Controversy: Mark 3:1-6

In today’s gospel we encounter Jesus healing on the Sabbath: “There was a man there who had a withered hand” (Mark 3:1). It is a familiar setting: the synagogue, often the central building in the village – not only in location and architecture, but in the life of the people. Again Jesus’s action stirred up controversy. And the Pharisee were on alert: “They watched Jesus closely to see if he would cure him on the sabbath so that they might accuse him.” (v.2) This narrative follows immediately after Jesus’ statement that the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath (Mark 2:28) and forms the last of this first series of five conflict narratives and demonstrates his Lordship. The high point of the incident lies less in the act of healing than in the conflict between Jesus and his adversaries, in which they are left silent before his sovereign word.

It is striking that Jesus takes the initiative in asking what is permitted on the Sabbath, and that his adversaries are silent before his question. The point at issue was “doing good” on the Sabbath now in the concrete instance of the man who stood in their midst. Their attitude is perhaps well expressed by a synagogue-ruler who was exasperated with the people who came to Jesus for healing on the Sabbath: “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day.” (Luke 13:14)

This fifth controversy narrative marks a change from the events recorded in Mark 2. It is no longer the Pharisees or scribes who are upset with Jesus, it is Jesus who is angry with them. In their silence about doing good, Jesus “Looking around at them with anger and grieved at their hardness of heart” (3:5) He regarded them with an anger which expressed the anger of God. In their concern for legal detail they had forgotten the mercy and grace shown by God to man when he made provision for the Sabbath. In the name of piety they had become insensitive both to the purposes of God and to the sufferings of men. Jesus’ anger was tempered by a godly sorrow for men who could no longer rejoice in the tokens of God’s goodness to men. When Jesus restored the man’s hand he demonstrated what it means “to do good” and “to preserve life” on the Sabbath. Moreover, he provided a sign of the true observance and joy of the Sabbath. As Lord of the Sabbath Jesus delivers both the Sabbath and man from a state of distress.

Like other aspects of Jewish life, the practice of medicine and healing on the Sabbath was regulated by legal tradition. It was an accepted principle that “any danger to life takes precedence over the Sabbath.” The scribes, however, had determined precisely in which cases it was proper to speak of immediate danger to life, and to what extent aid could be granted. In none of the recorded healings which Jesus performed on the Sabbath would the scribes have agreed that there was any immediate threat to life. From their point of view Jesus’ word and action totally undermined their interpretation of the Law, their piety and their actions. Jesus was not simply another scribe who advocated an independent opinion; he constituted a threat to true religion and ancestral tradition. “The Pharisees went out and immediately took counsel with the Herodians against him to put him to death.” (v.6)

The decision to seek Jesus’ death is not the result of a single incident; it is the response to an accumulation of incidents. The decision to destroy Jesus climaxes the conflicts in Galilee. God’s grace toward Israel, proclaimed and demonstrated through Jesus, will be rejected by the responsible leaders of the people.

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