earliest Gospel. And as Fr. John Meier (and others) indicate, there is strong internal evidence that these dramatic claims were made by Jesus himself. (I write this only to respond to the narrow focus of some Scripture study. As a Catholic who believes in the inspiration of the entire Bible as well as what the Catechism calls the analogy of faith the testimony for Jesus' divinity is overwhelming.)
**The Riddle of Human Existence: Selections from Pensees (Man's Greatness and Wretchedness)