Written by Kathryn Matthews
Sunday, August 21
Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time
Out of the Shadow/Set Free
Merciful God, as we pour out the wealth you have entrusted to us, the parched places are watered; as we cease our evil talk, the rising light of peace dawns in the darkness. So lead us into faithful living that your promises may unfold in us as a woman's back, long bent, unfolds at Christ's command, to the praise of your holy name. Amen.
Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And 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. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, "Woman, you are set free from your ailment." When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But 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." But 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? And 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?" When 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.
All Readings For This Sunday
Jeremiah 1:4-10 with Psalm 71:1-6 or
Isaiah 58:9b-14 with Psalm 103:1-8 and
Hebrews 12:18-29 and
1. What kinds of healing might we offer to those we may or may not notice in our places of worship?
2. In what ways do we hinder liberation and healing for the sake of rules and tradition?
3. Is the suffering of some people easier to avoid than others, or to miss entirely?
4. Have you ever experienced grace coming to you, even when you didn't have the strength or confidence to ask for it?
5. How do you imagine the bent-over woman's life was different, the day after she was healed?
Reflection by Kate Matthews
It's a simple enough story: on the way to Jerusalem, while Jesus is teaching in a synagogue, a "bent-over" woman passing by evokes Jesus' compassion. Does the woman ask for healing? No. Does Jesus seem to care that it's the Sabbath, when healing non-life-threatening conditions is not permitted? No. Without being asked, he calls her over to him, and sets her free from her longtime ailment by placing his hands on her, just as one would in blessing. The woman is blessed and freed and has sense enough to recognize the source of the freedom she's been given at last, to look forward, at the world around her, and to move through it with comfort and confidence.
Now, is everyone amazed and grateful to witness such a thing? No, indeed. The leader of the synagogue is instead upset by this breach of the Law and tells the crowd, which undoubtedly includes many others in need of healing (aren't we all?), that they should come back tomorrow, when the timing will be more appropriate for such things as healing. The tension builds as Jesus heads toward Jerusalem and his death, and the lessons for us as disciples continue.
A simple enough story, it seems. But as in all biblical narratives, there is so much more to see: when we consider the setting of the story and its parallels with other stories, we begin to experience even more of its power and meaning. This isn't the only time Jesus has healed on the Sabbath or healed while teaching in the synagogue (or both). It isn't the first time he's provoked the religious leaders, and it won't be the last.
A narrow line of vision but the ability to see the truth
Sharon Ringe describes the situation of the bent-over woman very well, this condition that could be translated as "a spirit of weakness." She calls that weakness a kind of power that kept her bent-over and captive in "a world defined by the piece of ground around her own toes or looked at always on a slant." Ironically, while this woman's line of vision has been severely affected by her ailment these many years, she has no problem seeing that help is on the way, standing right in front of her, in the person of Jesus, no problem recognizing the source of her healing. The crowd is also able to see God's hand at work and to appreciate Jesus' timing in spite of the objections of the religious leader. In fact, it's the so-called religious experts in this small but powerful incident who seem least able to see the truth right before their eyes.
Remember back in chapter four of this Gospel when Jesus stood in another synagogue and began his ministry with a statement of intent to proclaim release to the captives? Remember the reaction of the crowd then, when they ran him out of town? Remember just a few verses before this passage, in Chapter 12, when Jesus said he had come to bring division (12:51)? The reaction to this healing is a good illustration of division: the religious leaders may be clueless and outraged, but the people are carried away with joy. Joy v. outrage - that is division.
What burdens do people bear?
Woven into this story are several threads: the healing of the woman who is pressed down, held bound by Satan, as Jesus describes her, is the most obvious. Each Sunday, all sorts of burdens are carried into our churches. Some, like the bent-over woman's condition, are more visible than others. As you look around you in church, what do you see? The weight of many years of suffering on one person's face, the crushing hurt of a new and painful reality in another's eyes: divorce; the loss of a loved one; financial worries; poor health; a child who has run away, physically or emotionally. Perhaps there are people in your church who know the pain and oppression of being marginalized and alone in the greater community, if not within the church itself. Who are these people, and do we notice them, the way Jesus noticed the bent-over woman, or are they and their suffering invisible to us? Is the suffering of some people easier to avoid than others?
