Thursday, August 25, 2016

Social Obligation


Perhaps it's a shame I'm not preaching this week since I have so much to say about the gospel lesson. (Don't ask the congregation what they think about that.) Here's a bonus post about the anti-gospel according to Big Bang Theory and Luke 14:1, 7-14.

First, if you're not familiar with Sheldon Cooper's philosophy of gift giving, watch this 35-second clip:


I don't watch much BBT anymore, but there was a 6-month stretch where it seemed like it was on in our house every night. (Perhaps that was when my wife was pregnant with our fourth child, and I was smart enough not to change the channel.) Although it's a minor point that only surfaces occasionally, there's a running theme through the series about giving gifts and the social obligation that the practice imposes upon the recipient of a gift. As Sheldon says in the clip above, "The foundation of gift giving is reciprocity. You haven't given me a gift; you've given me an obligation." One of the reasons the show is so successful it that little jabs like that strike home.

Doesn't it feel like we have to repay a gift with a gift? Although not necessarily expected by the giver, don't we manufacture within ourselves a sense of obligation to return the favor? If you have me over to your house for dinner, don't I feel like I need to have you over to mine? Isn't that all wrong? Doesn't the joy of a party or a gift or a favor diminish with inverse proportionality to the increasing expectation of remuneration? But no matter how gracious the giver is--no matter how clearly the gift is given with no strings attached--we feel the need to reciprocate.

Jesus says to the host of the dinner party, "Since no one can completely sever the ties of social obligation, quit inviting people who have the capacity to pay you back. If you want to model the kingdom, only invite people who could never even begin to repay your kindness."

Isn't that the heart of the gospel? The kingdom of God is like a banquet to which the dregs of society are invited--those who have no hope of repaying the host. The invitation is offered with no strings attached. The people are urged simply to come and celebrate. The end. Isn't that what the gospel is all about?

This Sunday, consider the rather unparabolic "parable" of the dinner host as a teaching not for earthly gatherings but as an image of the heavenly one. As if to make this point clear, the next words out of Jesus mouth are a genuine parable about a wedding banquet attended only by society's outcasts. Although there are present-day implications for this exchange, Jesus' words have more to do with God's kingdom than they do with Thanksgiving dinner. Yes, change the way you entertain guests so that everyone can be invited, but don't lose sight of the no-strings-attached teaching about the kingdom of God.

Watching but Blind


What an ominous start to Sunday's gospel lesson (Luke 14:1, 7-14): "On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely." The "they" seems to be "the lawyers and the Pharisees" of Luke 14:3. That they were watching him closely changes the dynamic of this dinner party. Like a man who tells his daughter's date, "I'll be going to the same move, and I'll be watching you closely," this is Luke's way of telling us that every act and word of Jesus was under scrutiny. In the lectionary, we skip over the healing of the man with dropsy--the second sabbath healing in a row--but that attitude of close watching is still behind these two table teachings of Jesus.

They were watching him closely, and he responded by pointing out the failures that they themselves could not see. "When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable." The implicit accusation is that they were so worried about Jesus' abrogation of the sabbath restrictions that they failed to see how their seating preferences conflicted with the principles of the kingdom. Before the supper was over, Jesus said to his Pharisee host, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid." The Pharisees and lawyers who were at the dinner were the sort of company who would be expected to return the favor, and Jesus was shifting his host's focus away from earthly issues to heavenly ones. It's as if Jesus were saying to them, "Your obsession with earthly transgressions has distracted you from what's really important."

What about today's church? