How is it that seemingly good people, especially on life issues, often end by advocating and doing terribly wrong things? Why do they then vigorously deny that what they do is bad? Why do they make every effort to destroy anyone who accurately describes what they do as evil? I am often asked such questions. How to respond to them?
The Gospel on Tuesday, Second Week, Ordinary Time, is from Luke 3. It concerns the man with the “withered hand.” I have always thought this to be a remarkable passage. Jesus comes back to the synagogue. He has walked through the countryside. The disciples ate some of the grain along the way. They are thus accused of violating the Sabbath. But Christ responds to the watchful Jewish authorities that even David’s men ate the reserved breads on the Sabbath when they could find nothing else. “The Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Christ then applies the phrase to Himself – “the Lord of the Sabbath.” This affirmation could only mean that He identified Himself with God.
What happens next? A man with a shriveled hand presents himself. We have no reason to suppose that the hand was not seriously deformed or that the incident was made up. Christ knows that He is being carefully watched. The Jewish leaders were looking for something with which to accuse Him. They had already implicitly judged Him guilty of blasphemy, worthy of death. But they are cautious. Their conduct infuriates Christ. What does He do? He orders the man to come before Him.
Christ asks the watchers a question: “Is it lawful to do a good deed on the Sabbath, or an evil one?” The leaders know this question is dangerous. So they do not respond to avoid being made to look bad before the synagogue. They “remain silent.” Christ looks at them “with anger.” Their silence is malicious. If the man is cured, even on the Sabbath, it is obviously a good work. The devil cannot perform such a feat. No one can call it evil.
Yet the Pharisees intimate that such a deed would violate the strict laws about Sabbath work. They think man is made for the Sabbath. The Law rules every contingency. Even a good work is prohibited. But they obviously recognize something contradictory here. This awareness is why they remain silent. They do not want any logical examination of their views. They do not want to look bad. But neither do they change their minds.
The Man with the Withered Hand by James Tissot, c. 1890
Mark tells us that Christ “was deeply grieved that they had closed their minds.” He did not say: “They know not what they do,” but “they closed their minds.” They did not want to see what was happening before them. They implicitly accepted the logic that, if someone is cured on the Sabbath, it can only be done by the Lord of the Sabbath. They refuse to admit who it is standing before them.
Christ tells the man to “stretch out his hand.” He does so. “His hand is perfectly restored.” If it were not made whole, Christ would have been mocked as an impostor. But the hand is restored. The Pharisees there do not ask for a medical examiner to check. Obvious to everyone watching, from the man himself to other spectators, the hand is restored. The Pharisees may not like it, but they see the healthy hand.
What explains the actions of the synagogue leaders? They deny the implications of what they have just witnessed. They close their minds. They acknowledge no logic in the Bible that would allow them to grant the implications of the event they witnessed. That would require them to follow Jesus, not their own opinions.
Next comes one of the most astonishing and ominous passages in all of Scripture. The Pharisees go “outside.” What for? They “immediately begin to plot with the Herodians how they might destroy him.” Evidence of divine authority does not count against the Pharisees’ own understanding of divine authority. They deny divine authority in the name of divine authority.
If anyone ever wonders how or why intelligent believers or thinkers can stand before evident truths of reason or revelation but still deny them in favor of their own preferred opinions, here is the reason. We should not be overly astonished by those, even “believers,” who reject basic elements of faith or reason because it does not agree with their views about what God “should” hold, but evidently does not.
Is this reaction unusual? I think not. It happens every day among us. Does it still “anger” Christ? I suspect so. The leading opponents to the faith, as Jewish history teaches us, are often those supposedly closest to it. Its greatest enemies are within the household. They know what they do. They “close their minds.”