Withered or Fruitful?
A Reflection on the Luke 6:6-11 and 1 Corinthians 5:1-8
The Gospel today is often referred to as, “the Healing of the Man with a Withered Hand.” It is an appropriate label. However, there are many more than just the man with a physically withered hand that are experiencing the effect of withering. Physical withering is often the effect of paralysis. There is physical paralysis but there is spiritual paralysis. In both cases, withering is the outward effect.
My little brother has cerebral palsy. The effect of his ailment was that his right arm and hand was “withered.” His right arm was physically smaller and curled in. There was almost no strength in that arm, and it was immediately noticeable. When we were kids, surgery was attempted to help heal the arm, but it had little impact. For my brother, today a chief accounts auditor and market performance analyst for a major investment firm, his arm was so noticeable that for a time he had difficulty getting a job. It was a challenging time for my brother, but he is also a man of great faith and courage. If you asked him today, I am sure he would tell you that Christ has certainly healed all that is necessary for his life to bear fruit for the kingdom.
Today, Jesus is addressing not just the man with a physically withered hand, but also the larger group of scribes and Pharisees who were experiencing a withering of their spirit. Sin has withered their understanding of God and the law of love. They are focused on outward displays and not inward spiritual fruitfulness. They lack strength of faith and so focus on judgement of others. So blinded by their own self-righteousness, the scribes and Pharisees fail to recognize what sin is doing to them and turn away from healing. We too can become so withered in spirit that we are blind to our own sin and block the healing love, mercy, and grace we need to become fruitful. Today, Jesus calls us up, like the man with the withered hand, to demonstrate to the world that He can take what is withered in any way, shape, or form, and restore it to fruitfulness if we will but step forward.
The Gospel of Luke today begins with the sentence,
“On another sabbath he went into the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered.” (Luke 6:6 NABRE)
We see a man with a withered hand simply sitting in the synagogue. He is minding his own business, possibly wondering if he has the courage to ask Jesus to heal him. He is not prideful. He seemingly has no sense of deserving anything. He is there at the synagogue to worship the living God. He probably has no idea that he will be drawn into the center of yet another attack on Jesus from the religious leaders of Israel.
We hear in the next verse of the Gospel,
The scribes and the Pharisees watched [Jesus] closely to see if he would cure on the sabbath so that they might discover a reason to accuse him. (Luke 6:7 NABRE)
Unlike the disabled man, the scribes and Pharisees have come to attack Jesus. It is all about bringing Jesus down, hate. They have closed their minds and hearts to Jesus. Despite the healings and miracles that surround the Lord, they cannot hear him because his message contradicts all that they have decided God is, and what they deserve in their self-declared righteousness. They have allowed sin to wither, to diminish, their soul. They closed themselves off to healing and grace. Instead of hearing Jesus’ call to love, they are enraged because Jesus exposes their own hypocrisy. Jesus demonstrates what their own hatred is doing to them. In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells us,
“Anyone who does not remain in me will be thrown out like a branch and wither; people will gather them and throw them into a fire and they will be burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you. By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” (John 15:6–9 NABRE)
Jesus asks the scribes and Pharisees,
““I ask you, is it lawful to do good on the sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?” Looking around at them all, he then said to [the man with a withered hand], “Stretch out your hand.” He did so and his hand was restored.
Jesus does not wait for their answer. It is self-evident. Jesus takes the Man who in humility waits and is open to healing and restores his withered hand. Unfortunately, the scribes and Pharisees are blind to the miracle before them, all closed up, withered with hatred and pride, they end the encounter not in wonder and grace but “enraged and discussed together what they might do to Jesus.” (Luke 6: 11)
Tragically, for the scribes and Pharisees it is all about pride, power, and revenge instead of reconciliation, humility, and love. In their pride, they do not seek reconciliation, but instead plot violence or simply walk away. Unfortunately, we have proved ourselves to be more like the Pharisees. Assured of our own rightness we speak words of hate instead of words of reconciliation and love. It is pervasive, just turn on the news. In our own pride and self-righteousness, we have become blind to our own lack of love and fail to recognize our own sin.
St Paul tells us the path to healing in the readings today. He writes,
Your boasting is not appropriate. Do you not know that a little yeast leavens all the dough? Clear out the old yeast, so that you may become a fresh batch of dough, inasmuch as you are unleavened. For our Paschal Lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us celebrate the feast, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
The Pharisees were confident in their righteousness and, in their righteous indignation, refused to listen and see God before them. They made no effort to identify and seek healing from the effects of sin on their life. They are withered in spirit. We too can often become withered in spirit through our own self-righteousness and pride. It is deadly and we need healing.
Every time you feel the need to tell another about their sin, take a step back, recall your own sin. Honestly examine your conscience. As St Paul tells the Corinthians, “Your boasting is inappropriate.” Instead, we must work to first expel all sin from our lives, the old yeast, and seek God’s strength, love, and healing grace poured into us through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. There is such relief, and grace in the words of absolution, the words of healing:
God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
God is calling us to step up today so that He can heal what is withered in our spirit. He is asking us to put away that which robs us of strength and beauty. This takes humility, courage, and a desire for God’s grace and love poured into us. God has no desire for what sin has withered. Instead, if we are open to grace, He takes what is withered and restores it to what is fruitful and alive. The Lord wants life in us to its fullness and makes miracles possible through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Once what is withered is restored, then we can bear much fruit. Do not turn away, but step forward, to grace.