Sunday Lesson – The Man with the Withered Hand


Most Sundays, I post a brief lesson about the Christian life. I don’t preach. My goal is to understand what the writer writes, and what the hearer hears. I leave the what it really means to others, smarter than me, and bolder. I can’t write and think about this without bias, and I will address it when I see it. I’m comfortable with Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant theologies, and with some atheist ideals. It was Augustine who said that ‘all truth is G’s truth’ and I gladly sup coffee around that campfire. My Christian belief is an expression of faith, not logic, and whatever I glom onto, I hold loose in an open hand.

I focus here on the life of Jesus since Christians are called to follow the Son.

***

Spring arrived, and it was hot, just after the harvest. We tramped from town to town, breathing dust, Jesus a magnet for the most destitute and broken people.

It was the Sabbath, and we were in the Synagogue, by ourselves, keeping away from the Synagogue leaders who searched for any way to taunt us. A man spoke with Jesus about donkeys and sheep. The man walked away, and Jesus fingered the dirt for a moment, silent. Finally, He spoke.

“You there?” He said, nodding toward another man. “Yes. You,” He laughed. “Come and stand here.”

The man was sitting, and with his right arm withered, rolled onto his side to rise. He clamored to his feet and came near. Their eyes met, and Jesus nodded a greeting.

“My son,” Jesus said, “you are well?”

Nodding again and glancing at the Pharisees, the man seemed loathe to speak. One of the Synagogue officials called out to them. “Jesus,” he said, “is it permitted to cure on the Sabbath?”

Jesus knew the hearts of these Pharisees, that a smile was a coat, and looked again at the man he was talking to about sheep and donkeys. He chuckled to Himself and looked at the gathered leaders. “I have a question for you, too, brothers. You are leaders in understanding the Law?” He raised his hands, looking for agreement, and went on: “If any of you have a sheep that falls into a hole on the Sabbath, wouldn’t you figure out a way to get it out? Grab hold of a leg and tug? In fact,” he shrugged his shoulders for emphasis, “if you see your brother’s sheep or ox fall over on the Sabbath, doesn’t the Law say that you can’t disregard it, but have to help lift it?” Silence. “Brothers, I ask you,” and He pointed to the man standing between them, “is not a man, made in the image of G, worth more than an entire pasture of sheep? Doesn’t it follow that it must be permitted to do good on the Sabbath?”

He turned to the man standing near. “Son, stretch out your arm.”

He did so, and a look enveloped him. Looking at Jesus, and then at the Pharisees, he stretched his fingers out and curled them back in again. Bewildered, he looked at Jesus. “It’s healed. Master. It’s healed.“

One of the Pharisees laughed and shouted. “You can wiggle your fingers now? And wave your hand? Good for you. There’s healing! It’s as good as a duckling’s wing!” The group laughed now, taunting.

“No,” said the man, finding his voice. “It’s healed. Here, watch me.” He walked over to a stack of stones. He bent over and grabbed a small one with his left hand.

“Good for you,” said the Pharisee. “You can pick up a rock.”

Jesus raised His finger. “I think there’s more…”

The man bent down again and, with both hands, lifted a stone as big as his belly. “It’s healed! I’m telling you. All the strength is back. I don’t know how, but it’s healed.”

Jesus remained sitting, smiling at the man. “By faith, my son.”

***

It’s easy, as moderns, as people educated in politics and science, to stick our tongues out at the Pharisees. To see them as the white-washed tombs Jesus calls them. Don’t forget, though, that Jesus admonishes followers to do as the Pharisees say – they are the protectors of the Law, after all – but to eschew what they do. They focus on a part of the Law, the rules that can be measured, and forget where the story ends, with the prophet Micah, who calls out to his listeners, just a few hundred years before Jesus, that, “On man, what is good and what does the Lord require of you? Do justice. Love kindness. Walk with humility.”

What is most fascinating here is that, though accused, Jesus does nothing. The Pharisees are looking for him to do something, something they could throw up their arms over. Some infraction. Maybe he will spit in the dirt, they wonder, and rub a balm on the man’s arm? But, nothing. He doesn’t even speak healing into existence like evangelists do today on the Jesus channel. “Be healed!”. It’s as if, in the middle of a sentence, in the middle of biting down on a piece of bread, he glances at the man. “Oh, sorry. Stretch out your arm.”

It’s interesting, too, that the man does nothing. Jesus doesn’t ask him if he’s kept the most important commandments, or if he knows who Jesus is. Neither says a mighty prayer or spends the day fasting. One point here is that this healing is part and parcel of Jesus’ holiness, purity, and wholeness. That it was always available. That simply being around Him makes these things available. The bromide that all prayers are answered with a Yes, No, or Later, falls on us: it’s our belief that moves miracles. Answers to prayer are contingent on our faith in G’s height, breadth, depth, and width within us. It’s telling that we make up an explanation for prayers that go unanswered.

It reminds me of my wife and I, working in the kitchen, wondering how different we would be if Jesus walked in to say Hi? Different, not because the King of Kings is asking for a glass of V8, or because we would hurry to wipe the counters, but different because of who He is. Of what He embodies. How can you not be different standing in Isaiah’s kingly chamber where the very walls and framing quake because of the holiness of G?

The story of the withered hand is told in three of the gospels and Luke closes his telling with the story of the Pharisees, losing this battle, sneaking off to comport with the Herodians about how to win the war. The Herodians, also Jews, were political and their purpose was to keep Herod in power and to court his favor. I won’t belabor it, but take care when mixing religion and politics. Trouble bodes ill.

The take-home-message? Focus on forgiveness, basics, love, and mercy. Everything else takes a backseat to these essentials.

Selah

Thoughts?

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