8/21/16: The Trouble With Patience, Luke 13:10-17
The Trouble With Patience
First Lesson: Psalm 71:1-6
Second Lesson: Luke 13:10-17
This is the last time Jesus will enter a synagogue in the Gospel of Luke.
You’ll remember the first time Jesus entered a synagogue in the gospel. He had just begun his ministry, and returns to his hometown of Nazareth and he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day.
And you may remember that things started out good. He was handed the scroll of Isaiah, found where it was written, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
He rolled the scroll back up, and gave it to the attendant, sat down and said, Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. And the people loved it. Isn’t this Joseph’s son?!—they were so proud. But then he went on and proceeded to tell his home congregation that while, yes, this Spirit had come, it wouldn’t be reserved for them. That God had something bigger in mind, and that this salvation and freedom and healing would come to all people Jew, Gentile or otherwise. And things turns south in a hurry. He was run out of the synagogue, and they even attempted to chase him off a cliff.
That was Jesus’ first visit to a synagogue on the sabbath day in Luke, and this story from the 13th chapter is the final time he would do so, and not much has changed: he’s still bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming the release of the captives, recovery of sight to the blind and letting the oppressed go free, but even more, he’s still insisting that these things be fulfilled not sometime in the future, but today.
At face value, the shape of this story is a simple. Jesus is again teaching and preaching one sabbath morning, as he had many times since that day in his home town, when there appeared in the synagogue a woman who Luke tells us had been disabled for 18 years. She was bent over and unable to stand up straight. Jesus sees her, calls he over, and says to her “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” And when he laid his hands upon her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.
And this could have been it: Jesus, anointed by the Spirit of God, bringing the release to this woman who had been bound by her ailment for 18 long years—Praise be to God!But of course, it wouldn’t be this simple. We’re told that the “leader of the synagogue” sees all of this transpire and is a bit bent out of shape. And this was not a priest, but more of an administrator or a manager; someone in charge of keeping the synagogue open and running and orderly. He says to the crowd—not to Jesus, mind you, and not to the woman, but to the crowd—Just a reminder of official synagogue policy: There are six perfectly good days when you can come to be healed, but this is the sabbath day, and this sort of thing is not allowed, so in the future, please come on another day.
You can almost feel the passive aggressiveness, here.
The “policy,” if you will, he’s citing is the Jewish practice of not performing “work” on the sabbath. The sabbath is to be set aside as a day of rest—no work allowed. It says it there in Exodus and Leviticus, no work on the sabbath, but it’s actually not that simple. You see, Scripture doesn’t define what constitutes “work,” and so throughout the generations and even today this is left up to interpretation. (1) Which is why you’ll see a variety of practices among Jewish communities on the sabbath. Some won’t drive a car and will walk to the temple, others see no problem driving, especially if it’s to go totemple services. Some cook, others won’t. It’s not as simple as saying some follow the law more strictly than others, but more the case that the law as given in Scripture is open-ended, and so it’s simply interpreted differently. This is not a modern phenomenon, but was the case even in Jesus’ day.
But regardless of all of this, one principle that has always been true in Judaism, is that the highest calling at any time and on any day is to save a life. Saving a life has always overridden any sabbath practice. So from the leader of the synagogue’s perspective, the point of disagreement here is whether or not this woman’s life is in danger. In his interpretation of the law and perhaps even the “official policy” of that synagogue (whatever that means) it was not; this was a chronic condition, and so, regrettable as it is, she cannot be healed today—many apologies, come back tomorrow. And if that’s a problem, maybe she should have come yesterday. Sorry—it’s policy.
We love hiding behind policies—or as we usually put it, our official “process.” It’s not that I’m against you, I just don’t agree with the process, you see. Don’t get me wrong, I think the woman ought to be healed, but you see, it’s a matter of process. This leader in the synagogue does what we’re all tempted to do when we or our ways of doing things or seeing things, feels threatened, which is focus attention away from the person and onto the process, but Jesus sees through it. And I suspect Jesus always sees through it.
You hypocrites! he says. Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it to water so that it won’t die of thirst? And shouldn’t this woman, this precious daughter of Abraham, who’s been bound for 18 long years, be set free from this bondage, even if it’s on a sabbath?
His opponents are stunned and quieted, and shamed. And the entire crowd—who knew what was right the whole time, mind you. Let’s not rush past this: the crowd was on his side. They knew what needed to be done. They knew what we all know, which is that if you see someone hurting and you have the capacity to ease their suffering, you do it. The crowd knew this, and so they too rejoiced at all the wonderful things he was doing.
They knew as well as Jesus that when it comes down between process and people always, always win. Our first priority is always, always to love our neighbor. And what’s more, if your protocols—or at least your own understanding of them—somehow discourage you from showing love and kindness and mercy to your neighbor, then you need a new protocol, or a new understanding of them. Either your policies need fixing, or your heart, and that’s a question we can only answer for ourselves.
