Sermon preached by The Reverend Charles Royden
Ordinary 21 Year C 2010
It is worth noting at the start of this sermon that this is not the only incident in which Jesus falls foul of the Jewish Authorities for healing folks on the Sabbath. This story is similar to
- Luke 6:6-11, the story of a man with a withered hand, and
- Luke 14:1-6, the story of a man with dropsy
On each of these occasions Jesus heals people physically and uses the healing to make a point. I am not saying that these physical healings are not important in their own right, but we must place them firmly in the context, because something even bigger is going on.
Make no mistake, these are not circumstances in which a kind hearted Jesus is going about trying to do the right thing, then suddenly finds himself on the wrong side of the law. He knew fully what he was doing.
I was reading an interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury in which he spoke of the problems he had to learn of how to handle the media. For example he said he could speak to an academic audience about Sharia law and then suddenly find that his words were quoted in the Daily Mail. He had felt if he had realised that his words were going to be used in this way, then he would have chosen them more carefully for a wider audience.
I feel very sorry for the Archbishop finding that people would take his honest words and use them to inflame, it must be very difficult. However, let us make no mistake, Jesus fully understood that his actions were being scrutinised, he deliberately healed the woman on the Sabbath, he decided to go on the offensive and into conflict with the Jewish authorities.
Luke makes this very clear in Chapter 6, we are told
The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath. But Jesus knew what they were thinking and said to the man with the shrivelled hand, ‘Get up and stand in front of everyone’
This is clear confrontation, Jesus is making a spectacle. No wonder that we learn of the reaction of the Jewish leaders
‘They were furious and began to discuss with one another
what they might do to Jesus.’
Well we know what they decided to do and it led to the death of Jesus, he was a threat to their way of life which they would not tolerate. That was why they killed him.
So it is within that context that we hear about this next incident
It is a Sabbath , Jesus is teaching in a synagogue and he calls forward this woman who is bent over. There is so much that we can read into these words of the condition of the woman. She was bent over and she was not able to straighten herself. There lies the condition of all humankind, bent over with the trials and tribulations of life and not able to straighten itself. Nothing is capable of sorting us out, not economics, not politics, not science, not anything only God.
But there is more going on than healing this woman, once again Jesus is drawing attention to himself. The healing is significant, but Jesus is using this healing as a way of demonstrating what he was about and challenging his enemies. In Verses 17 we are told that they were ‘humiliated.’
The healing itself was a wonderful thing. A woman who was suffering was given a new lease of life and praised God. Yet physical healing is dare I say of secondary importance to what Jesus was doing. He was using the woman as a visual aid in the fight against something else.
The synagogue leader quotes Deuteronomy 5:13 at Jesus, we might not realise but Jesus quotes back at him the following verse. Not only are people not to work on the sabbath, but neither is anyone or anything else (Dt 5:14). There were, however, exceptions and Jesus notes what is apparently a common practice, i.e. that of giving water to a cow or donkey a drink even on the sabbath. His point is that the woman is far more important than animals, yet animals are allowed more freedom on the sabbath than is the woman. This woman is a "daughter of Abraham," heir to the same promise as Abraham. She has been held captive by Satan for--"behold!"--18 long years. What better time for a "daughter of Abraham" to be released from the grip of Satan than the sabbath! After all, as Deuteronomy goes on to say, the very reason for the institution of the sabbath is to celebrate freedom from slavery:
Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day. (5:15)
Jesus has taken the synagogue leader's very argument, and its same scriptural source, and turned it against him. Jesus' message is clear: "If the sabbath is about freedom, as your own passage from Deuteronomy clearly says, then it is entirely proper to celebrate the freedom of this woman from the bondage of Satan--yes, on the sabbath, even especially on the sabbath."
This is what lies behind Jesus' using the word "hypocrites." The sense of its use in this context seems to be that current sabbath practices show greater compassion to animals than to a woman. Worse, they contradict the very meaning of sabbath.
Healing is a word which we must always be careful how we use, not least because if we mean by healing being ‘cured’, then we diminish all of those people who do not have miraculous physical recoveries.
Being healed is a much deeper thing than just being cured, those who are healed are restored in a spiritual way, which puts them at peace with God and hopefully with themselves and those around them.
