Bible readingThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Matthew 12:9-14

A Man with a Withered Hand

He went on from there and entered their synagogue. 10 And a man was there with a withered hand. And they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”— so that they might accuse him. 11 He said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? 12 Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” 13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other. 14 But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.

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Not one of the three Synoptic Gospel accounts of our Lord’s healing of the man with the withered hand is included in the three-year Lectionary.

I wrote about the other two accounts a few years ago: Mark 3:1-6 in 2012 and Luke 6:6-11 in 2013.

The first verses of Matthew 12, the subject of last week’s post, concerned the Pharisees stopping Jesus to ask if it was lawful on the Sabbath for His hungry disciples to pluck grains to eat as a snack. Jesus firmly rebuked them, stating that He was the Lord of the Sabbath. Therefore, it was He who made the observance rules, not they.

In today’s reading, Jesus, the disciples and the Pharisees are in the synagogue — immediately following the grain incident. Hence, verse 9: ‘He went on from there …’

A man with a withered hand was in the congregation and the Pharisees, by now well acquainted with Jesus’s compassionate miracles, asked Him if He planned on healing the man on the Sabbath (verse 10). So, even after He told them He was the Lord of the Sabbath a short while earlier, they persisted in making their Sabbath everyone else’s Sabbath. They refused to bow down before our Lord. They refused to admit they were wrong. They refused to see Him as their Messiah. They believed His healing powers came from Satan. We will see this accusation again later in Matthew 12.

These men knew Scripture inside and out. That knowledge should have penetrated into their hearts and revealed something to them. Yet, they had extreme hardness of heart.

Jesus further explored Sabbath rules with them, asking if it was lawful for an observant Jew of the time to rescue a sheep on the day of rest (verse 11). He told them that a man is worth much more in God’s eyes than a sheep, therefore, it is lawful for Him to heal on the Sabbath (verse 12). By extension, the inference is that we are obliged to follow His example in compassion, mercy and kindness.

John MacArthur tells us that the reason the Pharisees allowed the rescue of a sheep was that the animal would bring in money when sold. Therefore, it was a matter of making one’s livelihood. On the other hand, they would have considered the man’s withered hand to be what today’s health industry would call ‘a pre-existing condition’. Therefore, his healing could wait until after the Sabbath.

MacArthur takes a brief detour in his sermon to discuss the Hindus’ attitude towards humans and animals. Their belief in reincarnation causes them to not harm rodents and other pests consuming their food supply whilst India is full of starving humans at the bottom of the caste system (emphases mine):

They won’t kill a fly because it is the incarnation of someone who is trying to get out of that karma. They won’t kill a rat, a mouse, or a cow. Two-thirds of their food supply is eaten by those things, and that is why they have starvation problems. They let people die all over the place and don’t help them, because it’s their karma. They won’t give money to beggars or help the destitute because they feel they must endure that suffering to earn their way to the next level. So cows are worth more to them than people; cows are sacred, for whatever reason. It’s the same in Judaism, but not quite so religiously defined, and sheep were more important to them economically than people. Ethical conduct is the issue, and the Lord makes it very clear at the end of verse 12, “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”

This was to illustrate that when we come to belief in Christ, through God’s grace, we will appreciate that humans are more important in His sight than animals, although we have an obligation from Genesis to care for them and nurture them. God created every living thing.

MacArthur says:

By the way, Mark and Luke tell us that all the while He is talking, He has brought the man with the paralyzed hand and sat him in front of the entire synagogue, and it is very dramatic. He is confronting them and saying, “You tell me. You rescue a sheep; would you rescue a man? Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath?” What can they say? If they say it is lawful to do good, then they are stuck. He would say that it would be good to heal the man. If they say it is not lawful to do good on the Sabbath, then what have they said? What is the alternative, evil? So He asks the question, but they don’t want to answer, so they don’t.

And after the healing, they left to plot against our Lord (verse 14).

In mercy, Jesus asked the man to extend his hand. He did so.

Immediately, Jesus completely restored it. It was the same as his other hand (verse 13).

MacArthur gives us this insight on the healing and on the meaning of the Sabbath:

Was that a good thing to do for that man? If there was ever any meaning in the Sabbath, wouldn’t it be to do good? Sure. And to know to do good, and have the ability to do good, and not to do good is to do evil. If ever there was a time for blessing, it was the Sabbath …

Jesus connected the Sabbath with the heart of God – benevolence, mercy, kindness, goodness. That is the purpose of it all. Jesus came that we might enter into a relationship with God in which He pours out to us grace, goodness, mercy, kindness, peace, benevolence, and tenderness. The Pharisees had completely obliterated that illustration in the Sabbath. Jesus’ lesson is very clear: we broke the ceremonial law to meet our need, but that is the heart of God. We broke a traditional law of not going more than so many feet to serve God; that is the heart of God. God wants mercy to be shown, not ritual. The only function that ceremony ever has is the illustration of a right attitude. If you corrupt the illustration without having the right attitude, you miss the whole purpose.

Matthew Henry has a fascinating insight into the background of the man with the withered hand. Because scholars from centuries ago had not only read writings of the early Doctors of the Church but also valued them, Scripture had more meaning than perhaps it does today.

Of the man, Henry cites St Jerome:

St. Jerome says, that the gospel of Matthew in Hebrew, used by the Nazarenes and Ebionites, adds this circumstance to this story of the man with the withered hand, that he was Cæ mentarius–a bricklayer, and applied himself to Christ thus “Lord, I am a bricklayer, and have got my living by my labour (manibus victum quæ ritans) I beseech thee, O Jesus, restore me the use of my hand, that I may not be obliged to beg my bread” (ne turpiter mendicem cibos).

That is something which we can all include in the teaching of this miracle to others.

Henry draws these lessons from this miracle with regard to animals, people and the Pharisees:

Note, Man, in respect of his being, is a great deal better, and more valuable, than the best of the brute creatures: man is a reasonable creature, capable of knowing, loving, and glorifying God, and therefore is better than a sheep. The sacrifice of a sheep could therefore not atone for the sin of a soul. They do not consider this, who are more solicitous for the education, preservation, and supply of their horses and dogs than of God’s poor, or perhaps their own household.

This is something to bear in mind, particularly today. There are many in the world — including ‘Christians’ — who erroneously place animals and the environment above human need. Our fellow man is worth much more than either. Let us, therefore, focus on man’s needs first.

Next time: Matthew 12:15-21

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