30- THE WITHERED HANDS

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Eleazar, the landlord, caught us picking the heads of wheat on his farm after the storm destroyed the crops in Capernaum. The scribes who were his friends dragged us into the synagogue to judge our act. It was the day of the Sabbath.

Abiel: Go inside, you band of rascals!

Josaphath: Now let’s see what you gotta say to the Rabbi. Thieves, bandits!

Abiel: C’mon, and make them pay, the guilty ones!

Although the synagogue had a number of wide entrance doors, many people had to climb through the windows in order to get in. They didn’t want to miss anything in that altercation. Half of Capernaum was there…. The Rabbi, who was getting impatient, walked from one side to another, without looking at us…

Abiel: Rabbi Eliab, these men here have instigated the people to steal wheat from Eleazar’s farm.

Josaphath: They trespassed into somebody else’s property!

Abiel: If they had only been ordinary thieves, we wouldn’t have brought them to you! They stole on the day of the Sabbath! They’ve desecrated the Law of Moses!

Rabbi: Oh?…. And that’s why they are here…. May I know why you did it?

A Man: Because we’re hungry!

All: That’s right!!

Rabbi: Silence!…. Only one will speak!

A Man: We’ve lost our crops, Rabbi! We need food!

A Woman: Our children will starve to death!

Rabbi: Quiet, all of you!… I said only one must speak!… Let’s see, you, come over here!…. Yes, you!..

The Rabbi grabbed Nito by his tunic sleeve. He was the son of Anna, a good but not very bright boy…

Rabbi: Answer me: Did you break into the farm of landlord Eleazar to get some wheat?

Nito: Yes, Rabbi!

Rabbi: That farm belongs to Eleazar, did you know that?

Nito: Yes, Rabbi!

Rabbi: If a farm belongs to somebody, its harvest belongs naturally to him, did you know that?

Nito: Everybody knows that, Rabbi!

Rabbi: Then, why did you steal wheat which isn’t yours?

Nito : Because I was hungry, Rabbi!

Rabbi: But the wheat belongs to Eleazar!

Nito: It is I who was hungry, Rabbi.

Rabbi: Come here, rascal. What right have you to go into somebody else’s property and steal what is not yours? Come on, answer me!

Nito: Well, because…. Pardon me, Rabbi, what was it that you said?

Rabbi: Excuses, excuses. That is all you can do, come up with ex¬cuses. You do something wrong, after which you deny having done it.

Nito: But I did go, Rabbi. All of us here slipped into his farm to pick some heads of wheat. I picked several of them!

Rabbi: Oh, really? So, you brazenly took what wasn’t yours?

Nito: Well, of course. In fact, after this, I’ll go back to gather some more.

Woman: Eleazar has a lot of wheat on his land, while we don’t have any!

John: God can’t allow people to starve to death while others live with a full stomach!

Rabbi: But what’s all this mess! We’re in the synagogue, in a sacred place!… Besides, today is the Sabbath, a holy day!… What’s happening here?….

Abiel: Rabbi Eliab…. This group of fishermen were the ones who instigated the people. Apparently, this stranger from Nazareth has put some crazy ideas into their heads….

One of the scribes with a bony body pointed an accusing finger at us. Then he stared at Jesus, who looked so relaxed, as if nothing was happening at all….

Rabbi: What have you got to say, Nazarene? Did you start all this trouble?

Jesus: People will do anything when they have an empty stomach.

Rabbi: Listen to me, you insolent farmer. This country has laws that must be obeyed, you hear? And what does the Law say, huh? Do not steal!…. Do you hear?

Jesus: What about the man who hoards wheat on his farm, isn’t he a thief too, Rabbi?

Rabbi: The Law says: Do not steal. Do you understand? DO NOT STEAL!

Jesus: And the one who pays very low wages, isn’t he a thief too?

Rabbi: That’s enough! You’re all guilty for having violated the law. Furthermore, you did it on the day of the Sabbath. What does the Law say about this? You shall observe the Sabbath as a sacred day. You will work for six days, but the seventh day shall be a rest day, which is dedicated to the Lord! That is what the Law says. Is that clear?

Jesus: But God made the law for people and not people for the law.

John: That was very well said!

Rabbi: Shut up, damn you! Speak only when asked!

A Man: You better keep quiet, John, as this is getting complicated. It might put you on the spot.

Rabbi: What do you want, huh? Do you want to put an end to everything and destroy the laws that Moses gave us?

Jesus: On the contrary, Rabbi. We don’t wanna destroy them but to give them real meaning.

The Rabbi was already very furious, but he tried to control himself….

Rabbi: Brothers, sisters please ignore this stranger who’s here to cause trouble and confuse you. You have done something terrible, which I hope will not be repeated. You have violated the Law of the Sabbath, which is the work of God. You are fully aware that when the shadows cover the walls of the city on the eve of the Sabbath, you are commanded by Law to shut all doors in the whole of Israel until the end of the sacred day. The Sabbath is a day of rest. No one’s allowed to make any purchases, any sale, not even to walk more than a mile. No one’s to transport wheat, wine, grapes or any merchandise. No one’s to lift weights, to cook….

The Law of the Sabbath was so rigid, its prohibitions so numerous, that when the Rabbi started to cite the interminable list of “don’ts” of the law, we felt as if the yoke of the oxen rested on our shoulders….

We breathed a sigh of relief, when Eliab had finished. Then Jesus broke the silence….

Jesus: I wish to ask you teachers of the Law a question: What if the only sheep you had fell into a pit on the day of the Sabbath, would you not pull it out, even if it was forbidden by law?… What is allowed to be done on the Sabbath: the good or the bad? To save life or to lose it?…. What do you think, gentlemen?

There were whispers of approval from everyone present, and this gradually heightened like a rising tide….

