On another sabbath he went into the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. The scribes and the Pharisees watched him closely to see if he would cure on the sabbath so that they might discover a reason to accuse him. But he realized their intentions and said to the man with the withered hand, “Come up and stand before us.” And he rose and stood there. Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good on the sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?” Looking around at them all, he then said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so and his hand was restored. But they became enraged and discussed together what they might do to Jesus.
Jesus’ either/or question in Luke 6:9 is put very plainly in the Greek. The Revised Standard Version preserves the word order:
And Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful on the sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?”
The human heart is designed to follow the natural principle “do good and avoid evil” spontaneously. Sin is irrational, as the apostle Paul noted: “For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want” (Romans 7:19).
The scribes and Pharisees failed to rejoice at the healing of their brother, and instead became “enraged” (Luke 6:11). Other translations say “filled with madness,” “senseless rage,” “mindless rage,” “fury,” and “anger.” The word Luke used suggests irrationality, from anoia—“no mind.”
The heart of Christ, filled with compassion for the suffering, and free of envy and bitterness, is a healthy, whole, Spirit-filled mind. The healing of the man with a withered hand is a sign of full restoration in grace—healing of body, mind, soul, spirit, heart, thoughts and emotions.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You lock the kingdom of heaven before human beings. You do not enter yourselves, nor do you allow entrance to those trying to enter.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You traverse sea and land to make one convert, and when that happens you make him a child of Gehenna twice as much as yourselves.
“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If one swears by the temple, it means nothing, but if one swears by the gold of the temple, one is obligated.’ Blind fools, which is greater, the gold, or the temple that made the gold sacred? And you say, ‘If one swears by the altar, it means nothing, but if one swears by the gift on the altar, one is obligated.’ You blind ones, which is greater, the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? One who swears by the altar swears by it and all that is upon it; one who swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it; one who swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who is seated on it.”
Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them. All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi.’ As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’ You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers. Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven. Do not be called ‘Master’; you have but one master, the Messiah. The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
Between the Creator and creation, there is no barrier. Phylacteries and tassels, like the fig leaves of Eden, seek cover from the original, naked simplicity before God.
As no barrier exists between the Son and the Father, none exists between the Son’s brethren and the Father. Abba’s children are directly in his hand and in his womb. God designed the human person to hear his voice directly in the Spirit. The Son of God came to restore Adam’s union with the Father, for “the Father and I are one” (John 10:30).
In the Bread of Life discourse, Jesus quotes Isaiah 54:13, which prophesies a new intimacy with the Father:
No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him, and I will raise him on the last day.
It is written in the prophets: ‘They shall all be taught by God.’
Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me.
All your children shall be taught by the Lord; great shall be the peace of your children.
The Hebrew word for “peace” is shalom, which means wholeness, soundness, and completeness in God. Fractured Adam and his offspring will be made whole by the Spirit of God:
I will pour out water upon the thirsty ground, streams upon the dry land; I will pour out my spirit upon your offspring, my blessing upon your descendants.
The law of life written on hearts is the voice of the Holy Spirit, our interior teacher:
But this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days—oracle of the Lord. I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people. They will no longer teach their friends and relatives, “Know the Lord!” Everyone, from least to greatest, shall know me—oracle of the Lord—for I will forgive their iniquity and no longer remember their sin.
And I will give them another heart and a new spirit I will put within them. From their bodies I will remove the hearts of stone, and give them hearts of flesh, so that they walk according to my statutes, taking care to keep my ordinances.
The outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost fulfilled the prophecy of Joel:
It shall come to pass I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even upon your male and female servants, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.
Joel 2:28-29 (NABRE: Joel 3:1-2); cf. Acts 2:17-18
The essence of prophecy is the recognition of truth, which is given by the Holy Spirit:
But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth.
In the Last Supper Discourse, Jesus enigmatically told the disciples that the hour and day is coming when he will no longer intercede for them. They will find themselves “in the Father” just as the Son is “in the Father.”
I have told you this in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures but I will tell you clearly about the Father. On that day you will ask in my name, and I do not tell you that I will ask the Father for you. For the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have come to believe that I came from God.
I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me.
But the Pharisees went out and took counsel against him to put him to death.
