Mark 3:5

As they remained silent, Jesus looked around at them in anger, grieving at the hardness of their hearts, and said to the man,  “Stretch out your hand.” The man stretched it out; and his hand had become sound.

without a prayer
or a smile
a healing needed

without a reason
or hope
a needed healing

without mustard faith
only anger
healing’s need

without a friend
or ally
need’s healing

Friend and foe alike have been waiting for Jesus to bring the action forward. So far we simply have a question being raised to which there is no good response: is the Sabbath a most propitious time to taste restoration and extend it?

Into the scene as set, Jesus finally begins a slow burn. Glancing back and forth and through those gathered, their willingness to stand by, as if impotent, brought his sense of a loss of good news to a boiling point.

Any attempt, even Mark’s, to put this into words is doomed to failure. Anger is a wide-ranging word. We don’t easily associate it with a Jesus-meek-and-mild. Partly this is because we know we are not up to following a path of good news with the threat of military annihilation or community exile staring us in the face. Just how angry we are willing for Jesus to be is a marker of our trust in being a beloved among beloveds when there remains a stubborn dullness deep within us.

The word behind “anger” is ὀργή (orgē) which in other settings is used as descriptive of the “wrath” of G*D. In Luke, this is part of John’s angry calling out of those come to be baptized as “snakes” in need of a change deeper than a shedding of skin.

Unmitigated anger is wildness—let lose it would melt everyone’s face as in Raider’s of the Lost Ark. It may only be through a repeated experience of personal wilderness in the midst of social wilderness that this sort of wildness can be focused.

Whatever the process, the fury of being set up and “obdurate stupidity” (C.S. Mann) on the part of those watching and judging a man’s weakness, an instruction comes to simply hold out the withered hand. Without further ado, faith language, forgiveness, or any other reason given, a hand is healed. The end?

Mark 3:4

and to the people he said,  “Is it allowable to do good at the Sabbath – or harm? To save a life, or destroy it?”

don’t you just hate it
when your own petard
jumps out from behind
your own best laid plain

just when it appeared
our blame mechanism
was about to kick in
we were called to account

everyone knows rules
can be bent and parsed
until they’re barely recognizable
but that’s our back-room game

taking advantage of self-censorship
is not so easy out in the open
our self-contradictions leave us
unable to contradict behavioral details

Constructing a legal structure to deal with the big dualities of morality (do right; do wrong) or community relations (do good; do harm) is always problematic as Law as Law is always several cases behind. The combinations and permutations of life continually throw new challenges to static thinking. Interpretation and application are critical for ethical decisions.

The theme of wilderness exemplifies the difficulties. Here practicalities take precedence over precedents and protocols established through the years. There is no time to lose if we are to survive the latest outbreak of famine or other dis-ease. In wilderness settings law is made up as it goes.

Given an occupation by Empire, Law is the easiest way to placate the powers that be—both extending their power and putting off a show-down testing that power. Both overseer and subjugated have a stake in law-keeping.

Jesus’ question carries echoes of the Great Question of Deuteronomy 30:15-18: Having life and death set before you, which will you choose? This question is originally followed by an urging to choose that which brings life. What will bring life back to a hand, to all of Israel? This relationship between the individual and community is a more dynamic question than what is currently on the books and how closely it can be hewn to.

This is a question that must be responded to in every generation and context. It is still a question within and between religious communities of every faith.


Mark 3:3

“Stand out in the middle,” Jesus said to the man with the withered hand;

silence is death
visibility is healing

between secrets and flaunting
relationships grow

I see you there
even when you don’t

your belovedness shines
before you see it

reflected and refracted
in other smiles

come stand alongside me
we’re better together

in such a small invitation
a new world begins

In a time of insistence that the Messiah will only come if Israel keeps true to the Sabbath and other honorings of G*D, Jesus breaks open a conversation about the purpose of Sabbath by bringing a fraught situation to a head. A helpful way for a tense situation to be resolved is for the elephant in the room to be acknowledged. Jesus’ insider/outsider location can help begin a larger conversation. If he doesn’t act, he’s over. If he does act, he will be charged with provoking or picking a fight.

“Come here, where you can be seen.” These are simple enough words but they turn the scene from a script to a play.

