Read Mark 3:1-6
I don’t know if this is true of all kids but it certainly was true of me. Some times I dug up rocks in the ground. Whether I was looking for “skipping stones” or just goofing around I sometimes went looking for rocks. More than once, I started digging out a rock and soon realized that the rock was actually much bigger than the part that I had seen at ground level. Now I live in the Texas Hill Country and if you dig at all in this area you soon learn there can be all sorts of rocks beneath the surface and even the seemingly smallest rock can suddenly be huge!
If you never start digging though the rock always just seems small and small rocks are manageable. Scripture can be the same way. You read a passage from the Bible and it seems simple and straightforward and small. After doing a little more digging you figure out there is a lot more to it and it is heavy!
In the first three verses of Mark 3, we read a straightforward story. Jesus goes into a synagogue on the Sabbath and ‘yawn’ he is going to heal someone. Simple, straightforward, nothing complicated: a man needs healing, it is the Sabbath, Jesus is going to do it, and its going to upset those pesky Pharisees all over again. Really, Mark? we think, can’t you move on we have seen all this before already. Blah, blah, blah Jesus heals on the Sabbath. Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath. We get it. This story is a pebble.
That impulse isn’t limited to everyday readers of the gospel. It happens to well-educated trained readers of scripture too. In fact, you can probably already hear the sermons written from this passage in your head:
“Jesus was a radical who upset the political and religious authorities of his day by disregarding the rules in favor of caring for people in their time of need. What rules do we need to flaunt today to continue the good work of our political revolutionary Jesus?”
“How are we like the Pharisees allowing our traditions to keep us from doing good or making worship a more inviting place for the weak, the weary, and the downtrodden. Is not our emphases on music and liturgy a modern expression of the legalism of Pharisees? How must we change to ensure that the grace of Christ is first and foremost?”
“The Pharisees felt there power slipping away at the hands of this Jesus who did what was right in a moment when everyone else would not. This is why they sought to kill him. Fortunately, we would never make that mistake today as we would welcome Jesus and his miracles into our midst.”
O.K. That last one is less likely to be preached, but you know you have heard the others. And they come from a superficial reading of this passage. Some Christians, mostly progressive, never get farther than considering Jesus to be a better Caesar Chavez. Other Christians, mostly conservative, never get any deeper in these scriptures than judging the Pharisees for there legalism and failure to recognize the Messiah when he showed up.
Dig a little deeper, sweep away some dirt, find the bigger rock buried in the ground.
Jesus follows his habits, he is in worship on the Sabbath. (For modern Christians there is a whole sermon in the first sentence!) Mark tells us that there was a man with a withered hand present and that “they” were watching Jesus to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus asks the man to come forward to the middle of the synagogue, the center of attention. Here is where we get confused, because the man has been brought front and center we assume that the healing is the big deal. But this man will remain anonymous throughout and Jesus is never going to comment on his faith. This latter point is how we know Mark is telling us something different from the previous arguments about the Sabbath or healing events. So much for the meaning of the text to be about the poor and needy.
Similarly Jesus begins addressing his detractors and he does so using the common parlance of the rabbis of his day: “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save a life or to kill?” The first clause was a common interpretive argument of Rabbis predating Jesus and after. It is a rhetorical question the answer to which must be: “Of course it is lawful to do good the Sabbath.” Many rabbis had debated these things and it was determined that saving a life must take precedence over inaction in the law of God. If we are to love our neighbors first and foremost then doing good is part and parcel of the Sabbath. To put a modern spin on it, you naturally would have surgeons and EMTs work on the Sabbath. It couldn’t be unlawful to aid an accident victim. It would be appropriate to defend a lamb from a wolf on the Sabbath.
Back to the text: the Pharisees do not say anything. Their silence upsets Jesus greatly. Of course they don’t argue with Jesus because the question is rhetorical. Naturally the Sabbath allows for life saving and other acts of good. Of course, Jesus doesn’t stop with the basic question. He has brought the man forward. Between his question and the presence of the man he is implying that healing the withered hand is the equivalent of “saving a life” and failure to heal the withered hand is the equivalent of killing. What?
Let’s be clear, Jesus is nobody’s fool. He knows as well as anyone that the withered hand could wait a day or even 12 hours. This is the key to understanding that the story is not simply about the perils of legalism or about the way that people become so rigid interpreting right from wrong that they fail to see the effect of such legalism on others.
Here is where the buried rock is revealed.
