One sabbath he was going through the cornfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?’ And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.’ Then he said to them, ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.’
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come forward.’ 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. 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. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. — Mark 2:23-3:6 NRSV
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come forward.’ 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. 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. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. — Mark 2:23-3:6
It seems there were not many places Jesus could go without being under surveillance. In the synagogue, on the road, in Jerusalem, even in the middle of a corn field, it seems someone was always watching, and generally that was not a good thing. Jesus walked in a sort of mine field with the Pharisees, the Herodians, the priests, the Romans, the Sanhedrin, the whole lot of them. In a way, it’s sort of like famous people today who are constantly under scrutiny of paparazzi and others just waiting for the person to make a misstep or say the wrong thing. In Jesus’s case it wouldn’t just be public humiliation, it had the potential of being much more serious than that.
The gist of these two episodes in this reading is observance of the Sabbath. It was serious matter as it is mentioned at least twice to “remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” It was a remembrance of the seventh day of creation when God rested, and no work was supposed to be done on that day. Of course we can look back to the story of King David using the sacred bread to feed himself and his followers, but maybe the Pharisees and those looking to catch Jesus doing something wrong needed to be reminded of that. What could or could not be done on the Sabbath was strictly delineated and seriously taken as a sacred duty. But even then, there were questions of “what if… .”
For me, the episode of the man with a withered hand stands out as indicative of not only Jesus’ ministry but also his message. The man’s disability was more than a matter of cosmetics, it was literally a matter affecting his entire life. Then, as now, there are places in the world where people don’t sit down to dinner at a table with knives, forks and spoons, eat off porcelain, pottery or even paper plates and use serving utensils to retrieve what they want to eat from serving dishes. Eating is done from common dishes with everyone dipping their hands (or a morsel of bread) into the dish and then conveying it to their mouths. But it is only the right hand that is used for this. No two-handed fried-chicken-an’-corn-on-the-cob eatin’ here; the left hand for them was/is exclusively for an entirely different purpose, one we would associate with Charmin or Angel Soft. To lose a hand (and if I were a thief, I would lose my right hand for punishment) meant effectively that I would either starve to death unless I were fortunate enough have someone feed me, or part of me would never be completely clean. We don’t know which hand on the man in the story was affected but it is obvious that it was a very serious matter. Healing him on the Sabbath was an act of mercy but was it work? That’s a good question. Did Jesus consider it work? Obviously the Pharisees thought so.
What is work? Most of us would say it was what we do to make the money we need in order to pay the bills for things we see as necessary for life. We often define ourselves by what we do to earn our living rather than who we actually are inside. Work is defined as something physical or mental done to achieve a result. We work to earn money; Jesus worked to bring the message of God’s kingdom to humanity and to demonstrate God’s love for the world though his words and his actions. Was this physical or mental activity? Was healing the result of mental activity, physical activity, both or neither? It definitely had a purpose, and whichever it was, the Pharisees saw it as work. We see it as an example and a lesson, but to the man with a withered hand it undoubtedly represented a life-saving and life-changing event. To him, whether it was physical, mental, both or neither was not important. The important thing was that it was done.
I wonder what would happen if we paid less attention to what we felt we had to do in terms of earning a living and did more of what we felt we needed to do for the world. Unless we are doctors, healthcare professionals or scientists, or we are great world leaders, we don’t feel we really have much impact on healing the world. Certainly we’re not Jesus. Even so, every healing act, every great idea, every big project starts with a single person and builds from there. We don’t have to be Jesus, we just have to act when we see something that can be done to give another person or another group of people a life-saving and life-changing event.
My challenge to myself is to identify what I can do and then to actually do it. Jesus knew his act would make a difference, and he knew that he had the ability to perform this act. I need to have the confidence to try to make the effort. Will it actually make a difference? I won’t know until I try.