Rev. Matthias Peterson-Brandt
August 25th, 2019
Luke 13:10-17 & Deuteronomy 5:12-15
We know the line that the leader of the synagogue gives in this story. He says: “Come back on the other six days of the week to be cured.” In other words: “Wait. Healing and justice and restoration must take a back seat to good order. In due time.” It is the same wait we are used to hearing whenever something is not convenient. “We can’t bring up climate change yet, there is some infinitesimally small number of scientists who conclude that it is not real, so therefore there is not consensus. Wait for ‘consensus.’” “We can’t talk about what sensible gun laws might look like in the wake of a mass shooting. That is political opportunism. Let’s wait until this tragedy has receded a bit from the public eye, let’s wait until emotions have calmed down.”
Wait in some cases is synonymous with never.
I know that I am guilty of this too. And Gabriel definitely knows it. If you are a parent, this is probably familiar to you too. Sometimes, not always, but sometimes he will ask for something—a sweet treat I don’t want to give him, or to hear a song we’ve been listening to over and over and over—and I in some cases, I ask him to wait, but what I really hope is that he will forget or go onto something else. Sometimes he does, and other times he waits and asks again, and I am forced to relent.
But as much as I would like to equate this synagogue leader with the worst Jim Crow supporters and climate deniers and gun idolizers, that would probably be a false equivalency. We cannot know what was going on inside this religious leader when he rebutted Jesus’ healing as violating the sabbath. If we give him the benefit of the doubt, try to humanize him a bit, we can see where he is coming from. “Observe the Sabbath day and keep it Holy.” It is the fourth commandment. Pretty high up there in terms of importance for observant Jews, and certainly for Israelites at that time.
Jesus is jumping right into what was one of the ongoing debates of his era among Jews: how to interpret the command to observe the Sabbath. How is “work” defined in terms of what is allowable and not on the sabbath, a day of rest.
On one side were those like the Pharisees and this rabbi who took a more conservative interpretation to the meaning of Sabbath and what constituted work. Things like healing crossed the line for them. This understanding draws on the commands to observe the Sabbath that trace it to Creation. God labored six days in creating the cosmos, the earth, the creatures in it, human beings. Then on the seventh day God rested; thus humans too ought to take a day to rest from all their labors.
On the other hand, Jesus draws on the command to observe the sabbath from Deuteronomy where the rationale is connected to God’s liberation of the Israelites from Egypt. Where once they were slaves, forced to labor at the whims of another, at the times set by another, here instead the rest is connected to that liberation, a celebration of the freedom to rest. So for Jesus, healing a woman who was burdened under the weight of her condition for 18 years is perfectly in keeping with the meaning of the Sabbath—God’s liberating power.
Jesus emphasizes that he is not ditching the commandments by identifying the woman as a daughter of Abraham. The subtext of which suggests a sort of: “God freed the children of Abraham (another way of referring to the Israelites) from slavery, so too do I seek to free this daughter of the covenant from her ailment.”
As with many of Jesus’ healing miracles, we do have to tread with care in how we apply and interpret them for our day and age. Many of his miraculous deeds had to do with physical healing—curing diseases, restoring sight to the blind, or physical strength to those who were disabled or wounded. I do believe that sometimes miraculous things do happen with our health…diseases go into remission, or full and improbable recovery that even astonishes the doctors. Yet if our only concept of what is miraculous is physical healing then, any time our vision of what that liberating healing should look like fails to happen, we are stuck in a tough spot. Where is God? Did I not believe enough? Why is this still a pain I have to deal with?
As with today’s healing story, to get a sense of what it means we often have to take an expansive look at what happens and what it means. Here, a woman who has only been able to stare at one small patch of floor in front of her for 18 years is able to see others and God face to face, to worship in a way where her physical limitations were not an impediment.
It made me think of Jan serving as liturgist earlier this summer—Mike and Lynne drove her to church, Sasha set up a table for her at the front and draped a vestment over it, and Tom set up the microphone at the right height, and Jan brought her A-game to leading worship that Sunday. This may seem rather ordinary, but I find a miraculousness to our being able to accommodate one another’s many abilities and disabilities and limitations and gifts. It isn’t to say that the bent over woman’s worship was somehow less before Jesus healed her, but afterward, she was able to be seen and heard in a new way, and able to see and hear and praise God in a new way.
A mom I know posted this week about a moment she and her 12 year old son experienced at the grocery store. They saw a man with a walker; he was hunched over and his gaze looked straight down at the floor. They watched for a moment as he scooted towards a shelf and struggled to tilt his head to the side to be able to see what was on the shelf there. The 12 year old just walked off from his mom’s side and all of a sudden, this boy’s face popped into the man’s limited line of vision. “Do you want some help with your shopping?” The man smiled and said yes, that would be lovely. Over the next 20 minutes, the boy delighted in zooming around the grocery store to find the next item on the man’s list. Meanwhile, he explained to the mother that he had a condition—much like the woman Jesus met in the temple—where he couldn’t stand up straight or lift his head. In 20 years of shopping at this same store, he’d never had anyone offer to help, or even acknowledge him beyond the check out.
This is the liberating miraculousness of God: it does not wait for an invitation, it is not regulated by human rules or timelines. It is as surprising as a new fresh view broadening the square of the world we have been confined to. May we all find ourselves surprised and rejoicing as the woman freed into a new worship and a new view of the world, and the crowd that celebrates her liberation and the wild, freeing work of God. Amen.