If you have been following this blog you know that I feel that scriptures are best understood in the broader context of the chapter / book that they are found in. The Reformers (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, etc) promoted the notion that scripture should be used to interpret scripture. That is a great principle and scripture should be used to interpret other scriptures. That said, it is also important that a reader of scripture first looks to the rest of the current book before jumping to other books in the Bible. If you have been reading Mark (or this blog) then you know that Jesus is making a claim about the arrival of the Kingdom of God. According to Jesus, the hour is now that God is acting. In the healing of the paralytic there was the tacit claim that Jesus (as the Son of Man) has the authority to forgive sins (something that is YHWH’s purview) and in the conversations about Sabbath-keeping the implication is that Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath (also the purview of YHWH). Throughout Mark, Jesus is saying look at this; see by what I do that what I say is true.
So many people describe the Gospel of John as Christocentric, but how can you miss the fact that in Mark the center of every story thus far and the focus of every point has been Jesus and who he is. This gospel is extremely Christocentric.
Back to the paradox that healing the withered hand is not a matter of life and death. Robert Guelich, NT scholar, writes, “‘To do good’ and ‘to save a life’ takes on an eschatological ring of the coming of the day of salvation, the fulfillment of God’s promised activity in history.” God is acting, breaking into the world with the arrival of the Kingdom. The kingdom is present wherever Jesus is present. I think that Jesus before the man in the synagogue is a moment where Mark wants us to recognize ourselves present in the presence of God. For Jesus to do good / heal meant to give life and to refrain from good / not heal was to kill, meaning depriving another of the benefits of the redemptive / restorative power of God. Failing to act would be cheating the man and all the gathered community of the right now benefits of the Kingdom of God even as they would have to wait for the ultimate fulfillment of the Kingdom. But the key is that the presence of Jesus brings life and changes things.
This is what we have seen throughout the Gospel of Mark. A demon possessed man comes before Jesus and is made whole–saved–and Jesus demonstrates power over the forces of evil. A paralyzed man is brought before him and made whole and Jesus demonstrates the power to forgive sin. A tax-collector is called into his retinue and redeemed from a sinful life and Jesus demonstrates the need for God’s Anointed to be amidst the sinners. Hyper-religious folk judge the followers of Jesus for not following the law more closely and Jesus proclaims an authority over the law itself. Every aspect of Mark so far has been an effort to nudge the reader to make a decision about the true nature of Jesus. Is he the embodiment of the rule of God among us or not?
Every encounter from the demon possessed to the disciple; from the physically deformed to the self-righteous has been at its core a question of life and death because this is the moment that they have encountered Jesus. How each responded to that encounter is what has mattered most.
So how have you responded? Have you acknowledged the truth of who Christ is?
How has your limited idea of Jesus prevented another from encountering Christ? If Jesus is just a great teacher why should anyone care? If he is a social radical then why should anyone make a decision for him rather than just see him as another Ghandi or Malcolm X?
Maybe you have chosen for Jesus and welcomed the encounter for yourself and your salvation. Have your actions and your efforts encouraged others to know who He is? Have you expressed forgiveness and grace to those whom you see as sinners? Or are you silent in the face of this life and death moment for others?
Maybe you have called out to God in your hours of need, a cancer diagnosis, a child who is sick, or a loss of job. Upon restoration have you turned your heart over to the Lord or just thanked God glibly for granting your wishes?
Let’s be clear, Jesus is not just healing a man with a withered hand, rather, he is restoring a life. Just as Jesus does when he brings the alcoholic to sobriety, the addict to wholeness, or reunites estranged family. Jesus acts and the proper response is deeper faith, deeper trust, and deeper praise of who God is for each of us.
Jesus never touches the man. He tells him to reach out his hand and the as the man does so his hand is restored. We are not told how the man responded to this act. We are told that the Pharisees in seeing this incredible moment of life-giving miracle went from that place conspiring to end a life.
A final thought: if Mark wants us to see ourselves as the man with the withered hand, in the presence of God with nothing to account for but our limitations then Mark also wants us to ask ourselves how often are we like the Pharisees. How often do we see the restorative work of God (an addict finding sobriety, a tax cheat attending worship, a murderer released from a prison sentence, the list is exhaustive) and question the wisdom and grace of God perhaps even to the point of considering the need to stop this radical love rather than celebrating that someone has experienced the overwhelming healing power of Christ? There are really only two places to be in those moments. One of them deepens our own salvation and the other leads to rejection of Jesus.
Feel free to use this Bible study for your own groups or discussion. It is freely given. If you do I merely ask that you acknowledge where you got it and if you find it useful that you encourage others to seek it out. It is written with fear, foreboding, and prayer by a fellow hypocrite who is simply trying to figure out the road ahead.