It’s difficult to determine exactly how Jesus was aware of the Pharisees suspicious minds. Working on the Sabbath was a hot issue at the time; and the Pharisees interpreted the law in a strict manner, so we might assume that the focus of their mistrust was fairly obvious: will he or won’t he break the law?
Whatever it was that brought their attitude to Jesus’ attention, he called them out; but he did so, not on their terms of ‘work on the Sabbath’ or ‘no work on the Sabbath,’ rather he re-framed the problem as one of doing good or doing evil. The Pharisees refuse to even consider the matter from that point of view. The net result is that the man is made whole and the Pharisees are angry. A healing takes place before their very eyes and they are enraged.
An undeniable, unheard of event happens; they are witnesses and they respond by discussing what evil they might do to him.
Reading Luke’s account of the man with the withered hand seems almost like reading a sci-fi fantasy. Just picture the scene. It’s the Sabbath and Jesus is present in the synagogue along with the to-be-expected Pharisees. Among others who have gathered for the Sabbath service there is also a man with a serious affliction to his hand. We know he has some sort of affliction because the hand is described as withered, a condition we would today describe as atrophied. Maybe it was malformed in the womb. Maybe it was injured in his younger years. Maybe it was deformed because of some disease like arthritis. In any case, his condition would have been a major impediment in a day when manual labor of some sort was what put food on the table and a roof over one’s head for the vast majority of the population.
Jesus is there. The Pharisees are there. They must have known something about Jesus because they were watching him. In fact, even though this comes early in Luke’s text, they must have already been aware that miracles were being attributed to this man they considered suspect. So, they were scrutinizing him, and closely.
It’s difficult to determine exactly how Jesus was aware of their suspicious minds. Working on the Sabbath was a hot issue at the time; and the Pharisees interpreted the law in a strict manner, so we might assume that the focus of their mistrust was fairly obvious: will he or won’t he break the law? Whatever it was that brought their attitude to Jesus’ attention, he called them out; but he did so, not on their terms of ‘work on the Sabbath’ or ‘no work on the Sabbath,’ rather he re-framed the problem as one of doing good or doing evil. The Pharisees refuse to even consider the matter from that point of view. The net result is that the man is made whole and the Pharisees are angry. A healing takes place before their very eyes and they are enraged. An undeniable, unheard of event happens; they are witnesses and they respond by discussing what evil they might do to him.
In his book Walking With God, John Eldredge talks about how the novice should begin engaging God in conversation.
“Step one in learning to listen to the voice of God: Ask simple questions. You cannot start with huge and desperate questions such as, ‘Should I marry Edith?’ Or ‘Do you want me to sell the family business tomorrow?’ I find that to hear the voice of God, we must be in a posture of quiet surrender. Starting with small questions helps us learn to do that.”
His comment on starting with simple things is equally suitable for those who would see God’s active presence in their lives. But, before we explore that concept we’re going to make a small, but necessary, diversion through an Old Testament story.
Na'aman, commander of the army of the king of Syria, was a great man with his master and in high favor, because by him the LORD had given victory to Syria. He was a mighty man of valor, but he was a leper.
Now the Syrians on one of their raids had carried off a little maid from the land of Israel, and she waited on Na'aman's wife.
She said to her mistress, "Would that my lord were with the prophet who is in Samar'ia! He would cure him of his leprosy."
So Na'aman went in and told his lord, "Thus and so spoke the maiden from the land of Israel."
And the king of Syria said, "Go now, and I will send a letter to the king of Israel." So he went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten festal garments.
And he brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, "When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you Na'aman my servant, that you may cure him of his leprosy."
And when the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, "Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Only consider, and see how he is seeking a quarrel with me."
But when Eli'sha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent to the king, saying, "Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come now to me, that he may know that there is a prophet in Israel."
So Na'aman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the door of Eli'sha's house.
And Eli'sha sent a messenger to him, saying, "Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean." (II Kings 5:1-10)
At this point in the story you might expect that the account would continue as follows: the great Syrian commander, Na’aman, does as he is told, he is healed, and, as Eli’sha said, he now knows that there is a prophet in Israel. Such is not the case. Na’aman is livid. His sense of his own identity required some dramatic action on the part of the prophet — maybe some sacrificial offering, or a national day of fasting and prayer, or at least some overt action on the part of Eli’sha, petitioning his God for a healing. And besides, there are, he claimed, better rivers in Syria. Na’aman was angry and was ready to go home. Fortunately, his servant intervened and helped him reframe the matter. Na’aman came to the prophet, not as a great commander and conquerer, but as one afflicted with a serious disease and desperately in need of healing. Once seen from this perspective, it was easy to do as the prophet had ordered. Na’aman did so. He was healed; and he returned to Eli’sha, giving praise to God and acknowledging that Israel’s God was the only God worthy of the name.
Now we can return to the Pharisees and John Eldredge.
The Pharisees became angry with Jesus because an answer to his question — “is it lawful to do good on the sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?" — required a radical shift in their perspective. They were watching so closely because they saw themselves as keepers and enforcers of the Law. Jesus asked them to see themselves as compassionate human beings with empathy for another’s suffering. It was more than they could handle.
Re-framing is an important part of the Christian life. The world wants to frame our identity in terms of our origin, our career, our wealth, our possessions, our education, our religion and so on and so on. We might frame ourselves as husband, friend, father, Colorado native, or breadwinner. The struggle for those who would follow Christ is to re-frame that identity which the world has given us as well as the identity that we give ourselves; to see ourselves first and foremost as children of Our Father. Moreover, it’s not sufficient to see ourselves as ‘adult’ children of the Father. It is only sufficient to see ourselves as ‘toddlers’. It makes all the difference in the world, because, once you make that shift, it becomes inevitable that you expect your Father to watch your every step of growth, to be available when your toy needs to be fixed, to anticipate every possible injury and prevent it when possible, to rejoice in your pleasures, to provide for those unforeseen needs, to commiserate with your sorrows. When we can see ourselves as toddlers before Our Father, then, and only then, are we truly seeing ourselves as the children of God.
So, now, having re-framed our identity, it makes sense to talk about the active presence of God in our lives.
It is still a problem, however, because references to the active presence of God tend to conjure up images of the Ten plagues of Egypt, the parting of the Sea, the healing of a leper, the choir of angels sending shepherds to Bethlehem, the sun dancing at Fatima or a deformity being made whole at Lourdes. Few are witnesses to such events; even fewer experience such phenomenal things in themselves. Besides, these events are the active presence of God for those who would see themselves as ‘adult’ children of God — or just as ‘adults.’ But for those who have re-framed their lives, now seeing themselves as the toddlers of God, His active presence is on display always. They do not know luck or chance or good karma; they have not experienced serendipity or windfall or good fortune. They only know what the Father gives — and he is constantly giving.
Step one in learning to reveal the active presence of God: look at simple positive blessings. You cannot start with the extraordinary such as, ‘Let me see a paraplegic be completely made whole’ Or ‘Surprise me with a million dollars.’ I find that to know the active presence of God, I must be in a posture of quiet surrender, letting him tell me and show me what I need, rather than my telling him. Starting with the toddler’s approach to the wonder of small and simple things. Re-framing helps us do that.
Once that shift has been made and we are accustomed to viewing ourselves as the toddlers of God, we can expect to experience even more profound things happening in our lives. His love is only bound by the restrictions we place and what we are reluctant to see.