Beyond Idealism: Some Observations on Mark 3:1-6

Much that passes as idealism is . . . disguised love of power. — Bertrand Russell

Last First Day, I joined a group of Friends for Bible study an hour before worship at annual sessions of Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative). The text before us was Mark 3:1-6 in which Jesus heals a man with a withered hand and evokes the ire of the Pharisees:

1And he entered again into the synagogue; and there was a man there which had a withered hand. 2And they watched him, whether he would heal him on the sabbath day; that they might accuse him. 3And he saith unto the man which had the withered hand, Stand forth. 4And he saith unto them, Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath days, or to do evil? To save life, or to kill? But they held their peace. 5And when he had looked round about on them with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts, he saith unto the man, Stretch forth thine hand. And he stretched it out: and his hand was restored whole as the other. 6And the Pharisees went forth, and straightway took counsel with the Herodians against him, how they might destroy him (KJV).

The first two verses of this passage introduce the short narrative’s two strands of interest: (1) a man is to be healed, and (2) there’s opposition between Jesus and the Pharisees. In verse 3, Jesus prioritizes the first of these two—that is, the healing—by first giving his attention to the man with the withered hand and telling him to “Stand forth.” Though given initial priority, the healing is primarily a catalyst to precipitate the main plot line of this story: the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees.

After having spoken to the man, Jesus turns to the Pharisees and rhetorically asks: “Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath days, or to do evil: To save life, or to kill?” (v. 4) With this question, Jesus identifies opposing principles: do good and save life, or do evil and kill. Having defined the two conflicting positions, Jesus then demonstrates through the healing which of the two he upholds; that is to say, he is on the side of doing good and saving life. Seeing the demonstration, the Pharisees are left to conclude on which of the two sides their opposition to Jesus puts them, and they must realize that they occupy the side of doing evil and killing. The verse that follows confirms this fact: “And the Pharisees went forth and straightway took counsel with the Herodians against him, how they might destroy him” (v. 6).

The person of today may read this story and quickly judge the Pharisees to be inexcusably wrong in their insistence on the Law with its hard-and-fast Sabbath rules: that this error was something from long ago that we have progressed well beyond. I propose, however, that the present-day elevation of ideals to the position of primary guiding force of individual or corporate life is but a reenactment of the Pharisees mistake: both Law and ideals are secondary ethical standards that usurp the central place of Christ, both within a person and within the religious group. Where Christ should be central, ideals are instead rallied around. As was shown in this brief story at the beginning of Mark 3, such usurpation will inevitably entail hostility toward the true standard of righteousness: Christ, the Lord our righteousness (Jer. 33:16).    

Although the Law of Moses is no longer weaponized to ensure conformity in and manageability of religious communities, different ideals—peace, love, and community—occupy the pedestal in both Liberal and Christian groups. Psychological techniques have replaced physical violence as the means to compel conformity and self-censorship.

In some Christian groups, Jesus is presented as vapidly sweet, and never as he appears in Revelation where he is “called Faithful and True,” from whose mouth issues “a sharp sword with which to smite the nations” (19:12,15 NEB). All the while in passages such as the one at the beginning of Mark 3, we see Jesus exercising that sword as he puts in place the culprits who hide their love of power behind the guise of ideals. Jesus looks at them with anger and sorrow at their obstinate stupidity (v.5).

“Stretch forth thine hand” (v. 5).

It is the man with the withered hand whom Jesus heals. The hand is the means by which Man can make or do; it is the means by which a person can express outwardly what is within: that is, it is the means by which one creates. Symbolically, Christ’s restoration of the hand tells of the person’s new-found gift to bring forth what is within that it may become visible to the world.


Apocalypse, Bolognese School 1350
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8 Responses to Beyond Idealism: Some Observations on Mark 3:1-6

  1. Thank you for this, Patricia. It’s added to my appreciation for Jesus’ moral leadership. We have a divine Teacher who’ll tell us what’s right and what’s wrong if we’ll only listen for His voice with intention to obey it, and we Quakers (of all tendencies) therefore like to boast that we believe in Immediate Revelation. And yet we like to preach “values” and “principles” to the general public, or to public officials whom we want to lobby to “do the right thing” — as if the compassionate heart of God could be replaced by an algorithm, or as if the tender mercies of the wicked (Prov 12:10) might be as tender and merciful as those of the righteous!


