Introduction: Everyday people
So who have you bumped into lately? Think for a minute about the multitude of people—strangers or acquaintances—whose paths crossed yours this week: the server behind the counter at your favorite coffee shop; the mechanic who worked on your car; the lab partner you got stuck with in biology; the receptionist in your office building; the quirky characters you see on the train; the parents with whom you make small talk on the soccer sidelines.
A recent book suggests that these everyday people, these unremarkable encounters, can have a profound effect on our health, happiness, and success in life. The book is entitled, Consequential Strangers: The Power of People Who Don't Seem to Matter … But Really Do. The author documents all the ways that strangers and acquaintances can affect our lives—how a friendly greeting can change our outlook on the day, how a simple service someone offers can improve the quality of our lives, how a casual conversation can lead to a new job or a new romance, how someone from another ethnicity or social class can expand your horizons, and even how a fender bender can prompt a next step on a spiritual journey.
In today's passage, we're going to meet one of these consequential strangers—someone who didn't seem to matter to anyone, except Jesus.
Before we read the story, I'd like you to have in mind two or three of the kind of people I'm describing—people who are a part of your everyday world who at this point you don't really know and may have barely noticed. Bring their faces to your imagination right now, as well as the times and places you typically bump into them. Let's learn from Jesus what it might mean to "do good" to people like that, and what impact it might have on their lives, and ours.
This is the second week in our Doing Good series. Last week we learned that doing good means following Jesus, not just for our own sake, but for the sake of others. We learned that when we do good, life is good. This morning and in the weeks to come we'll be looking at some simple and practical ways to do good in Jesus' name, wherever we are, with no strings attached.
So let's look at Mark 3:1-6:
Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a withered had was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the withered hand, "Stand up in front of everyone." Then Jesus asked them, "Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?" But they remained silent. He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.
The mark of the Christian
In order to appreciate this story, we have to understand that keeping the Sabbath was the distinguishing mark of God's people. Of all the spiritual activities a devout Jew might engage in—prayer, giving alms, fasting, observing the holy days—the most common and most obvious was the act of Sabbath observance. It was a day for worship and rest—for being, not doing. Therefore, no work was allowed. So as the story opens, Jesus is doing what every devout person would be doing that day: going to a worship service.
Now before we go ahead with the story, it might be worth asking what would be the distinguishing mark of God's people today? What is the most common and obvious feature of a serious Christian's life? Probably going to church, right? I know that's what my neighbors would conclude. Every Sunday morning they see us pull out of the driveway, usually in two shifts, and five or six hours later, they see us pull in again. Monday night for meetings, Friday nights for youth group, and in holiday seasons we hardly come home! If we're not going to church, then church is coming to us in the form of Bible studies, community groups, and swim parties.
But is church and Bible study attendance an accurate understanding of what Christianity is all about? Is that what Jesus had in mind when he told us to be salt and light in the world? Let's continue with our story.
What Jesus sees
The next thing we're told is that there was a man with a withered hand in the synagogue that day. Chances are he was there every Sabbath day. Remember this is a local synagogue serving a small community. I doubt they had a visitors' lot in front of the building. It would have been the same people, sitting in the same seats, week after week.
We're not told the details of the man's physical condition—whether this was a disability he had from birth, or the result of an accident or injury later in life. But his condition was not a secret to anyone in the synagogue. It would have been obvious every time the men lifted their hands in prayer in the customary fashion. Chances are they had gotten so used to seeing this man that they didn't even notice him anymore.
We're also told that Jesus' critics were present this day. Jesus had only been ministering for a short time, but he'd already made some enemies. These religious leaders were looking for something to pin on him. They were hoping Jesus would heal the injured man so they could accuse him of breaking the Sabbath. Healing was work, the Pharisees decided, and work was not allowed on the Sabbath. Now, the Law did allow for exceptions in cases of emergency, but this was not an emergency. The man had lived with this condition for a long time. He certainly could live with it for another day. When Jesus asked this man to stand up, these leaders must have been licking their chops. He had fallen right into their trap.
Now, why did Jesus ask him to stand up? Was he trying to embarrass the poor man? Of course not. He simply wanted people to see the man. Not just to see him, but to look at him, to pay attention to him, to think about his condition. As we said, people had probably gotten so used to seeing him around they didn't notice him anymore. They didn't stop to think about his condition. The truth is, they probably didn't want to notice him. He made them uncomfortable. They thought his condition was the result of some sin that he or his parents had committed. Good religious folk trained themselves not to look at people like this. To them he was an oddity, a distraction from worship, not to mention, a sinner.
But Jesus wanted them to look again—to see what he saw—so he had the man stand up in front of everyone. And looking at the man, Jesus saw two things. First, he saw the man's problem. That withered hand was a problem for him. It made it more difficult for him to make a living. It would have limited some of his activities at home and with his family. And because of social and spiritual stigmas, it made him something of an outcast. While most people were looking the other way, Jesus was looking deeper, thinking about that man's life experience. He saw his problem.
