Readings Isaiah 58.9b-14 and Luke 13.10-17
Preacher The Revd Neil Summers
Today’s Gospel story, unique to Luke, raises at least two important themes. One is about Jesus’ radical inclusion of women and the marginalised (more of that in a moment) and the other is that Jesus healed on the Sabbath. This is one of a number of similar accounts which illustrate his apparently quite frequent differences with the religious authorities of the day. In all such stories, the fact that the Jewish leaders are unable to rejoice in the obvious good that Jesus does, but through jealousy prefer to denigrate him as a lawbreaker, demonstrates not only their pettiness, but their fundamental blindness and even blasphemy. It actually aligns the Scribes and Pharisees with the skewed powers that will finally bring Jesus to his death. The whole thing is compounded by their own personal hypocrisy: while they will do the work of tending their own animals on the Sabbath, they condemn Jesus for supposedly breaking the Sabbath by rescuing human beings from things that bind them. They have forgotten the original purpose of the Sabbath, which was to bring people release and freedom, not impose further burdens that oppress them. It’s more than a little ironic that the religious leaders, through rigid application of their institutional religious codes, have become instruments of oppression themselves – though the more cynical among us might think there’s nothing new in that!
The Scribes and Pharisees often get a bad press in the Gospels, though the Gospel writers are hardly without bias. But perhaps give the Pharisees some credit for seeking to remain true to the letter of their religious law. This story, like so many others in the Gospels, is not about the dangers of insincere religion; it is about the dangers of sincere religion. It is not about religious hypocrisy; it is about religious fidelity – and that’s the surprise in the story. The Pharisees followed their religious code to the letter. While their heart may have prompted compassion for a woman unable to stand up straight for 18 years, their religion prompted caution, and they prioritised their religion. In Jesus’ action, however, we see the exact opposite: compassion overcomes the strictures of his religion and he sets the woman free from what binds her.
The story encapsulates Jesus’ attitude to the danger we are in when we allow our moral codes and religious traditions to assume absolute authority over us. Now, I’m not saying there is no place for moral and religious codes, if only to protect us from the potential chaos of a moral free-for-all, but if we give them absolute authority, they may become a greater danger to us than the unrestrained passions they are supposed to curb. By his somewhat dismissive attitude to the rigidities of law and custom, Jesus rendered every code provisional – and even disposable – when confronted with real human need. It could be said that compassion dissolves inherited ways of thinking and acting. A cautionary tale, perhaps, that we need to be constantly alert to our supposedly unswerving convictions, because something could be waiting round the next corner in life that might require us to revisit, reinterpret or perhaps even abandon old traditions in order to respond to a new reality or a changed situation.
At the risk of stereotyping, some Christian conservatives or biblical literalists would challenge this sort of thinking strongly, asserting that Scripture provides absolute authority and codes that permit no deviation. This approach is often packaged as ‘traditional morality’, and it is based on the belief that the Bible’s ancient codes came from outside: they were written down, apparently with divine and immutable authority, therefore the matter was closed, and no further discussion could take place. Scripture couldn’t be handled like any other text, because it wasn’t like any other text. If human history could be at least partly understood as a journey into new knowledge, then to go on that journey convinced you already knew everything there was to know about the world and about humanity would foreclose the future entirely. There could be no person, no experience, no surprise revelation round the next bend to offer you a new insight, because everything that needed to be known was already known. It is a rather bleak, black and white view of life and living. Jesus countered this sort of thinking with a succinct comment in Mark’s Gospel: ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath’. It seems that, for him, human need and human compassion had to take priority over religious and moral codes. Codes are useful, but only insofar as they lead to human flourishing and basic human kindness. Interestingly, although Jesus’ take on all this appears new and radical, he is, in reality, only applying the heart of his own religious tradition. In the foundational texts of the three Abrahamic faiths, the principal focus of religious belief is on the meaning of human existence, and how we should live our lives. God, although portrayed as the ‘maker of heaven and earth’, is consistently linked to what God requires of human beings morally. In the stories of the great patriarchs and prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, right through to the main players of the New Testament era, the divine call continually challenges people to change their lives, to hear the cry of the oppressed, to love one another, and to forgive those who wrong them. Jesus’ action in today’s story illustrates just that sort of response to the call of God.
Which brings me, finally, to a brief thought about what this story says about Jesus’ attitude to women. Attitudes towards women which have prevailed for much of Christian history are still to be found in some branches of the Church today. I’m referring not only to the debates about women in ordained ministry, about which people may hold opposing theological views with integrity, and about which we continue to live with each others’ differences. No: in this morning’s Gospel, Jesus is determined to subvert the power of the taboos and prejudices which pertained to women and outsiders more generally. It is a common theme in Luke. Notice it is Jesus who calls her out, not her calling to him. A commentator once said that by healing this woman on the Sabbath, Jesus restored the Sabbath to its original meaning of healing people from bondage. By touching the woman, he revoked the holiness code around menstrual uncleanness and sexual enticement. By speaking to her in public, he throws out male restraints on the freedoms of women, born of the fear of female sexuality. By placing her in the middle of the synagogue, Jesus challenged the male monopoly on access to God. By asserting her illness was not divine punishment, but an illustration of oppression, Jesus offers her liberation and enables her to stand up straight in her own right. This apparently small drama thus takes on worldwide and historic significance – and all, apparently, through Jesus’ challenge – even disobedience – to his own religious code and the Scribes and Pharisees who saw it as their job to preserve to the letter those very codes.
We might say this healing story is a warning to those who would seek to stifle the living Word that Christians recognise in Jesus, with the written word that can so easily stifle compassion and kindness in order to defend personal prejudices and maintain the status quo. There are, as both history and contemporary contexts tell us, numerous examples of rigid, lifeless, constricting religion, not least when it becomes conflated with politics. But the living Word – Jesus – gives hope to all human beings that their destiny is in being able to stand up straight and be released from whatever binds them. The task of the followers of Jesus is to enable that to become the reality, because, in the end, the only kind of religion that really matters is not the rule book, but a religion which brings healing, compassion and kindness, and which enables humans – made in God’s image – to flourish.