  2. Hi Patricia. You have made several important points and I was glad to hear you make similar points at the worship group I recently attended. We will be in peril whenever we substitute Christ for something else, including if it is, or perhaps especially if it is, something seemingly good to us. From what I understand, those to whom God revealed Himself, through His son, will be in particular peril if they do that. There is perhaps some connection between your post and my recent one on empathy.

    It is clear to me that to truly live in Christ and Him in us, we must be prepared to surrender things of ourselves and our lives that are far from easy to surrender, including our own wisdom, values and even aspects of our own personalities and identities, all of which people in the modern West hold dear. One must be in a sufficiently humbled state to be able to. It seems to be hard for us to recognise when we are ~not~ in that state and are still relying on and cherishing our own human wisdom, values, identify etc.


    • I agree with you that “we must be prepared to surrender things of ourselves,” and we must do so not with some grand, sweeping gesture of commitment, but with small things as they come up in life. For it is in the day-to-day living that we cultivate the soil in which the seed of promise can take root and live. Referring to Zech. 4:10, Penington writes: “take heed of despising the day of small things, or the low voice of thy God in thy heart; for therein are the beginnings of life. And thou must begin at the lowest step that the God of thy life chooseth for thee (and find that wisdom shut out, which would begin or go on otherwise than the Lord seeth fit to lead and teach) if ever thou enter into the path of life, or walk on therein with thy God” (_Works_, vol. 2, p. 358). Because there is such a sense of life in attending to these promptings from the Lord, we can allow ourselves to be at “the lowest step” that God chooses for us, and rejoice in that Life.


      • Thank you. Do I understand correctly that this is at least partly what Peter was explaining when he referred to offering ‘spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ’, in 1 Peter 2:4-5?


  3. Spiritual sacrifices are what we offer when there’s a temptation to follow the promptings of our own fallen nature. Then we need to sacrifice our inclination and follow the righteous example (1 Pet. 2:21) that has been set before us. The Law made this possibility of sacrifice in the direction of righteousness more visible, more available, more understandable; and ideals do the same. Although Peter upholds these sacrifices, he also refers to the more mature state of knowing the elect stone and its preciousness (6, 7), of having “tasted that the Lord is gracious”(3), and having obtained mercy (10).

    He asserts we “should live unto righteousness” (24), and this living does initially require forfeiture of selfish inclinations. But in its realization, we are healed from all such proclivities. Of course, this isn’t a one-and-done situation. Peter upholds the need for progress toward the goal from whatever position the reader finds himself, which can vary.

    The reason I balk at calling actions “sacrifices” when Christ is known is that “sacrifice” suggests forfeiture, and there is no sense of forfeiture when we know “his marvellous light”(9). The apostles address all conditions along the way, as well as the destination of having entered into “the riches of the glory of his inheritance” (Eph. 1:18).


  4. Thank you Patricia. What you say about ‘sacrifice’ matches my experiences to date. Someone who knows me well might well say about the last 9-10 months “you have made many big sacrifices” both inwardly and outwardly; they would also congratulate me for my hard work. And yet none of the supposed sacrifices feel like sacrifices, plus I have no sense of self-glory. It all feels like relief, and I know they have only happened through and by the power of my Lord and Shepherd. It feels like burdens have been lifted, and shackles have been released, not imposed. There is no regret or grief. Mostly relief as I say, as well as gratitude and some greater peace albeit from a low starting point. It occurred to me this morning when thinking about your words that I don’t find myself rejoicing as such; perhaps that will come in time. The process of some of the shackles being removed was not always quick, easy or pleasant — the ego and the world does not let go without a fight. But with the strength of the Lord and patient endurance, burdens have been removed.

    I am yet to be fully reformed, I know, but I am trying to resist the temptation to ‘run ahead’ of the pace set by Him. There is one large aspect of my ‘old’ life, albeit not an unlawful aspect (I think), that I am now clear, after several months of wondering, He wants put to the cross. That has started to take place but will only be finally hung and nailed around December time. This time lag is due to some commitments I already have to others with respect to it, my sense being that He wants me to be contentious in honouring those commitments rather than abandoning outright, which I hope is a correct discernment. Still, it is a source of great stress and anguish in the meantime, and I long for the day when it will all be lifted. He has already presented the means to shed it earlier in December than I previously thought so I pray that He presents a way for it to be shed still sooner or at least the burden until then be lightened.


  5. Your description of your present struggle reminded me of Luke 12:50: “But I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished!”

    Sincere effort, I believe, counts for a great deal with the One “with whom we have to do.”


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