Mark 3:1- 3:6
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. 2They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” 4Then 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. 5He 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. 6The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.
The conflict with the Pharisees that began in Chapter 2 continues here. Jesus is back in the synagogue (perhaps back in Capernaum, Mark does not say where). A man is in the synagogue whose hand is “withered”, or useless – perhaps he had a work-related injury that damaged the nerve, or a stroke, almost certainly he needs help, has difficulty supporting his family with his disability. Here the Pharisees see a test of the Sabbath laws, while Jesus sees a hurting man.
The Pharisees wait to see if Jesus will heal on the Sabbath, thinking this will be their opportunity to accuse him. Jesus sees the man and has pity on him; he calls the man forward, and asks the congregation (including the Pharisees), “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath, or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” According to the strictest interpretation of the Mosaic law, as it is practiced by Orthodox Jews today, it is lawful to administer only treatment that will save someone’s life, not that will make it better. Thus, by this interpretation, it would not be lawful to heal someone who was not on death’s door on the Sabbath. Jesus questions their interpretation of the Law. It is never right to harm another person – is not failing to heal a way of harming him? Jesus would prefer to err on the side of doing good, of loving and caring for the person, than on the side of strict adherence to the Pharisaical interpretation of the law. The Pharisees, of course, keep silent.
Jesus is grieved at the hardness of their hearts. He is not interested in fighting with them to see who wins; he is interested in saving them as well, in seeing their hearts filled with love instead of anger. There are people today whose religion is one of abiding by laws, who never see the love Jesus brought for them, but live in anger, seeking to exclude the person who has a withered hand, or is otherwise different from them. Jesus would heal their hearts; he would heal our hearts, all of us.
Jesus asks the man to put out his hand, and he does, and he is healed; function is restored – he can work and care for his family. He can come to the synagogue on the Sabbath and again be a full member of the community – because Jesus ignored the rules. But the Pharisees are very unhappy; somehow, they were bested in this exchange and it only fuels their anger – they go away and begin their plot to kill Jesus.
photo: the synagogue ruins in Capernaum