So many of the encounters Jesus had with people teach us important lessons, and I’ve been struck recently by the powerful messages that shine through the story of Jesus meeting and ministering to the man with the withered (or weak and twisted) hand. Messages that speak of why people with additional needs or disabilities are in church, how to respond to them, and how this positively changes everyone and our church culture for good as a result… And at the end, look for a monologue told through the experience of the man himself…
We know how the story goes (you can read the full story from Luke’s Gospel at the end of this blog post), with a summary going something like this… Jesus went to the temple on the Sabbath day, the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law were looking for ways to criticise Jesus, Jesus healed a man with a withered hand, the Pharisees were angry about this as it was the Sabbath.
Let’s focus on the man drawn into this controversy by Jesus, the man with the withered hand. Why was he there? What was he there for? Well, the account in Luke’s Gospel doesn’t make it clear, but there are some assumptions that we can make as well as some thoughts based on other accounts of Jesus healing people…
It’s doubtful that he was brought there by the Pharisees to trap Jesus, that would have been rather obvious to those watching on and might have got a mention in the written account. Neither is it likely that he was there with the intention of asking for healing; usually the Gospels are clear about when someone comes to, or is brought to, Jesus for healing…
So that leaves the remaining option, that he was there to be taught… to listen to what Jesus had to say, to be part of the gathering that had assembled for teaching. Why should that not be so, and why should that in any way surprise us? Someone comes to see and listen to Jesus and to hear his teaching; they also happen to have a disability.
So often, as we read of Jesus’ encounters with people with additional needs or disabilities, we could wrongly assume that their sole motive for meeting Jesus is to be healed. But it is worth remembering that many of them had heard Jesus’ teaching first, had been drawn to Jesus by what he said as much as by what he did.
Look in Luke 9:11, Jesus had just sent out the 12 disciples to announce God’s kingdom and to heal the sick. They had returned, and with Jesus had gone on to Bethsaida… “But the crowds learned about it and followed Jesus. He welcomed them and spoke to them about God’s kingdom. He also healed those who needed to be healed.” He welcomed them, all of them, and spoke to them about God’s kingdom, he taught them, and he also healed those who needed it. The teaching came before the healing.
Think about some of the most well-known stories of Jesus healing… the man lowered through the roof by his friends for example. It is always assumed that the man’s friends brought him to Jesus for healing, and this is entirely likely, but as we read the Gospel account it doesn’t actually say that… It just says they brought him to Jesus, and unable to get in through the door they lowered him through the roof. It’s just as likely that they were there for the teaching too, including their disabled friend. Jesus himself responded to the man by recognising his faith and the faith of his friends first “Son, your sins are forgiven”, before then going on to heal him only to demonstrate his authority to forgive sins. The teaching came before the healing.
So, what these stories teach us is that everyone is equal when it comes to Jesus’ teaching; he came for all, to share the Good News with all, for everyone to respond to him. When children, young people, or adults with additional needs or disabilities come to our churches, our primary focus should be, as it was for Jesus, to welcome them and share the Gospel message with them. To see the person first, and the additional needs or disability second. That doesn’t mean that we ignore their needs, of course not… but what Jesus was trying to teach the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law 2,000 years ago, and us today, is that every person matters… He wanted them, and us, to see the person first…
And then having made sure they (and us) had seen the person, he asked this question, “Should we do good? Or should we do evil? Should we save life? Or should we destroy it?” What does that mean for us today? Well I think it could be about ensuring that everyone, everyone, is welcomed and gets to hear the Gospel message; gets to have the opportunity to respond to Jesus’ teaching.
If we follow Jesus’ example and welcome everyone into our churches, see the person first, and enable them to belong, to take part, to access the teaching and to learn and respond, to be able to teach others in turn, we are doing good, we are saving life. If we don’t welcome all, if we exclude, if we don’t allow everyone to hear the Good News, if we intentionally or unintentionally make it harder for children, young people, and adults with additional needs or disabilities to access church, engage with what is happening, to respond to it, are we any better than the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law?
Jesus told the man to stretch out his hand, and his hand was healed. There is a metaphor for us all there too. By stretching out our hand in welcome, in love, to everyone, we are doing what Jesus would have us do; and in following his teaching our own lives are healed, and our churches become places of belonging for all.
“Should we do good? Or should we do evil? Should we save life? Or should we destroy it?” How will you respond? Who will you stretch your hand out to?
22nd February 2018. Monologue added 28th October 2019
The man with the withered hand – a monologue
“Another Sabbath, another visit to the synagogue, another day of being ignored, feeling rejected, hearing the whispers, seeing the looks…
You see, I have, or I had, a deformed hand, it’s always been that way but people treated me differently because of it, treated me like a freak. I got told to cover it up because “It scares the children…” but it’s the adults that seemed to have the problem with it, with me.
So there I am in the synagogue, trying to ignore the comments and the looks, when there is a hubbub of noise, a murmur of anticipation; then suddenly, in he comes, Jesus is there.
I move even further into the shadows, not wanting him to notice me. I’d heard he had been going around healing people but why would he bother with me… nobody else ever had…
I suddenly noticed his gaze, looking straight at me, somehow looking into me, deep into my heart, my mind, my soul. It’s like he knew what I was thinking. He glanced at the Pharisees and teachers and, just for a fleeting moment, anger flashed across his face like lightning.
He looked back at me, smiled, the anger having left his face, and he told me to get up and come to him. I was terrified, but I stumbled clumsily towards him; I was sweating, my head was spinning, what was he going to do? I couldn’t think, I couldn’t dare to hope.
Jesus asked the Pharisees and teachers “What is lawful on the Sabbath; to do good or to do evil? To save life or to destroy it?” You could have heard a pin drop, the sense of tension in the air was almost overwhelming… No one spoke…
Then he looked at me, I’ve never seen such love in someone’s face before… “Stretch out your hand…”. The words arrived irresistibly in my ears, in my mind, like a command that I had to obey; it took over my whole body.
And so I watched, in amazement, as I stretched out my hand for all to see… whole.”
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Faith More Important Than Healing
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Luke 6:6-11 New International Reader’s Version (NIRV)
6 On another Sabbath day, Jesus went into the synagogue and was teaching. A man whose right hand was weak and twisted was there. 7 The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were trying to find fault with Jesus. So they watched him closely. They wanted to see if he would heal on the Sabbath day. 8 But Jesus knew what they were thinking. He spoke to the man who had the weak and twisted hand. “Get up and stand in front of everyone,” he said. So the man got up and stood there.
9 Then Jesus said to them, “What does the Law say we should do on the Sabbath day? Should we do good? Or should we do evil? Should we save life? Or should we destroy it?”
10 He looked around at all of them. Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He did, and his hand had been made as good as new. 11 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were very angry. They began to talk to one another about what they might do to Jesus.