Sun 21 Aug
“There appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free…” Immediately she stood up straight.”[i]
I’ve met a lot of bent-over people in the last four months. They usually sat or lay by the side of the footpath. Their heads were bowed, and they had a cup or hand extended outwards you. Sometimes they were on trains walking along the aisles, or making their way from table to table at an outside café.
I never had the sense that passers-by or restaurant owners were upset by their presence, and never saw anyone trying to tell them to leave. They were part of the street-scape… probably not too dissimilar in that respect to how it was in Jesus’ day.
In Boston there are a variety of local government organisations and charities that try to provide for such bent-over people. There are those who provide overnight accommodation, those who provide food, and those who advocate for their rights and welfare. One church I visited had converted their hall into a soup kitchen for 4 hours every evening. Another church I was a part of provided food, support, and advocacy every morning to homeless women.
There were many groups trying to help and address the strange phenomena of the wealthiest nation in the world having such a large number of poor, bent-over people.
One group I was a part of, an ecumenical group, did something different. They developed and organized programmes that the bent-over population requested. One such programme was called Common Art. So, on a Wednesday morning, in a large church hall downtown, a huge drop-cloth was spread out, art tables were set up [easels, paints, and other materials], some tutors/advisors floated about, classical music played in the background, and morning tea was available.
The difference was it was hard to tell who was homeless and who was not, because the homeless weren’t bent over. I met people there who I’d seen on the ‘T’ [the underground trains]. On the T they were begging, pan-handling, and were bent-over. But in the church hall, standing in front of an easel, they were not stooped or bent.
It wasn’t the art so much as the whole atmosphere of that hall. Some folk, I suppose like myself, just came to sit and talk. No one asked me for money, or anything, save my company. The atmosphere created a social bond, a conviviality. In all my years of working in downtown Auckland, and being around homeless folk, I hadn’t experienced anything quite like this.
Of course accommodation, food, support, and advocacy are really important. But so are places where one can stand tall. “Setting free” involves all this and more. It involves helping with little things and sometimes big things, enabling access to resources, building/coaching into self-confidence, and creating ‘spaces’ [what I would call ‘spiritual spaces’] where bent people can stand straight.
Although this biblical story is unique to Luke, it resonates with other stories in the Synoptic gospels where there healings on the Sabbath.[ii] The synagogue leader voices the objection we might surmise could have been raised in the other synagogue healings 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 could have survived another day. After all she had been in this state for eighteen years! Sorry Jesus, 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-argument is weak and offhand because Jesus’ understanding of the Torah, the Law, is quite different. His basic assumption is that God’s will (in the Torah and elsewhere in Scripture) is focused on people’s wellbeing. Elsewhere Jesus states: “The Sabbath was made for people; not people for the Sabbath.”[iii]
Jesus is not, as Bill Loader[iv] points out, riding roughshod over the Torah and replacing it with new ways. At least, not according to Luke and Luke is reflecting ancient sources which probably sheet back to the historical Jesus. Luke reports that Jesus said: “It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of a letter of the Law to be dropped.”[v] Jesus upheld Jewish Law. His conflicts were over how to interpret it. But the issue was not an 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 understand the Bible? Is it a prescriptive programme to follow? Or is it guide to and insights into how compassion could be lived out?
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 our 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 (if you believe that stuff). The outcome is: we, as religious people, should seek to know what God’s commands entail, how they apply, and keep them. It’s as simple as that! Our devotion is reflected in the extent we take that challenge seriously.
Many Christians, both in the past and still today, have this understanding of God, of commandments, obedience and duty. 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, or the Sacred Other, really like? What if God’s chief concern is not to be obeyed, but something else? What if God is about love and care for people and for the ecology of the planet? Then the focus moves from commands to compassion. Commandments, rules, guidelines, traditions, laws, scriptures become subordinate to that purpose: love and compassion. This is what the First Reading today from Anthony De Mello is saying.
God/spirituality’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 we believe God’s chief concern is love and compassion towards all.
The gospel story today 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, making the opposition, the synagogue leader, a strawman. 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 (as has so often happened in the past!).
Both approaches represented in this Gospel story today reflect deep devotion. Both in different ways protect some things that are valuable. Both are based on scripture. On the basis of scripture one way is not right and other wrong. Both are about healing/standing tall. But for those who think like the synagogue leader, healing/standing tall is subordinate to other concerns.
The key issue is still 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. In much of the world today, as in the past, the most highly valued person was the one with greatest power, wealth, and, sometimes, knowledge. So people inevitably imagined God as being like that. 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.
Jesus spent much of his ministry in a struggle to portray a different way of imagining God. For Jesus 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 and restoration. It is a very different model of God and produces a very different way of relating to each other and understanding and the biblical tradition.
[i] Luke 13:11-12.
[ii] Mark 2:23-28, 3:1-6, 6:1-5 and 6-11.
[iii] Mark 2:27.
[v] Luke 16:17