I. People passionate for God will suffer for it.
When Jesus entered the synagogue in Capernaum it became evident that Jesus would teach and live with such a passion for God that He would be a threat to certain people and the culture of His day. Jesus would overturn the religious system of the Pharisees and the Scribes. He would be a thorn in the flesh for the Herodians, who through their wealth lobbied politicians for still more economic advantage. The lines would soon be drawn. Jesus will be the source of life to some, primarily the poor, the sick, un-accepted, the humble. But to others, the selfish, the arrogant, the loveless, He will be the cause of death, anger and hatred. Jesus’ actions and teaching will cause people to decide to accept or to reject Him who gives life. Similarly people who are passionate for God will create divisions. Paul discovered this truth. He noted that believers will be the aroma of Christ to some people but the smell of death to others.
We are ministers set apart for Christ, whether we are a business person, a housewife, a student, doctor, lawyer, waiter or unemployed. In these contexts we will either bring the aroma of life or death. This does not mean we are to look for confrontation nor does it mean confrontation is unavoidable. What it does mean is that we should not shrink back from standing up for Christ when we have the opportunity to do good. Painfully this means that not everyone will like us. We will create both enemies and friends.
II. People with a passion for Christ will be scrutinized
The Pharisees’ trap was to get Jesus to break the Law by healing someone on the Sabbath. They watched Him closely. They expected if someone was in need of healing that merciful Jesus would heal him. They were not disappointed. A man with a withered hand was in the synagogue. They had Jesus where they wanted. As soon as Jesus healed this man on the Sabbath, He would be condemned as a lawbreaker since according to Rabbinic tradition “unless a person’s life is in danger he should not be healed on the Sabbath” because it constitutes work. Clearly this man’s life was not in danger. It was a perfect plan. Jesus would be discredited and fall into disfavour with the people. They felt justified.
You can feel the tension in the story. Will Jesus take the bait? Will He appease the Pharisees and refrain from healing the man? Or will He follow His passion for God and do good regardless of the day of the week?
Jesus makes the crippled man stand up before His opponents and the ambivalent crowds. He does this so that in the ensuing confrontation, the humbled crippled man will be exalted and exalted religious leaders will be humbled and the ambivalent crowds will have the opportunity to choose whom to follow.
Jesus addresses the Pharisees with the question “is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill”? Jesus’ question silences the Pharisees. Jesus and His teaching had authority unlike the teachers of the Law. Their hearts had been exposed. Their concern was legalistic righteousness. They figured “there are six days on which work ought to be done; a person should come and be healed on those days, but not on the Sabbath day”. They were not concerned about the welfare of the individual. Even if they had the power to do good to someone on the Sabbath they would not.
Likewise people will be observing us closely, testing and possibly trapping us to see if we believe what we say. There are two things to remember when we are in this type of situation. First do not fall into the trap of conforming ourselves to their standard. For the business person the test may be to take a bribe for a business deal. For the student it may be to get drunk in order to be accepted by the group. For the doctor it may be the temptation to charge for services you did not render. Second remember God’s desire for us is “to do good” even when there is a personal cost. Thus we must be sensitive to the needs of others even when it hurts. We must continue to be vulnerable and faithful in intimate relationships even when it is painful.
III. Our reaction to people’s hardness of heart must be anger and grief
In 3:5 and 3:6 we see the reaction of Jesus towards the Pharisees and Herodians and vice versa. Jesus is angry and grieved with their hardness of heart. The Pharisees and Herodians have hatred for Jesus and no compassion for the man with the withered hand.
The story ends with the Pharisees and Herodians, mutual enemies, joining together to plot the death of their common enemy, Jesus. These two groups had personal interests at stake. The Pharisees’ basis of acceptance by God was being attacked. Their future as a people was in jeopardy. And they were afraid.
The Herodians were supporters of Herod and Roman rule and saw Jesus as a threat to peace and order, as yet another Messianic figure who would lead the people in revolt. Their interests were completely self-centered. They needed political stability in order to exploit the public for more economic advantage. These people never give unless they get. They did not care about this man or any other person. But Jesus did. Their decision to destroy Jesus marked the beginning of their end. For to reject Jesus is to reject life and to choose self-destruction. Their attempt to save their lives was actually the reason they lost their lives.
Jesus presents the appropriate way to respond to people who are hard-hearted. He was angry and grieved at the Pharisees because they were more concerned about protecting their piety based on external compliance and appearance than embracing an internal piety expressed through doing good to others. Like the priest who passed by the naked bleeding man on the Jericho road for fear of being defiled, the Pharisees refuse to help the man with a withered hand or allow anyone else to help him for fear of breaking the Sabbath Law. Jesus is angry because what they are doing is wrong. He is angry because they are misinterpreting the heart, will and intention of God and His Law.
He is grieved because He knows that if they continue on this path it will lead to their destruction. They will grow self-righteous. They will not need God rather only a few rules to keep. They will grow self-centered, concerned only with taking care of themselves, not reaching out to others or risking vulnerability or exercising faith. They will grow insensitive to the needs, hurts and pains of the world surrounding them. They will concern themselves with self-glorification, competing to have the appearance of being the most holy. Jesus grieves because they have replaced grace with legalism. So with a heart full of grace, mercy and love for all parties Jesus tells the man to stretch out his hand, fully aware that He is signing His death warrant.
We stand and applaud Jesus for His courage and the victory which He wins on behalf of the man with a withered hand. We admire His balanced attitude of anger and grief. But we gasp and sink in our seats when we think Jesus might ask the same of us. He wants us to approach this sinful broken world with righteous anger and holy grief. Both are needed in order to confront the world.
If we approach the world in anger alone we will alienate it from God’s kingdom. Our anger will only bring condemnation to it and hopelessness since it is sick and unable to heal itself. It needs mercy. But if we approach the world in grief alone we will not be motivated to change it. Together anger and grief are good motivators. History bears this out. Abe Lincoln went to a slave market and was so grieved and angered by the situation he got sick to his stomach and said “that’s wrong, and if I ever get a chance to hit it, I’ll hit hard”. He did. It cost the country a civil war and his own life. Habitat for Humanity began when a man saw the injustice of people having no adequate housing.
What makes you angry and grieved? Is it the poor in your city? Is it the unfair wages paid to employees? Is it the abuse and dehumanization of women and children in the third world, who are subject to sexual harassment and inappropriate living conditions? Is it the corruption within your workplace? Is it the immorality of your spouse who is defiling the family? I tell you today you have permission to get angry, to grieve, to pray and to act in order to change this world through Jesus Christ.
Dr Craig A. Smith is Director of Postgraduate Research Studies and Lecturer in NT at Trinity College, Bristol.