Grace Presbyterian Church
August 21, 2022, Pentecost 11C
Who Could Possibly Be Upset About This?
I make no claim to understand the workings of the Revised Common Lectionary. I have no knowledge of how that particular consortium of representatives of the various religious bodies involved made their particular choices about what scriptural content to include and what to exclude, which books of scripture to emphasize and which to de-emphasize, which narratives to include and which to let pass.
I am quite convinced, however, that the choice to go directly from last week’s gospel reading, skipping over the very tail end of chapter 12 and the first verses of chapter 13, into the reading give for today was extremely deliberate. Remember how last week’s reading gave us the hard declaration about “no, I tell you, but division!” and the whole depressing point that there was really nothing Christlike we could do that wouldn’t draw somebody’s opposition? Well, it’s as if somebody decided “you know what, we need to follow up this reading with one that demonstrates exactly what Jesus was talking about. Oh, look, here’s exactly the thing, just a few verses later…“.
Indeed, this account, only separated from last week’s reading by twelve verses, is pretty much a textbook example of Jesus being given trouble for doing exactly the kind of thing he was called to do. The biggest difference here is that the larger crowd at the scene, for once, took Jesus’s side, and vocally so.
Jesus is teaching in a synagogue on a sabbath, as he was wont to do on his travels. We aren’t given any clues by Luke where Jesus is on his journey, so we can’t make anything of location or proximity or any such context clue. All we have is that he was teaching when a woman appeared, with “a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years,” as Luke describes. Most likely the condition was an orthopedic one known as ankylosing spondylitis. We should not think only of the woman being stooped over slightly; the Greek term best translates “bent double,” and while the condition is very treatable with modern medicines and techniques, in the time of this story there was not much that could be done.
This condition can be marked by neck and back pain, difficulty breathing, extreme fatigue, and even heart problems, not to mention the frustration and isolation that a person with this condition likely experienced in a population that hand no understanding of what was afflicting her, and (as Luke describes) attributed her state to being oppressed by a spirit or demon.
At any rate, the teaching is over. Or, perhaps, it is just beginning.
First Jesus speaks to the woman with a declaration of healing: “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” Throughout much of this gospel to this point, such a pronouncement has itself been enough to accomplish the healing in similar situations. Even in a previous healing-on-a-sabbath situation in chapter 6, Jesus spoke, and a man’s withered hand was healed. In this case, though, Jesus decided there was need of more than a word; a touch was needed.
To be clear, it is not to say that Jesus could not have healed her with only a word. Clearly a word had been sufficient in the past. However, here, the touch seems to be necessary for a different reason. Remember that others likely figured the woman was under the bondage of some kind of spirit or demon. As such, she was likely to be considered “unclean” by those in the community, and likely by the religious leaders as well. Jesus wasn’t one to let the specter of being “unclean” stand between him and anyone in need of healing. So, in this case, placing his hands on the woman became not only a means of healing, but of restoring – taking away the social separation that had clung to this woman as well as the physical affliction that had hindered her.
Seriously, who could possibly be upset about this?
Of course there was somebody. The head of the synagogue raised the very standard objection: healing constituted ‘work,’ and was therefore forbidden on a sabbath. What should be noted here is that while this was a standard objection, it was far from a universal one. While some readers of the law held this position, not all did. Many held that, based on a reading of the sabbath commandment as found in Deuteronomy 5, the sabbath existed as a commemoration of the deliverance of the Hebrew people from the land of Egypt and the bondage they had suffered there; it was, in short, a celebration of liberation. Therefore, any ‘work’ that served as an act of liberation – and healing from disease certainly was read that way – was to be not only allowed, but even celebrated. By such a reading, Jesus was well within the bounds of sabbath law, and you can bet he knew that.
That will be his second response, though. First, he points to the hypocrisy of his accusers, zeroing in on an exception commonly made to the law allowing one to lead an animal out for a drink. As much an act of compassion or even basic maintenance as this was, it was technically a violation of sabbath code, yet it was a violation that no longer drew offense. Jesus didn’t even have to be explicit in slamming his critics for showing more compassion for a donkey than for (as he named her) a daughter of Abraham.
The synagogue leader and his allies were put to shame, the people celebrated all the good and wonderful things Jesus was doing, and for some that’s the end of the story. Not for Jesus, though.
Notice how verse 18 begins: “He said therefore…”. Those pithy sayings that follow this story aren’t a separate event; they follow directly on what has just happened. And this event, even as much as the content of the two sayings themselves, is for this moment an outbreak of the kingdom of God. It doesn’t just look like the growth of a mustard seed into a sturdy and spreading bush that can host the birds of the air, or the spreading of a little yeast in a bread dough. It looks like a woman who has been bent double for eighteen years standing up tall and straight. It looks like the work of God going forward despite opposition and division. It looks like healing on the day of liberation. It looks like celebration. It looks like acts of love. And it is this that we celebrate and await, at the same time.
I have quoted the novelist, inspirational writer, and Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buechner many, many times in my sermons since I’ve been here, far more often I am sure than any other source outside of scripture itself. Buechner died this past Monday at his home in Vermont, aged 96. How fitting it is that it works well to leave the final words of this sermon to Buechner, who seemed to have something just right to say about almost any portion of scripture, and indeed has something to say about this work of expecting the kingdom of God (this from the title essay of a collection called A Room Called Remember):
Shall is the verb of hope. Then death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning or crying. Then shall my eyes behold him and not as a stranger. Then his kingdom shall come at last and his will shall be done in us and through us and for us. Then the trees of the wood shall sing for joy as already they sing a little even now sometimes when the wind is in them and as underneath their singing our own hearts too already sing a little sometimes at this holy hope we have.
The past and the future. Memory and expectation. Remember and hope. Remember and wait. Wait for him whose face we all of us know because somewhere in the past we have faintly seen it, whose life we all of us thirst for because somewhere in the past we have seen it lived, have maybe even had moments of living it ourselves. Remember him who himself remembers us as he promised to remember the thief who died beside him. To have faith is to remember and wait, and to wait in hope is to have what we hope for already begin to come true in us through our hoping. Praise him.
For the occasional glimpse of the kingdom of God, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #792, There Is a Balm in Gilead; #797, We Cannot Measure How You Heal; #852, When the Lord Redeems the Very Least