As Christians we must be like Jesus and recognise the worth of person which transcends their physical condition. We live in a society which judges the very apparent and obvious physical aspects and ignores that which is of real beauty and worth.
This is why we need to constrain our concern over this woman’s physical recovery this morning and concentrate more on what Jesus was doing. The woman would have felt so much better after this healing and yet the healing was a means to demonstrate something of much more significance. The woman need not have been cured to have been healed.
For example it might well have been that people told her that she was ill; because she was a bad person, the healing showed clearly that God does not visit physical ailments upon people.
The point is that this woman was just as lovely to God bent double as she was physically restored.
This message is so important for us and especially so in a culture in which beauty is skin deep. Look at the debate around at the moment about women. Girls are educated into a mindset which tells them that must aspire physically to that which cannot be achieved. Even those who do nothing all day but count calories and brush their hair cannot achieve the physical standard which is required but have to be airbrushed.
This is a lesson in itself from today’s reading. God does not require that we are all physically good and illness is not a sign of failure or punishment.
I was in John Lewis this week and watching their lovely televisions. Max and I said we would go and see if we could spot the difference between a High Definition television and an ordinary one. I have watched a high definition television so I was not sure what to expect. First of all we watched an ordinary big screen TV and it was OK nothing remarkable. Then we watch a high definition television on the same channel. Well it was different, so different that all of a sudden we both noticed the woman on the set , she had warts on her face and her spots. Now we didn;t have the remote so we couldn’t switch the channel over, but neither of us would have wanted to watch the entire programme. We looked on the surface in high definition and we were not impressed.
The point that we need to realise is that God looks at us in high definition, we cannot cover up the scars and marks. He sees us as we really are and he loves us, he does not have to change us before we are lovely in his sight. Jesus did not heal this woman because he thought she needed to be changed to be acceptable to God.
Jesus was able to see beyond the condition which presented itself in this woman and see the real person within. Jesus clearly thought that the woman who was bent and crippled was much more lovely than the self-righteous synagogue ruler. This ruler might have had perfect physical health, but his spiritual health was clearly terminal.
So let us think about what Jesus was doing when he did these healings on the sabbath.
- He spoke to a woman in a society in which that was shocking in itself.
- He brought her into the centre of the synagogue, not a place where you would expect to find a woman. Imagine the woman walking from the back of the synagogue were the women were segregated, walking through the men. Imagine how she and they would have felt.
- He touched her, that was something which would be considered inappropriate
- He calls her "daughter of Abraham," a term not found in any of the prior Jewish literature. This is revolutionary because it was believed that women were saved through their men. To call her a daughter of Abraham is to make her a full-fledged member of the nation of Israel with equal standing before God.
- He heals on the Sabbath, the holy day. In doing this he demonstrates God's compassion for people over ceremony, and reclaims the Sabbath for the celebration of God's liberal goodness.
- He challenges the ancient belief that her illness is a direct punishment from God for sin. He asserts that she is ill, not because God willed it, but because there is evil in the world. In other words, bad things happen to good people.
So whilst the healing is important, all of these other things are going on and making a much bigger challenge, one which threatened the status quo. Jesus was breaking the social order, challenging the caste system. The woman was healed, that is the little picture, but the picture was about Jesus taking on the establishment, challenging the political, social, and religious values of his day. He not only wanted to cure individuals he wanted to bring about a revolution in the political and social order. Jesus was killed not because he cured people, but because he used such occasions to challenge the status quo, he was trying to change the system.
Today is a real warning to us not to regard our religion, our values, social and political as given by God. Jesus showed that people are important, not rules. The Sabbath was made for humanity and not the other way around. No wonder that Jesus did not care what people thought about him helping those in need, and being friends with them irrespective of whether they were with prostitutes, tax-collectors, sinners, people from different tribes.
Social taboos and religious rules are usually our rules, not God’s.
So we seek God’s guidance on how we can live and think through afresh our attitudes and behaviours. Jesus challenges us not to accept something just because that is what we have always done, or what has been handed on to us. We need to keep thinking and praying, so that God will give us fresh understandings of how to live out our faith in a changing world.
You can imagine the collision course which Jesus is on with the authorities. You will not be surprised that this is the last time in which Luke records Jesus in a synagogue. He angered them and they never invited him back !