Just as important is our response. Our hearts may be touched by the suffering of another, but there is still another step, to compassion, and then to action in response to that suffering. What kinds of healing might we offer to those we may or may not notice in our places of worship? Then there is the question of self-examination. Regrettably, in many ways the church itself may lay burdens on the people; our commitment to accessibility is one response to a long history of taking the easier way rather than meeting the challenge of making our buildings, services, and ministries accessible to all of God's children, regardless of physical and mental limitations. For example, how many of our chancels are accessible for preachers and worship leaders who may have mobility issues? Is there a word of judgment for us in this reading from the Gospel of Luke? In what ways do we hinder liberation and healing for the sake of rules and tradition? And how often is "tradition" simply mistaken for "the way it's always been"?
All of us bear burdens of one kind or another, and most of us know what it is to suffer physically, mentally, spiritually. When have we experienced healing and/or liberation from our own burdens? Have we, like the bent-over woman, had sense enough to immediately praise God? How have we experienced grace as coming to us, even when we may not have had the strength or the confidence to ask for it?
The burdens women carry in every age
A second thread leads to reflection on Jesus' ministry with women. We see the quiet humility of a woman who has apparently come to the synagogue to pray, asking nothing for herself, and, according to Sharon Ringe, we also see the restoration to the community that Jesus offers in his healing, expressed by the unusual address (the only time it's used in the Gospels), "daughter of Abraham." Perhaps the condition of the woman is a metaphor for the experience of so many women bearing heavy burdens in every culture and time, whether they are hauling water for miles, caring for sick children without needed resources, enduring physical abuse, or treated unjustly in the workplace.
Jesus repeatedly ignores rules and customs that reinforce such marginalization and injustice, and this story embodies his attitude toward all women, not just one "victim" of "a spirit of weakness." If Jesus frees her with from the illness that kept her captive, as Ringe says, aren't we called to free today's women and girls from their captivity and burdens, not just to study the oppression of women or to acknowledge it as an unfortunate sociological phenomenon, but to actually deal with its causes? One good example of such a witness is the work of the United Church of Christ and many other people of faith who are fighting the good fight against human trafficking, which, tragically, touches most often on the lives of women and young girls.
And then there is the question of timing. This healing was a problem because of when it happened, not to whom or by whom or how it was accomplished. Come back tomorrow, the synagogue leader says, when it's alright for healings to be performed. Wait a little longer. According to Richard Swanson, the tension here is between two faithful Jewish men who are struggling with what it means to be faithful, so the religious leader is not mean-spirited but trying to press his case for obedient faithfulness. So is Jesus, of course, but both men believe they are keeping Sabbath. (We note, however, that Jesus calls the religious leaders "hypocrites.")
Were the Pharisees really so terrible?
I don't know about you, but I've spent most of my life thinking of the Pharisees and the Sadducees and the synagogue leaders back in Jesus' day as uptight, judgmental, close-minded, harsh, moralistic, religious fanatics. (By the way, recent polls show that many young people, alas, see people who claim to be Christians the same way.) Jesus was the outsider, sort of a first-century Clint Eastwood, who would come into town and stir things up by trying to set them right, because obviously the religious types had it all wrong. It was so clear, so simple: religious leaders were the bad guys, and Jesus was the good guyÖactually, the best guy of all.
However, we can approach these stories about Jesus' conflicts with the religious leaders of his day from a different perspective. What if the arguments that they had ó over the Sabbath (that was a big one, and it's at the heart of our story today), or over which people are the proper ones to eat with, or who counts as your neighbor, or whether a person can get divorced and remarry ó what if we saw those conflicts as conversations within a community, among people who shared common sacred ground, a long and holy history with a God who was always, always faithful to them, even though these people called Israel didn't agree on everything and every way to be faithful.
Trying to do the right thing
That's the thing: the religious leaders, bless their hearts, were trying in their own way to be faithful. Sure, maybe things sometimes got out of hand with thinking that some folks were somehow purer or more worthy than others, or that the way to please God was through religious observance ó worship services, impressive buildings, long prayers and fasting, focusing a lot of attention on the law, right down to every technical detail. All this even though God often told them that wasn't what mattered; what mattered most and matters even now to God is what's in our hearts, and how we treat one another, and especially how we treat those in our midst (whether we notice them or not) who are most vulnerable: as the Bible says, "the poor, the lame, the widow and the orphan, the stranger in your midst."
