When Jesus’s lesson in synagogue turned into an ambush.
Mark 3.1-6 • Matthew 12.9-14 • Luke 6.6-11
Matthew bunched together all the stories about Jesus outraging people by doing stuff on Sabbath, but Mark (and Luke follows Mark) sorta told them in the order he knew the stories. Clearly the Pharisees believed curing disease and healing the sick counted as the sort of work you were to stop doing on Sabbath, and Jesus didn’t agree in the slightest.
Considering Jesus couldn’t cure a soul without the Holy Spirit empowering him to do it, you’d think these Pharisees would’ve put two and two together, and realized God had mightily taken Jesus’s side. But we aren’t dealing with the sharpest knives in the butcher shop. They figured they were right, Jesus was wrong; they had 50 years of Pharisee tradition backing them up, and who was he?
So yeah, once again here’s a story about the religious Right of Jesus’s day, taking advantage of their lack of separation of church and state, hoping to get Jesus prosecuted or killed for violating their traditional values.
Okay, enough loaded political buzzwords. Here’s how the story unfolded.
Mark 3.1-2 KWL
- 1 Jesus entered synagogue again. A person with a paralyzed hand was there.
- 2 People were watching Jesus: If he healed the person on Sabbath, they could criticize him.
Matthew 12.9-10 KWL
- 9 Leaving there, Jesus entered their synagogue. 10 Look, a person with a paralyzed hand!
- People questioned Jesus, saying, “Ought one heal on Sabbath?”—
- so they could criticize him.
Luke 6.6-7 KWL
- 6 Jesus happened, on another Sabbath, to enter synagogue and teach.
- A person was there, and his right hand was paralyzed.
- 7 The scribes and Pharisees were watching Jesus:
- If he healed on Sabbath, they could find a critique against him.
Not that this stops artists from painting or drawing some pretty creepy-looking, messed-up arms for Jesus to heal. But if this guy’s arm had been that level of messed up, he wouldn’t have been allowed to enter synagogue. The Pharisees would consider his arm ritually unclean. So likely it was no more than paralyzed. Still not good, but it wasn’t like this guy had a shriveled tree branch attached to his arm.
Hoping to criticize Jesus.
We don’t know which synagogue this was, but we do know the people there knew Jesus—and they were hoping to catch him in something. They hoped, as Mark and Matthew put it, they katigorísosin/“could criticize” him.
Problem is, stoning Jesus to death was illegal.
If Jesus legitimately broke Sabbath (and he didn’t; he’ll explain), was against the Law. But the Law didn’t rule the Galilee: The Roman Empire did. They forbade the Galileans from implementing the death penalty on their own. In order for Jesus to be killed, he’d have to break a Roman law—or get on the bad side of the Roman governor, “king” Antipas Herod. The way Romans achieved their pax Romana/“Roman-style peace,” was to crucify anyone who disturbed it.
Now, had they wanted to get Herod involved, there were two ways they could’ve done so. The easiest was to riot. To the Romans, it didn’t matter if the guy who provoked the riot was guilty of anything; they’d have flogged Paul had he not been Roman.
The most obvious way to get Jesus in trouble would be if he publicly declared himself Messiah. ’Cause he is, you know. Because Jews believed Messiah would overthrow the Romans, other self-described Messiahs had actually tried it. Of course the Romans slapped ’em down, and were particularly sensitive towards anyone who called himself the king of the Jews. If they took you seriously, they’d execute you. So if Jesus let slip that’s who he was—as he did when he told them, on a previous Sabbath, “The Son of Man is Sabbath’s master”
But the gospels say the Pharisees attempted no such tactic. The only thing they wanted to charge him with, was healing on Sabbath—which wasn’t illegal. Any Galilean could break Sabbath. All the gentiles in the Galilee sure did. The province was full of gentile towns, whose marketplaces were open on Sabbath same as every other day. The only consequence to Sabbath-breaking, at most, was Pharisees might drive Jesus out of synagogue, and no longer let him teach there. Nothing more.
