Gospel: Luke 13:10-1710, 22 August 2010, Pentecost 13
Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath.11And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’ 13When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.14But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.’ 15But the Lord answered him and said, ‘You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?’ 17When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.
The woman in this story has been unable to stand up straight for 18 years. As the story is being told, she is not drowning in the bottom of a well. Her house is not burning down. There is no discernible legal reason to break the Sabbath to save her. Jesus could have waited a few hours before healing her, an insignificant splinter of time in that 18 years, and none of the controversy need have happened. Everyone would have been delighted.
The only reason I can see for Jesus to heal her before the end of the day, is that he was deliberately attacking something about, or something attached to, Sabbath observance. It's obviously the case when someone points it out to us: "the sabbath" is mentioned 5 times in this short story of only seven verses. (Petty)
Sabbath keeping, for all its spiritual benefit, is a major inconvenience. Even as a little child- although we, of course, really kept Sundays- I knew the controversy about keeping the Sabbath as a day of rest. As the summer storm clouds gathered, or fires threatened, farmers who did the sensible thing and kept harvesting on Sunday to preserve the crop, were criticised for breaking the Sabbath. Sabbath keeping was a serious and costly badge of one's faith. It identified our faithfulness to God.
Our Baptist neighbour, a tea totaller, never accepted the extra premium available for his grain, when the barley went malting.* He always sold it as feed, perhaps a loss of four or five months pay for a working man at the time. It is such costly, deeply faithful practice of the faith that Jesus attacks in this story.
I remember someone in my childhood telling of the farmer who kept reaping on Sunday, and suffered a stroke. The minister told him it was God's punishment for breaking the Sabbath. There are few people who would agree with such a condemnation of a hard working man. And yet in the milieu of my childhood, there was still something unassailable about arguments against working on the Sabbath. The pull of the argument from the leader of the Synagogue could not be ignored: Scripture said!
Sabbath keeping is not quite such a flash point issue today, perhaps, but the tugging back to the old standard in the face of new practice, is still with us. Once you get past the hardliners who clearly object to women in leadership, and gays in church, and black people on parish council, there is another apparently gentler level of conservatism. A kind of "regretful conservatism", or so it presents itself. (I could opine whether this is just a strategic camouflage for the harder attitude, but that is not really germane here.)
This "regretful conservatism" is always saying, "Yes, but the Bible says...." It is the leader of the synagogue calling us to faithfulness. He is not being savage, or nasty. He is not against the healing- he is glad for the woman- he even likes women. Indignant though he is, it is almost with tears in his eyes that he says, "Could not we have waited one more day?. There is the law, and our faithfulness to God to consider, after all. I don't like saying this," he will say regretfully, "but we cannot avoid what God's Word says to us."
Luke makes his point very clear here. It is Jesus, he tells us,who heals the woman. But it is the Lord who answers the leader of the synagogue. And calls him a hypocrite.
I suspect that in a world where it is fairly easy to call names in church, and "shift to the church down the street for a second opinion", as I once heard Garrison Keillor express it, the word hypocrite has lost some of its sting.
During controversy in my denomination, there was a group who were making a stand on what they considered to be the Biblical Standard. Someone began to call them "the new Pharisees." This was no cheap shot in the heat of the moment. It was offensive at every level, and deeply hurtful. It is the rebuke the Lord made of the leader of the synagogue. At your point of deepest faithfulness, you are completely and utterly wrong. You are being the exact of opposite of what you are seeking to be.
Both Jesus and the leader of the synagogue took Law and Scripture seriously. Not one jot or tittle will pass away, Jesus says somewhere. Where they differed was in their understanding of God.
For the leader of the synagogue, God was there to be obeyed. The law was there to be obeyed. That was the key point, the fundamental foundation, of his reality. Keep God happy, and the world will work properly. Everything flows from this.
Jesus saw it differently. "The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath." (Mark 2:22) "His basic assumption is that God's will is... focussed on people's well being. God's chief concern is not to be obeyed... God's chief concern is love and care for the people and creation." (Loader My emphasis)
Look after the people and the creation, and the world will work properly. Everything flows from this.
Loader, making this point, goes on to say the story "is almost a parody of Jesus opponents. How absurd to imagine God would be more worried about having the sabbath commandment protected than having people healed." A moment's honest reflection on our endless supply of petty disputes in the church will remind us Luke is not making a parody at all, but reflecting the truth of us.
In some sermon situations, I might talk with my congregation about our desire to love God, and worship God properly and well. When we seek to honour God, and keep the scripture, and worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness, and be faithful to the Word... all those phrases of devotion and love... how often does that come down- really- to keeping God happy? I beg of you... how much do we really believe God loves us and wants good for us... and how much is there lurking at the back of our minds, the idea that we must do the right thing... and keep God happy, or God won't love us? Dressing it up with honour and holiness, and fervent prayer, changes nothing. Everything flows from this.
Growing up there were voices telling me how we Methodists were right. The Catholics were wrong. The Anglicans were... less wrong, but still wrong. So were the Baptists and the Lutherans. But then I began to find among these wrongly believing people, friends with whom I had more in common, than my own denomination. I found people of like spirit who were Muslim and Buddhist, and no religion at all. I saw colleagues of a different persuasion from me, make similar alliances across denominations. There were some unifying factors that were not measured by the old labels.
I've been bold enough to wonder about this, if there is an open, welcoming of the new, inclusive kind of mindset.... and a defensive, wall building, definition making mindset. Does that explain the almost predictable alliances, and disputes, which I see across my church and my society? I hesitate about this. One of these mindsets is, after all, rather damning. Although the people who seem to live there, I must say, often have a much more reasoned and rigorously thought out position.
This story of Jesus pulls me up short. It's not about ideas and mindsets at all, in one sense, although perhaps we could use such words to describe what happens in the story. Is our practice and faith based on keeping God happy and keeping rules, or is it grounded in the understanding that God's chief concern is the love of people and land? Everything flows from this.
* malting is a superior quality of barley suitable for brewing beer. It has a price premium.
Andrew Prior August 2010
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