21 August 2016 — Dr. Irene Lawrence: While you were hearing the gospel read just now, there’s a good chance you said to yourself, “Oh, it’s just another healing story” and promptly tuned out. It’s true that Jesus spent a lot of his time and effort healing people, and the stories tend to run together in our minds. And there certainly are commonalities among the stories—in broadest terms, that God loves us and wants us to be whole. But the details of how each different story is remembered and told offers offer us different nuances and insights—not necessarily unique, but more obvious in the way some stories are told than in others.
One thing to notice is that Luke is the only evangelist who tells this particular story. If either Mark or Matthew knew this story, they did not consider it necessary to include it in their written Gospels. So the fact that Luke includes it means he thinks something about it is important and needs to be emphasized. Let’s look at the story.
Jesus has been traveling around, preaching, teaching, healing, and generally working for the Kingdom of God. Luke doesn’t tell us exactly where he is at this moment, but it’s the Sabbath and as seems to be his custom he goes to the local synagogue. A bent-over woman comes to church. I am picturing her as old, crippled with osteoporosis and arthritis. Jesus sees her, gets her attention, and says, “Ma’am, you’re well again.” And she is.
What is unusual about this story is its simplicity; there are no embellishments. There’s no dialog between Jesus and the unnamed woman before he heals her: she doesn’t ask to be healed, Jesus doesn’t ask if she wants to be healed. For that matter, there’s no dialog between Jesus and anyone else before he heals her, not even the spirit that is said to be causing her deformity. Jesus doesn’t ask about her faith or comment on her faith or forgive her sins. Jesus doesn’t perform any intricate manipulations with mud or spit, although he does lay his hands on her. No one goes to any trouble that we are told about to draw Jesus’ attention to her—the synagogue’s roof remains whole and unbroken—in fact, no one in particular brings her to Jesus at all; she seems to have arrived under her own steam. She’s not a foreigner, not a Syrophoenician or a Samaritan woman; she seems to be a local and a well-known woman. No one questions her morals, or sniggers about what kind of woman she is, or says that she doesn’t deserve to be healed. No one asks whether it was her sin or her parents’ sin that caused her suffering. In this account, Jesus simply sees her and heals her. End of story. You might think.
Except it wasn’t of course. The “leader of the synagogue” objects to the healing. Actually, he doesn’t object to the healing in itself; he’s perfectly happy to have the woman or anyone else healed on any other day of the week, just not on the Sabbath. Because there are none of the other distractions about other things that appear in most of the other healing accounts, this is clearly a bare-bones account centering around working on the Sabbath. The leader of the synagogue objects on the grounds that work is forbidden on the Sabbath; Jesus shoots him down by reminding him that everyone cares for their animals on the Sabbath, so he can very well care for a human being on the Sabbath. In this story, the issue is about what counts as work—and Jesus is clearly saying that caring for other living creatures does not count as work for purposes of this commandment.
We don’t recite the Ten Commandments much in church anymore, and on the rare occasions when we do, we shorten them, so perhaps it’s appropriate for me to quote the full commandment about working; in our numbering system it’s the fourth commandment:
(Ex 20:2-17, CEB)
This is serious stuff. While I don’t suggest that we give the leader of the synagogue a pass, we might consider his context. By Jesus’ time, Jewish worship had been pretty much centralized in the Jerusalem temple. That was fine for the local people, but what about Jews who lived further away? Jesus’ family is reported as making the trip to Jerusalem a couple of times during Jesus’ childhood, but that can’t have been easy. And for Jews of the diaspora—those who had been exiled or emigrated and lived still further away—it would have been impossible. Imagine being a sort of second-class Anglican if you couldn’t get to Canterbury for the major occasions in your life.
But just because you couldn’t get to Jerusalem didn’t mean that you gave up your hope of closeness to God. By Jesus’ time, there were many local synagogues—places of study and learning as well as prayer, which encouraged recognizing and honoring God in every aspect of everyday life through ritual and rule. The purpose of the ritual and rule—“the Law”—was not to be an end in itself, but to be a constant reminder of God’s continual presence. Think of our common custom of saying a grace before meals—it doesn’t make our food any more holy than it already is through God’s creation and human work, and God isn’t any more present than God was before we prayed, but the ritual reminds us of God’s presence and the whole created scheme of things.
The Jews who were most active in promoting this way of being Jewish were the group called Pharisees. The New Testament tends to give a one-sided picture of the Pharisees, including this leader of the synagogue; they are portrayed as legalists, putting blind obedience to the law above human welfare. My point here is that, while there are plenty of people who do that, not just Pharisees, those Pharisees who put law above compassion were not good Pharisees—they were not living up to their own ideals. Today’s lesson from Isaiah captures the intended spirit of joy that should come from keeping the Sabbath:
The successors of the Pharisees, beginning only a few generations after Jesus’ time, codified the principle of compassion above legalism. Healing in itself was not defined as work to be avoided on the Sabbath. Certainly ancillary activities might be work—gathering herbs or brewing a medicine, for example, would be work because harvesting and cooking activities were classified as work, and so to keep the Sabbath you had to plan ahead and make in advance any medicine you might need. But even after all these details were worked out, the Jewish law specifically stated that you must—you are required—to keep the Law by breaking the Law, by working on the Sabbath, if it is necessary to save a life.
And that brings me back to the story. Granted that this leader of the synagogue was not living up to true Pharisee standards, what was Jesus was doing that he so objected to—exactly what did Jesus do that the leader thought was work? Luke seems to think that he classified any kind of healing itself as work within the meaning of the commandment, but that really seems unlikely in the light of the later developments that I have described. So if healing is not classified as work just because it is healing, why did the leader of the synagogue accuse Jesus of working?
The story doesn’t describe Jesus as doing anything in particular that looks like work in the course of this healing—he calls the woman over, speaks to her, and touches her—but I wonder if we, and maybe Luke, are missing something here. Maybe healing costs Jesus something? Maybe the leader thought Jesus was working because it looked like Jesus was working? Maybe he observed that the healing tired Jesus, or even that he got a little sweaty, as if he had just done something strenuous?
Of course I don’t know. But it is consistent with other reports of Jesus’ activities—the time he felt power going out of him, for example, or the many times when he was exhausted and had to hide from the crowds—not always successfully—in order to pray and recharge. When you come to think about it, why we should assume that healing was easy for Jesus?
And why we should assume that healing is easy for Jesus now? Jesus continues to offer us healing—wholeness. Or put another way, is there a cost to God for loving us? Is it, in some metaphorical way—which is the only way we can talk about God—is it in some way work for God to love us and make us whole?
Some of us had early teaching that God was transcendent, which usually meant eternal, unchanging, impassive, remote, and untouchable. A reformation-era creed says that God is “pure spirit…without body, parts, or passions.” Perhaps that’s not quite the whole story. Our human relationships involve work. Especially if they need healing do they involve work. We are made in the image of God; Jesus shows us the image of God in human life. Perhaps, then, the work of a relationship with God is not all on one side. Perhaps the cost to God didn’t end on an Easter morning two thousand years ago. Perhaps God works as hard to heal each of us today as Jesus worked to heal the crippled woman we just read about. Her reaction was to praise God—and so should we.
14 Pentecost, Proper 16C trk2: Isaiah 58:9b-14; Psalm 103:1-8; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17