Our system or Jesus’ offer?
(Mark 3: 1-6)
Recognizing my stubbornness.
Growing up, I was one of those challenging, stubborn children. The kind that has a strong will and will persist in it for better or for worse. I did not like to give in, especially when it meant that I was conceding to the fact that a strongly held opinion was wrong… I remember one conversation that I had during High School that might have been one of the most explicit examples of this stubbornness. I grew up working with horses. I spent about eight years of my life working and riding and training horses. So around about this time, I figured that I knew horses and horse terminology. Most certainly more than my parents who had not worked much with horses. During this particular conversation around the dinner table, a discussion came up about the definition of a certain word that related to horses. I adamantly insisted it meant one thing, while my parents held on that it meant another thing. Finally, certain that I was right, I grabbed the dictionary. Now I would prove to my parents that I had the right definition. We looked up the word. My parents were right. Now, most people would probably lay down their case at this point. I, however, don’t just give up, so I proceeded to argue why the dictionary was wrong…
In today’s story, we also see an example of people who also display such stubbornness. However, while I argued with the dictionary, these people argued with Jesus. And while arguing with the dictionary was youthful stupidity, arguing with Jesus has much graver consequences as we will see together today.
We find the story we will read today in Mark 3:1-6. Let’s first read the entire passage and then we’ll take a step back to look at what’s going on:
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. 2 And they watched Jesus,[a] to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3 And he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come here.” 4 And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. 5 And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6 The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.
The Pharisees upheld the purity of God’s law.
The Pharisees, who we find in this chapter, were a strong religious group among the Israelites with a very long and strong tradition. They were respected. They had power. Their word “Pharisee” meant separated. What were they separated from? They lived separate from the people. Separate from uncleanness. For their one focus was purity. Purity according to the Word of God. Is that not a beautiful goal? Their intention was to study God’s law to the minutest detail, so that they would know how to live holy lives that would not violate the Word of God.
They presented their system as the way to God.
To this end they studied and elaborated the Law of God. They would write up new additions and explanations, so that in no way, shape, or form would there be misunderstanding about what a law meant. Then they presented this to the people saying, here. Live in this way. Follow these laws. And, by doing so, you will find your way to God.
A system is useful
Is that not a beautiful thing? To be given the answers to life, so that you do not have to wonder what the right decision might be or to figure out God’s will for you in particular situations? That is what the Pharisees did! What great teachers these men must have been. For they did not just study God’s Word. But they gave very practical, meticulous explanations of what that would look like in life. You would never have to wonder!
For example, one of these laws that they taught and elaborated on was the law of the Sabbath. The Law of the Sabbath can be found in the Old Testament. God had told His people that they must work for six days and on the seventh day have a day of rest, which was called the Sabbath. The Pharisees had taken this law, and realized, well, that’s all fine and everything. However, to make sure that we live up to this law, we must write up a list of what is or is not work. So they developed 39 general groupings of activities which would be considered work and thus could not be done on the Sabbath. Systems are useful. They show people what to do and what not to do.
The tension between Jesus and the Pharisees.
The Pharisees believed in their system. They presented their system to the people, as this is the way to live. This is the way to go. This is the way to life and to God. And they held on fast to their way. Watching for teachers who would contradict what they are presenting as the answer.
And then this man Jesus arrives on the scene at the beginning of Mark. And He’s gaining attention. But not only is He gaining attention, but this man is challenging their teaching. Their system to get to God. Four times this Jesus has already challenged their teaching. And now we come to Mark 3. Jesus enters the synagogue on the Sabbath, and the Pharisees are watching. Just waiting for Jesus override their laws.
The Problem of the System Revealed.
Now, one of the activities that the Pharisees had deemed work and could not be done on the Sabbath was healing. Healing was considered work. Medical attention could only be given if a life was in danger. People were allowed to intervene to the extent that an injury could be kept from getting worse. But to make it better was work. So, for example, a woman in childbirth could be helped on the Sabbath, but a fracture could wait till the following day, and should not be attended. A cut finger might be bandaged with a plain bandage, but not with ointment.
As Jesus enters the synagogue, he sees a man with a withered hand. A withered hand meant that, in this time and culture, he could not provide for himself and his life needs. He needed help. Healing his hand would in a sense give him back his life. However, at the same time, healing his hand was also not an immediate life and death issue. It could technically wait until tomorrow. So if Jesus would decide to heal, He would be violating the laws that the Pharisees had set. And the punishment for breaking the Sabbath was death… And they are watching… Would he dare violate their laws?
Jesus challenges the system
Jesus does not hesitate and says to the man, “Stand up in front of everyone.” He calls the man to the center of attention. No one will be able to miss what happens next. And he turns to the Pharisees and asks them two questions: “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save a life or to kill?” Silence.
The system misses the heart of God…
The Pharisees say nothing. The Pharisees don’t respond. Because essentially Jesus’ question exposes them, and exposes the heart of their system.
The Pharisees had put together a system of law and rules and answers. They had the intention for purity. And in pursuing purity, they had read the Word of God, and they had gathered the laws of God, and they had given their explanations. Taking all of this, they had built a whole system. However, in doing so, they missed the point of the law of God in the first place. The system was to honor God, but the Pharisees turned the system as an end in itself.
