10 September 2012

Reaching for Christ: "Stretch out your hand."

Looking around at them all, he then said to him, "Stretch out your hand." Gospel of Luke 6:10

When Jesus healed the man with the withered hand, he was answering a silent challenge made by the Pharisees: would Jesus dare to heal on the Sabbath breaking the mitzvah? Jesus shows by his response "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?" that it's not a question of keeping or breaking the mitzvah, is a question of can you "Love your neighbor"? But we should notice that when Jesus commands "Stretch your your hand" he's not looking at the man to be healed, he's "looking around at them all" ... which means he's looking at us.

So when Jesus says "Stretch out your hand" to us, what's going on here? Yesterday I wrote of the unity of Scripture and reading scripture with the four senses—literal, allegorical, moral and anagogical—so what do we see when we let our eyes run over all scripture and stretch out our senses, this case particularly into the moral?

In the Old Testament, stretching out the hand was a sign of invoking God's blessing or his power. As the patriarch Israel was dying and "stretched out his right hand and laid it upon the head of Ephraim ... and his left hand upon the head of Manassah" before blessing them: "let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth." (Gen 48:14 & 15). God commands Moses, "Stretch out your hand toward heaven that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, a darkness to be felt." (Ex 10:21) And perhaps most dramatically "Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night .." and the waters were divided." (Ex 14:21).

Jesus' is teaching that it is we who should be humbled; he is commanding us "Stretch out your hands" serve others, do good. But even as we are reaching outstretched hands to help another, we are merely instruments of God's will, the channels of his grace. We are not the source of grace ourselves, just as Moses was not the source of the darkness, or the power that divided the sea. When Jesus then tells the man to stretch out his hand, while Jesus looks on the congregation—us—are we not also blessed? The man who is healed is a blessing on us, not the other way around. When we serve others, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, heal the sick, clothe the naked, it is not we who bless them, but it is they who stretch our their hand and bless us, for the Lord has revealed that they are Him (Mt 25:40). It is but another way we are humbled.

Outstretched hands are a sign of humility in another sense. When Solomon finished the building of the Temple, he "stood before the altar of the LORD in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, and spread forth his hands toward heaven" before making the Dedicatory Prayer (1 Kgs 8:22). Outstretched hands, especially outstretched empty hands, are a physical sign of supplication, saying to God, "we are beggars at your feet Lord. All we have comes from you." The Psalms are replete with the psalmist lifting his hands to the Lord, usually when praying for help:

  • "So I will bless you [God] as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name." Ps 62(63)
  • "Lift up your hands to the holy place and bless the Lord!" Ps 133 (134) 
  • "Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice!" Ps 140(141)
  • "I stretch out my hands to you [God]; my soul thirsts for you like a parched land." Ps 142 (143).

So to we who are hard-hearted, we sinners all, Jesus commands us to stretch out our hands in prayer and supplication, humbled before the Lord even as He heals us, makes us whole so that we can stretch out our hands, so that we can once again look to God and say "I will lift my hands to the holy place, and bless the Lord at all times." Amen

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