Mark 3:1-6

Jesus Actively Resists the Pharisees

The following incident would conclude for the moment Jesus’ brushes with Pharisees. It seems to have been included here by Mark to illustrate the meaning of the three previous incidents. On this occasion Jesus himself orchestrated the encounter, unlike in the three previous instances where others took the initiative.

Mark 3:1-6 – Jesus Heals on the Sabbath and Pharisees Plot His Death

1 He went again into a synagogue.
There was  a man there with a withered hand.
2 They were watching him carefully
to see if the would heal him on the Sabbath
so that they could accuse him.
3 He said to the man who had the withered hand,
“Stand out here in the middle.”
4 Then he said to them,
“Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath – or to do evil?
to save a life or to put to death?”
But they kept quiet.
5 He looked around angrily at them,
grieved at their callous hearts.
Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.”
He stretched out the hand,
and it came back to normal.
6 The Pharisees went out,
and immediately discussed with the Herodians
what they could do to destroy him.

The encounter happened in the synagogue, the symbolic stronghold of Pharisaism. It happened on the Sabbath. Both factors were ominous.

Among those present was a man in need, described by Mark as having a withered hand. The nature of the disability could well have meant that the man was unable to work, and therefore may also have been unable to support himself or his family. His need may not have been just medical but social. Being subject to a physical deformity, the man would also have been refused entrance into the Temple. 

Not unexpectedly, those present sensed that something would happen. They were not immediately identified as Pharisees, but their identity became clear at the end of the story. They were watching him. Jesus did not keep them in suspense. He provoked the showdown by getting the man to stand out in full view of everyone.

The point of Jesus’ question was to get to the heart of the objections raised against him then and previously. Their attitudes, in Jesus’ mind, were small-minded, exclusive, marginalising and demeaning – wittingly or unwittingly destructive of human dignity.

He challenged them on the radical meaning and context of Sabbath. Was it simply a traditional institution to be mindlessly protected by myriad regulations, whatever its effect on people, or was its aim to foster human life and dignity? They knew what he was driving at, and refused to answer.

Mark highlighted the fact that Jesus looked around on them with anger. This would be the only occasion in his whole narrative where the deep emotional response of Jesus would be clearly identified as anger. In Mark’s mind it touched close to the core of what motivated and drove Jesus.

He also noted Jesus’ deep sadness. He was grieved. Both emotions opened a profound window into the mind and spirit of Jesus, and could well have been a regular backdrop to much of his life.

The occasion of both his anger and grief was the hardness of heart of those present. He felt himself powerless to penetrate to their innermost selves and to sensitise them to the image of God imprinted on their deepest being. He felt the frustration of knowing that every effort he made to reveal to people the compassionate heart of God resulted simply in their closing off their minds in rejection. He felt himself to be almost the occasion of their sin.

As Mark would note later in the narrative, hardness of heart was not a failing peculiar to some of the Pharisees. The disciples themselves would be accused, with a similar depth of feeling, of the same fault. The tendency is indeed inherent in the human psyche, no doubt as much a danger in the Markan community (as in disciples reading the story in any age). It was not simply a lack of compassion. It was a rigidity of mind and heart, a lack of inner flexibility, an unwillingness to change, to open the mind to new possibilities and to think differently, to move beyond the familiar, the definite and the clear cut. It was a refusal to move forward to a new level of personal growth and maturity.

In this case Jesus confronted his critics, and perhaps almost in desperation, he publicly restored the man’s hand on the Sabbath.

His confrontation did not bring about a rapprochement. It hardened their hearts even further. A group of Pharisees resolved on the final solution. They would work for his eventual arrest and killing. As ordinary citizens they had no way to exact the death penalty. That was the domain of the political power, of Herod, the local king. So they made contact with the officials of Herod’s administration.

This was a most unlikely alliance. Generally the Pharisees as a group detested the officers of Herod and their collaboration with the conquering Roman imperial power. Israel was God’s own Promised Land, and it was being oppressed and milked by Gentiles. Apparently their indignation at the inroads of Jesus and his growing influence on the simple population of Galilee were sufficient to drive them to conspire with their enemies.

On their part, Herod’s officials were also no doubt keeping an eye on Jesus in case he proved to be a threat in any way to the power of Herod. For all his apparent power and wealth, Herod was extremely sensitive to potential rivals. His “secret intelligence service” would have closely monitored the activities of Jesus. Capernaum was only some few kilometres from Tiberias, Herod’s seat of power, situated towards the southern area of the Sea of Galilee. They would perhaps have been grateful for any additional information that these Pharisees could provide them.

It is impossible to know when exactly in the ministry of Jesus this covert plotting began, since Mark’s narrative did not pretend to give a strictly historical account. There is little doubt that it did happen. It is sobering to realise that so much of Jesus’ ministry was conducted under the cloud of potential arrest. Jesus would probably have been aware of the danger, yet his courage and determination seemed to have been in no way affected.

As well as coping with potential political danger, Jesus had to contend with the concerted opposition of an undefined number of Pharisees, self-appointed “thought police”, constantly seeking evidence to lead to his condemnation. As this incident noted: They were watching him.

Next >> Mark 3:7-19a