The second thing Jesus saw was the man's potential. He recognized this man was created in the image of God to glorify God. That's not immediately obvious in this passage, but if we read Matthew's account of this encounter, he includes some additional words Jesus spoke: "If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep!" (Matthew 12:11-12). Jesus saw everything that this man was meant to be and to do, and he wanted him to be able to do those things. He wants to remove this disability and the stigma that went with it.
When Jesus looked at people, he looked long enough to see their problem and their potential—what life was like for them, and what it could be like, if the Kingdom of God were to come to them.
On a very practical level, doing good begins right there: seeing people as Jesus sees them. Doing good is not really about deeds; rather, it's about people. Doing good is not about following rules; it's about relating to people in Christ-like ways. And that begins with seeing people.
In the movie The Soloist, Robert Downey Jr. plays a newspaper reporter who stumbles upon a homeless man playing a violin in a city park. At first he's just amused by the stranger, but then he notices that the man is making beautiful music on a violin with just two strings. He begins asking questions and learns that the man has a name: Nathaniel Ayers Jr. He keeps asking questions and discovers that Nathaniel has talent: he actually studied at Julliard. Nathaniel has a story: a mother who believed in him; a father who left home; and voices in his head that he just can't silence. Most importantly, he learns that Nathaniel has dignity; Nathaniel needs friendship, not charity.
The truth is everyone we meet has a name. Every person has a story. Every human being has talent and dignity and worth. There are no inconsequential strangers—everyone matters. They matter to God, and they'll matter to us, if we take the time to see their problems and their potential.
Understand that this is not about feeling sorry for people. And it's not just about down-and-outers. Take this man with the withered hand. There's no indication that his life was miserable or unhappy. He's not a beggar. He's able to worship with the community. His life is just not all it could be, and Jesus wants to do something about that. Seeing people as Jesus sees them simply means thinking about what life is like for them and what it could be like if the kingdom were to come to them.
This past week at our community group, we all received brightly colored index cards to carry around with us. Our assignment is to open our eyes to the people and situations we encounter from day to day and write down any needs we see—and any opportunities to do good for someone, somewhere. I've found that little assignment has changed the way I make my way through the week. I'm paying more attention to people. I'm looking them in the eye. I'm noticing their names. I'm asking myself what their days might be like, and what might make their days a little easier, or better, or more like what God has in mind for them. When you start looking at people that way, there are no ordinary people; there are no unremarkable encounters.
A provocative question
Having seen this man with the withered hand, Jesus couldn't just walk away. He wanted to do something to help the man—not just for the man's sake, but for the people's sake. He wanted the people to understand what it really meant to be God's people in the world and what God is looking for from people who call themselves his followers. So Jesus asked a provocative question.
There's something you need to know about Jesus: he's a troublemaker! He didn't have to perform the healing right there and then. It wasn't a life or death situation. It certainly could have waited until sundown, when there would have been no controversy. But Jesus couldn't resist this teachable moment. In fact, this is the only time that Jesus initiates a healing without being prompted. So after making the man stand up, he posed a question to the congregation and to his critics in particular: "Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?"
(Mark 3:4). Jesus is challenging the Pharisees' understanding, not just of what the Sabbath is all about, but of what God is all about. The Sabbath was God's day, so they figured they ought to be about the things that God cares about, like prayer, worship, and keeping the rules.
One Sunday morning at camp this summer, we were walking up to the dining hall for breakfast. On the way we passed the mini-golf course, which is one of the most popular activities in camp. Just ahead of us, I saw a little girl look wistfully at the course and ask her mom, "How come the mini-golf course is locked up?" The mom replied, "Because it's the Lord's Day." The little girl didn't say anything after that, but I know what she must have been thinking: I wonder why the Lord doesn't like mini-golf. (Now I happen to think the Lord loves watching kids play mini-golf at Camp, but that's a subject for another sermon!)
The point of this sermon is that these people thought they knew what God cared about—religious things like prayer, Bible reading, and worship attendance. So that's what they determined the Sabbath was supposed to be about. But Jesus wants them to understand that the thing God really cares about is people and their well-being—their happiness and their wholeness. That's why he gave them the Sabbath in the first place! So of course it's lawful to do good on the Sabbath. In fact, doing good is what the Sabbath is all about!
There's an important lesson here for us, not about what we can do or not do on Sundays, but about what God wants from his people, about what it means to be Christian. It turns out that what God wants isn't a lot of religious activity. He wants us to be about his work in the world. He wants us to care about the things he cares about, so that we can be his hands and feet to the consequential strangers we bump into every day. Doing good is one of the most Christ-like, God-honoring things we can do, even though it may not always look very "spiritual."
