“To Save A Life”
Text: Mark 3:1-6
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. 2 They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3 And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” 4 Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. 5 He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6 The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.
I want to tell you a story. It is my story. I am that man that Jesus healed that day in the synagogue…
I was born with this stump of a hand. For a long time, I didn’t think anything about it, it seemed normal to me. I played with the other kids and we would run around in the streets and hide and wrestle and do all sorts of things. As I grew a little older I began to notice some of the kids would tease me and mock me. They would ball their hand up into a tight fist and then pretend to try to pick up a ball or a stick of wood. Some would even pretend to try to scratch their head or to shake hands like the grown-ups do-I guess it bothered me a little, but that was a long time ago. Kids can be cruel you know.
I grew up in my father’s workshop. He was a carpenter most of the time when there was work. He would build tables and chairs, bed frames and cabinets – he could build just about anything anyone needed. From the time I was 10 or 12 I pretty much hung out in my dad’s woodshop. I began to learn the trade, although I wasn’t much help.
They tell me I had an older sister who died when I was very young. I also have a brother, but somehow he ended up in Damascus and has a family over there. So for many years it was just me and my parents in the family woodshop. Then the flu came; it was about 3 or 4 years ago now. First my mother caught the fever. She laid in bed for about a week, she couldn’t cook or clean or do much of anything. At night I could hear her moan, I think from the fever. Then one night it was quiet and by morning she was gone. My dad caught it too; but he didn’t think it was a bad case. He kept working and tried to keep the house together even after mom died. I think he wore himself out and being weaker, the fever got him as well. That left me alone in the house and alone in my father’s shop.
After things settled down I tried to continue my father’s business. People would stop by and ask if I could build them this or that. I tried to please the customers, but everything took twice as long with only one hand. Keeping the right pressure on a plane, or holding a board secure while I sawed all became almost impossible. For years my father would clamp something down so I could work on it, we worked together, as a team. I could help him unload wood or deliver the finished pieces, but doing it myself was slow or impossible. After a while, the customers came around less and less. Even the long-time friends of the family and the reliable jobs we once had all slowly went away.
Eventually I closed the shop and sold the tools. I just couldn’t make it work with one hand. Then I sold the house and that money didn’t last very long. That’s how I ended up in the temple that day. I would sleep wherever I could find a place out of the wind and then during the day go to the temple in hopes of collecting a few donations. Most people walked right by; like I was invisible to them. They would turn their eyes so we wouldn’t make eye contact. Some would walk on the other side of the courtyard so they didn’t have to pass by me. No one ever spoke to me. Even those that would throw a mite or two into my cup did so without uttering a word. It was a lonely, meager existence. There was more than one day that I wished the flu had taken me as well.
Each week I looked forward to Sabbath. I hate to admit it, but I looked forward to Sabbath for all the wrong reasons. I never was allowed into the actual temple where I could hear the scriptures being read or watch any of the ceremony, but I looked forward to Sabbath because there were lots of people. Sabbath was always my best day. I usually tried to make the donations last for a couple of days after, and some would bring a piece of bread or fruit for me. I would eat the food first and save the money for later.
Then there was the Sabbath that Jesus came to the temple. It was early in the morning and preparations were still being made for the services that would be held later in the day. The priests were arranging things in the courtyard, and there were other robed men walking briskly back and forth. When Jesus entered the synagogue, all that activity stopped. Jesus seemed like a quiet man, but he walked with confidence and authority. He looked around the courtyard at all the priests and scribes and without anyone saying a word, they began to crowd around him. It was like he knew what they were thinking and he sought to answer their questions.
I was watching all this take place from the corner of the courtyard where I had made my plea for donations for the last several years. You can imagine how shocked I was when Jesus turned to me, he made eye contact, which never happened, and then he spoke. Jesus said to me; “come forward”.
I wasn’t certain I was understanding what Jesus intended so I hesitated. I pointed to myself and questioned whether or not Jesus meant me. Jesus nodded and then motioned for me to join him in the center of the courtyard. As I came forward the crowd that had started to form parted like the story of Moses and the Red Sea. Even though technically I wasn’t unclean by Jewish tradition, I still muttered a low “unclean, unclean” under my breath as I moved to the center of the area. There I stood with Jesus and the eyes of 20 or 30 holy men fixed upon us.
The sun was now high enough that the rays of light could clear the outside wall and the courtyard area began to be bathed in the morning light. The golden light formed into great streaks of light as the dust from the morning’s activity was still in the air. I could feel the warmth of the sunlight on my back as I made my way through the crowd, but as I turned to face them, I had to squint. I held my good hand up to shield my eyes from the glaring blast of light.
Then Jesus spoke again. Without explanation or introduction he simply asked the question; “is it lawful to do good or harm on the Sabbath, to save a life or to kill?” The voice of Jesus was clear and confident; it echoed a little bit among the walls and stones of the courtyard. The echo subsided and was replaced with silence. I have never witnessed such stillness. No one spoke, I’m not even sure anyone was even breathing. No one moved, no one spoke, everyone watched to see what Jesus would do next.
As the silence continued, it was clear that Jesus had expected some sort of response. His facial expression began to change from neutral to more solemn, and then from solemn to frustration and then to despair. He was obviously grieved at the lack of response; the unwillingness to engage or offer any hint of compassion.
Jesus turned to me and instructed me to stretch out my hand. I wasn’t sure what was happening or what was expected of me, so I reached forward with both hands. As I did, my withered hand began to tingle and move, the stumps of fingers that had been locked into a ball since birth began to open up like a flower in the sun. Soon I could open my hand all the way and I could see four full fingers and a thumb that had been tucked away and frozen in a knurled ball my entire life. There in the streaming morning light I stood with Jesus, for the first time in my life, with two hands, palms up, outstretched to receive the gifts of healing and compassion.
It was then I remembered what Jesus had actually said. He had asked was it lawful to save a life or to kill on the Sabbath. Yes, he healed my withered hand, but he also saved my life. To restore a man’s dignity to where he can work again is to save his life. To make a person whole again, to where he might provide for a wife or a family someday is to save a life. To erase the years of teasing from other children while growing up, to erase the shame and guilt from sitting in a corner and living off scraps is to save a life. Yes, it was just a hand. Yes, the frozen disfigured fingers were loosed and straightened, yes, the motor control returned and the hand became stronger over time. Yes, it was all those things, but so much more. It was more because Jesus gave me my life back. It was a new start, a fresh beginning; it was a second chance.
I left the temple that day restored. It was just a hand, but my entire life had been changed in an instant on that day. I will never be the same and I will never go back to who I was before. And all he said was stretch out your hand…