THE WITHERED HAND

Mark 3:1-6

(Slightly Rephrased)


"And He entered again into the synagogue; and there was a man there who had a withered hand. And they were watching Him to see whether He would heal him on the sabbath day in order that they might accuse Him. And He said unto the man with the withered hand, 'Rise and come forward!' And He said unto them, 'Is it lawful on the sabbath day to do good or to do harm, to save a life or to kill?' But they kept silent. And when He had looked round about on them with anger, being grieved at the hardening of their heart, He said unto the man, 'Stretch out your hand.' And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored. And the Pharisees went out, and immediately with the Herodians took counsel against Him, how they might destroy Him." (Mark 3:1-6)

In the controversies recorded before this one, we have recognized the ideal Teacher: clear to discern and quick to exhibit the decisive point at issue, careless of small pedantries, armed with principles and precedents which go to the heart of the dispute. But the perfect man must be competent in more than theory, and we have now a marvelous example of tact, decision, and self-control in action. When Sabbath observance is again discussed, Jesus' enemies have resolved to push matters to extremity. They watch, no longer to raise trivial objections, but that they may accuse him.

It is in the synagogue, and their expectations are sharpened by the presence of a pitiable object, a man whose hand is not only paralyzed in the sinews, but withered up and hopeless. St. Luke tells us that it was the right hand, which deepened his misery. St. Matthew records that they asked Christ, "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath day?" thus urging him by a challenge to the deed which they condemned. What a miserable state of mind! They believe that Jesus can work the cure, since this is the very basis of their plot; and yet their hostility is not shaken, for belief in a miracle is not conversion. To acknowledge a prodigy is one thing, and to surrender the will is quite another. Or how should we see around us so many who are Christians in theory but reprobates in life? They long to see the man healed, yet there is no compassion in this desire; hatred urges them to wish what mercy impels Christ to grant. But while he relieves the sufferer, he will also expose their malice.

Therefore he makes his intention public and whets their expectation by calling the man forth into the midst. He then meets their question with another: "Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath day or evil, to save life or to kill?" When they preserved their calculated silence, he pressed the question home--reminding them that not one of them would fail to draw his own sheep out of a pit upon the Sabbath day. Selfishness made the difference; for a man was better than a sheep but did not, like the sheep, belong to them.

They do not answer. Instead of warning him away from guilt, they eagerly await the incriminating act. We can almost see the spiteful subtle smile playing about their bloodless lips; and Jesus marks them well. He looked round about them in anger, but not in bitter personal resentment. He was grieved at the hardness of their hearts, and pitied them also, even while enduring such contradiction of sinners against himself. This is the first mention by St. Mark of that impressive gaze, afterward so frequent in every Gospel, which searched the scribe who answered well, and melted the heart of Peter.

Now, by one brief utterance, their prey breaks through the trap they had set. Any touch would have been a work, a formal infraction of the law. Therefore there is no touch; neither is the helpless man bidden to take up any burden or instigated to the slightest ritual irregularity. Jesus only bids him do what was forbidden to none, but what had been impossible for him to perform. The man succeeds; he stretches forth his hand, is healed, and the work is done. Yet nothing has been done. As a work of healing, not even a word has been said. For he who would so often defy their malice has chosen to show how easily he can evade it. Not one of them is more free from any blame, however technical, than he.

The Pharisees are so utterly baffled, so helpless in his hands, so "filled with madness" that they invoke against this new foe the help of their natural enemies, the Herodians. These appear on the stage because the immense spread of the Messianic movement endangers the Idumaean dynasty. When first the wise men sought an infant King of the Jews, the Herod of that day was troubled. That instinct which struck at his cradle is now reawakened and will not slumber again until the fatal day when the new Herod shall set Jesus at nought and mock him. In the meantime, these strange allies perplex themselves with the hard question, How is it possible to destroy so acute a foe​?

While observing their malice--and the exquisite skill which baffles it--we must not lose sight of other lessons. It is to be observed that no offense to hypocrites nor danger to himself prevented Jesus from removing human suffering. Also, he expects from the man a certain cooperation involving faith. He must stand forth in the midst where everyone can see his unhappiness; he is to assume a position which will become ridiculous unless a miracle is worked. Then he must make an effort. In the act of stretching forth his hand, the strength to stretch it forth is given; but he would not have tried the experiment unless he trusted before he discovered the power. Such is the faith demanded of our sin-stricken and helpless souls. It is a faith which confesses its wretchedness, believes in the good will of God and the promises of Christ, and receives the experience of blessing through having acted on the belief that already the blessing is a fact in the Divine volition.

Nor may we overlook the mysterious impalpable spiritual power which effects its purposes without a touch or even an explicit word of healing import. What is it but the power of him who spake and it was done, who commanded and it stood fast?

All this vividness of look and bearing, this innocent subtlety of device combined with a boldness which stung His foes to madness, all this richness and authenticity of detail, this truth to the character of Jesus, this spiritual freedom from the restraints of a system petrified and grown rigid, this observance in a secular act of the requirements of the spiritual kingdom--all this wealth of internal evidence attests to one of the minor miracles which skeptics declare to be incredible.

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