1 Samuel 3:1-10; 2 Corinthians 4:5-12; Mark 2:23-3:6
Ordinary 9B; Proper 4
Reading the texts appointed for this week brings to mind that oft quoted verse from Joshua 24:14-15: “Choose this day whom you will serve.”
Or perhaps Deuteronomy 30:15-20: “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life.” Mark’s account of the Pharisees and the man with the withered hand is a parable of these dichotomies of life and death, an example of what it looks like to serve the Triune God or instead worship an idol. The epistle lesson from 2 Corinthians give us a metaphor for accepting life in Christ in the face of a death dealing world.
This is a Sunday to ask ourselves: Whom do you choose to serve? Which side are you on: life or death? Good or evil? And, subsequently, how do your actions and attitudes reflect your choice?
The Pharisees in Mark are on the lookout for ways to ensnare Jesus, to catch him breaking the religious rules, to trap and destroy him. The issue isn’t really Sabbath laws; the goal is to put a stop to this Jesus who is disrupting the status quo and upending the systems that keep the current power players in place. The Pharisees – and Herodians, and many others in positions of power – do not care, not really, about keeping the Sabbath, they care about keeping their privilege. They do not care about the man with the withered hand, his suffering, his plight. They are obsessed with maintaining the upper hand. They make their choice that day whom they will serve and they will serve themselves. In short, they choose death to sustain their own worldly lifestyle.
Put in these terms, their choice seems utterly ridiculous. Who would choose evil over good? What person of faith, a religious leader, well acquainted with Scripture, one who practices prayer, presides at worship, follows all the commandments to the letter, chooses death over life? Being right over doing good? Allowing a brother to suffer for the sake of silencing a perceived threat to their status? Why are they so blind to the presence of the holy in their midst? How can they be so deaf to the voice of God speaking directly to them? Surely, we would not do likewise, right?
That’s the challenge of this text from Mark. We read this story and do not cast ourselves as the Pharisees. Or Herodians. We see ourselves on Jesus’ side. Perhaps we do not see ourselves as the man with the withered hand, but we certainly expect we would have compassion for him. We in no way imagine that we would choose Sabbath adherence over a relief of someone’s suffering if the choice were ours to make. It is all too easy for us to say, “We choose life. We choose good. We choose to serve Jesus Christ.” However, often we say, “Lord, Lord” with our lips but fail to do the will of God in our lives. Too often, unbeknownst to us, we are the Pharisees, on watch for religious rule breakers rather than on the lookout for the inbreaking of the life-giving reign of God. Too often we are at the ready to protect our advantages even at the expense of other’s healing and wholeness. Too often we do whatever it takes to preserve our own advantages while failing to see how our actions handicap others.
Rarely is the choice as stark and sinister as it appears in Mark 2:23-3:6. Choosing death and evil over life and goodness is much more insidious most of the time. Often failing to follow Jesus Christ comes in the form of inertia or inaction instead of active rebellion. We may not be plotting to destroy Jesus, but frequently we are oblivious to his commands. Every day we make choices that reveal “this day whom we will serve.” We choose not to use our influence on behalf of those without a voice. We choose not to speak truth to power. We choose instead to protect our property values over advocating for low income housing. We choose estrangement over engagement with people with whom we disagree. We seek retribution rather than reconciliation. We advocate for those within our tribe, forgetting that following Jesus redefines our tribe. We neglect those with withered hands if tending to them diminishes our upper hand. We lord it over others, certain we’ve earned whatever we’ve got, instead of proclaiming Jesus is Lord and the earth and all that is in it belong to him.
This story in Mark challenges us to be aware of what captures our attention. Are we looking for signs of new life? Hope? The healing power of Jesus Christ? Ways to participate in the wholeness Jesus came to bring for all people? Or are we ever on guard for our own security, safety and status? Which do we choose? Life of death? Whom will we serve this day?
Kenyatta Gilbert in his book, “Exodus Preaching: Crafting Sermons About Justice and Hope,” says, “The preacher’s best friend is self-criticism.” He goes on to write: “A sound way of checking oneself self-critically is to see if the message you are called to preach aligns with Jesus’s inaugural vision, the Sermon on the Mount, and is grounded in and founded upon God’s promise to re-create/renew all things in Christ Jesus, the crucified and risen Savior of the world. In his anointed and humanizing vision, there’s empathy, courageous witness, care, assurance, exhortation, hope, vulnerability, sacrifice, obligation, invitation, wisdom and blessing.”
Gilbert’s advice to preachers could be more broadly applied to all Christians and their living. Do our choices and actions, our words and relationships, align with Jesus’ inaugural vision? Do they reflect our choosing life and service to Jesus Christ, or not? In other words, do we exhibit care, hope, sacrifice, courageous witness and all that Gilbert lists or are we ever on the lookout to maintain the upper hand at the expense of those with withered ones?
Often, the choice is not as evident as it appears in this story from Mark. That’s why not only the preacher’s best friend, but the disciple’s is, if not self-criticism, at least self-awareness and honesty, because it is all too easy for us to look out for ourselves rather than rejoice and participate in the life-giving power of Jesus Christ that brings wholeness to the world.
- Do you practice anything equivalent to Sabbath rules? Are there religious rules we observe and expect others to observe? Do those rules serve humankind?
- Can you think of examples where Christians have used their faith to uphold practices that prevent others from healing and wholeness?
- Read the story in Mark several times and imagine yourselves as the different characters in the story — from Pharisee to disciple to the man with the withered hand.
- When do you think Jesus grieves our hardness of heart in our current context?
- The text from 2 Corinthians says, “We have this treasure in clay jars.” What is the treasure? How are we sharing that treasure with others?
- When have you had someone help you hear and interpret God’s voice? When have you done this for another?
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