There's a church in New Jersey that goes by the name of Liquid Church. They believe the church ought to be "fluid" rather than "solid"—like Living Water that flows freely into people's lives and satisfies their deep thirst. Recently, Liquid Church found themselves disturbed by the fact that tens of thousands of people, children mainly, die every day simply because they don't have clean drinking water. They were pretty sure God cared about that, so they decided to do something about it. And one of the things they decided to do was to cancel church on Sunday. Not "cancel" church exactly, but do church differently. Instead of holding services in the church building, they decided to hold a 5K race in town to raise money for wells in Ethiopia. They did it on a Sunday morning because they knew that's when people from town would be most likely to participate. They ended up with over 1,200 runners—80 percent of whom were not believers—and they raised $250,000, which will end up saving about 60,000 lives.
What do you think about that? Which is lawful on Sunday? To hold services, or to hold a race? To be religious, or to do good?
Our good deeds don't have to look exactly like what Liquid Church chose to do. The point is that we need to take a fresh look at what it means to be God's people in the world. We need to ask ourselves what it is that we, as Christians, want to be known for. We need to start seeing people and the world the way Jesus sees people and the world, and then do for them the kinds of things that Jesus would do, even if those things don't look very "religious." Another book of the Bible puts it this way: "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world" (James 1:27).
Let's finish our story in Scripture and see what true religion can do for a person.
In front of everyone, Jesus said, "Stretch out your hand." He stretched it out, and it was completely restored" (Mark 3:5). If you notice, Jesus never actually works on the Sabbath. He doesn't rub the man's arm. He doesn't make some sort of lotion. He actually doesn't lift a finger. All he does is say, "Stretch out your hand." When the man does, his arm is healed, and his life takes a turn for the better. Remember, this wasn't a life or death situation. This man wasn't miserable or lost, so far as we can tell. But when Jesus saw the man, he couldn't resist doing something good for him—something that would bless him. That's the second thing we learn about doing good: Doing good means seeing people as Jesus sees them and finding a way to bless them.
I'll confess I didn't want to use the word, "bless." It sounds like a dusty old church word, like "narthex" or "unction." But when I studied the word, in Greek and in English, I realized what a rich word it is. To bless someone is to confer well-being on them. It is to say or do something that improves a person's lot in life. So I'd like to blow the dust off the word "bless," because blessing people is something we can all do.
Let's face it: we're not Jesus. We can't heal people when they're sick. But we can bless them by bringing over a hot meal or driving them to the doctor. We can't bring back someone's loved one, but we can bless them with a listening ear and some words of remembrance. We can't multiply loaves and fishes, but we can bless someone with a bag of groceries or a dinner invitation or a gift to a relief agency.
We can't save people or fix people or undo people's foolish decisions. But we can bless them, in all sorts of ways, if we'll take the time to see them and think about them. Todd Hunter calls this, "creative goodness." I call it finding a way to make someone's life easier, happier, and closer to what God has in mind for them.
A church that's done good
Last week I mentioned a church in Cincinnati that specializes in this kind of ministry—the Vineyard Community Church. Over the years they have found all kinds of simple and surprising ways to bless the people of their city. They hand out free water bottles on hot summer days. They get their small groups together and go door to door and rake people's front yards for free. They go to gas stations and small businesses and clean the bathrooms. They go to lower-income neighborhoods and hand out bags of groceries or little boxes of detergent. On Christmas Eve they deliver donuts to people who have to work. And when it feels right, they ask people if there's anything in their lives they would like prayer about.
Members of the congregation carry little "Connect Cards" around with them with a simple message like, "This is to let you know that God loves you." When they go to a McDonald's drive-thru, they pay for the person's meal behind them and ask the cashier to give them the little card. They tried offering free car washes, but people were too proud or suspicious to pull in. So now they offer $1 car washes, and when the driver rolls down the window to pay, they hand the driver a dollar bill and tell them God loves them!
You may think those are silly little things to do. You may think these little activities don't sound very "religious" or very "Christian." But after years of this, it's hard to find anyone in Cincinnati who hasn't heard of Vineyard Church and been blessed in one those simple ways.
One day, the pastor, Dave Workman, was doing an outreach with a youth group from another church. The youth pastor he was working with told him how he used to be a drug addict and lived a wild and reckless life. But he kept bumping into people who gave him free water or washed his car or bought him a cup of coffee. Four times it happened. He hung on to one of those Connect Cards and carried it around in his pocket for months. Finally, one Sunday he dropped in, and he eventually came to faith and began doing good for others the way others had done good to him. He got so addicted to doing good that he quit his real job and became a pastor!
You don't have to quit your job to do good. In fact, you'll probably have more opportunities to do good on the job than you would ever have as a pastor. You don't need to know your Bible inside-out to do good. You don't have to have a lot of money to give away. You don't have to be an extrovert. All you have to do is open your eyes to the people and situations around you. Take the time to see what Jesus sees, and then get creative. Find a way to bless people, and leave the rest to God.
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.