When Jesus realized this, he withdrew from that place. Many people followed him, and he cured them all, but he warned them not to make him known. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through Isaiah the prophet:
“Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved in whom I delight; I shall place my spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not contend or cry out, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory. And in his name the Gentiles will hope.”
In one of his poems, “Putting in the Seed,” Robert Frost describes a farmer’s love affair with the earth. It’s getting dark and someone from the house tries fetching him to come in. Supper’s on the table, yet he’s a
“Slave to a springtime passion for the earth. How Love burns through the Putting in the Seed On through the watching for that early birth When, just as the soil tarnishes with weed, The sturdy seedling with arched body comes Shouldering its way and shedding the earth crumbs.”
Can’t you see that farmer zestfully casting seed on the waiting earth, eagerly watching it to grow? Jesus sees the Sower as an image of God, casting saving grace onto the world in season and out, because he loves it so much.
If you have ever been to Galilee and seen the lake and the surrounding lands abundant with crops, you know this is a blessed place. It was in Jesus’ time too. Here, the sower scatters his seed with abandon, hardly caring where it goes: on rocky ground, or amid thorns, or on the soil that gives a good return.
God the Sower sows blessed seed, no matter how badly our human world appears, or how badly it receives. In his parables Jesus acknowledges rejection as well as acceptance, but the sower still sows. Grace is never withheld, and that makes us hope.
And is it just the human world God loves? Doesn’t his love extend to all the earth God calls “good” in the Book of Genesis? We worry about our planet earth, and with reason. How fragile it has become, what damage we careless humans do! We are concerned rightly for its future.
The nature parables we are reading in Mark’s gospel tell us to hope for our earth too. Though it is not immune from the threat of destruction and degradation, God loves it still. He’s a Sower at work. Blessed be the Lord God of all creation, may you sow your blessings on all.
Mark’s Gospel describes the growing numbers following Jesus in Galilee as he begins his ministry, listening to him and amazed at the works he does. But there are also growing numbers who find him hard to understand, the gospel says.
The scribes come from Jerusalem and say he has a demon, the Pharisees begin to plot with the Herodians, the followers of Herod Antipas about putting him to death. When they hear about him in Nazareth, his relatives say, “No, he doesn’t have a demon. He may be out of his mind,” and they come to bring him home.
Besides the leading elite and people from his hometown, ordinary people begin to distance themselves. They seem to be the people in Mark’s Gospel today who question him “Why do the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” (Mark 2, 18-22) Not only Jewish leaders and scholars, not only his own family and his hometown, but many ordinary people of Galilee found him too much for them.
Jesus brought change, radical change, and change can be hard to accept. Many who heard him weren’t ready for new wine, they preferred the old.
Commentators describe Mark’s gospel as a Passion Narrative with a prelude. In other words, the early stories in Mark’s gospel announce the last story of his Passion and Death and Resurrection. Jesus dies alone, forsaken by many ordinary people who flocked to him at first.
Commentators also see Mark’s gospel written to help the Christians of Rome who suffered a brutal, surprising persecution by Nero in the mid 60s. Rome usually singled out Christian leaders in times of persecution, but this persecution seemed to strike at ordinary Christians as well. The senseless, arbitrary persecution left Rome’s Christians confused and wondering what this all meant. Mark’s account reminds them that all who follow Jesus must follow him, without always understanding.
Confusion and lack of understanding are part of our world today, aren’t they? We are living in a time of rapid changes. For many, the old wine, the “old days” are better.
The Cross of Jesus may not come as hard wood and nails. As in Mark’s Gospel, it can come in the form confusion and lack of understanding. A Cross hard to bear.
Some Pharisees came to Jesus and said, “Go away, leave this area because Herod wants to kill you” (Luke 13:31).
From the bare text alone, it is difficult to determine the true motive of this warning from “some Pharisees.” Interpretations range from friendly and good-willed to guileful and hostile.1 The latter seems more likely since they approach Jesus as a group. In the exceptional cases of Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin, and Nicodemus, a Pharisee, Jesus is approached alone and even at night for fear of their peers (Matthew 27:57; Mark 15:43; John 19:38; John 3:2). It took a lot of courage to stand alone against majority opinion.