So why do interpreters insist the Pharisees sought to convict Jesus?
Mostly ’cause they don’t know history. They know Sabbath-breaking got the death penalty in the Old Testament, and assume it still did. They know sometimes Jews still stoned people to death;
Plus it’s so dramatic! Jesus dared to break Sabbath, dared to risk life and limb, dared to do it in the Pharisees’ faces, as a passive-aggressive way of giving them the finger. But that’s not Jesus’s character in the slightest. He’s kind. He’s compassionate. He didn’t violate Pharisee customs just to irritate them; he did it because sick people needed curing, and no time like the present.
That said, the Pharisees’ attitude definitely created a toxic atmosphere in this synagogue. Say your church has a guest speaker visiting—as was the case whenever Jesus visited a synagogue. Imagine your church full of people who’re preparing, not to listen to the speaker, but condemn him. They’re not waiting with open minds; their minds are made up. They’re not gonna honestly weigh anything he has to say, but nitpick every little thing. He might have all sorts of valuable things to teach, but it’s gonna be an utter waste of time; they won’t hear him out.
This, you see, was what Jesus had walked into this Friday night. It was a setup. They were waiting for him to screw up, so they could condemn him. They likely even planted this person with the paralyzed hand—certainly not out of any compassion for him, ’cause they had none. The usual Pharisee attitude was if you were unwell, it was either your own fault or God’s judgment.
You starting to realize why Jesus got so angry with them? Wait; I’m getting ahead of the story a little.
Sabbath isn’t an excuse to do evil.
Mark 3.3 KWL
- Jesus told the person with the paralyzed hand, “Get up, in the middle.”
Luke 6.8 KWL
- Jesus had known their discussion, and told the man with the paralyzed hand,
- “Get up. Stand in the middle.” Rising, he stood.
So yeah; guy with a paralyzed hand in synagogue. Pharisee scribes anxious to see whether Jesus would do anything. Jesus knew just what was going on, and took the bait anyway. Rather than ignore the elephant in the room, Jesus put it front and center. Rather than cure this person in private, Jesus had a point to make for everyone to hear.
Mark 3.4 KWL
AJesus told them, “Ought one do good on Sabbath, or do evil? Save a life, or kill?” Matthew 12.11-12 KWL
- 11 Jesus told them, “Which of you people will have a sheep,
- and when it falls into a ditch on Sabbath, you won’t grab and pull it out?
- 12 So how much do we distinguish a person from a sheep?
- Hence one ought to do good on Sabbath.”
Luke 6.9 KWL
- Jesus told them, “I ask you: Ought one do good on Sabbath, or do evil? Save a life, or destroy?”
Mark and Luke’s version of Jesus’s point is quite different from Matthew’s. In those gospels Jesus kept it simple: Is Sabbath for good deeds, or evil? He did good deeds; inaction would be an evil deed. So if we’re to do anything on Sabbath, shouldn’t it be good?
Matthew included a qal v’khomer argument, as Jesus had used before. If a sheep fell into a ditch on Sabbath, wouldn’t people rescue it, Sabbath or not? Shouldn’t they, rather than leave the sheep to suffer and die? And if people rescued sheep on Sabbath, why not a human?
Jesus’s point was no, we ought not do ordinary work on Sabbath. Exceptions can be made for extraordinary work. When someone’s house is burning down, firefighters can work Sabbath. When someone needs emergency surgery, doctors can break Sabbath. When enemy forces invade your homeland—as the Syrians did during the Maccabeean wars
But the Pharisees didn’t.
The silence of the Pharisees.
Mark 3.4-5 KWL
BThey were silent. 5 ALooking round at them in anger, hurt by their closed minds…
In Mark, when Jesus looked round the room for a response to his question, he saw the Pharisees were silent. The particular word for silence, siopáho, was the one Euripedes used to signify agreement: You were right; we have no further objections. It didn’t mean, as Christians sometimes assume, they were ashamed or embarrassed at their own gracelessness. Although there might’ve been some of that.
