True Judgment Free Zone

Mark 8:11-13

The Pharisees were the religious leaders in Jesus’s day and Jesus clashed with them quite a bit.  They were literally the ‘religious police’ of their day, judging and condemning those who did not live up to their impossibly high standards.  

Near where I live, there’s a Planet Fitness gym; on the building there’s a huge banner that says, ‘judgment free zone.’  In our day, we frown upon judgment, in fact, we do everything we can to create safe spaces for people and help them feel accepted, rather than judged.  

When we pick up the Bible and learn about the Pharisees, we’re quick to side against them, thinking we’d never be like them.  They were so judgmental and we’re so accepting, we assume.  

But I’ve got a secret to share with you: the role of the Pharisees in the Bible is to show us ourselves.  Those who wrote the Bible needed a ‘mirror’ to show people what they were like, so they chose the Pharisees.  When we look at the Pharisees, we’re supposed to see what we look like, for we are as judgmental as they are, despite our gym banners. 

And the more unbelievable it seems to you that you are just as judgmental as the Pharisees, the blinder you are to the reality of your snobby, pharisaical heart; hence, the more important it is that the Bible shows us the Pharisees so we can see what we look like.

Here’s how this plays out in our short passage today, Mark 8:11-13.  The Pharisees were up to their usual ways of judging Jesus, demanding he perform a miraculous sign for them to prove his claims.  They were testing him.  But Jesus knew how their hearts were operating, so he refused to comply.  He sighed deeply in his spirit about the generation who demanded a sign.  And then he left.

What’s really going on here and how are we like the Pharisees?

A Pharisee is anyone who thinks that we can look better in God’s eyes by keeping the law.  “If I do this, then God will look with favor on me,” is the reasoning.  Now look closely and you’ll see the telltale sign of the law, which is a conditional if/then statement.  “If I do this…then this will be the result.”  

Not only was Jesus’s day filled with the law, but also ours is today.  

“If I lose weight, then people will like me more.”

“If I make more money, then I’ll be better off.”

“If I don’t do bad things, then I’ll be a good person.”

“If I keep the Ten Commandments, then God will love me more.”

You get the idea.  Now, it’s important to realize that these sorts of law-conditional statements could be true!  If you look a certain way, then people (albeit shallow people!) might accept you more.  Again, that could be true, but that’s not the issue here.

The issue is whether or not our conditional mentality can give us more favor in God’s eyes.  And Jesus’s resounding answer is, “No!”  

But first he has to break our addiction to the law, and to do this, he cannot play along with our legal demands.  So when the Pharisees come at him with their conditional statement, “If you perform a miraculous sign, then we will believe you…” Jesus must not comply, for if he did, then he’d be sanctioning the age-old law-mentality.  It’s as if they tossed him a coin, but he let it drop to the ground.

So let’s use the analogy of a coin.  There are two sides to the law coin, God’s and ours.  On God’s side, the inscription reads, ‘If God does a miraculous sign for me, then I will trust him.”  But on the other side of the coin, our side, the inscription is, “If I keep the law, then God will save me.”  That’s the law coin in a nutshell, the coin humanity has been flipping for generations, down through the ages.  On the one hand, we honestly believe that if we do the right things, then God will save us; and on the other hand, we honestly think that if God did a miracle for us then we would believe him.

But Jesus wants to take this kind of coin out of circulation and introduce a new coin to the world, the grace coin.  

The grace coin has two sides, as well, God’s and ours.  God’s side says, “I will not do a sign, but you can still trust me” and if you flip it over to our side, the inscription says, “You don’t have to perform any good work, and I will still save you.”  And that’s where the real money is at.

By not giving a sign, Jesus does not validate their current system.  Instead, he refuses to play along and challenges the world’s system of law and judgment.  He wants us to doubt our current system so that he can introduce his radical new currency of grace, which is the greatest treasure the world can discover.  

We can hang all the banners we want that say, ‘judgment free zone,’ but people will keep on judging until the world ends.  Ironically, the only one who does not judge is THE Judge, himself, God.  God doesn’t require us to keep if/then laws to earn his favor.  He does not say to us, “If you do this, then I will accept you.”  Humans do that, but God doesn’t.  

Only humans say, “If I make all the correct choices, then I will live happily ever after.”  That’s the way all our old myths go, but Jesus has a new, true myth for us, which says, “You can make all the wrong moves and still live happily ever after with me.”  Jesus says to us, “Let’s make a deal, I don’t have to prove myself to you and you don’t have to prove yourself to me.”  That’s the new formula of grace.  

But grace has a jarring side effect to it: God won’t always perform for you when you ask him to.  In fact, in order to shake the law coins from our tight pockets, he’ll gladly interrupt our current life system, so we stop flipping the law coin in his face.  As he did with Job, God may cause things to happen in your life that make no sense at all.  This is not to punish you, but to liberate you from your reliance on the law.  Again, he doesn’t have to perform for you and you don’t have to perform for him, he wants and gives only love.

There is a tiny Pharisee lurking in every person’s heart, trying at all times to convince us of the law.  This makes Jesus very sad.  He doesn’t want anything to do with the spirit of judgment.  Instead, he wants to pour his love into our hearts and make us worthy by his grace.

