Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

40. The man with the withered hand (Matthew 12:9-14; Mark 3:1-6 ; Luke 6:6-11)*

By the time the next regular sabbath came round (a “different” sabbath from the cornfield episode; Lk) Jesus was back in Galilee.

He was again (Mk) invited to be the synagogue preacher where he had already been heard before, most probably in Capernaum. It may be surmised that this invitation was deliberately arranged by certain of his Jerusalem adversaries, made wrathful by his repeated sabbath challenges. Now they were ready to take him on in a carefully engineered situation.

The tenseness of the occasion is communicated by Matthew's characteristic “Behold!” For there in the congregation was a man with a damaged or paralysed right hand (Lk). And through lack of use his arm muscles had probably shrunk and atrophied. The word “withered” is a Greek passive, and clearly implies that this was no congenital disability. According to Jerome the late apocryphal “Gospel according to the Hebrews”, not now extant, added that the man was a stonemason, who had presumably suffered an accident, and who now appealed to Jesus in the synagogue to heal him so that he would not be reduced to begging for his living. If these details can be accepted as authentic, then the damage was comparatively recent.

The adversaries of Jesus watched him eagerly with hostile intent to see whether he would heal the man. Were he to do so, they would surely have against him a clear-cut case of sabbath desecration. It seemed never to come into their minds to ask themselves whether or not their own malevolence was a sabbath infringement!

Argument about the sabbath

If the man did make appeal to Jesus for help, it must have been at that moment when the Pharisees interposed with a question: “Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath days?” The form of the verb “asked” used by Matthew seems to imply that the question was blandly repeated, as though out of academic interest or an impartial desire to set going a good discussion. But again, as on so many other occasions, Jesus “knew their thoughts” (Lk).

Actually there is some evidence that the rabbinic rules regarding the care or healing of the sick on the sabbath were by no means so stringent or rigid as to forbid the kind of thing which these adversaries now envisaged. But it is always the same. Men of evil intent are very ready to apply recognized principles in a more severe or less rigorous fashion according to their own inclination.

Jesus now took up the challenge directly. Why did he? The cure was not urgent. He could surely have avoided an unpleasant situation by postponing action till the next day. Instead he seems to have quite deliberately sought a collision with the Pharisees. His steady sequence of sabbath miracles about this time confirms such a conclusion.

“Rise up, and stand forth in the midst”, he commanded the man, and was promptly obeyed. If a miracle was now to be wrought it would be seen by every soul in the synagogue.

But first Jesus turned and addressed himself to his learned questioners: “I will ask you one thing: Is it lawful on the sabbath days to do good, or to do evil? to save life, or to kill?” Every untutored member of that eager congregation mentally supplied the answer within a second. Why, to turn away from doing a kindness to such a sufferer would itself surely be evil.

There was no audible reply to the Lord's question, only an eloquent silence which seemed to last much longer than it did.

Then Jesus resumed with reference to a familiar rabbinic pronouncement. If a man had a sheep, just one, and it fell into a pit, would he not exert himself to retrieve it, sabbath or no sabbath? cp. Lk. 13:15. And if it be so with a mere animal “nourishing a blind life within the brain”, how much more lawful was the rescue of a fellow human being?

It was a type of reasoning which Jesus used with special effectiveness. “Behold the fowls of the air... your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?” (Mt. 6:26). “Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows” (10:31).

“Wherefore it is lawful to do good on the sabbath days!” The words read more like Matthew's own terse summary of the Lord's argument than as part of the synagogue discourse.

In later generations Talmud teaching hardened. Discussing this very problem (probably because the gospels thrust it on their attention) the pronouncement was made that an animal in a pit on the sabbath was to be left alone till next day.

It was well recognized among the scribes that the sabbath prefigured the rest which Messiah's kingdom would bring in, an epoch which was to be marked by a final cessation of evil, and in its place a great intensification of every beneficent activity. Strange then, that these clever men were not able to see the appropriateness of healing work on the sabbath. But in every generation prejudice and envy have ever been marvellously effective in taking away powers of sound judgement. Even today, when the servants of the Lord gather in their “synagogue” for discussion of the Word of God, the same phenomenon is, alas, not unknown.