But Jesus detected that even though the people of the synagogue publicly appeared to consent to his interpretation, privately, personally, they didn’t like his answer. Their minds were already made up: Jesus was a Sabbath-breaker, and his explanation, while technically valid, didn’t change anything.
So Jesus was angry. We don’t often see Jesus angry in the scriptures. But here’s one of those instances. You wanna know what makes Jesus angry? What pisses him off more than anything? This: Hypocrisy. Pretending everything’s just fine; pretending they have no problem with the rabbi; pretending they approve of his teaching. But deep in their own minds, in their own hardened hearts, they didn’t approve, and were already plotting evil against him.
Same with us, when we nod and smile and pretend the sermon was just fine, but we decided long ago the preacher is a schmuck, the sermon topic was stupid, and we’re gonna interpret the bible our own way, thank you very much.
In order to become human, Jesus had to give up his divine power.
Infuriating. And sad. Jesus didn’t want ’em to be this way. But there’s nothing he could do about it. The only thing he could do—the one thing he was always consistent about—was be merciful, even when it got him into trouble. So he cured the guy.
Mark 3.5 KWL
BJesus told the person, “Stretch out the hand.” He stretched, and his hand was restored. Matthew 12.13 KWL
- Then Jesus told the person, “Stretch out the hand.”
- He stretched, and his hand was restored, as sound as the other.
Luke 6.10 KWL
- Looking round at all of them, Jesus told the man, “Stretch out your hand.”
- He did so, and his hand was restored.
Again, you’d think the Pharisees would recognize Jesus couldn’t just cure people under his own power; he needed the Holy Spirit to do any of this stuff. But as we’ll see later in these same chapters of Mark and Matthew (and the previous chapter in Luke), they were so biased against Jesus, they were willing to give Baal credit for his miracles.
I admit: I tend to identify with this story way too much. I regularly run into Christians who have their minds already made up—who aren’t open to learning anything new, and especially aren’t interested in having me correct their favorite interpretations of the bible by insisting on historical and grammatical context. Some of ’em are trolls, looking for anyone who might possibly disagree with them, ’cause they wanna fight, and don’t care who with. Others aren’t deliberately looking for fights—but they have short fuses, and are all too willing to start one.
I get frustrated with such people, same as Jesus. They have no interest in listening to me; their minds are closed. I can’t do anything with ’em. Which is a shame. Not only are they wrong, but their attitudes are fruitless, and imply they’re not as Christian as they’d like to think they are.
Ah well. Comes with the job.
“Ought one do good on Sabbath, or evil?” They vote evil.
Mark 3.6 KWL
- Going out, the Pharisees next had a meeting about this with Herod’s people—
- so they could have Jesus destroyed.
Matthew 12.14 KWL
- Going out, the Pharisees took a meeting about this—
- so they could have Jesus destroyed.
Luke 6.11 KWL
- The people were filled with stupidity.
- They discussed among themselves what they might do to Jesus.
Seriously, that’s the way Luke phrased it. They were filled with anoías/“no-mind.” The
Remember Jesus’s rhetorical question, “Ought one do good on Sabbath, or evil?” Well, their actions indicated their answer to the question. Previously they’d done evil on Sabbath through their passive inaction. Now they went out to actively plot Jesus’s destruction.
Mark mentions the Irodianón/“Herod’s people,” or “Herodians” (
The other gospels only describe the Pharisees wondering what they might do—after all, Jesus had broken no Roman law. But Mark notes they also sought a little government aid as well. ’Cause even though the Pharisees were looking forward to Messiah overthrowing the Romans someday, they were totally willing to compromise their anti-Roman attitudes when convenient. You know, like people who claim they believe in limited government, but wouldn’t mind if we had more cops and soldiers, ’cause there are certain people they’d really like to see getting a beatdown. Or deported.
Okay, now I’m done with the loaded political buzzwords.