Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Stretch Out Your Hand

Jesus entered the synagogue. There was a man there who had a withered hand. They watched Jesus closely to see if he would cure him on the sabbath so that they might accuse him. He said to the man with the withered hand, “Come up here before us.”

Then he said to the Pharisees, “Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?” But they remained silent.

Looking around at them with anger and grieved at their hardness of heart, Jesus said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out and his hand was restored.

The Pharisees went out and immediately took counsel with the Herodians against him to put him to death (Mk. 3:1-6).

This scene is the fifth in a continuous series of confrontations with the Pharisees beginning even from the outset of Jesus' public ministry in the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus is criticized for what He does and does not do, with the Pharisees holding themselves as the standard to be imitated (Mk 2:18). Jesus is not only criticized for His good works performed on the Sabbath (Mk 2:23-28, 3:1-2), but is also judged as a blasphemer, deserving of death for these deeds and for His outright claim of having the power to forgive sins (Mk 2:1-12).

According to the Mosaic Law, the two transgressions of which the Pharisees accused Jesus-- blasphemy and breaking the Sabbath-- were punishable by stoning to death. But as the Gospel texts seem to indicate, it was in fact the Pharisees' own sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit that led them to reject Jesus and to call for His death. They failed to see that Jesus' work was not a violation of the Sabbath, but was actually its highest fulfillment, performed by the One who is Himself the Fulfillment of the Law; and that the healing He ultimately offers is nothing less than the fulfillment of our deepest longing: to enter into God's rest.

The sin of the Pharisees was their refusal to accept God's mercy as offered to them in the person, in the gift of Jesus. Unlike the disabled man who came to the Synagogue to worship the Lord on the Sabbath, to ask the Lord for what he needed, as he knew that he could only be restored to health by the mercy of God, and who accepted Jesus' merciful offer of healing expressed in the words, "Stretch out your hand," it would seem that the Pharisees present in the same Synagogue had not come to worship the Lord. They had come to judge and to condemn, as though they themselves were God's judges of the people. They did not understand and could only reject Jesus because the God they worshiped was in their minds a God completely without mercy, as though He were like themselves, all too ready to condemn and punish anything they deemed to be a transgression of the Law they themselves professed to follow without fail.  This was the cause of Jesus' anger against them, and of His grief at their hardness of heart.

The term "withered" is commonly used in the Scriptures to describe crops that had failed or were blighted.  In a later episode in Mark's Gospel account, a fig tree that Jesus curses becomes "withered to the root" (Mk 4:6, 11:20-21). We see this term applied to the human body in the prophet Zechariah's curse upon a "worthless shepherd" over Israel, that his "right arm be wholly withered" and "his right eye utterly blinded" (Zech 11:17); that his ability to act as a shepherd be taken away from him. Here in Mark's Gospel, in healing the man's disabled hand, Jesus gives the man his life back, restoring to him the ability to earn a livelihood. In performing this work of mercy on the Sabbath, Jesus in effect has made it possible for this same man from then on to observe the Sabbath with great joy and gratitude, as he now has work from which he can rest. It is God who gives us our work and our ability to perform it.  In healing on the Sabbath, Jesus echoes God's greatest act of creation-- namely, the Sabbath-- which He points out was made for man (Mk 2:27), as a time when we come before God so that He might heal us and restore us to Himself.

We also note that Jesus does not say to the man with the withered hand, "Come up here before me," but rather, "before us." Jesus considers Himself a part of these people assembled in the Synagogue, even though they want to kill Him, as He is the same Lord who is forever mindful of His covenant, even when we are unfaithful; as He continues to accompany each of us on our faltering journeys, ever faithful to His promise to be with us "always, even unto the end of the age"  (Mt. 28:20).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church 
on the Sins of Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit and Against Hope

1864 "Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven"(Mt 12:31; cf. Mk 3:29; Lk 12:10). There are no limits to the mercy of God, but anyone who deliberately refuses to accept his mercy by repenting, rejects the forgiveness of his sins and the salvation offered by the Holy Spirit (Cf. John Paul II, DeV 46). Such hardness of heart can lead to final impenitence and eternal loss.

2090 When God reveals Himself and calls him, man cannot fully respond to the divine love by his own powers. He must hope that God will give him the capacity to love Him in return and to act in conformity with the commandments of charity. Hope is the confident expectation of divine blessing and the beatific vision of God; it is also the fear of offending God's love and of incurring punishment.

2091 The first commandment is also concerned with sins against hope, namely, despair and presumption:
By despair, man ceases to hope for his personal salvation from God, for help in attaining it or for the forgiveness of his sins. Despair is contrary to God's goodness, to his justice - for the Lord is faithful to his promises - and to his mercy.

2092 There are two kinds of presumption. Either man presumes upon his own capacities, (hoping to be able to save himself without help from on high), or he presumes upon God's almighty power or his mercy (hoping to obtain his forgiveness without conversion and glory without merit).

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