Mark 3:1 Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. 2 They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3 And he said to the man who had the withered hand, "Come forward." 4 Then he said to them, "Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?" But they were silent. 5 He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6 The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.
This is a key event. The pharisees hated the Herodians. Everyone is against him. I always feel some pathos when read this passage. Some of we clergy would take the passage as our own; the elders went out and immediately conspired with the parish council against him, how to destroy him. You know no matter what you do after that, or how much you bring good news to some people, it is only a matter of time. It's hardly an experience unique to clergy either! Yet I do not think this is the beginning of a Tragedy. It is certainly a statement of Jesus standing alone, but it is Jesus being his own person. It is another aspect of the powerful figure Mark has been drawing for us.
In one sense, we are all people with withered hands. We are of little power, unable to grasp hold of life properly. Mark shows Jesus reaching out to us, regardless of religious or social niceties, offering us a healing hand.
The disagreement with the Pharisees escalates in this story. In the first collision, there is an emphasis on power and authority.. Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Stand up and take your mat and walk'? Mark 2:9) But today, the emphasis is ethical. Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill? We could say the first time he outclasses them, but this time he makes them look bad.
I think the answer to his question is self evident. I think the Law, too, leaned in this direction. As much as the Sabbath was to remain a holy day of rest, it also remains an obligation to save life. To believe otherwise is just anti-semitism. Their hearts are hard because in refusing to allow him to reach out the man with the withered hand, they are refusing and denying the law. They selfishly put their moral code before the welfare of another human being.
They are also refusing the same hand as it reaches out to them! Knowing what they are thinking, he reaches out: Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill? They have the opportunity to choose compassion over law, and they choose Law. One could say that in refusing the healing hand, they choose a withered heart!
The question for us is whether we will see the hand of Jesus reaching out to us. Will we see the way of Jesus presented to us as a promise of power and healing? Or will we not recognise the shrivelling of our hands, our grip on life, and go our own way? Perhaps we will not seek to destroy him, but it will be as though the man with the withered hand pulled back, and would not let Jesus touch him.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.