Pentecost 14: 21 August Luke 13:10-17
This story recalls a number of others. Luke had found two such stories in Mark 2:23-28 and 3:1-6 and brings them in 6:1-5 and 6-11. Only the second was a healing. It, too, was in a synagogue. Luke also knew the healing of the man with paralysis in Mark 2:1-12. The story he brings here stands on its own and must have come to him from independent sources. The synagogue leader voices the objection we might surmise could have been raised in the other synagogue healing on the sabbath. Why couldn’t the woman have waited for another day? No one objects to healing. But why not do it on a work day?
Jesus’ reply points to the need to water animals on the sabbath. One could argue that that was necessary for survival. But the woman would have survived another day. She had been in this state for eighteen years! It is not a very good argument. In fact the real issue lies elsewhere. It is not about the finer points of what might be permissible. Jesus is not really playing the game of competing interpretations and when we think he is, he is not very successful. The counter is weak and off hand because Jesus’ understanding of the Law is quite different. His basic assumption is that God’s will (in the Law as elsewhere) is focused on people’s well being. Elsewhere he states: ‘The sabbath was made for people; not people for the sabbath’ (Mark 2:27).
He is not riding roughshod over the Law and replacing it with new ways. Later people like Paul saw that as the only option when pressed by the problems of expanding the faith into Gentile world. Not so Jesus, at least, not according to Luke and Luke is doubtless reflecting ancient sources which reflect the approach of the historical Jesus. Luke reports that Jesus said: ‘It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for stroke of a letter of the Law to be dropped’ (16:17). Jesus upheld biblical law. His conflicts were over how to interpret it. But the issue was not argument about specific points, but about the underlying theology of the Law, of Scripture. Such conflicts still play themselves out today in such fundamental questions as: how do we approach the Bible?
The theology which informs Jesus’ attitude appears to be diametrically opposed to the theology reflected in the leader of the synagogue. Both would affirm that we must love God with the whole heart and soul and strength and that this needs to show itself in action. For the leader this meant: keeping the commandments. That made sense. Behind it is an image of God saying: I am God. I must be obeyed. I alone deserve your loyalty and service. That also makes sense. The outcome is: we seek to know what God’s commands entail, how they apply, and we keep them. Simple as that! Our devotion is reflected in the extent we take that challenge seriously. I could just as easily be describing what many Christians have seen and still see as the universal duty incumbent on all. Is it not also what Jesus himself would have said?
There is a subtle difference. It runs deeply into our assumptions and attitudes. What is God really like? What if God’s chief concern is not to be obeyed, but something else? What if God’s chief focus is love and care for people and for the creation? Then the focus moves from God’s commands to God’s people and world. It is as though God is telling us to get our priorities right. Commandments, rules, guidelines, traditions, laws, scriptures are also subordinate to that purpose: love. God’s focus is not self-aggrandisement as it is with so many who have power and wealth and want to keep it, but generosity and giving, restoration and healing, encouraging and renewing. When any of these means (commandments, laws, scriptures) cease to be seen in that light, they become ends and we find people in absurd conflicts about whether they help someone in need or obey God. When those become alternatives, something has gone terribly wrong, IF you believe God’s chief concern is caring concern for people.
This story is almost a parody of Jesus’ opponents. How absurd to object to someone being made well! How absurd to imagine God would be more worried about having the sabbath commandment protected than having people healed! We need to see that the story had that function: to contrast the two approaches. It is, in that sense, using stereotypes. It would be most inappropriate, in fact, directly offensive, if we were not to see this and to start caricaturing Jewish leaders and Judaism on the basis of this story.
The key issue is alive and well in Christian churches today. How we imagine God is directly related to how we imagine what it means to be a decent person. For many generations the most highly valued person was the one with greatest power, wealth, and, sometimes, knowledge. So people inevitably imagined God as being like that. God was then imagined to be as unapproachable and self obsessed as such people have been. The way to live was to try to get on with the people of influence. The same applied to God. Keep the commandments! Commandments are not to be questioned. They have absolute authority because they allegedly come from absolute authority. People tried to be like their god and, alas, all too often succeeded.
Jesus spent much of his ministry, it seems, in a struggle to portray a different way of imagining God which more matched the reality. God is not to be modelled on the aloof king and powerful father, but on the mother looking for a lost coin and the dad running down the road to meet a lost son. The facades of dignity are dropped in favour of affection and caring. It is a very different model of God and produces a very different way of handling human life and biblical tradition.
Both models represented in the story reflect deep devotion. Both in different ways protect some things that are valuable. Both are based on scripture. One is healing. So is the other, but healing is subordinate to other concerns.
We are left guessing about the healing process and the pathology. The story, however, aptly reflects a different kind of paralysis which is chronic in religious communities. This story and its exposition in community offers an opportunity for healing.
Epistle: Pentecost 14: 21 August Hebrews 12:18-29