Prophets have had to escape violent rulers for good reasons. David hid from Saul (I Samuel 19:1-17) and Elijah fled from Jezebel’s vengeful wrath (I Kings 19:1-4). But Jesus marched onward in the face of Herod’s threats.
He replied, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and I perform healings today and tomorrow, and on the third day I accomplish my purpose. Yet I must continue on my way today, tomorrow, and the following day, for it is impossible that a prophet should die outside of Jerusalem’ (Luke 13:32-33).
The crafty, fox-like Herod (alópéx) had no power over Jesus whose only goal was to do the Father’s will. Jesus sought no overthrow of earthly kingdoms, but prepared hearts for the kingdom of heaven. His kingship was not of this world, his army consisted of “lambs among wolves” (Luke 10:3), and his greatest weapon was love even unto death on the Cross.
“Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up,” Jesus had prophesied (John 2:19). Destruction and construction must take place in the holy city Jerusalem, the center of temple worship and culture.
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how many times I yearned to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were unwilling! (Luke 13:34)
Jerusalem is an address to the entire people of Israel, as in Jeremiah’s lament: “To what can I compare you—to what can I liken you—O daughter Jerusalem?” (Lamentations 2:13) Jesus compared himself to a mother hen who shelters her children under her wings. Against all evolutionary instinct, the divine hen does not run away from the ravenous fox. “Survival of the fittest” is transcended by kenotic suffering, death, and resurrection.
Behold, your house will be abandoned. But I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (Luke 13:35).
“A little while and you will no longer see me, and again a little while later and you will see me,” Jesus said to his disciples at the Last Supper (John 16:16), echoing these final words to the Pharisees. The fox will kill the hen, leaving the chicks abandoned for “a little while,” but for all who repent in the name of Jesus Christ and return to the Father, “your grief will become joy… your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you” (John 6:16-22).
St. Cyril of Alexandria reads the greeting, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” as a prediction of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem before his crucifixion (Matthew 21:9). St. Augustine, Theophylact, and Bede interpret the saying, originally from Psalm 118:26, as referring to Jesus’ post-resurrection glory.2
From the divine perspective, the house of Israel and Jerusalem is universalized to include the whole human race. So long as God continues to be stoned and killed in the hearts of human persons, spiritual desolation ensues. The “time” to welcome the Lord into our hearts is today (Hebrews 3:15).
1 Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J. conjectures that these Pharisees “are depicted giving Jesus sage advice; these at least are well disposed toward him.” He finds support in other modern commentators: “Indeed, J. B. Tyson (‘Jesus and Herod Antipas,’ 245) plausibly argues for the historicity of this incident from the fact that Pharisees appear here not as antagonists of Jesus but as friends.” See The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to Luke (X-XXIV), Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1985, p. 1030.
William Barclay writes: “There may have been six bad Pharisees for every good one but this passage shows that even amongst the Pharisees there were those who admired and respected Jesus” (Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, 13:31-35).
On the other hand, the majority of classic Protestant commentaries of the last three centuries hold that these Pharisees had hypocritical and malicious intentions, and were possibly in league with Herod and Herodias in delivering the warning. These commentaries are all in the public domain:
Charles John Ellicott, Joseph Benson, Albert Barnes, Matthew Poole, John Gill, Heinrich Meyer, W. Robertson Nicoll (The Expositor’s Greek New Testament), F. W. Farrar (Gospel of Luke, Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges), John Albert Bengel (Bengel’s Gnomon of the New Testament), Joseph Exell (The Pulpit Commentary).
Patristic commentary is sparse on this verse, but St. Cyril of Alexandria finds these Pharisees ill-disposed toward Jesus: “Likely to lose their office of leaders of the people and already fallen and expelled from their authority over them and deprived of their profits—for they were fond of wealth, and covetous, and given to lucre—they made pretense of loving him, and even drew near, and said, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you’” (Commentary on Luke, Homily 100).
AUGUSTINE. (de Cons. Ev. ubi sup.) But as Luke does not say to what place our Lord went from thence, so that He should not come except at that time, (for when this was spoken He was journeying onward until He should come to Jerusalem), He means therefore to refer to that coming of His, when He should appear in glory.
