1 Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. 2 They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3 And he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come forward.’ 4 Then he said to them, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. 5 He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved a their hardness of heart and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out and his hand was restored. 6 The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.
This meeting between Jesus and the Pharisees stands out. Here it is not a tricky question being put to Jesus by the scribes or Pharisees but Jesus putting the question to them. They who have asked him questions in the past to try and “catch him out” by making him say something controversial are themselves put to the test. And in the story, they choose the safe response: silence. They cannot be trapped into a controversial claim about the law if they don’t actually make the claim.
But Jesus is not interested in theory, but in practice. He forces the question to be one of immediate relevance by telling the man with the withered hand to come forward. The Pharisees are forced to look into the eyes of the disabled man as they decide whether and how to answer the question of his being healed. Jesus is not even asking them to do anything: he is not demanding that they heal this man. He is only asking them to affirm that such a healing would be to the good and hence a part of the divine plan. Since that divine plan is carried out in and by Jesus, such an affirmation would mean a taking part, a co-operation with the divine will.
The question is put, but Jesus does not wait forever. There is an urgency here. The question must be answered today, now. It cannot be put off. God will neither be constrained by our unwillingness to take part in his good works nor our reticence at taking a risk by co-operating.
It is easy to see Jesus as a frightening figure here: he commands the man with the withered hand, demands an answer from the Pharisees, and is then angered and grieved. But this is to be distracted from the central point, the direction of the whole story. The ultimate end is healing. This is the story of an act of mercy, of love. Jesus’ anger is not at the Pharisees intellectual timidity or even their hostility toward him — they are trying to find cause to accuse him, remember — but at “their hardness of heart”, their lack of compassion for the man with the withered hand. The political, religious, and legal implications of his actions are wholly irrelevant to Jesus: everything he does and says is motivated by love, both for the man with the withered hand and the Pharisees with the hardened hearts.
Jesus sometimes calls the Pharisees blind; in the context of this story, it is easy to see why. Jesus performs a miraculous healing in front of several witnesses in the synagogue — but on the sabbath. It is only this last piece of information which the Pharisees seem to see, only that part of the event which is a basis for an accusation. Their decision that Jesus is a dangerous blasphemer obscures their ability to see the evidence that this just isn’t so. And so the story has a bittersweet ending: only one person is healed of his crippling injury, only the man whose hand is withered goes away whole. The Pharisees remain blind and with injury in their hearts. They conspire to do violence to Jesus, “to destroy him”. But they cannot. They can humiliate, torture, and murder him, but they cannot destroy him. The only place in the world that they can prevent his love from penetrating is into their own hearts.
Jesus calls us to “Come forward”, even though this means demonstrating our flaws to everyone around us. What flaws are we most ashamed of? Would we prefer that they remain unscrutinized rather than be healed? Let us pray for the courage to come forward and to stretch out our hands to him, and for the wisdom to know how love bids us answer.