Friday, January 23, 2009

Our Hands, Our Spirits

"Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” 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. 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. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him." (Mark 3:1-6, NRSV)

How do we use our hands?

Pray As Yo Go, the website I often use for daily prayer, has been moving through a group of stories in the Gospel of Mark portraying a series of Jesus' run-ins with the Pharisees. One usual look at these stories centers on the debate over Jesus' healing activities on the Sabbath. Having spent six years teaching in an Orthodox Jewish school, in which all of life centers on the debate over how to follow to the letter and in every possible life circumstance and occasion the 613 legal requirements set forth in the Bible, I have a sense of the astonishment and outrage with which Jesus' conduct was met. For the Jewish people, the Torah is God's self-donation, the revelation of who God is and the means by which the mutually longed-for relatinship between God and humanity is effected, just as Jesus is God's self-donation and revelation and mediator for Christians. Jesus' violation of Torah Sabbath laws is serious stuff, going well beyond the seemingly simple question we tend to articulate in Sunday School, the one which implies its own answer: Isn't it better to heal someone than to ignore him?

In light of my CPE summer and our endless discussion of the relationship between physical and spiritual, and in light of my own life, I'm not much interested these days in the ongoing legal debate between Jesus and the Pharisees. I'm interested in the healing, and in this story I'm interested in the hands, in what we use them for and in why the healing of hands is so important.

We use our hands to care for ourselves. If you've ever injured a hand or had an arm in a sling or, God forbid, lost a hand or an arm, you know. The simplest of tasks -- bathroom tasks, kitchen tasks, laundry tasks, LAPTOP tasks -- requires a major investment of time, energy, and problem-solving skills to execute in the absence of both hands. Life for the man with the withered hand must have been a relentless challenge, sapping his own resources and exhausting the patience of everyone around him.

We use our hands to do things for others -- in our work, in our generosity. Office work, factory work. Nursing, baking, surgery, bandaging a skinned knee. Building a fire, vacuuming a rug, making a bed. Our lives in community presume our two-handedness. How many times did someone remove both work and a sense of value from the man with the withered hand by saying, "I'll take care of it?"

We use our hands for relationship. Shaking hands, making love, waving. Pats on the back. Reaching out in shared joy or sorrow. Had the man's withered hand made him more isolated, less able to participate in life with those he cared about?

A withered hand is like a withered spirit. When your spirit has been crushed it's hard to take care of yourself. Hard to care for others. Hard to be in relationship. Healing ~ whether of a hand or a spirit, whether of an injury visible or invisible ~ it's always about the same losses, always about recovery of self, of community, of relationship.

So no, I'm not much interested these days in whether or not Jesus worked on Shabbos. I'm interested in how pervasive injury is and in what healing means. I'm interested in the restoration of life in its wild and all-pervasive wholeness, and in what kind of miracle that requires.
(Image: St. Mark, Lindisfarne Gospels)


Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

I've never thought before about what that man's life was like. It was always one of those stories where the eye slides over the details, registering the definitional meaning of the word but not the human meaning. Thank you for exploring it more deeply.

And yes, the longer I am Christian, the more interested I am in healing and restoration and the less I'm interested in laws.

Lisa :-] said...

Grief is an injury of the spirit...but I do not believe there is "healing" for grief. I do not believe that life is restored "in its all-pervasive wholeness" after such an injury. Sometimes, life has to be lived around and injury, or in spite of a handicap. There is life after grief. And it can be a full and blessed life. Just as it would be if you had lost a hand or a leg. But it is not the same life one had before the loss.

Purple said...

Wonderful insight into the text as well as your life. May hands soothe your aching heart.

Kathryn J said...

The healing stories are the hardest for me. They are the corollary to the oft-heard comment that things happen for a reason.

Why? Why are some healed and it is considered God's intervention? What does that mean for those that are not healed? I know God isn't a puppet master but I struggle mightily with these stories.