This morning’s reading from Luke is part of a sequence of parables that all have to do with how to live a life that reflects one’s devotion to the Torah; or, in other words, how to live faithfully.
At beginning of Luke 13 we read of Pilate murdering Jews at sacrifice and the deaths of others at the collapse of the Tower of Siloam; and the people ask “What sin did those who died need to repent of?” Jesus responds by teaching that we are not called to worry about others’ sins, just our own: and that repentance is an ongoing process, not a one-time event.
The remainder of this chapter contains the Parable of Mustard Seed, among other parables, in which we learn that the seeds of the Kingdom of God are all around us: hidden, but ready to spring forth in a wonderful way without warning, and that we cannot stop it.
All of these stories and parables are used here to show us how to live a faithful life – one that is conforms to the faith traditions, laws and customs of the community, or the Torah, which is far more than merely the Law. But, this morning’s story about the crippled woman, in the middle of this chapter, is unique in the Gospels, and presents a different lesson. …So, why is it here, in between these other two sequences of stories?
But first, let’s talk about Sabbath.
The Sabbath is a day of “Rest” although it’s hard to get agreement on what a “Sabbath Rest” actually is. All would agree that it is more than merely a day to not work. It is a break in the rhythm of our week, intended to get our minds and spirits off of the drudgery and challenges of life that we face each and every day. Sabbath is meant to give us room to reorient ourselves, to focus on what is really important rather than on what keeps us busy.
Many through the centuries have tried to enforce “Sabbath” practices through the law and stern teaching. The Puritans did so: forbidding all “nonreligious” activity on the Lord’s Day. Meals had to be prepared the day before; only the Bible and other religious texts could be read; and games and sports were banned.
The problem with this approach is that it enforces the appearance of Sabbath without necessarily making room for what is at its heart; and so for many, the Sabbath is a day of dread. Those who impose such rules, often even on those who are not of the same faith, are resented and sometimes even feared. Legalism supplants Grace; oppression overwhelms joy.
And, this is not just some long-ago quirk of our ancestors. Some of us may have ovens with a “Sabbath” setting, included so that observant Jews can have a hot meal without having to do the work of cooking on the Sabbath – it cooks itself. And, how many of us have been given a guilt trip at one time or another for not attending church on Sunday? Or worse yet, for going to a sports game, or even one of those godless rock concerts, instead?
My mother grew up in a Catholic town; and the school system’s practices reflected the demands of the Church: the Catholic version of the Lord’s prayer had to be said in the schools by every child, every morning; and for a long time Catholic kids got to leave school early on Thursdays for Catechism classes, while everyone else had to stay behind for math drills. (Oh what fun!)
She remembers feeling bad for her Jewish friends because Christian Holidays like Christmas were observed within the school system, but not the Holidays of other faiths. These same battles, over prayer in schools, over whether to celebrate Christmas and Easter, and even over whether to use Christian terms for Holidays at all, are still being fought in our schools, and elsewhere, despite decades of legal decisions affirming that our Constitution prohibits the favoring any faith over others in any public forum.
Now, schools and many businesses typically take Saturdays and Sundays off, since these are the Sabbath days for Jews and Christians. But, what about Muslims, for whom Fridays are a Sabbath day?
Ultimately, just like in Puritan times, demanding that everyone observe one particular set of faith practices or rules, no matter how innocuous those of that faith may believe them to be, is oppressive to everyone not of that faith. They become a point of contention, of strife and resentment. So, when legalism like this arises, the Sabbath’s purpose is lost.
It strikes me that the story of the Crippled woman here in Luke encapsulates this debate, which has been going on since at least the time of the Judges in Israel, more than three thousand years ago. It is the question of where the line lies between Communal Faith and Personal Faith. Should our personal faith and practices take precedence? Or should they be subservient to the leadership, doctrines, customs and rules – the “oughts” or Torah – of the Community of which we are a part?
It’s an important discussion, for which there is no right answer. At one extreme you find those for whom the only faith is the faith of self: a faith that cares nothing for how their personal beliefs and practices impact others, caring nothing for the best interests of community, or anyone in it.
