There has been a debate since at least the time of the Judges in Israel, more than three thousand years ago, as to where we should draw the line between Communal Faith and Personal Faith: Should our personal faith and practices take precedence? Or, should they be subservient to those of the community of which we are a part?
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?
Eating of the Tree was the only thing in the Garden for which we’d been told there was a consequence of making a choice – “In the day you eat of it, you shall die.” Yet, the man and woman did not know what a “consequence” was, they did not even know what death was. Yahweh was speaking way over their heads: a specific day? Time? Death? What’s that? I’m sure the man and woman thought: “Hmmm, sounds bad, let’s not go there!” Time was infinite, so why rush? Why push the boundaries? Why risk change?
Yet, there was a reason. The serpent knew what it was: they would “become like God, knowing Good and Evil.” Eating that fruit meant we’d learn new things: we’d escape from our existence in a mindless and meaningless eternity. Something new would happen in our never-ending cycle of days. But, to do so, we had to be willing to face what we had never known: change. We would experience limited time, we would experience death.
You know, the story of Adam and Eve is a great story, but it’s always bothered me. I mean, come on: if the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil were so darned important, why didn’t God put a fence around it, or stick it in some remote and impossible to access place? I mean – seriously: even if the man and woman obeyed, one of their kids or grandkids, or great-grandkids would eventually “forget” and taken a bite. It was inevitable. So, why?
Now, this morning’s reading is the passage in which the so-called “Original Sin” takes place, an event that we are taught “cursed” mankind for all time, until we were redeemed by Christ. But, is this event that affects every one of us – whether it is factual or metaphorical – really the great failure and source of all sin that we have been taught it is? Perhaps not.
…Let’s step back for a minute and consider the text as a whole. This particular story, the second of the two “creation narratives” at the beginning of the Bible, portrays Yahweh as a very hands-on sort of God: unlike the more remote vision of God we find in the first Creation narrative in Genesis 1. In that narrative, God “spoke” the world into being, hovered over the waters and said “Let there be light.” – All these are commands and things done from a distance, like you’d expect a remote and unapproachable God to do.
But, in Genesis 2 & 3 God doesn’t command anything into being, Instead, Yahweh gets down and dirty: She lovingly forms us with her own hands, then gently breathes the breath of life into our nostrils. She is presented as an up close and in your face sort of God, a very hands on sort of diety.
Yahweh is concerned for us as individuals, saying “it is not good that the man is alone” and so creates the woman. She talks face to face with us. The man and woman, we are told, “heard the sound of Yahweh walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze.” Yahweh works, walks, talks and breathes. She is a very human God – not some powerful spirit being. She is a very personal God – not some distant and unreachable entity. Yahweh is a God of Relationship – not a dictator. She is not a god who demands obedience and taking whatever she wants from us – Yahweh is a God filled with love and concern for us and for all of her Creation.
So, what does the type of God we find in this passage have to do with all this? Why wasn’t there even something like one of those little gnomes holding a “keep off” sign put there in the garden? Why was this tree left unguarded, tempting us? …Why no fence?
And yet, the purpose of Advent is to remind us of our brokenness and sin, of our need for the grace and healing touch of a God who loves us fiercely and compassionately. Further, Christmas teaches us that God knows our pain because God has lived it: walking among us as one of us, as a human being. Jesus experienced birth, the love of a devoted mother, the pain of losing those dear to him. He knew rejection, hunger, despair and fear. He was betrayed by those he loved, and he experienced a painful and humiliating death. God knows what it means to be human. God knows our deepest, greatest, most deeply hidden fears, failures and weaknesses.
And so, our faith tells us, Jesus is Emmanuel – the God who walks with us. God and the Kingdom of Heaven are near us at the hardest of moments, and for every moment of our lives, including now.
One of the things I love doing with my 3 year old son is to take him to the grocery store.
My little guy loves to get one of those “toddler shopping carts” with a steering wheel, and we wend our way through the store, him “steering” and me acting as the “engine,” brakes, and sanity check.
He is very serious about his job of steering the cart: energetically spinning the wheel this way and that to guide the cart towards his intended destination of the moment; pointing at and commenting about various things he wants daddy to see (or procure); and making sure no food sample is missed.
It’s a fun voyage, and one that often ends with us hitting the hot food and salad bar to select a meal, usually consisting of (for him) chicken, potatoes, corn, cauliflower and a small bottle of either cranberry juice or goat milk. We then sit down in the store’s dining area and enjoy our meal together, watching the “cart person” dashing this way and that in the parking lot, and seeing shoppers of every description rolling by with carts full of groceries.
One thing I think about as we roll along with him “piloting” our cart through the aisles is that this could be a good metaphor for the nature of free will in our lives. Yes, we do define our own path in life – steering this way and that: observing and participating in all the wonderful variety of this world in which we live. But, the entire environment, and all the rules that constrain where we can go and how we get there have been designed and implemented by God. Even the bodies in which we live, the mind with which we observe the world, and all of our senses, are God’s creations. All that we think, see, hear, feel, touch, smell and experience are constrained by the very design of the Universe.
So, in seeing my son “drive” his cart, I think of how yes – he believes he’s doing all the work, making all the choices. But it is others who designed and stocked the store, and ultimately even where he can go within that environment is constrained by whoever is pushing the cart. My son believes his voyage is directed by his own free will; but in looking at the larger picture, we realize that things are not always as they seem, especially when we think we’re in the driver’s seat.
Copyright (c) 2013, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site).