But still, these religious leaders were folks who got up in the morning thinking about God and how they might serve God better. They didn't always get it right, but they were sincerely trying. If we think about that for a minute, don't they begin to sound familiar? Don't they sound a lot like us?
There's more than one way to keep the Sabbath
The story really portrays Jesus as keeping the Sabbath because he sees it differently, and because he has a different sense of timing. The time for God's grace and healing is now, not later. This is an urgent matter. Jesus has just spent much of the previous chapter speaking about "the hour" and about the ability to see what is really important. This woman's ailment may not threaten her life, but her life is so precious that each day is a gift and an opportunity to praise God. According to Barbara Reid, this healing is even more appropriate on the Sabbath, because it frees the woman to observe the Sabbath in the fullest sense, that is, to praise God, and to do so on God's timing, which is right now. So it's not unreasonable to suggest, as Sharon Ringe does, that the point of all this is not keeping the Sabbath or not, but the way in which we keep it holy.
This problem of proper observance, of course, seems to be an ongoing one for the religious elites throughout the Gospels, the ones who ought to be most attuned to God at work in the world, the ones who should have a special sense of what it means to be faithful. This problem still persists in our own time as well, and brings us to our own questions and our own need for healing. We read this story in a world that doesn't know the meaning of Sabbath (no matter how much we need it!) or grasp the importance of timing.
Not one more day of weekend activity
Richard Swanson does a beautiful job of contrasting our modern approach to Sunday (our Sabbath day) and the profound regard that the people of Jesus' time would have had for the day of rest. Rather than one more day of activity on the weekend, our Sabbath observance would be enriched by Swanson's description of our ancient ancestors' practice and understanding of Sabbath as "a day of promiseÖa glimpse of God's dominion, a little slice of the messianic age dropped into the midst of regular time," and "a symbol of resistance God's people offer to tyrants of every sort and every time."
What are "tyrants" in our lives that demand our attention, our energy, our spirits? What would it require in our lives to escape such oppression, even for just one day a week? Many of us actually feel anxiety if our time and attention are not fully taken up in an activity or in some type of electronic media. What would it require for our souls to be at rest in God, here, on earth? Is it any wonder, as Swanson writes, that "Sabbath is welcomed into the house as a queen would be welcomed"? After all, it "offers a remembrance of God's promise of peace and freedom for all of creation. It is a good thing, a gift from God."
Finding the time of peace and rest that God provides
We are fortunate in many ways in our culture, but we are burdened, too. For example, many children in our society are as pressed down as the bent-over woman with schedules that leave them no time to play or to just "be" with their families, friends, and nature. We adults are the same way. Our health and the well-being of our families, our churches, and our communities are affected. Perhaps we could just begin with Sunday as a time of peace and rest, but as even more, as a time to immerse ourselves in the promises of God, the promises that sustain us each day, during "regular" time, too. As the bent-over woman's gaze was "lifted up" to God in praise, perhaps our perspective, too, will be raised and will lead us to new and deeper faithfulness and praise.
A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org) retired in July from serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
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For further reflection
Alice Walker, 21st century
"Anybody can observe the Sabbath, but making it holy surely takes the rest of the week."
Anita Diamant, 21st century
"The Sabbath is a weekly cathedral raised up in my dining room, in my family, in my heart."
Marva Dawn, 21st century
"Sabbath ceasing [means] to cease not only from work itself, but also from the need to accomplish and be productive, from the worry and tension that accompany our modern criterion of efficiency, from our efforts to be in control of our lives as if we were God, from our possessiveness and our enculturation, and finally, from the humdrum and meaninglessness that result when life is pursued without the Lord at the center of it all."
Barbara Brown Taylor, 21st century
"The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth wrote, "A being is free only when it can determine and limit its activity." By that definition, I have a hard time counting many free beings among my acquaintance. I know people who can do five things at once who are incapable of doing nothing....Since I have been one of these people, I know that saying no is a more difficult spiritual practice than tithing, praying on a cold stone floor, or visiting a prisoner on death row."
Henry Ward Beecher, 19th century
"A world without a Sabbath would be like a man without a smile, like summer without flowers, and like a homestead without a garden. It is the most joyous day of the week."
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