18 January 2006

Stretch out your hand!

2nd Week of OT (Wed): 1 Sam 17.32-33, 37, 40-51; Mark 3.1-6
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, University of Dallas

What happens when the heart grows hard? What becomes of us when our heart, our center with God, grows cold like stone and we habitually rely on the limited wisdom of regulation, policy, and procedure to make our moral choices? The world shrinks. Grows tiny. And that’s bad enough. What’s worse is that as the heart settles into habits of weighing and cutting excessive beauty and mercy, it is starved for charity and grace and shrivels and grows cold and dies. What’s left but to be angry at the waste and mourn the loss?

This is what happens to us when our hearts grow hard. But how do our hearts of flesh become hearts of stone? The standard interpretation of the gospel story this evening is as follows: the officials of the Heartless Religious Establishment refuse to do good because they are slaves to their strangled rule-following and puritanical notions of holiness. Jesus is the Warm Counselor, the Destroyer of Rigid Paradigms who rides to the rescue with his openness, his acceptance, and his tolerance of difference to save the poor wretch from the grinding narrowness of Those In Charge. Jesus heals the man’s withered hand and irrevocably sets the Pharisees against him.

Now, here’s my question: are the Pharisees rigid and hard-hearted because they follow the Law? Or, is their rigidity in following the rules a sign of their hard-heartedness? Asked another way: do they refuse to help the poor man because the rules won’t allow it, or do they refuse to help because their hearts are hard and following the rules is a just a way of making their hard-heartedness “right” in their minds?

The Pharisees refuse to help the man because they are trying to trap Jesus in an arrestable offense against the Law. Their calculated silence moves Jesus and he heals the man as an act of defiance against the Pharisees’ cold hearts, as a sign against their failure of holiness. Their refusal to do good is motivated by fear, jealousy, political expediency, and spite. They are not acting out of an unbiased assessment of the Law and its application. They are playing Gotcha! with the Lord and this absolute failure of charity and mercy angers the Lord and grieves him deeply.

Jesus says to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” The man does and he is healed. Jesus is angry and mourning that the hearts of the Pharisees cannot be moved to compassion, cannot be set afire by another’s need. They are dead because they will not stretch out their hands. They will not be healed in their silence.

Our own hard-heartedness is not so difficult to imagine. That stone-cold, merciless attitude is one sin away, just one refusal of compassion away. We starve our filial relationship with the Father when we look away from need, when we work at justifying our unjust acts with the letter of the Law. Any habit of the heart that freezes out the sick, the hungry, the lost necessarily freezes out our Lord and kills the hope in us that keeps the promise of eternal life alive.

The Good News is that we are given all the means we need to keep our hearts alive in the Lord, awake to the needs of others, beating in time to the life of holiness, and squarely centered in the will of the Father. We are tempted by the glory of Christ to live with him forever. And to live with him now is to live mercy, to live compassion, and to live with a heart of flesh.

When your chance comes, stretch out your hand. To heal and be healed: stretch out your hand!


  1. Father,

    I enjoyed the homily last night, and again looking it over today. Also, I'm just generally thankful that the Lord has sent us at UD a sensible, godly, rhetorically nuanced chaplain.

    Good to meet you last night--I'll look forward to seeing you around.


  2. Dwight,

    It was great meeting you guys last night. I'm glad you liked the homily. Looking forward to seeing y'all again soon!

    Fr. Philip