We continue our lectio by praying with the next few verses of Mark’s Gospel…
Once again, Mark demonstrates his keen eye for humanity brought low. Jesus not only heals – he has the capacity to draw men and women from the fringes, where they have driven, and place them back in their rightful place within their own community.
Not for the first time, Jesus works for good on the Sabbath. As this picture builds up for us – Jesus challenging the accepted practice of keeping the Sabbath among the Jews – or Jewish leaders – of his day – we become aware that he, the Son of Man and Son God, is reclaiming the Sabbath and its purpose. While it is, in accordance with the Genesis creation myth, the day on which God rested from all his work, it is also a day which, according to the Decalogue given to Moses, should be kept holy – it is, then, a day which speaks to us of sanctification and the work of sanctification. Jesus does not, then, transgress this law. On the contrary, by revealing himself fully through his works he deepens our experience of the holiness of the Sabbath and also its purpose, to make holy. This still unsettles us today – how we keep this day holy by marking it with worship and a heightened sense of the Saviour God in our midst, and how we experience the holiness which it communicates to us, as individuals and communities, thus redeeming us and making for our sanctification. We have the potential to become something by our Sabbath observance, to be changed into something new.
And the Sabbath should be a foretaste of the final great and eternal Sabbath – not just rest, but rest in God.
In the midst of all this, we meet a man who has a withered hand. He is afflicted in some way, and in a way which is obvious to those who see him, know him, meet him. Being deprived of the full use of one hand must have made him unable to be himself in so many ways – in his work, daily life, greeting of others…. And of course, in Jesus’ day, this withered hand was taken as a sign of something deeper – that this man was in some way offensive to God, either in himself or in his relatives. So, his place in his society is deeply affected by this deformity – his place is at the edge, on the fringe. This is confirmed by Jesus’ invitation to him in verse 3 – he asks him to get up and come from where he is sitting out into the middle of the assembly – from the very edge to centre-stage; from obscurity to the place which is rightly his as a worshipping member of the synagogue assembly.
Notice, for a moment, the attitude of others in the synagogue, ‘they’ as Mark describes them, probably the Pharisees mentioned a little while later. They are watching Jesus, but theirs is an attitude which is ready to condemn, not to congratulate or thank. They do not look on with a sense of wondering anticipation, eager to see Jesus at work or speak. Rather, their minds are closed, they have already formed their opinion, and they wait to criticise him and find fault.
And how do they communicate what is in their hearts? In a way with which we may all be familiar – through withering looks.
So, who or what is truly withered here? The man with his twisted hand, or the Pharisees with their twisted hearts? Now we have come to the central contrast of this passage – Mark, while narrating the miracle, wants us to get to the core question – who is in need of greater healing, the man or the Pharisees, those who have a physical deformity or those who bear a deep, interior withering?
Now we look at ourselves – is some part of my own interior self withered to the extent that it needs to be, in a sense, unbound and loosened again, so that, while it has lain injured or paralysed for some while, can be brought to life and full use again in my life?
It’s interesting to ask where the real miracle lies here and in what does it consist? The man with the withered hand has been placed away from the centre of his worshipping community not by his affliction but by the judgement and prejudice of the others in his community. They, by the view which they hold of him, have driven him away to the edge, deprived him of the fullness of life in the heart of his community. But Jesus, by his word and action, brings him back into the centre. It’s not merely that the man is healed physically – perhaps indeed the physical deformity remained. But what is striking here is that the evangelist wants us to know that the man’s withered hand is no longer made an excuse for his being ostracised. We might say that his community accepts him for what he is, and no longer reduces him to his deformity. They see him now simply as their brother, and no longer as a man with a withered hand.
How often do we judge and reject on the basis of what we see or hear about someone, reducing them to a tag or rumour? Such behaviour serves to destroy persons in our very midst.
The miracle here, then, may not be that the man’s hand was physically healed at all, but that hearts, hardened in judgement and rejection, were softened by love and acceptance.
Perhaps indeed the withered limb is a symbol of his own struggle to live at the heart of his community. In this sense, the withering effect of our own sins is a constant companion for all of us. When something is withered it becomes lifeless and limp. So, too, for ourselves – our sins, the lack of reconciliation which we live by, the disputes which we fuel, the judgements which we hand out – all serve to rob us of life and cry out for forgiveness and restoration. They stop us from being whole. We live, sometimes, on the fringes of our communities and families not necessarily by what they have done to us but by how we behave toward them. Are we really content with this, knowing that we could live in a much more fruitful way, building our relationships rather than denying them life?
This little healing story places us at the centre, as lectio always does! In the midst of the very negative and destructive attitudes and conversations had by the Pharisees and Herodians, avoiding their critical glances and the charged atmosphere of this Sabbath day assembly, Christ Jesus challenges withered existence in all its many forms. And already Mark points away from this diminished way of living to a great mystery, the greatest in fact, when new life will overcome all lifelessness – the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ (verse 6).
-Part of our continuous lectio divina on the Gospel According to Mark-