At the other extreme is where we find a faith where the community ignores the individual. Law and Order, the need to conform to the demands of the Church, or of the State, or of one’s peers, trumps everything else. The individual is seen only as part of the whole. In effect, there is no “self.”
Now, every Faith must have boundaries – beliefs and practices – of some sort to define who is, and who is not, one of “us.” How else do would you tell a Catholic apart from a Baptist? Or a Hindu? (Or even a Unitarian?!?) But identifying how “they” differ from us is not the same as demanding that “they” (whoever “they” may be) must be one of us.
And this is exactly what is going on with the leader of the Synagogue in this morning’s reading. After Jesus heals the woman the leader repeatedly tells the people, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.” … He is telling the people what he believes that they ought to be doing, what he sees as the demands of Torah. He is not disputing whether the woman should be healed – or not – nor even whether Jesus should be a healer – or not. As he sees it, a true Jew will not work (using his definition of work) on the Sabbath!
The problem with such boundaries, as we’ve already said, is that they can go from being a definition of “who we are, and who we are not,” to a decree of “who you must be, and who you must not be;” transforming identity from an attribute to a demand. The will of others becomes the Torah we follow, supplanting the Torah of God; Torah becomes bondage, not Freedom.
In our reading we see that her condition was a bondage of the spirit, not a physical ailment; afflicting her for 18 years, which I imagine is how long she had been a member of that community. It weighed her down. She could not stand straight. She could not look Jesus in the face. The leader of the synagogue did not oppose her healing. He opposed it not being done according to the Torah as he knew it, which defined who he and his people must be; the very same Torah that had weighed her down for 18 long years.
She did not approach Jesus. Maybe she didn’t dare to do so because her bondage taught her that she was unworthy. She remained within the crowd, anonymous; accepting the boundaries that her bondage placed upon her. The boundaries that closed her off from the spiritual reorientation and grace that lie at the heart of Sabbath.
And yet, Jesus noticed her. She was not anonymous: he knew her. He wanted her to accept the gift and healing of Sabbath. He called her over, healed her, and when the synagogue leader started railing about how the boundaries had been broken Jesus replied by drawing a parallel between the bondage of this woman and an ox: it (and she) are not free. And yet, on the Sabbath, an ox can be unbound and led to water (a metaphor for the Holy Spirit), but not the woman.
Through healing the woman and then in words Jesus teaches us that she, and all of us must be free to partake of the Holy Spirit. And, if anything, the Day of Sabbath is the most appropriate time for this. Yes, boundaries exist, defining who we are, just as observing Torah defines who is a Jew; but such boundaries should not be enforced in ways that limit our access to the Grace of God.
Earlier in Luke Jesus teaches that the Priesthood, the Scribes and the Pharisees are servants, caretakers of the Torah of the people of God. They are not its’ masters. Torah is not intended to place people in bondage. We are not its’ slaves, but beneficiaries of the Freedom it gives. We adhere to the laws and rules and customs and boundaries of Torah because we feel led to do so out of our Love for God and each other, not because we will be rejected if we do not. Jesus demands that we be set free from the bondage of self-appointed judges of our conformance the Torah. God is our judge, none other. Sabbath is intended to free us so that we can fully embrace Torah, not enslave us to it. It breaks our normal routine so that we will find God, as happened to this woman.
So, whether you skip church on Sunday – or not, whether you strictly observe any particular faith tradition – or not, is up to you. It is not up to me, or anyone else. Our Christian Tradition informs our faith, but ultimately our faith is ours – not someone else’s: ours alone.
Each and every one of us has the freedom to worship God as we feel led to do: we are not bound to the will of anyone else, not even God. We join ourselves to a community of Faith because we need the companionship of those who believe like we do, but that does not mean we must believe just as they do. We are free to disagree. In fact, in a way, you could say that Torah demands it.
Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA, Sunday, August 21, 2016.
Hebrews 12:18-29 (The Message)
Luke 13:10-17 (NRSV)
Copyright (c) 2016, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)