Whether dealing with the wilderness of having lost one’s identity or use of one’s whole body or just one part of it, it doesn’t make a great deal of difference if a healing seems to come out of the blue or whether it is intentionally set up. In the face of the trauma of having lost one’s community as well as one’s place within it a healing can be fantasized as being a good thing, but it can also be an equivalent to the current curse of trying to reestablish life after conviction for a felony. You may be quite able to work only to find a little box on an application form that will likely put you out of the running even before you have an interview or can demonstrate your ability.

We don’t know anything about this person with a non-usable hand. Was he purposely invited to be present or was it sheer happenstance? What will we find out about him during a healing? What do we hear about his experience after the fact? Nothing. There is nothing here but an example to be used by Jesus. Being a specimen carries its own place of being-of-no-account. Healed or not, wilderness identity abides.

Mark 3:2

And they watched Jesus closely, to see if he would cure the man on the Sabbath, so that they might have a charge to bring against him.

we know our enemies
better than ourselves
no not better better
but predictable better
they are consistent
in their mean ways
while we always have
a virtuous reason
for changing for the better
we see them approach
and can see it in their eye
disruption dismay disorder
they can’t help themselves
so we wait and watch
with a constancy
all our own
giving no option
and no quarter

As suspected, it is not just Jesus and a man with a withered “hand”. This is our own story as well. We are not alone. That done in secret will be revealed. Opponents will gladly give us enough rope to hang ourself.

In this public setting, the “they” who are paying attention cannot be limited to opponents. Even supporters will have a reason to be interested in what is going to happen and how it will play out.

One of the things that keeps everyone intrigued is that it is difficult to keep up with Jesus. His itinerary and agenda behind that still appear rather arbitrary, unscripted, and chaotic. His is not a straight-line, connect-the-dots, approach.

The Pharisees have a home-field advantage in the synagogue. After all, their interpretation of Mosaic Law does fulfill a significant community function—refereeing religious boundaries. Jesus has already been warned (2:24) to watch what he does on the Sabbath because humans do not have authority or ability to change Sabbath rules intended even for G*D. Will the warning have Jesus step-down or will it trigger him to stretch the meaning of Sabbath one more time? Will a game between Jesus and the Pharisees come to an end with a Pharisee victory? Will there be a walk-off home run by Jesus?

Word will likely soon be travelling through the community that there is about to be a fight. Even those not initially present will sense that something is up and come running to see the car-wreck, the show-down. Since the last military action by Romans or resistance by the Zealots, this has got to be what will be talked about in the market for days or weeks. To be able to chime in about what you saw and heard will be important for a claim to fame.

The plot thickens, breath is held, lines prepared—Action!

Mark 3:1

On another occasion Jesus went in to a synagogue, where there was a man whose hand was withered.

holy places fill with hopeless cases
they hold in carefully constructed niches
reasons to disbelieve hope’s percentages

there are times when no choice
comes to a choice between
some version of holy and suicide

should we decide to continue
all our withered hopes and dreams
contract to the limits of holiness

in the dark we freeze from rebelling
accept our wilderness lot
active waiting settles into memory

withered hand and heart
disrupted dreams and desire
tamed by candle and chant

“Again” Jesus comes to a synagogue. Mark’s writing style wants us to pile more one synagogue and Sabbath experience on top of previous times. This helps prepare us for a next visit.

Even though being in a synagogue on a Sabbath is expected behavior, it appears that Jesus is intentionally participating in religio-political theatre as we run through a familiar pattern of challenge and response. His choice of location to initiate a confrontation with a variety of traditions is telling.

A withered hand is likely to be connected to a withered wrist. By extension the whole arm could be withered or a whole life. Our tendency to take one physical flaw and blow it out of proportion is legendary. Simply listen to a teen have their life destroyed by a pimple.

A further connection is with Israel which has withered under the onslaught of Empire (Rome) or any land under physical or economic occupation by any external or internal Empire down to the present. If we consider the Temple in Jerusalem as a hand that has withered and can no longer be raised in prayer of praise or supplication, these healings do have a political component and not just a personal one.

There are community consequences for only having one hand, only being half there. Culturally there is a private hand and public hand and when both functions have to be done by only one hand, suspicions arise that make everyone uncomfortable.

In two short lines a scene is set and we begin to anticipate its unfolding. At the same time, Mark’s style of jumping and returning does keep us engaged. How will it resolve this time?