The Eyes of Jesus

As he spoke Jesus looked round on them all with anger. And men held their breath in awe at the sight of this righteous man with blazing eyes and sternly-set jaw, as he proceeded to expose with indignation and contempt the hypocritical hair-splitting of these sabbath keepers.

The brief but wondrously impressive description in Mark's gospel is clearly that of an eye witness- Peter, no doubt. There is no lack of these touches in this gospel. At the healing of the deaf and dumb man: “looking up to heaven he sighed...” (7:34). When Peter sought to discourage him from even the contemplation of suffering at Jerusalem: “he turned about and looked on his disciples” (8:33) those eyes again! When face-to-face with the rich young ruler: “Jesus beholding him loved him...”; and a few moments later, when driving home the lesson of the encounter: “And Jesus looked round about, and saith unto his disciples...” And again, almost immediately: “And Jesus looking upon them, saith...” (10:21, 12, 27; cp. also 3:34; 5:32; 11:11; Lk. 19:5; 21:1).

The disciples of Jesus never forgot his eyes!

Mark adds a further detail not without its difficulty: “he looked round about on them with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their heart.” The Greek word means “petrification”. It also describes the tough callus which knits two pieces of broken bone. And “heart” in the singular (RV) implies that they were unanimous in their antagonism.

Is it possible to be angry and grieved at the same time? The commentators coin slick phrases about Jesus being “angry with the sin, yet grieving over the sinners.” But this is mere word-spinning, for anger with sin in the abstract is a plain impossibility; it must always express itself against persons. The verb tenses in the Geek text suggest that the Lord's anger was short-lived but his grief was long-lasting. Thus the second phrase, which really describes pity for them in their seemingly incurable hostility to truth (Ps. 69:20; ls. 51:19 LXX), describes his frame of mind afterwards when the encounter was over.

The Miracle

The angry look round the synagogue (Lk), which seems to imply that there were many others sharing the attitude of the Pharisees, now came to rest on the man himself. “Stretch forth thine hand”, that is, towards Jesus, as though seeking a right hand of fellowship! Several hundred pairs of astonished eyes saw that helpless limb attempt obedience -- and succeed! Forearm, wrist and fingers were all functioning perfectly, and the man beside himself with delight, whilst a veritable babel of excited comment was let loose. There could be no denying the miracle. The man's sorry case was well known. And now here he was, matching perfectly with his right arm and hand all that he could do with his left.

The synagogue roof was only just repaired after the healing of the paralytic, and now another sensational miracle of healing! Together they fulfilled the gracious words of Isaiah about the days of the promised Messiah: “Strengthen ye the weak hands, and confirm the feeble knees” (35:3). Did men's minds go to that Scripture that day? And did they run on in awe and wonder to the words that follow? “Say to them that are of a fearful heart, Be strong, fear not: behold your God! He will come, raised up (from the dead); even your God rewarded. He will come, even your Saviour (your Jesus).”

Angry Reaction

This realisation may have come later. At the time all were now agog to see the reaction of the Pharisees. Did they think it right for Jesus to do good on the sabbath?

These worthy spiritual guides were already seething with incoherent rage. Luke's word describes a state of mental excitement which paralyses all powers of logical thinking. In a desperate attempt to retain dignity, and at the same time as a gesture of vigorous protest against this impious use of the sabbath, they rose and strode indignantly out of the building.

Yet what had they to protest against? Strictly, no accusation of sabbath-breaking could be brought against Jesus, for so tar as they could tell he had done no more than speak to the man. Yet he made no attempt at self-defence on these lines. Instead, going well beyond Isaiah's interpretation about “thine own ways, thine own pleasure” (58:13), he grounded his miracle on the broad foundation: “to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill.” By the most rigid interpretation which they could bring to bear on their own sabbath regulations, Jesus had done nothing amiss. He had made no physical exertion of any kind, and not even touched the man - but had merely spoken to him. No matter! they were determined to disapprove, and this they must do for all to see.

