1‘Another time, Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shrivelled had was there. 2 Some of the were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath. 3 Jesus said to the man with the shrivelled hand, ‘Stand up in front of everyone.’ 4 Then Jesus asked them, ‘Which is it lawful to do on the Sabbath? To do good, or to do harm?’ But they remained silent. 5He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out and his hand was completely restored. 6 Then the Pharisees went out to begin to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.
Horsham, 7th February 2024
It’s the sabbath, and Jesus is in the synagogue. He knows that the Pharisees are trying to catch hm out, but he’s not hiding away. Mark leaves us in no doubt that they are watching what he is up to. They have an agenda. ‘The Pharisees and teachers of the law were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see whether he would heal on the Sabbath.'(v2)
The rules about what you could, or could not do on the Sabbath went into great detail. In essence, the Sabbath is for rest, so all work was forbidden. The complexity came in the interpretation of the term work, and over generations, the interpretation had become very complex indeed. It does not sit well with us that the act of healing was forbidden because it constituted work. It was legitimate to take immediate action to save a life on the Sabbath, but supportive medical care was not permitted. Even when someone was seriously injured the amount of treatment which could be given was minimal. Even a broken leg could not be set in a splint on the sabbath. (i)
There’s no indication that this man’s life was in danger. Jesus had, of course, the opportunity to ignore the man and sidestep the issue. But no, he makes the man stand where everyone can see him. The Pharisees are watching. They ask Jesus a question ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?’ (Matthew 12:10). Jesus puts the spotlight back on them – ‘Which is it lawful to do on the Sabbath? To do good, or to do harm?’ This isn’t a trick question. It’s familiar ground for experienced religious leaders of the day. Almost a rhetorical question. They remain silent. ‘If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.’ (Matthew 12:11-12). No great problem there.
And then it happens. Jesus tells the man to stretch out his hand, and it is healed.
You have to picture this scene. At the front of the synagogue stands a man with a badly damaged hand. In front of everyone, including the Pharisees, ‘it was completely restored, just as sound as the other.’ (Matthew 12:13). As far as we know, Jesus didn’t touch the man. He hasn’t used words which might cause offence. Yet it’s a visible miracle, witnessed by everyone at the synagogue. The man has been healed. On the Sabbath.
In my Church, there would be whoops of delight and shouts of praise and thanksgiving if even a much lesser miracle was performed. We don’t know how most of the people reacted, but we do know something of the Pharisees. Here, in the synagogue which was a place ‘where men were assembled to hear the Word and to worship.’ (ii) I might say the same of my Church. Yet here in the synagogue were deeply religious people who, rather than celebrating the presence of God, were looking to catch out the one who has claimed to be the Son of Man and just demonstrated that the power of the Holy Spirit is working through him.
‘I am the Lord, who heals you.’ Exodus 15:26
Jesus is confronted with a man who is suffering and unable to work because of his badly damaged hand. We can easily see his dilemma as ‘is it better to heal such a man, or to allow his pain to continue unnecessarily,’ but there is a deeper question here. Which is more appropriate for the Sabbath – to do good by healing this man – or to do harm by plotting and scheming against a fellow Jesus, even planning his murder.
As we have mentioned before: ‘When Jesus began openly to violate the Sabbath traditions, it was like declaring war against the religious establishment.’ (iii)
Mark wants you to notice the evidence that Jesus truly is the Son of Man. As the war between Jesus and the religious authorities moves into a new phase, he wants you to notice that the agenda of the most committed and dedicated religious men of the day is to reject and destroy Jesus. Such is their determination that they are ready to form alliance with the Herodians(iv) to rid themselves of Jesus.
Mark has his own agenda. To present the one who claims to be the Son of Man to you. By showing you these cameo ‘flashpoints’ of growing conflict between Jesus and the religious establishment, Mark is insisting that you too take a side.
(i) Wm Barclay, New Daily Study Bible, Gospel of Mark, Loc 1614
(ii) Ryle, p34
(iii) W. Wiersbe, Be Diligent, p38
(iv) The Herodians were in effect a political party whose allegiance was to Herod Antipas, the King installed by the Roman Empire. As collaborators with the occupying power, they were not natural bed-fellows of the Pharisees.