“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
Dewey says that Mark 2:24 (“Why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”) might have been a way of warning Jesus and the disciples in a legal way in order that they, the Pharisees, could proceed with legal charges for Jesus’ arrest. Dewey continues “In 2:28 (“The Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”) Jesus asserts his authority over the Sabbath, an answer unacceptable under Jewish Law. Then in 3:2, the opponents are watching Jesus in order to accuse him legally if he violates the Sabbath…If Jesus acts illegally, he is liable to arrest…”
Wright will say “For a Jew in Jesus’ world, the Sabbath had all that mixture of social pressure and legal sanction, but it meant much more as well. It was a badge of Jewishness for people who’d been persecuted and killed simply for being Jewish. It was a national flag that spoke of freedom to come, of hope for the great Day of Rest when God would finally liberate Israel from pagan oppression. It looked back to the creation of the world, and to the Exodus from Egypt, and it marked out those who kept it as God’s special people, God’s faithful people, God’s hoping people. It was, after all, a commandment deeply embedded in the Jewish scriptures.”
Then, Jesus uses the Sabbath in a very unexpected way, because the Sabbath became propaganda for extreme nationalism. For the Pharisees, being a loyal Jew wasn’t religious enough. For the Pharisees, the Sabbath became extreme, too. That meant that the Sabbath for the nation had lost its original meaning of genuine hope, which God gave Israel to celebrate His creation and rescue mission for the world. Brueggemann in his Sabbath Resistance depicts the value of the Sabbath. This day of rest for the Israelites celebrated their redemption from Egyptian slavery and also ensured the nation that totalitarianism would not prevail. They would not be forced into 24/7 labor under the rule of their righteous and gracious Creator. God wanted Israel to be a blessed nation that the known world would be able to see as distinct. They were to live and serve a loving god who sought the redemption of humanity. True humanity couldn’t be known without God. Jesus uses this Sabbath in Mark 3:1-6 to make this point very clear.
This is the problem here in this pericope. The Pharisees can’t see what God is doing in their era through Jesus. They can’t see the kind of kingdom God is launching through Jesus. Jesus is distressed at their “stubborn hearts.” He asks them what the purpose of the Sabbath is? Is the Sabbath a time designated for extreme behavior to be Israel’s message to the world or is the Sabbath a time to celebrate God’s new creation? Obviously, Jesus didn’t fit the traditional mold the Israelites were taught to expect. These contrasting worldviews were Mark’s way of depicting the inevitable and ultimate confrontation between the Jews and Jesus.
So, those who claimed they could see with extreme clarity couldn’t see what God was doing. Can we see what God is doing today? What are we celebrating during our “Sabbaths”? Or are we celebrating at all? Jesus wasn’t addressing legalism here in Mark 3:1-6. He was making a point as clear as possible. He could have healed the man with the withered hand in private. Instead, the man’s hand symbolized the sickness that plagued Israel’s eyes. Jesus heals the man’s hand. Jesus brought the issue of the Sabbath law to a boiling point. Was Sabbath law God’s way of restricting kingdom life or celebrating it? Are we today so blinded by our own traditions that Sundays become more like funerals rather than proper kingdom celebrations? We also have the challenge of sending the wrong message to our communities. How do they view our “Sabbaths”? Are we being viewed as hardened and stubborn people who frown on the unchurched and send them clear signals that if they think they’re Christians then they’re not extreme enough, like us? Or are we distressed, seeking opportunities to expose extreme thinking by finding ways of illustrating the sickness that prevails in our communities and our world by finding “withered hands” and “healing them” in plain sight?