Shriveled Hand, Shriveled Hearts

Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to bring charges against Jesus, they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”

He said to them, “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 person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”

Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other.

But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.  (Matt. 12:9-14, NIV)

When I was an intern, the blood bank had a bad rule about withdrawals. The bad rule was simple. Only interns or residents could sign out blood and they could take only one unit at a time. With this system, the leadership felt confident that the right patient would likely get the right unit of blood, the numbers on the units would be carefully checked, and the blood supply would be used safely and carefully. A valuable resource would not be wasted.

The blood bank director and staff cared about patient safety to the extent that they were passionate about preventing transfusion reactions. But, nonetheless, they made this bad rule.

Because they had forgotten the reason the blood bank existed.

They sawonly refrigerated blood in plastic containers. They never felt hot blood from an arterial bleeder hit them in the face, never saw blood running out of open wounds, drenching bandages, soaking sheets, dripping onto the floor, and they never mopped up afterward. They forgot the reason they existed was to get blood into the veins of the critically ill who would be otherwise dead.

One day a man came into the ER after a gunshot wound to the upper right chest. Already unconscious, his blood pressure read dangerously low, varying between shock and simply undetectable. Large volumes of fluid were pumped into newly started IV lines, and a tube placed into his airway to assure oxygenation of the small amount of still circulating blood. A chest tube was placed to allow expansion of the lung.

The bleeding and consequent hemodynamic shock continued. A cloud of death hovered over the resuscitation. Hopelessness crept closer.

Then the chief resident of cardio-thoracic surgery, a 31-year-old seasoned veteran of the hospital training program, showed up and took charge. He slashed open the entrance wound, inserted his hand, and grabbed the right subclavian artery, his fingertips squeezing the artery only a very few inches from the heart. He called for someone to tell the Operating Room that he was on his way, and, if they didn’t have a room open, to get the necessary instruments and personnel into the hallway, and he would start there.

A glimmer of hope came back to the ER trauma room.

Then he turned to the intern and said, “Go to the blood bank and get six units of O-negative blood.”

O-negative is the blood type least likely to cause a reaction if given to a patient of unknown blood type. It is a transfusion used only in circumstances like this where time does not allow for a sample from the patient to be tested for blood type and cross-matched to the unit being transfused.

To do what the chief resident requested the intern to do would break the blood bank rules. He started to object, “But–”

“Just get the blood and meet me in the operating room,” the chief said. He knew this patient’s survival depended on not only skill and luck, but on this intern’s willingness to break the rules.

The elevators were slow and unreliable, so the intern ran the six flights of stairs up to the blood bank. He arrived out of breath, and told the medical technologist what he needed. She said she would work on the cross-match as soon as she received a sample from the patient, and the first unit should be ready in fifteen minutes.

“You don’t understand,” the intern said.

“We’ve got rules,” she replied. “And if I break them, I get fired. If you break them, you get fired.”

The intern didn’t say another word. He went to the storage refrigerator, took six units of O-negative blood and went to the operating room.

The patient survived.

The intern didn’t get fired. Nor did he get commended. He got a reprimand and a warning, because it was only his first offense.

Jesus was working on his second offense of the day. He had just had a run-in with the religious right after his followers ate a few kernels of grain while walking through a field on the Sabbath, breaking the Fourth Commandment. This time, Jesus didn’t remain silent. He told them to learn what God meant when he had told the prophet Hosea, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

The rules experts didn’t answer, but they simmered with resentment.

From the confrontation in the field, Jesus, his followers, and these same religious rule experts, walked into town. They went to the synagogue and found there the man with the shriveled hand.

The rule experts jumped on the opportunity. In the field, only the followers were accused of breaking the Sabbath. Here, Jesus himself would be tempted to do the same.

“Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” they asked him. In other words, Aren’t you supposed to be resting? It’s not an emergency. What’s the guy even supposed to do with a healed hand on the Sabbath? Nothing; he’s supposed to be resting, too.

Jesus answers.“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 person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”

They must have had a soft spot for their sheep, because nobody said a word. The man stretched out his hand, and it became good as new. This should have been the happy ending of the story.

But it wasn’t. The rules experts left the synagogue and started planning a murder.

Jesus didn’t generally advocate breaking the law, but he gave us a lesson about rules: Don’t miss an opportunity to be merciful because of a rule. God desires mercy.

The Pharisees missed the point of the lesson about the kernels of grain. They missed it again about the shriveled hand. And it is a dangerous lesson to miss, because it’s a terrible thing to fall in love with the rulebook. You forget who God is, and what He expects. You forget you exist out of His mercy, and are created to show mercy. If you miss this lesson, you could let someone bleed to death. You could become a murderer.