A Man: Jesus is right! He explains things better than the Rabbi!

Abiel: This is getting us nowhere, Rabbi Eliab. This man’s dangerous…. and you have to teach these people a lesson.

Then the scribe with the bony body extended his arms like a bird about to fly and fixed his eyes on us….

Josaphat: Thieves! Charlatans! God will punish you for what you’ve done on a Sabbath day! Thieves! God’ll paralyze your hands, because they’ve offended Him by stealing!…. The Lord’s curse’ll be on you, who’re violators of the Law! Your hands’ll all be paralyzed!

The screaming voice of the scribe shook the synagogue and made us all tremble. Then there was a commotion in one corner, at one end of the Temple. Everyone turned to see what was happening.

A Man: Hey, Rabbi, here’s one whose hand’s already withered, but he’s not a thief!

Asaph: I am an honest man! I wasn’t involved in that stuff!

A Woman: He’s always had this disease. It’s an old one! The scribe’s making a new curse!

Asaph, the fruit vendor, had his right hand paralyzed for many years. When he saw that everyone was looking at him, he wanted to hide himself and leave the synagogue, but the bony-structured body wouldn’t let him go.

Josaphat: Hey, you, with the withered hand! Don’t hide yourself. Come here!… to the center!

Everyone around him pushed Asaph to the center of the synagogue. His face was all red.

Josaphat: Do you see this man?… Do you see him well?… Same way, God will paralyze the hands of those who have stolen wheat. The Lord’s curse is on you!!

His voice echoed like thunder. Then there was silence afterwards. Everyone expected lightning to strike down the roof of the synagogue and burn our hands. We heard Jesus’ voice instead…

Jesus: It’s the Sabbath, Josaphat. It’s also prohibited to curse on this day. Don’t ask for God’s malediction. God never does anything evil on Sabbath nor on any other day of the week. You claim to be an authority of the Scriptures, yet you’re wrong. God didn’t make the law to be a burden to people and to crush them. God wants everyone to be free, so they won’t become slaves of the law… God won’t paralyze our hands. On the contrary, He’ll make them free that they can continue with their struggle and with their work, just as He will cure the hand of this man…. Asaph, extend your hand!

Asaph, the fruit vendor, stretched his arm and began to move it. There was great uproar!… We all rushed toward him to touch his hand and to see if what we had witnessed was true.

A Woman: Praise the Lord!… Never before have we seen anything like this!

A Man: If this ain’t the end of the world, then it’s gotta be the eve!

The Rabbi, who was very indignant, shouted from the lectern…

Rabbi: All of you, get out of the synagogue! You’ve desecrated the temple of God!… Out, out you go!

Neither the scribes nor the Rabbi succeeded in driving us out of the synagogue. There were so many of us, and pandemonium was such that it was impossible to drag us out… The good news about the healing of Asaph spread through the whole valley of Galilee like wind blowing through the trees. From that day on, the teachers of the Law began to plot against Jesus.…

*Comments*
The Israelites gathered every Saturday in the synagogue in order to pray and worship the Lord. It was there where Jesus and his companions were judged for having violated the law of the Sabbath, which was a day of rest. Jesus’ words and actions before the Rabbi and the people stresses that in order to worship God truly, one must take into account the liberation of the poor.

The Israelites trace the Law of Sabbath back before the time of Moses, to the very designs of God’s creation. Tradition has it that God created people on the sixth day, after which he set the seventh day as a day of rest. This order of creation indicates – as Jesus himself has said – that “God instituted the Sabbath for people,” that is, for good. Jesus considers this precept about the Sabbath as God’s gift to human beings, a gift using free time, that people might not be enslaved by work. Jesus has rejected as a burden for people, the tradition and customs perpetuated by the rabbis and pharisees for generations.

The traditional concept of the Sabbath became so tedious on account of the “do’s” and “don’ts” that people had to observe on that day.

In Jesus’ time, there were 39 types of work listed as prohibited, except in the one instance when the Law could be relaxed, that is, when one had to save a life. Jesus was not satisfied with this as the only exception and rebelled against this uptightness as contrary to the will of God.

Christianity in other contexts has sometimes been reduced to a mere catalogue of laws which are not necessarily intended to liberate but to suppress. The ideal of Christian life has at times been equated to the scrupulous fulfillment of negative norms: “You cannot”… “It is prohibited”… “God will punish you if you do this”… This is a terrible caricature of religion and an attitude that is wholly anti-Christian. Jesus always puts people above any law.

A Christian, by definition, is a free person before the law.

Jesus was a constant violator of the principal laws of his time. That is why he was a rebel in the eyes of the teachers and lawmakers of his town.

Judging him on this basis, we would say they were right. When Jesus insisted through his words and actions that the Sabbath was made to protect peoples’ needs and not to suppress them, he was making an interpretation contrary to common practice. Any law that suppresses a person and does not allow him or her to live has no value whatsoever.

The Rabbi was the religious authority in the community. In the episode, there were two teachers: The doctors or theologians whose mission was to interpret the laws and to monitor their implementation. All acted as faithful allies of the landlord and defenders of his interests, as justified by the religious law of the Sabbath. What Jesus did for Asaph, the fruit vendor, by healing his paralyzed hand, brought home a point that a curse with which a false religion threatens a person cannot win over the grace of God who wants people to live and be free.

This episode is related to the two previous narratives. The sign that God makes through Jesus, strengthens the proclamation of liberation through the Beatitudes. He blesses the liberating action carried out by the poor people of Capernaum. The three chapters constitute a tryptych-summary of a catechetical scheme often repeated in the gospel: Proclamation-practice-sign.

(Mt 12:9-14; Mk 3:1-6; Lk 6:6-11)

30- THE WITHERED HANDS

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