23rd Week in Ordinary Time, Monday (Year II)
On a certain sabbath Jesus went into the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. The scribes and the Pharisees watched him closely to see if he would cure on the sabbath so that they might discover a reason to accuse him.
Dressed in their Sabbath best, the laser keen eyes of Jesus’ analysts beamed through the hollow sockets of their exterior masks to size him up. A man with a withered hand happened to be there—conveniently? Conspiracy theories have been around for a long time: some commentators wonder if the handicapped man was “planted” to trap Jesus1. At any rate, the poor brother was regarded as a snare on this occasion. The hunters were fixed on their prey.
But he realized their intentions and said to the man with the withered hand, “Come up and stand before us.” And he rose and stood there.
Luke alone of the Synoptics narrates this detail of Jesus reading the hearts of his accusers. Masquerading in the divine presence was impossible; the thoughts and intentions of the heart were transparent to Jesus.
What was the disabled man thinking? Was he hoping that the famed teacher and healer would restore him this day? We are not informed, as the decoy’s subjectivity was drowned out by the intensity of the protagonists. Silently he obeyed Jesus’ summons to “stand in the midst” of the assembly.
Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good on the sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?”
With the deftness of a cross-examiner, Jesus put forward an either/or question that completely circumvented the legal issue of “working” on the Sabbath. The question was rhetorical: doing evil and destroying life were obviously out of the question. However, doing good or saving life hardly occurred to the disputants, but not because their tradition did not encourage it. In fact, the Mishnah Yoma (a pillar of Talmudic literature) did permit saving human life on the Sabbath: “every potential danger to human life overrides Shabbat” (8:6).
The clash with Jesus was not inevitable. If more care had been taken to reflect on the essence of the law as handed down to Moses and the prophets, concord might have been possible. After all, the Law and the Prophets were given in preparation for the coming of Christ.
Passion and anger, unfortunately, overrode wisdom and intuition.
Looking around at them all, he then said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so and his hand was restored.
Jesus’ merciful heart overcame intimidation and suffered the consequences, but what a joyous day for the brother who was healed!
But they became enraged and discussed together what they might do to Jesus.
If the good of another does not spontaneously evoke joy, something is deeply amiss in the depths of the heart. The word Luke used for “enraged” suggests irrationality, from anoia (ἄνοια)—“no mind.” The whole group exploded into folly, madness, fury and rage. Heart, mind, reason, emotions, and senses went to war in the interior battlefield. The heart and mind were crushed to the ground by the stampede of anger and its minions.
The God whom the scribes and Pharisees wanted to honor stood before them unrecognized. Beyond sight and sound, he was actually inseparable from them, living within and upholding their very existence. But to the exterior senses, Jesus was reduced to a target and an object of wrath.
1 New Bible Commentary, 21st Century Edition, edited by G.J. Wenham, J.A. Motyer, D.A. Carson, R.T. France, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000, p. 990.