25 August 2013
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 16C (RCL)
This passage from Luke is not one we have read liturgically until the switch to the Revised Common Lectionary. It’s always refreshing to read something new. At first glance, this seems like a simple little story, without much to commend it a place in Luke’s narrative other than the escalating conflict with the synagogue officials. Yeah, so Jesus healed someone: what’s new about that?
In the Gospels, there are several accounts of healing on the sabbath which get Jesus in trouble with the authorities, and it might seem odd to us that this would be a problem. However, when the Jews returned from Exile in Babylon (and in fact, while they were in Babylon), sabbath observance became a big deal. It’s pretty impressive if someone who has essentially been enslaved refuses to work one day in seven. It becomes a very clear boundary-marker for the community in question, just like dietary rules can be. In the return, the rabbis began to work out just how the sabbath was to be observed to preserve its sanctity and usefulness as a distinguishing mark of the community. No one was allowed to do his or her work on the sabbath. Women couldn’t cook, and so had to prepare the sabbath meal the day before.
Jesus clearly, as far as Luke’s narrative is concerned, was seen as a healer. Consequently, that was his work, and he couldn’t do it on the sabbath. No healer could heal on the sabbath. But, at synagogue on the sabbath, the men (and it was men) would get together and study the scriptures, since they were free from their work on that day. Of course, the synagogue served as a gathering place for the community all the other days of the week, but no one could be involved in trade at the synagogue on the sabbath.
Jesus was at one of the synagogues on the sabbath, and gathered with the men, was studying and teaching. Luke narrates in very simple terms that a woman came in, who had a spirit of weakness, and Jesus noticed her. He called her over to him — she would have had to join the men — and he touched her. He interrupted study of the scripture for something as mundane as a healing.
It is interesting that we are told she had a spirit of weakness, and Jesus asks if this daughter of Abraham ought not to be released from Satan’s bondage. Her deformity is the work of an outside force, not something true about her, although there was a tendency (still is) to see misfortune as the result of sin. Jesus sees her ailment as something Satan was doing to her, not something she brought on herself.
Jesus and the synagogue leader get into a perfect example of a rabinnic debate. Just how is one to observe the sabbath? Test cases would be proposed. “Would it be lawful to water one’s donkey or ox?” “If so, would it be lawful to . . . ?” It’s not that the leader of the synagogue is hard-hearted. He certainly wants her to be healed, but it can happen on any one of the other six days.
But if we are studying Torah (the way of living), asks Jesus, does it not make sense to live out what we learn from it, even as we are studying it? How many of us come to church not wanting anyone to know that something is wrong? That’s not what church is for. Church is for worshiping God, not my problems. We tend to put on our Sunday best. Jesus is suggesting that in our worship, it is precisely at those bent-over places in our lives that we are most likely to have praise to offer. If we are not willing to let our ailments be seen, how can the rest of the crowd praise God for the wonderful things that are happening? And that means we all have to be willing to see the people who are bent over, and be willing to call them over into the realm of sacred activity.