The charges against Jesus were now piling up. He had claimed to forgive sins. He consorted with publicans and sinners. He treated the holy rules about fasting with indifference. He encouraged his disciples to indulge in sabbath “reaping” and “threshing” in the cornfield. And he himself had now several times flouted their sabbath restrictions.

Forthwith (Mk) - even though it was the sabbath! -they began secret discussions among themselves what they might do to rid themselves of this man of Nazareth who was so fearlessly and effectively eroding away their authority among the people. One conclusion was increasingly evident: they must destroy him. Was it right on the sabbath for them to save life or to kill? Their necessity and their hypocrisy knew no law, not even the law of God. Jesus must be rid of. “The murderous will has come to birth, the way will follow in due course” (A.B. Bruce).


To further this they arranged a meeting with certain of the party of the Herodians. In all Israel it would be hard to find men of more different kidney. For purely selfish reasons these Herodians stood for the fullest co-operation possible with the authorities. Some even went so far as to declare the Messianic prophecies fulfilled in the rule of Herod the Great and his sons. It would be easy (even though highly unusual) for the Pharisees to contact them, for Herod's court was at Tiberias only a few miles away. Adversity was providing strange bedfellows for these discomfited Pharisees. The plan, most probably, was to use the Herodians to persuade their royal master to mete out to Jesus the same treatment John the Baptist was receiving. It was the first of what was to be a long and sordid series of attempts to get rid of this provoking prophet. Eventually they succeeded in casting the Lamb of God into a pit, and keeping him there for a sabbath day.

Two Different Views

It is worthwhile to take another look at the man whom Jesus healed. Two completely different interpretations of his character seem to be possible.

The most obvious one is that he came to the synagogue believing that Jesus could heal him, and hoping that he would. His response to the Lord's: “Stretch forth thine hand” invites interpretation as an act of faith. For he could have retorted: “Sir, how can I stretch it out? It is altogether powerless.”

But the Old Testament background to the miracles of Jesus, already evident in his earlier works, suggests here a very different association of ideas. A comparable miracle is described in 1 Kings 13. Jeroboam stood at his renegade altar in Bethel to burn incense as king-priest. Denounced by an unnamed prophet of Jehovah and seeking to take strong action against him, he saw “his hand dried up, so that he could not draw it back again to him.” When the king pleaded to be spared this judgment, the man of God prayed for him, and “the king's hand was restored him again, and became as before.”

This similarity of miracle suggests that, like Jeroboam the crippled man was not sympathetic to Jesus and had agreed with the Pharisees to be present in the synagogue as agent provocateur. Other details in the incident are significant. The altar was rent, and the ashes of sacrifice poured out. Nor was the incense burned. And the king's promises, notwithstanding, the prophet refused to have any fellowship with him in his own place.

If indeed this thousand-year old incident was, an acted parable. Jesus used it to remind his hostile contemporaries that he would have no fellowship with the conventions of their religion, but that if their hatred persisted, their altar would be destroyed and all sacrifice cease. But let them appeal in faith to the Man of God in their midst, and their present spiritual futility, ; symbolized by the handicapped man in the: synagogue, would be at an end.

Notes: Mk.3:1-6

Watched him; i.e. closely; s.w. Ps. 37:12; 130:3 LXX.
To do good on the sabbath days. Note Jn. 7:22, 23.
Stretch forth thine hand, as though making a vow of dedication to God? Gen. 14:22.
Took counsel. The verb implies long or repeated conferences. The progression of Pharisee hostility in these chapters is very marked: 2:6, 7, 16, 18, 24; 3:6, 22.

Destroy him. The same word as in Lk. 6:9. The complete list of plots and attempts to get rid of Jesus is horrifying in its mere length. One is left marvelling that the ministry of Jesus lasted for as long as three and a half years. The order given here is approximately correct chronologically: Jn. 5:16; Mk. 3:6; Lk. 4:29 (the only attempt by the common people!); 11:54; Jn. 7:19-21, 25; 8:59; Lk. 13:31; Jn.10; 31, 39; 11:8, 16, 44-54; Lk. 20:14-26; Mt. 26:3-5, 16. All this according to Old Testament prophecy: Ps. 140:2; 59:3; 10:9; 71:10, 11; 41:7.

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