Mark 3:1-6

3 Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.”

Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent.

He 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. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.
(Mark 3:1-6 NIV)

Today’s text is a culmination of related events starting in chapter 2.  These five stories (Jesus healing the paralytic through forgiveness, Jesus selecting Levi as a disciple and eating dinner with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus’ disciples not fasting twice a week, Jesus’ disciples hand-picking grain on the Sabbath) lead up to this sixth event where the tension reaches its boiling point.

The text tells us that Jesus is in the synagogue again.  The location is not mentioned; however, it is likely in Capernaum, where Jesus made His home base when He was not out in the nearby communities preaching and teaching.

As we mentioned before, Jesus was on the Pharisees’ “watch list” – they followed Him around and checked Him out to be sure He was not violating any of their oral traditions.  Today was no exception.  The Pharisees were not attending incognito – they were in the front row, clearly visible, waiting to see what Jesus would do, looking for a reason to accuse Jesus of wrongdoing.  Their minds were made up; they just needed undeniable evidence to support their belief so they could bring formal charges.

Jesus sees the man with the shriveled hand sitting in the congregation.  Jesus knows that this is a setup and a trap; He is neither shocked nor surprised at the situation and is certainly not caught off guard.  Jesus accepts the challenge and uses the opportunity to teach God’s Word vs. blindly accept the Pharisees’ oral traditions and authority.

The text does not say how Jesus knows the man has a withered hand.  Does He know this man from a previous meeting?  Did Jesus happen to notice the man when he entered the synagogue?  Or did Jesus simply know because He is God?

In any case, Jesus asks the man to stand up.  Jesus then asks a question directed at the Pharisees, but asked of the congregation in general:  “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” (v. 4)

The Pharisees and rabbis had a simple question to determine if an action constituted work on the Sabbath:  Which way preserves life?  Jesus took their question and used it to make His point.  The Pharisees were not interested in debating the finer points of this question.  In their minds, the answer was clear.  The man did not suddenly have a shriveled hand; his life was not in imminent danger; this miracle could wait until the next day.  In their minds, to heal this man on the Sabbath constituted work.

There are some historical (non-Biblical) references that indicate that this man was a skilled tradesman, possibly a brick or stone mason.  His livelihood would then depend on the use of his hands.  With a withered hand, we would be limited in what he could do, or be forced to beg and live in abject poverty.

In verse 5, we see Jesus displaying a range of simultaneous emotions.  He is both angry and sorrowful (deep distress) at the hardness of their stubborn hearts.  The Pharisees are stuck in their tradition, unable and unwilling to see the light and freedom of God’s Word, much less the Good News of the Kingdom of God standing in their midst.  If anyone should recognize the Messiah, it should be the ones that know the Scriptures the best, right?

Jesus then proceeded to heal the man in the midst of the entire congregation.  By performing this miracle, Jesus was demonstrating that God’s grace and mercy are in effect 24 x 7.  While the Law placed limits on work, there is no such limit to God’s mercy and grace.  They are always in effect.

And aren’ we glad God doesn’t sleep or slumber, nor does He withdraw His mercy and grace for any time period?

The Pharisees, infuriated that Jesus would heal the man on the Sabbath, leave the synagogue and consult with the Herodians on how they might kill Jesus.   The Herodians were not friends with the Pharisees, but they were both willing to lay aside their distaste of and disdain for one another to fight a common enemy:  Jesus.  Both groups recognized the balance of power that was at stake; neither group wanted to give up their control to this unconventional and unorthodox teacher with His rag-tag bunch of followers.  With this goal of eliminating a common threat, an unlikely and unholy alliance was formed.

As we compare and contrast the message of Jesus and of the Pharisees, we see the Pharisees focused on the Law (defined as their oral traditions, not God’s Word), while Jesus was focused on grace and mercy.  The Pharisees were focused on ritual and rule, while Jesus focused on love.

May we see God’s sovereignty as above all our assumptions and rules of life.  May we exercise grace and mercy in love toward all today, whether they are deserving or not.