Preacher The Revd Sister Margaret Anne McAlister ASSP
Today’s gospel reading from Luke concerns one of the most important aspects of Jesus’ public ministry – his healing miracles. The healing miracles of Jesus differ in significance depending on their context and other factors. Some of the healing miracles simply testify to Jesus’ accomplishments as someone whose words are matched by his remarkable deeds of life-giving power. Other healing miracles spark off arguments with the religious leaders of the day. And still others have a teaching function concerning Jesus’ ministry and mission and the call to follow him as disciples. Some of the miracle stories, such as today’s, have more than one of these functions. Today’s passage both demonstrates Jesus’ healing power very forcibly and also attracts sharp criticism from Jesus’ opponents.
In today’s account from Luke Jesus is doing what as a Jewish preacher of the day he loved to do. He was teaching in one of the synagogues, and it was the Sabbath. As Jesus is teaching, a woman appears who is bent over – crippled for the last 18 years. Instead of ignoring her and carrying on preaching, Jesus notices her, feels compassion for her, and calls her over. In this account, unlike many others, he does not even ask her if she wants to be healed. He simply says,
“Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”
He lays hands on her, and she is immediately healed, and praises God. But the leader of the synagogue doesn’t like it. He criticises Jesus openly for healing on the Sabbath. In the Jewish law it was forbidden to work on the Sabbath, and a display of miraculous healing was regarded as work. Such laws can be found in the accounts of the 10 Commandments in Exodus Chapter 20 and Deuteronomy Chapter 5. Jesus reprimands the leader of the synagogue for his hypocrisy, for even the Sabbath has its necessary duties to be carried out on its day, such as watering the animals. Jesus’ argument, that the woman who has suffered so long is entitled to be healed on the Sabbath day, is so powerful that his critics are put to shame.
Rules and regulations are all very well. Without them society would no doubt descend into anarchy. Society needs its laws to uphold law and order. And religions need their guidelines in order that those who adhere to their religion are consistent in their beliefs and practice. But Jesus made it very clear in the gospels that there is one rule or law that must overrule all others – the law of love: to love God, and to love one’s neighbour as oneself. Loving action is the basis for a religion that works well. Respect for all is a fundamental principle of harmonious society. Any rule that contravenes the need for order, love and mutual respect will not be worth the paper it is written on.
Jesus was frequently getting into trouble for breaking the rules of his faith, because he always – consistently – put the law of love first. He never ignored anyone in need. When he saw the crippled woman, he deliberately broke the Sabbath day rule because his heart went out to the woman in her need, and he wasn’t prepared to wait even another day before she was healed.
There are other examples in the gospels of Jesus and his disciples behaving in this way on the Sabbath – for example, in Mark chapter 2 when on the Sabbath he and his disciples are going through some grain fields. The disciples pluck some heads of grain to eat. The Pharisees are immediately critical of the disciples’ unlawful behaviour on the Sabbath. But Jesus defends their actions. He shows that human need must come first. And he closes his response with the well – known saying,
“The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.”
“So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”
There is a wonderful painting by Stanley Spencer called “The Sabbath Breakers”. Stanley Spencer was born in the village of Cookham – on – Thames in Berkshire in 1892. He studied art at the Slade school from 1910 – 1914. Some of his best paintings are of biblical scenes that are set in a contemporary context of his beloved Cookham. The Sabbath Breakers is one such picture. Depictions of Christ in art are largely either of the beginning of Christ’s life – the Annunciation and Nativity scenes – or the end of his life – the Crucifixion especially, and the ensuing Resurrection. There are far less depictions of the time in between – Jesus’ public ministry. But in 1952 Spencer painted The Sabbath Breakers. I came across it in a book of his paintings while I was on my annual retreat last year. The painting spoke to me very powerfully. It shows Jesus and his disciples walking through fields of grain and plucking corn. Some large contemporary Cookham women look on and point at Jesus and his disciples with scorn and condemnation. It is a very powerful image showing that we have our own contemporary ways of spurning others and condemning them – and that in so doing, we may be condemning Jesus himself.
While on retreat last year I had propped up the picture in the book and left it open, so that it was clearly visible when I entered the room. One day as I entered the room, the sun fell clearly on Jesus and his disciples in the picture, while the scornful Cookham women remained in shadow. That seemed to say it all. And of course we all have our shadow side. The shadow side of human nature is well known to Jungian psychology – our dark side. We tend to keep it pushed well down into our subconscious. But the safest way is to look at it, and even befriend it – to be aware of our tendency to negative responses, and so learn more about our true selves, and grow in a maturer way of living.
Today’s gospel reading from Luke is a challenge to us. First, we perhaps need to ask ourselves, is there something in us that has needed healing for many years – some emotional or spiritual hurt – which we need to bring to Christ for healing and wholeness to happen? And secondly, can we identify in any way with the reaction of the synagogue leader? Are we sometimes too quick to judge, rather than showing a compassionate response to those in need? It is worth pondering on these questions, and prayerfully reflecting on them. And it is a helpful exercise to ask Christ to throw some light on our questions, and reveal to us what we need to discover about ourselves. That way, we will be better equipped to serve God, and help build up God’s kingdom of love and compassion in our daily lives.