Deuteronomy 5.12-15; Psalm 81.1-10; 2 Corinthians 4.5-12; Mark 2.23-3.6
“THEOLOGY itself is always in danger of turning into an ideology that domesticates or manipulates God, or renders him as transcendent in false ways” (Frances Young and David Ford, Meaning and Truth in 2 Corinthians). These words apply with equal force to our Gospel reading.
Jesus’s healing of the man with the withered hand is a piece of “political theatre”. It is the climax of a series of challenges to the privilege and power of the Pharisees, and to the theological manipulation by which they preserve their status (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus).
Previously, Jesus has provoked their criticism by eating with “tax collectors and sinners”, and plucking grain on the sabbath. Now Jesus generates a public confrontation, asking his critics: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath: to save life, or to kill?” His words echo the challenge that God poses at the end of the book of Deuteronomy: “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil” (Deuteronomy 30.15).
Although the man’s withered hand is healed by Jesus, St Athanasius observes that his opponents remain “withered in their minds”. Jesus’s defiance of the Pharisees is not a rejection of the sabbath law; rather, he is drawing them back to its true meaning. Biologically, withering occurs when something is detached from the source of life. The Pharisees are spiritually “withered” because their legalism subverts the deeper logic of the commandment.
In our first reading, the sabbath command is “grounded in the work of liberation accomplished by God in the Exodus” (Pope John Paul II, Dies Domini). One of its purposes is to ensure that there is a day in which the whole community — regardless of social status, wealth, or poverty — can share in the freedom and joy of its creator.
The Pharisees face a dilemma. If they endorse what Jesus does, their legalistic system comes crashing down; if they condemn it, they seem hard-hearted. So they refuse to answer Jesus’s question. Their legalism leaves them unable to celebrate his liberating work. On their silence, Jesus “looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart”. His anger flows from his compassion. Throughout the Gospels (and supremely in the Passion narratives), Jesus is grieved at the damage that his opponents do, both to the people they oppress and to themselves.
Because Jesus is a king who sets us free, this healing is (paradoxically) both an act of liberation and an assertion of his authority. As Athanasius observes, when Jesus “told them what was intended by the law”, he “spoke as the one who established the laws concerning the sabbath”.
The Pharisees find their voice at the end of our reading. Mark tells us that they “went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him”. Having refused Jesus’s invitation to do good and save life, their death-dealing motives are now laid bare. Their “withered” hearts and minds now lead them to plot the murder of Jesus, the true source of life.
The conflict in these early chapters of Mark is echoed in 2 Corinthians, which the lectionary reads in parallel in these first few weeks of Ordinary Time. Both concern the ultimate nature of power. Jesus’s identification with tax collectors and sinners — and his reshaping of the sabbath laws to liberate the oppressed — provokes a violent response from the religious and political authorities.
In 2 Corinthians, the nature of God’s power is again at stake: this time, within the Church. Those who reject Paul’s message because of his outward weakness have failed to understand the gospel — for this very weakness is a sign of his apostolicity. He is “always carrying in his body the death of Jesus”, and his weakness serves to highlight that the “extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us”.
The gospel of Christ subverts the religious and political hierarchies of this world. His opponents have rejected this gospel for a theology of worldly strength that (in Young and Ford’s words) “domesticates and manipulates God”.
Paul’s apostolic ministry embodies a sacrificial exchange: “Death is at work in us, and life in you.” We see this same exchange in our Gospel reading. It is precisely because Jesus brings liberation and life that his enemies now begin to plot his death.