THEOPHYLACT. For then also will they unwillingly confess Him to be their Lord and Saviour, when there shall be no departure hence. But in saying, Ye shall not see me until he shall come, &c. does not signify that present hour, but the time of His cross; as if He says, When ye have crucified Me, ye shall no more see Me until I come again.
BEDE. Ye shall not see, that is, unless ye have worked repentance, and confessed Me to be the Son of the Father Almighty, ye shall not see My face at the second coming.
When reality is one and undivided, the universe is a perfect mirror of the soul, and vice versa. An offering of a fragrant flower to the Father by Adam, the original gardener, was simultaneously an offering of love.
Sin and division brought on the strange, sad scenario decried by Jesus:
“Woe to you Pharisees! You pay tithes of mint and of rue and of every garden herb, but you pay no attention to judgment and to love for God. These you should have done, without overlooking the others” (Luke 11:42).
In the bitter winter of the Fall, angry, willful gardeners till the rocky soil and offer herbs fragrant to the outer nostrils, but odious to the Spirit of God (Genesis 4:3-7). The inner garden and the outer garden are disconnected in our broken world.
As Adam divided and split into the many, his progeny lived on the periphery of reality, fighting and vying for power and position. Individuals severed from the Indivisible Source scattered and created pecking orders. The dethronement of God in the center of the heart degenerated into self-seeking enthronement of the ego in the outer courts estranged from the Trinity in Unity:
“Woe to you Pharisees! You love the seat of honor in synagogues and greetings in marketplaces” (Luke 11:43).
In our wounded garden, a child may accidentally ingest a poisonous fruit because it looks sweet and enticing. The ignorant cannot tell the difference between edible and inedible plants. Hypocrites who look holy also cause stumbling and injury to those who encounter them:
“Woe to you! You are like unseen graves over which people unknowingly walk” (Luke 11:44).
The image of graves was particularly grave to the Hebrew mind as it signaled contamination. The pitiable Pharisees and lawyers were hampered by an ego blockage that created problems of hearing and sight. The divine voice trying to get through to them percolated through a screen of pride that turned every correction into insult:
Then one of the scholars of the law said to him in reply, “Teacher, by saying this you are insulting us too” (Luke 11:45).
Another consequence of division is the inability to empathize. The scholars fell into the ivory tower syndrome of imposing laws and ordinances without experiencing their burden themselves. The blind masses were herded down into a pit by blind guides (Matthew 15:14).
And he said, “Woe also to you scholars of the law! You impose on people burdens hard to carry, but you yourselves do not lift one finger to touch them” (Luke 11:46).
Jesus’ mission to unite heaven and earth, God and man, spirit and matter, the inner and outer gardens culminated in his sending of the Spirit of truth from the Father (John 15:26). The promise of Pentecost is as revolutionary today as it was over two thousand years ago. The Law made flesh revitalized the interior garden with imperishable and eternal fruit, a sweet offering to God the Father:
“If you are guided by the Spirit, you are not under the law… the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified their flesh with its passions and desires. If we live in the Spirit, let us also follow the Spirit” (Galatians 5:18, 22-25).
“Blessed the man who follows not the counsel of the wicked… He is like a tree planted near running water, That yields its fruit in due season, and whose leaves never fade. Whatever he does, prospers” (Psalm 1:1, 3).
On a certain sabbath Jesus went into the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. The scribes and the Pharisees watched him closely to see if he would cure on the sabbath so that they might discover a reason to accuse him.
Dressed in their Sabbath best, the laser keen eyes of Jesus’ analysts beamed through the hollow sockets of their exterior masks to size him up. A man with a withered hand happened to be there—conveniently? Conspiracy theories have been around for a long time: some commentators wonder if the handicapped man was “planted” to trap Jesus1. At any rate, the poor brother was regarded as a snare on this occasion. The hunters were fixed on their prey.
But he realized their intentions and said to the man with the withered hand, “Come up and stand before us.” And he rose and stood there.
Luke alone of the Synoptics narrates this detail of Jesus reading the hearts of his accusers. Masquerading in the divine presence was impossible; the thoughts and intentions of the heart were transparent to Jesus.
What was the disabled man thinking? Was he hoping that the famed teacher and healer would restore him this day? We are not informed, as the decoy’s subjectivity was drowned out by the intensity of the protagonists. Silently he obeyed Jesus’ summons to “stand in the midst” of the assembly.
Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good on the sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?”
With the deftness of a cross-examiner, Jesus put forward an either/or question that completely circumvented the legal issue of “working” on the Sabbath. The question was rhetorical: doing evil and destroying life were obviously out of the question. However, doing good or saving life hardly occurred to the disputants, but not because their tradition did not encourage it. In fact, the Mishnah Yoma (a pillar of Talmudic literature) did permit saving human life on the Sabbath: “every potential danger to human life overrides Shabbat” (8:6).
The clash with Jesus was not inevitable. If more care had been taken to reflect on the essence of the law as handed down to Moses and the prophets, concord might have been possible. After all, the Law and the Prophets were given in preparation for the coming of Christ.
Passion and anger, unfortunately, overrode wisdom and intuition.
Looking around at them all, he then said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so and his hand was restored.
Jesus’ merciful heart overcame intimidation and suffered the consequences, but what a joyous day for the brother who was healed!
But they became enraged and discussed together what they might do to Jesus.
If the good of another does not spontaneously evoke joy, something is deeply amiss in the depths of the heart. The word Luke used for “enraged” suggests irrationality, from anoia (ἄνοια)—“no mind.” The whole group exploded into folly, madness, fury and rage. Heart, mind, reason, emotions, and senses went to war in the interior battlefield. The heart and mind were crushed to the ground by the stampede of anger and its minions.
The God whom the scribes and Pharisees wanted to honor stood before them unrecognized. Beyond sight and sound, he was actually inseparable from them, living within and upholding their very existence. But to the exterior senses, Jesus was reduced to a target and an object of wrath.
1 New Bible Commentary, 21st Century Edition, edited by G.J. Wenham, J.A. Motyer, D.A. Carson, R.T. France, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000, p. 990.
After the Sermon on the Mount, the feeding of the five thousand, and numerous signs and wonders, Jesus was causing quite a stir. Without summoning, this ordinary son of a carpenter in Galilee compelled the most elite members of Israel to journey all the way from Jerusalem to ask him a question.
Some Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They do not wash their hands when they eat a meal.”
The question was not about hygiene, but about the very foundations of Judaism. Levitical laws and tradition drew a sharp line between what was “clean” and “unclean,” and developed complex regulations for ceremonial washing in order to approach the all-holy God. Failure to comply with these rules gave the impression of impiety or sacrilege.
Tunnel vision caused by prolonged squinting at the fine print of the law and centuries of accretions made the lawyers forget the basics. In large print, on tablets of stone, Moses had presented the Decalogue with natural precepts like, “Honor your father and your mother.”
Legal sophistry found loopholes to avoid the care of elderly parents:
But you say, ‘Whoever says to father or mother, “Any support you might have had from me is dedicated to God,” need not honor his father.’ You have nullified the word of God for the sake of your tradition. (Matthew 15:5)
The Pharisees and scribes made it legal to dedicate money and property to the Temple with this unloving intention. God was being used. Such sophistries drove a wedge between love of God and love of neighbor. The first commandment was used to violate the second.
The divine physician had Israel on the operating table for heart surgery, without any anesthesia.
“Hypocrites, well did Isaiah prophesy about you when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’” (Matthew 15:7-9)
He summoned the crowd and said to them, “Hear and understand. It is not what enters one’s mouth that defiles the man; but what comes out of the mouth is what defiles one.”
Food and ceremonial laws were external rituals that did not reach the depths of the heart, our “hidden center… the place of decision, deeper than our psychic drives” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2563). The indestructible temple of the Holy Spirit is the human heart, the first place that must be cleansed and nourished.
Deep, authentic conversion is an arduous process requiring painful heart surgery. Far easier is a program of superficial rituals that only cleanses the outside of the cup. Few have the courage to face themselves.
Then his disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” He said in reply, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”
Any law or practice that violates the single precept of love of God and love of neighbor “will be uprooted.”
The Good Shepherd laid down his life to rescue the least lamb fallen into a pit, mangled alongside their blind shepherds in the hollow.
The scribes and Pharisees were to be let alone to respond to grace. As we are one Body in Christ, their heart surgery is our very own.