Dear Sisters and Brothers,
Just like chapter two, we are faced with people who follow Jesus for good reasons and for bad reasons. The people with the bad reasons are opponents who are trying to dig up some dirt or find some proof of Jesus breaking either Jewish or Roman law.
The situation between the Pharisees, Scribes, Sadducees, and Zealots had degenerated into open hostility. These religious groups all had political perspectives and ways they wanted to shape their world. Along with that, you had loyalists to King Herod, who ruled like a Mafia crime boss and paid his people well. To some extent, the Roman soldiers maintained civil order through threat and violence, but there were no police. So, in politics, in both Rome and Palestine, murder was always an option. And the murder of public figures by sword or crucifixion was a relatively common part of life. It was also common for mob violence to end in the death of people who never had benefit of trial, witnesses, or judge. You only had to worry about revenge from the murder victim’s family and friends.
Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.”
Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent.
Jesus asks a question of the congregation in the synagogue, but no-one answers. He is not giving them the choice they normally expect. If he asked “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do something, or to do nothing?” And they would answer “nothing.” But Jesus asks whether good or evil are allowed on the Sabbath. The crowd doesn’t respond. Obviously, Jesus wants them to say that it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath. The crowd would have known that… if they had taken the scriptures to heart, but they have taken the easier path of legalism. They believe (with the additional teachings of the Pharisees) that it isn’t right to do anything on the Sabbath. Jesus is looking for some sign that they understand that it is always time to do good, to be loving, and compassionate. He also implies that it is never the right time to do evil.
Jesus waits for the answer, but the silence remains. We assume that this congregation includes the four fishermen and Levi, but the silence remains.
He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.
We might skim over the sentence that says Jesus is angry and distressed by the congregation’s stubbornness, but it is good to see that Jesus is not always the way we prefer to picture him. The Gospel makes it clear that Jesus has a full range of emotions. He gets angry, disappointed, exhausted, pleased, happy, tearfully sad, and he even shows many signs of having a sense of humor. The real Jesus is a lot more interesting and a lot more human than the one we usually depict in painting and sculpture.
After the stubborn crowd does not speak the obvious truth, Jesus heals the man’s hand in front of everyone in the synagogue on the Sabbath.
So Jesus does the good. It does not matter that it gives ammunition to the Pharisees and Herod’s people. And it is here, in the early days of his ministry that opponents began to plan his death.
Normally death would come quickly for people on the political hit list, but Jesus was seldom alone, and he was very popular with the people. If he was to be killed, there would have to be strong evidence against him, and a drop in his popularity.
Please remember that most of these people who were doing terrible things saw themselves as “good guys.” The Pharisees and all the other groups believed that they were behaving in a justified manner. Like a ruthless sheriff in the Old West, they believed that “the ends justify the means.” In other words, as long as your goal was good, bad shortcuts were allowed. The same mindset was in the Roman Empire which saw itself as improving the world with their civilization. From the cruel Roman soldiers to the cruel Zealots (who saw themselves as freedom fighters), everyone thought of themselves as justified in their ways of making the world a better place.
Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the lake, and a large crowd from Galilee followed. When they heard about all he was doing, many people came to him from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon. Because of the crowd he told his disciples to have a small boat ready for him, to keep the people from crowding him. For he had healed many, so that those with diseases were pushing forward to touch him. Whenever the impure spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God.” But he gave them strict orders not to tell others about him.
So Jesus continues to draw new followers from far away. The region described includes about 160 miles of the Mediterranean coast, going as much as 100 miles inland. It may not sound like much to us (being about the size of the state of Rhode Island), but it shows that people were willing to walk long distances to see and hear Jesus.
We are told that there are so many people that Jesus is almost overwhelmed by the crowd beside the sea; even though they are in open country. We are given the detail that Jesus asks that a boat be brought to avoid the press of the crowd. But Jesus keeps on healing people. We are told of demons that recognized him as the “Son of God,” but he stops them from speaking. He won’t be ready for anyone to know his full identity for a very long time.
With all these people coming and going, it was easy for Herod, the Pharisees, and others to track where Jesus was… or, at least, to know where he had recently been. By word of mouth, stories of Jesus would start spreading over a greater and greater distance.
Questions to Ponder: “Are you comfortable with the idea of doing bad things to achieve a good goal? Do the “ends justify the means” or not?