Our focus in today’s reading of Mark 3 is on verses 1-6 – the healing of “a man with a withered hand”. This is the last in a series of five stories that extends from Mark 2.1-3-6, all designed to demonstrate Jesus’ authority: He teaches with authority (1.22, 27), commands obedience from demonic powers (1.28), forgives sins (2.1-12), eats with the “riff-raff” tax collectors and sinners (2.13-17), ignores religious expectations about fasting (2.18-22), and side-steps respected Jewish tradition regarding healing on the Sabbath. Jesus is clearly opposed by the religious crowd, yet wildly popular with the common folk. The latter “…were coming to Him from everywhere” (Mark 1.45), (cf. also 2.2, 3.7-10, 20).
This last story in verses 1-6 highlights how Jesus’ authority sets aside religious activity for the sake of human need. The setting is a synagogue meeting, where Mark tells us that attending the meeting that day was a man with a deformed hand – literally, a hand “having been withered,” which likely indicates that he had dealt with this handicap from birth, or at least for an extended period of time. Mark also tells us that the religious crowd “watched Jesus” to see whether he would heal the man on the Sabbath.
The man with the deformity becomes the center of attention, and I’m wondering if the man wished he had not attended church that day. I mean, who likes to have their handicaps and misfortunes pointed out in church on Sunday? Yet, things could not have turned out better for the man. Jesus calls him up to the front as ‘exhibit A’, and then poses this question to the religious crowd: “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” Would Jesus heal this man? We should note that Rabbinic tradition prohibited practicing medicine on the Sabbath unless the person’s life was in danger. To heal this man would be wrong in their eyes. What would Jesus do?
His question is as brilliant as it is powerful, and their silence confirms it. In the mind of Jesus, failure to do good is the same as doing evil. I would not have wanted to catch Jesus’ gaze. The original indicates “a summary and commanding survey” as Jesus looks around at them. Mark uses two words here to describe it: “angry” and “grieved”. Jesus knows their callous and stubborn hearts. He is angry because of their indifference to human need.
The lesson should be obvious. We should never be neutral when it comes to those who are hurting. Our theology should never get in the way of our response to human need. We might all do well to examine our own hearts in that regard.
Jesus demonstrates his authority and compassion as he breaks the religious rules and heals the man. “ ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored” (v.5b). Note the irony and hypocrisy on the part of those who oppose Jesus – the religious (Pharisees) and political (Herodians) authorities deny Jesus the right to do good on the Sabbath, but they themselves craft a plan to do evil on the Sabbath. James Edwards writes, “For Jesus the gospel of God (1:14) is different from proper religion in that it is about the disposition of the heart, which cannot remain unmoved in the face of suffering … the test of all theology and morality is either passed or failed by one’s response to the weakest and most defenseless members of society.” Loving like this is costly for Jesus and for any who set out to follow his way.