Jesus upsets the Pharisees

Mk 2:13-28     Jesus teaches in and around Capernaum during the spring of 28AD. He calls Levi (or ‘Matthew’ – meaning ‘gift of the Lord’) - a despised public official (or ‘publican’) who collects taxes on behalf of the Romans – and is accused by the Pharisees of eating and socialising with tax collectors (‘publicans’) and sinners who are ritually ‘unclean’.

His disciples pick ears of corn to eat on the Sabbath – just before the wheat harvest in early May – to the consternation of the Pharisees who believe he is breaking the Jewish Sabbath laws (see Deuteronomy 23:25 & Exodus 34:21). Jesus replies that even King David ignored the Jewish laws when he and his men ate the consecrated ‘showbread’ that only the priests were allowed to eat (see 1 Samuel 21:1-6 & Leviticus 24:8-9).

Jesus adds, “The Sabbath day was made to help people; they were not made to be ruled by the Sabbath day” (Mark 2:27).

Mk 3:1-6         Jesus heals a man with a shrivelled hand in the synagogue at Capernaum on the Sabbath. The Pharisees (who were very strict in their interpretation of the Jewish law) begin to plot Jesus’s death as they are convinced that he has broken the law forbidding ‘work’ on the Sabbath (see Exodus 20:8-11). Jesus points out that it is quite in keeping with the spirit of the law to do good and to save life on the Sabbath.

Mk 3:7-12       Crowds flock to see Jesus from all over the region – from Judaea, Jerusalem and Idumaea to the south, from the Decapolis (the ten cities founded by the Greeks) on the eastern side of the Jordan, and from the western coastal areas around Tyre and Sidon. Jesus teaches them from a boat anchored just offshore.


The Decapolis

The Decapolis was a loose confederation of ten cities that, in the time of Jesus, were centres of Greek and Roman culture. The cities were given some degree of political autonomy by the Romans, who hoped they would encourage the adoption of ‘civilised’ Greek culture by the surrounding population.

With the exception of Damascus, they were all founded as Greek cities between the death of Alexander the Great in 323BC and the Roman conquest of Syria in 63BC. Except for Scythopolis, they were all situated to the east of the River Jordan (see Map 6).

The ten cities (Greek ‘deka polis’) were:

Philadephia (Amman, the capital of modern-day Jordan)
Gerasa (Jerash in Jordan)
Pella (Tabaqat Fahl in Jordan)
Scythopolis (on the site of Beth Shean in Israel)
Gadara (Umm Qais in Jordan)
Raphana (Abila in Jordan)
Capitolias (Beit Ras in Jordan)

Hippos (Susieh near the south east shore of the Sea of Galilee in Israel)
Canatha (Qanawat in Syria)
Damascus (the capital of modern-day Syria)

In addition, Arabella (Irbid in Jordan) was sometimes included in the Decapolis, while Damascus was sometimes considered to be an ‘honorary’ member.

Today, impressive remains of classical Greek and Roman architecture can be found at most of these sites, especially at Gerasa (Jerash) and Scythopolis (Beth Shean).


Jesus appoints twelve apostles

Mk 3:13-18     On a hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee, Jesus appoints a group of twelve ‘apostles’ (close followers who are to be ‘sent out’ to spread the Good News). They are Simon (Peter) and his brother Andrew, James and his brother John, Philip, Nathaniel (Bartholomew), Levi (Matthew), Thomas, Thaddaeus, James (the son of Alphaeus), Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot (see the feature on Who were Jesus’s Followers? in Section 7).

Mk 3:20-35     Jesus goes back to his home in Capernaum. His mother and brothers arrive from Nazareth (about 30 miles / 48 km away) as they think he is out of his mind. Some teachers of the Jewish law from Jerusalem think that he is possessed by the prince of demons, ‘Beelzebul’ (see 2 Kings 1:2, where the evil spirit Baal-Zebul (‘Prince Baal’) is referred to in mockery as ‘Baal-Zebub’ (Hebrew for ‘Lord of the Flies’). Jesus responds that they are insulting the Holy Spirit – an unforgiveable sin.

Mk 4:1-2         Jesus is busy teaching parables (stories with an underlying spiritual meaning) by the Galilean lakeside during the summer of 28AD.


The Parable of the Sower

Galilee has warm, wet winters and hot, dry summers. It is a fertile area where a variety of crops (e.g. wheat, barley, olives, figs and vines) grow well, and farming is an important activity. In the Parable of the Sower (see Mark 4:3-20), Jesus compares the way God’s word is received by different people to the way in which plants grow in the ground:

Some seed is sown on the path – on hard, compacted soil - so the seeds can’t take root and the birds eat it.

Some seed is sown amongst the rocks where the seeds start to grow; but there isn’t enough soil so the plants easily wither due to the hot sun and lack of water.


Rocky ground in the Judaean hills
Rocky ground in the Judaean hills  (Mark 4:5)


Other seedlings are choked by thorn bushes competing with the seedlings for water, light and food.

Only good soil provides plants with all they need – water, air, nutrients and space for the roots to develop. The seed sown on good soil produces a good crop, giving thirty, sixty or even a hundred times more grain than what has been sown as seed.

The meaning of the parable is that the word that Jesus sows in peoples’ hearts only grows into faith if the listeners are receptive to the message. Only then will their faith in God grow like the seed in the good soil.


          The Parable of the Growing Seed

Jesus tells another story about how seed grows day and night without the farmer doing anything more until the harvest is ready. It’s like this when God’s word is spread abroad and the Holy Spirit works in someone’s life to deepen their faith and love for God (see Mark 4:26-29).


          The Parable of the Mustard Seed

In a third story about seeds, Jesus compares the effect of preaching God’s word with the planting of a mustard seed. Although it’s a tiny seed, the mustard seed produces a huge plant. In the same way, planting the word of God in someone’s heart has a huge effect on their life (see Mark 4:30-34).

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