And God’s heart is doing good…
As students of the Word of God, when Jesus asked them the question “What is lawful: to do good or to do evil,” they would have remembered numerous chapters and verses in their Bibles, in which God expressed to His people: It’s not just about following the laws. You can follow the laws, and still miss the heart. They would have thought about Isaiah 1, for example, where God essentially said to the Israelites, you are following all these laws. You are presenting all these offerings, but they are a burden to me. Because, on the outside, you are doing all the right things, you might be following all the laws, but that’s where it stops. The inside, the heart is still a mess. And He says to the people: cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression.
Living as a religious people means presenting and abiding by laws and rules, which make you look good on the outside. And the Pharisees, they looked good on the outside. But that’s where the system stops. For here the Pharisees are faced with the opportunity to allow good. When they were faced with the man with the withered hand, they were more concerned with the laws than with the opportunity to offer life and healing. A system can determine right and wrong, but not good and evil.
The system leads to death.
But it does not stop there. It is interesting to notice where their system led the Pharisees. For they had developed this system as a way to hold onto purity. As a way to come to God. But their system put the people under a huge burden. Instead of becoming a day of rest, the Sabbath became a day of following rules and making sure you don’t cross the hard lines. Because systems can only box people up with the “right way” of doing. And rules and laws are only good for drawing the hard lines of right or wrong, and can only offer judgment and punishment. And this is where it had led the Pharisees and the people to.
Jesus uncovers this heart at the center of the system when He asked the second question: “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to save a life or to kill?” Ouch. Here were the Pharisees. On the Sabbath. And their intent was to accuse. Their goal was to Jesus’ destruction. Jesus exposes their hearts. He reveals the burden and the outcome of the system. Yet, the Pharisees respond in silence.
Jesus offers healing and life.
Jesus looked around at them with anger. This is the only time in the Gospels that we are told that Jesus is angry. That it states it this clearly and strongly. Why? Because they are missing the point! Jesus wants so much more for them than their system. He wants so much more for us than a religious life! While the Pharisees tried to offer life by providing laws to control behavior, Jesus provided life by offering healing. The Pharisees had provided a system of control as the way to God. But living by the rules can only mask the problem, it never solved the issue of the heart. On the outside, the Pharisees and those following the system seemed put together, but Jesus revealed their hearts. And when the sheets were lifted, what was revealed was not life-giving, but death-sentencing.
And Jesus was grieved, because they would not accept and they would not respond to the challenges of his questions. The Law of the Sabbath was not about just following the law. The heart and intent of God behind his laws is to do good and to save life! The Sabbath was meant to provide rest, not become a burden. Coming to God on the Sabbath was supposed to bring life, not death. Take it one step further. God never elaborated on how the Sabbath should be filled in, leaving His people open to a scope of endless possibilities on how to creatively live out His purposes! Such a contrast to the boxes and laws and rules and lines of the system that the Pharisees presented. And yet the Pharisees responded with silence.
Stepping out of the system towards Jesus.
Back to my story at the beginning of today. I was the Pharisee. I knew my specialty and my focus. I had the answers. I had the definitions. I presented them to my parents as the truth. And I fought with them, even when confronted by the dictionary! Even when the truth was in black and white in front of me.
The same attitude and mindset is present here with the Pharisees. They had studied the Scriptures. They knew the answers. The way to life. And even though they were faced with the truth. Even though they were challenged by Jesus, they refused to accept or respond to the truth they were confronted with. And while I just made myself a huge fool in arguing with the dictionary, the consequences for the Pharisees were a lot weightier, because they missed out on the life that Jesus wanted to offer them.
But there was another man here in the story who responds differently. The man with the shriveled hand. This man was in the center of the story from the beginning. At the beginning of the passage, we read that Jesus called him to stand up in front of everyone. He’s grown up in the system. He’s lived in the system. He’s hearing this discussion around him. And he looks down and sees his hand, sees his need. The system has not answered his problem. But, while the Pharisees are blinded by their anxiousness to hold onto their system, this man hears Jesus’ offer of life and healing and he wants it. He’s prepared to step out of the system towards Jesus.
What are the shriveled parts of your life? Is the system that you’ve been living by working? Or do you find that you have moments that you face shriveled areas of your life and realize that the system is not working. Are you prepared to step out of the system, surrender the system, and respond to Jesus?
Jesus then said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” I don’t know what went through the man’s mind at the time. I can imagine him being torn in all directions. He was put on the spot. He was surrounded by crowds of people watching with different intents. He was asked to move into action. But would putting out his hand, just make him look like a fool? What if nothing happened? What if it only got him in trouble? But he recognized his witheredness. And he recognized that he can’t, and Jesus said he can. He stretched out his hand, and his hand was restored. Imagine that. He stretched out His hands, and the crowds must have gasped as in front of their very eyes, the man’s hand turned whole again. And with the wholeness, life – the ability to provide and live – was returned to the man.
We can mask our shriveledness by controlling our behavior, but only Jesus can come in and provide the healing.