The Breakdown

  1. Can you see a tiny Pharisee in your heart?  What sorts of judgments about the world and others is he/she making?  Why do you think this is the case?
  2. How can Jesus break our addiction to the law?  (Think about how you might attempt to break the addiction in a loved one.)
  3. What do you think keeps you from realizing God’s love right now?  Be honest and read over Mark 8:11-13 again.  What might Jesus be doing in your life?

Empathy and Action

Mark 8:1-10

Empathy means to “feel into” the situation of another.  To have empathy for the plight of another is to be able to put yourself in his or her shoes and feel what the person feels, as if you were going through the same situation as that person would.  Truly to have empathy doesn’t mean you experience their situation as you would experience it, but as they would experience it.  You try to imagine what it must be like to be that person, with the same history and hindrances, facing the same situation.  

Quite often, my ability to feel empathy is hijacked by my lack of sensitivity to the disposition of the other person, so I end up thinking to myself, “Well, if that were me, I’d just do this or this; it’s not a big deal, I could handle it.”  Again, this is not true empathy.

Jesus showed true empathy to the large crowd in Mark 8:1-10.  Even though there were about four thousand people there, he ‘felt into’ each person individually.  “I have compassion on the crowd,” he said.  To have compassion means to be moved in one’s inward parts, the bowels, to be specific.  Jesus had a belly ache for each person there, his stomach was in knots, just thinking about each person in the crowd.  

He stepped into their shoes and experienced their circumstance not as if he were the Son of God, but as if he were one of them.  Notice the detail in the text.  Jesus knows they had been with him “three days” and he realized they had “nothing to eat.”  Then he imagines each person on the long journey home and says, “And if I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way.”  He even knew how far each person had travelled, “And some of them have come from far away.” 

Jesus felt into the plight of each person and was emotionally moved.  He had true empathy.

What is your plight right now?  What are you facing?  What are you lacking?  What dangers are ahead of you if something doesn’t happen soon?  Friend, Jesus feels into your life and circumstances today, just as much as he did then.  Whether you realize it or not, he stands in your shoes each morning and walks with you to face all your problems.  His stomach still turns when he sees what you see and feels what you feel. 

When he said, “I have compassion on the crowd,” you and I are in that crowd.  

But Jesus does more than have empathy, he also takes action.  He has empathy and action; he feels into your plight and takes action out of it.  Sometimes Jesus takes action directly, but sometimes he uses other people, as in Mark 8.  Remember this great truth: Jesus loves to use ‘means.’  He uses other people, objects, or events to minister to us.  

In Mark 8:1-10, Jesus used the means of the disciples and the bread and fish they were able to collect.  Jesus could have instantly filled the bellies of the four thousand people, but instead, he used the actions of the disciples to gather seven loaves of bread and a few small fish.  

How does Jesus act?  Now, it’s really important to see the pattern here, because it’s repeated twice in this passage, both with the bread and the fish, for emphasis.  Here are the seven steps of Jesus’s action in our lives.

  1. He uses what we have.  Again, God often uses means in order to minister to us.  He tends to use what we already have, rather than giving us something completely new.  Most likely, the answer to your problem is with you already, but you just don’t know it.
  2. He adds up our resources so that we can see they are not enough.  There were just seven loaves of bread and a few small fish.  Part of his action is for us to realize we don’t have what it takes.  His action doesn’t happen when we think we have it covered, but when we’re staring at an empty plate.
  3. He has us sit.  He directed the crowd to sit down.  For us, this means he humbles us, puts us in a posture of reception, waiting, and patience.  Also, sitting is the posture of grace: he serves us as a waiter as we sit and enjoy.   
  4. He takes away what we have and puts it in his own hands.  The crowd only had seven loaves of bread and a few fish, but Jesus took these away from the crowd.  Often, God will take away what little we have before he acts.
  5. He blesses or gives thanks for it.  We struggle to give thanks for what little we have, but Jesus doesn’t.  He gives thanks on our behalf for what we have.  He blesses what we have, in case we forget how special the little we have truly is.  
  6. He breaks it.  After taking away our meager resources, he breaks them.  While his breaking hurts us and we don’t understand what he is doing, it is necessary.  Just as a grape must be broken to produce wine, so must our hopes and dreams be crushed.  Useful things are broken things.   
  7. He has his disciples set it before us.  We depend on other people more than we realize.  When we’re broken and hungry and waiting on the Lord, other people will minister to us.  God loves to bring us to a desolate place where we have no resources and can no longer depend on our own strength; then he uses other weak and hungry people to care for us.  Sometimes we don’t realize how much God is using other people to help us; it’s okay to let it happen.  The most important meal others can serve to you is the word of God itself, reminding you of the truth of God’s grace in your life.  This is the meal that truly satisfies.   

Look at these seven steps, can you see any of them unfolding in your circumstance right now?  If you can, then you can see the action of Jesus.  Remember, he acts mysteriously and he uses others on his behalf, but he is directing the miracle.  His action will never turn out how we normally think it would, because he is always doing something new and gracious.  But in the end, his way is always best and always satisfies the most.  

There were four thousand in the crowd that day and you were one of them.

The Breakdown

  1. What is empathy?  When have you experienced true empathy?  When have you given true empathy?
  2. Go through the seven steps of Jesus’s action.  Which do you see at work in your life?  
  3. How has God used other people to care for you?  Take one minute and think about all the ways other people have loved you.