Deut 5.12-15, 2 Cor 4.5-12, Mark 2.23-3.6
“Stretch out your hand”, says Jesus to a man he meets in the Synagogue in Capernaum. That’s what caught my eye and my imagination as I read this Gospel reading. It’s an intriguing detail. There’s no real need for this man to stretch out his hand in order to be healed. Jesus often healed with just a word, or even at a distance. But this man seems to need to stretch out his hand to receive his healing.
As I said, it caught my attention, and it led me to think about this action, this gesture of stretching out a hand and what it might mean.
As it happens there’s another outstretched hand – or rather an arm – in today’s readings. It is in the Old Testament passage from the book of Deuteronomy. “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” The outstretched arm here is held out in a gesture of power, of authority, of agency, the gesture of someone who is going to get something done. There are plenty of other examples, in the Bible or out of it, of outstretched arms wielding power. Moses stretched out his arm, holding his staff, to part hands the waters of the Red Sea. In folklore, wizards stretch out their arms, holding their magic wands, to make a spell. Kings hold out sceptres. Priests hold out their arms in blessing.
Stretching out a hand or an arm isn’t alway a gesture of power, though. Hungry refugees stretch out their hands for food when the truck bringing supplies comes around. A drowning person stretches out their hands in hopes that someone will pull them from the water. And maybe, in answer, someone stretches out a hand to feed and to save them.
Whether we are giving help or asking for help, casting a spell or making a command, praying or blessing though, the outstretched hand is a hand that is doing something. We stretch out our hands because we believe, or at least hope, that something will happen as a result.
“Stretch out your hand” says Jesus to this man, but what is it that he wants to happen? Why does he need this man to make such a public gesture? Why can’t he heal him with a quiet word, or a private meeting?
To understand, I think we have to consider what this disability and its healing would have meant both to the man concerned, and to the rest of those present in that synagogue.
Let’s start with the individual.
Just imagine what it might have been like to be him. Daily life with a hand that doesn’t work properly is very difficult. We use our hands for so many things; eating, dressing, washing, as well as the tasks we need to do to earn our living. In the ancient world, without the machines and technology we now have, it was even more important to be able to use your hands. How could you grow your food, cook your food, gather firewood, build, make clothes, look after livestock one handed? The fact that he can’t use this hand probably cuts off any real possibility for supporting himself, and maybe affects his prospects of becoming a husband and father too. He was probably dependent on others, and most people find that pretty tough.
And to cap it all, he wouldn’t have been able to take a full part in the religious life of his community either. All adult men were supposed to offer sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem at least three times a year, but no one with a disability was allowed to enter it, because disability was seen as a sign of God’s displeasure, so he couldn’t even worship with everyone else.
What might this disability have done to his sense of himself as a person, as a proper grown-up? We don’t know, but it’s likely that he would have lived with a fairly constant sense of shame and exclusion. And this hand which Jesus is asking him to stretch out, was the cause of it. How difficult must it have been to him to let others see it, the source of his weakness and humiliation?
So why did Jesus put him through this? Maybe because he needed to acknowledge the problem before he could be healed. As long as we are ashamed, as long as we hide what troubles us, from ourselves as well as others, as I imagine this man might have hidden that withered hand, nothing can change. Sometimes it is making that doctor’s appointment, going to that support group meeting for the first time, picking up the phone to the friend who has offered to help which really matters; that’s the moment , that first step, when change can start to happen.
That may be one reason why, on a personal level this man needs to “stretch out his hand” in this public way before he can be healed. His disability has made him feel helpless, mired him in a completely undeserved sense of shame. When he acts, when he stretches out his hand, he is doing something for himself, taking hold of life and hope and dignity again. It is Jesus who heals him, of course, but his brave, public act is a vital part of the process.
But it’s not just him who needs healing and change. Equally significant in this story is the change and challenge which Jesus offers to those who witness his healing, because in some ways his society is even more disabled than he is.
The fact is that the people who should have cared for him, the Pharisees, the so-called religious experts, don’t seem to have seen him as a human being at all. It’s nothing to them that he is struggling and needs help. To them, he is just a lure to trap Jesus. All they seem to care about is their arcane arguments about Sabbath observance. Never mind the miracle, what matters to them is that Jesus has healed on the Sabbath, and that, in their eyes is work.
We’ve already seen them get hot under the collar because his disciples have snacked on grains of wheat as they have walked through a field. That’s harvesting, as they see it, and harvesting is forbidden on the Sabbath. Jesus tries to justify it with an appeal to a rather obscure Old Testament story, but they aren’t having any of it. So when he comes into the synagogue they are just looking around for some way to get him into even more hot water. Whether it is just a convenient coincidence that this man is there, or whether they have set him up we don’t know, but which ever it is, they see him just as an opportunity to advance their interests. Their agenda is the only thing that matters to them, not this man and his problems.
That’s what makes Jesus so angry. That’s why he is “grieved at their hardness of heart”. They can’t see the wood for the trees, and they aren’t even trying to. They are quite happy with the status quo, in which they have power and respect, and they don’t see what damage it is doing to them as much as to anyone else. They don’t see that they are even sicker than the man whose sufferings they are so ready to exploit.
The man with the withered hand has been disabled emotionally and spiritually by a world view which puts power on a pedestal, because his physical problems mean he has very little, but the Pharisees are just as disabled by that way of thinking. When people shame or stigmatise those who are poor or disabled, it is usually a sign that they are terrified of losing the wealth and ability they have. They need to put others down so that they can stay on top. It’s a risky strategy though, because no one is immune to the vagaries of illness and misfortune. That’s why tyrants are so often paranoid and fearful. But we can all behave like this, becoming defensive and prickly when our little empires are threatened, and these Pharisees are a perfect example of this.
Ironically, though, both their lives and the life of the man with the withered hand might have been made much easier if they had really understood the issue at the centre of the stories we have heard today, the Sabbath and what it was meant to be for.
God’s command that people should have one day of rest in every seven was meant to be a safeguard against the idolisation of power, a weekly reminder that we don’t need to have it all or do it all in order to keep ourselves safe. Only God can do that anyway. Keeping the Sabbath, choosing not to work every hour there is, dares us to trust that we aren’t on our own in a hostile world, with only ourselves to rely on, but in the hands of God who loves us. It dares us to trust, too, that we are part of a community, in which each is responsible for the others. The Sabbath says “enough is enough”; it was intended to provide a built in safeguard against inequality and injustice, stopping the powerful heaping up money at the expense of those who couldn’t keep up. It reminded those who observed it that it was God who provided, God who empowered, God who gave to each person, whatever their ability, a dignity that couldn’t be taken away, the dignity of being his children frail and fallible but beloved and precious too.
We are all clay jars, as St Paul put it, but clay jars can still contain treasure; we don’t have to pretend to be solid gold when we’re not and were never meant to be. That’s what Jesus went to the cross to prove. The clay of his flesh was shattered and torn apart. Like the man with the withered hand, he was despised and rejected by those who saw him die this humiliating death, and yet, in his powerlessness, as his arms were outstretched on the cross, God declared our powerlessness, our failure, our death to be places that could be fountains of blessing, however unlikely that seems to us when we are in those places.
“Stretch out your hand”, said Jesus, and the man with the withered hand found liberation and life when he did so. “Stretch out your hand”,, says Jesus to us, and maybe, if we do, we can find the same as we discover the blessing that comes from naming our need and accepting his help.