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I think the Gospel reading is about how institutions can get in the way of compassion and care. It is specifically about repressive religion. And we know enough about that in our own time, and not only repressive Islam. The Church has enough of it too!
The passage opens with Jesus teaching in a synagogue. As was the tradition and the rule according to the Law, the Torah, any man present could read from scripture and then teach or preach if he wanted to, and on this day apparently, that's what Jesus was doing. He notices a woman, identified in scripture as "crippled" and "bent over" - some disease that deteriorated the spine, maybe osteoporosis or scoliosis – a condition she has suffered for eighteen years. Jesus calls to her to come forward. "Woman, you are set free from your infirmity." Jesus touches her and immediately she straightens up and praises God. Pretty dramatic to say the least.
Of course, we know there is more to the story. Enter the rabbi in charge. Did you notice that he doesn’t actually confront Jesus, he thunders at the crowd, the congregation, indeed the woman."There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath." Why didn't he front Jesus directly? And what do I learn from that?!
In fact though what Jesus did was bound to cause a stir. He had healed this woman on the Sabbath. That was a clear violation of God's commandment: "Observe the Sabbath day to keep it holy...Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work…" And after all, healing is work – ask any doctor or nurse.
Good Jews in our own day continue to be scrupulous about what may and may not be done on the Sabbath. Some of the rules may sound very trivial, but the tradition goes back to the days when the nation was in exile. Sabbath-keeping was the way Jews then and Jews now assured themselves a unique identity. Through the centuries, the rabbis had set up all sorts of "fences" around the Sabbath to assure it's special place. By the time of Christ, there were 1,521 things one could not do on the Sabbath..
In Mark's gospel, we read about some Pharisees complaining to Jesus that his disciples were gathering corn on the Sabbath...reaping. That was work. And this: a woman was not allowed to use a mirror on the Sabbath to prevent exactly the same sin. You see, they were concerned that she would see a grey hair and pull it out, and pulling out grey hairs was REAPING.
Now in front of the whole synagogue Jesus does this healing work on the Sabbath.. And it isn't even an emergency. In fact, the woman had not even asked to be healed. But Jesus did it anyway.
Clearly Jesus was out to make a point, in fact several points. He knew the rules. And it is not that the rules were designed to be repressive. On the contrary. It was this commitment to the Sabbath that reminded the Jewish people who they were and whose they were. Why would Jesus deliberately stir them up, and at the same time call them a bunch of hypocrites?
"You hypocrites! Doesn't each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?"
There was not much the local synagogue leaders could say. In fact, the gospel writer sums the story up with, "...all his opponents were put to shame, but the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things he was doing."
You know the trouble with institutions and it as as true of the Church as any other, and boy didn't I experience it as a city councillor is that where the original purpose of the institution was to serve people, instead the people start to serve the institution. It happens again and again and again. A shift occurs and the needs and regulations of the institution become greater than the needs of the people.
Walter Wink, in his book Engaging the Powers, suggests that Jesus' action represented a revolution happening in seven short verses. In this short story, Jesus tries to wake people up to the kind of life God wants for them. He often talks about the Kingdom of God where people have equal worth and all of life has dignity. But in the latter part of his ministry, he begins to act this out. In the midst of a highly patriarchal culture Jesus breaks at least six strict cultural rules:
1. Jesus speaks to the woman. In civilized Jewish society, men did not speak to women in public, even their wives. Remember the story in John 4 where Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well? She was shocked because a Jew would speak to a Samaritan. But when the disciples returned, the scripture records, "They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman." In speaking to her, Jesus jettisons the male restraints on women's freedom.
2. He calls her forward to the centre of the synagogue. By placing her there, he challenges the notion of a male monopoly on access to knowledge and to God.
3. He touches her, which revokes the holiness code. That is the code which "protected" men from a woman's uncleanness and from her sinful seductiveness.
4. He calls her "daughter of Abraham," a term not found in any of the prior Jewish literature. This is revolutionary because it was believed that women were saved through their men. To call her a daughter of Abraham is to make her a full-fledged member of the nation of Israel with equal standing before God.
5. He heals on the Sabbath, the holy day. In doing this he demonstrates God's compassion for people over ceremony, and reclaims the Sabbath for the celebration of God's liberal goodness.
6. Last, and not least, he challenges the ancient belief that her illness is a direct punishment from God for sin. He asserts that she is ill, not because God willed it, but because there is evil in the world. In other words, bad things happen to good people.
And Jesus did all this in just a few seconds.
Generally, when people are stuck in a system or a particular way of understanding, they need to be SHOCKED out of the old and into the new. Logic and reason usually does not work. Jesus could have spent all day arguing with the synagogue leader about whether or not it was legal to heal this woman on the Sabbath... while she remained ill. Jesus went ahead and healed the woman before any conversation as to whether or not it was the right thing to do. There are situations that arise where it is easier to ask forgiveness than permission. It is such a shame that something that can do so much good – in this case religion - can be made to do so much that is so bad. Out with religiosity!
Jesus said 'the Sabbath was made for man, for all of us, not us for the Sabbath'. Whatever religion we profess or not, where respect, compassion and care for every other living creature and the environment is over ridden by greed, selfish desire for power and control, fear, all that separates, injures and destroys, then we are if you like bound by Satan, crippled and bent over, just as much as those who are the victims of our sin.
In healing the crippled woman, Jesus is demonstrating the need to place compassion and care above rules, where rules get in the way of God. Where our rules become so institutionalised that they deny the reason we created them in the first place, then the Church gets in the way of God. We have a story and a message which is so vital, so of abundance of life, so rich with hope and joy in the midst of pain and tragedy, that when our rules and protocols become so set in concrete that they get in the way of true love and compassion, then we must break them for the sake of loving one another as Christ loves us.
Eighteen years. Can you imagine seeing nothing but dirt and other people's feet for 18 years? Jesus offered this woman not just physical healing, but a whole new way to see the world... literally. He offers the same to you and me.