Stubbornness and faith: the man with the withered hand

At the height of his popularity, but when the Pharisees were beginning to view him with suspicion, one Sabbath Jesus entered a synagogue, by definition a Pharisee stronghold. Not that it was unusual for him to attend synagogue services; he probably attended somewhere every Sabbath of his life. But on the occasion Mark describes, a man with a withered hand was there.

All the Pharisees looked Jesus and the man with the withered hand, and what they saw was not so much a man in need as a reputed law breaker in their synagogue. Would Jesus have the audacity to heal the man on the Sabbath? His reputation of not having the common decency to wait for another day had preceded him.

Jesus showed his typical respect for their piety. He challenged them directly. And then, Mark says, he looked around the room in anger and distress at their stubbornness and hardness of heart. Now, if Jesus had been angry because of the Pharisees’ criticism of him, he could have easily fallen into sin. Anger itself is not sin, but self-centered anger often motivates sinful thoughts, words, and deeds. Jesus’ anger is invariably directed toward sin and for the hurt it causes.

The Pharisees certainly showed hardness of heart toward the man with the withered hand. They cared nothing about his suffering, any shame he may have felt, and for the undoubted difficulty he had doing simple tasks that everyone else in town could do effortlessly. They also showed stubbornness and hardness of heart toward God, who has never considered deeds of mercy a violation of the Sabbath.

And so who was hurt by their sin? If they had been as callous toward the man with the withered hand before as they were on this particular Sabbath, the man had suffered repeatedly from their careless neglect. They themselves lost out, because their pride at their piety and supposed moral superiority prevented them from receiving the grace that God wanted to offer. That’s the stubbornness made Jesus angry. He was not offended by their behavior for his own sake. He was distressed for their sake. His anger, therefore, demonstrates his love and concern for them, as well as for the man with the withered hand.

Now picture yourself as the man with the withered hand. Jesus is standing in front of the leaders of the synagogue, and these revered and respected men are viewing him with suspicion. Jesus has just called the man to stand next to him. He may have been a little anxious and embarrassed to be the focus of so much hostile attention from the leading men in the community. On the other hand, he was certain that Jesus intended to heal him right then and there. If he had focused his mind on his anxiety and embarrassment, he would have been every bit as hard hearted toward God as anyone else in the room. Surely he set his mind on the promise of healing. That’s called faith.

So Jesus promptly told him to do something impossible for him: stretch out his hand. Why impossible? Picture yourself as that man and the computer screen as Jesus. Make your hand into a fist to approximate a withered hand and move it toward the screen. Have you stretched out your hand? No. All you have done is stretch out your arm. The man could already do that. There was nothing wrong with his arm, after all. The only way for you to stretch out your hand is to open your fist. And that symbolizes a hand that the man could not stretch out.

Jesus commanded healing when he told the man with the withered hand to do the impossible. The man received his healing by acting in faith to do the impossible. What do you suppose would have happened if the man had informed Jesus that his whole problem was that he couldn’t stretch it out? He would have received nothing, because of unbelief.

Jesus continues to command faith from us in the presence of a hostile and stubborn world. Whenever we hold back, believing that Jesus has asked something impossible, we forfeit our chance to demonstrate his power in and through us to the world. Why? Because we have demonstrated not faith, but the world’s stubbornness and hardness of heart. Divine empowerment comes through the doing. Healing, or whatever else we need, comes from acting in faith. Faith is not so much what statements we agree with as what we do about them.

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