That’s the surface level of this story, and it would be enough. This is something that all institutions face at some point or another, where the very real but ultimately secondary need for policies and procedures starts to creep up the ladder and work its way into the realm of primary concerns. The “right way to do something” gets confused with the “right thing to do”—this happens, even in churches. Not in our church, of course, but in other churches, I’m told.
But there’s something else going on here. As one commentator put it, we don’t want to overread this passage, but we don’t want to underread it either. (2) For generations, this passage was underread, and the fact that this person whom Jesus heals was a woman was not paid any mind. But times have changed, and we’re much more aware of the role that gender plays not only in the Scripture and especially the Gospel of Luke—Luke, more than any other gospel lifts up women in the story of Jesus’ life. But we’re also more aware of the roll that gender plays in our world today.
Even with the advances we’ve seen across the board in gender-equality, while it’s probably true that there’s never been a better time in human history to be a women, it’s also true that we have a long way to go. Women around the world and of course even in this country continue to be the subject of all manner of abuse: physical, psychological, emotional and otherwise. But even more than this, we still live in a culture soaked in sexism, misogyny and a kind of “soft” patriarchy, where in often subtle ways—ways so subtle as to so easily be explained away or denied—women are meant to stay where they are, which is somewhere below men. If you’re not convinced this is true, I’ll invite you not to come and talk to me after the service, but instead talk to a woman in your life and ask them how they’ve experienced it. Or better yet, stay after church next Sunday for our Global Women’s meeting, where they engage the issues facing women around the world.
This person whom Jesus sees and heals was a woman—this is not a coincidence, but a fact that upon a closer reading becomes clearer and clearer.
We’re told she had a spirit that had disabled her fro eighteen years—an odd way of putting it in the gospels; it’s ambiguous, almost asking us to hear it metaphorically. This spirit had kept her down. It had left her unable to stand up straight. It had weakened her, belittled her, kept her to be something less than her potential. Jesus sees this woman who has been held down for so many years and says, “Woman,” you are set free.” And he laid hands on her—this was not just a healing, this was a blessing. And when he laid hands on her, when she received this blessing, this reassurance that God saw her, saw what she could be, what she was created to be, immediately she stood up straight, and she began praising God. (3)
But of course, it begins—Wait a minute, now! That’s not how we do things around here. Sure, we want her healed, I have a daughter too, but slow down. We’re just not there yet—now isn’t the time. Have her come back tomorrow.
And Jesus responds—You hypocrites!Would you show more concern for your ox or your mule—the animals you depend on for your own work, your own vocation, your own sense of worth and fulfillment—than you would for this beloved daughter of Abraham, who’s suffered all these years? Does she not deserve more?
The only thing missing here is the voice of the woman. I’d like to hear what she has to say, but not even the Scriptures can manage that. It’s still just men talking between themselves about her condition, and even more, what to do with her body.
The call for order and patience is always the cry of the powerful, never the oppressed. It’s always the cry of the ones who’ve been encouraged to stand up straight, never the one’s who are told to stay down.
It was the main criticism of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. Don’t rush things. You can’t legislate morality—society will get there when we get there, when we’re ready.
Finally in April of 1963, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was sitting in the jailhouse in Birmingham, AL, after having been arrested for leading a series of non-violent protests there, he learned that a group of white clergymen, speaking for much of white America, had published an open letter to him titled “A Call For Unity,” mind you, offering a word of caution and urging him not to move to quickly. In response, King wrote a letter that’s arguably become one of the greatest documents not only from the Civil Rights Movement, but in the history of our country. At one point he writes these piercing words:
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Council-er or the Ku Klux Klann-er, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
The well-meaning leader of the synagogue said, That’s not how we do things, have her come back tomorrow.
Jesus said, Why not now?
Tomorrow has a funny way of never coming, of always staying tomorrow—it had for her these last 18 years—and it has for every person or every people throughout human history who have been told to wait their turn, told to come back tomorrow, told “don’t rush things, we’ll get there when we get there,” by all the people who have all the time in the world.
That’s why Jesus very rarely talks about tomorrow, and when he does, he says don’t worry about tomorrow, focus on today.
What will we do today?
Who will we serve today?
What wrong will we right, what healing will we bring, what bonds will we loosen today? What love will we show, what mercy? Tomorrow never comes. There’s only today. Today is when the Scriptures are fulfilled. Today is when the Kingdom comes. Not some time in the future, but today. And not just today, but
(1) The Jewish Annotated New Testament, ed. Amy-Jill Levine. Notes, Luke 6:1-11
(2) R. Alan Culpepper, The Gospel of Luke, The New Interpreter’s Commentary, 274
(3) Ibid., 273-274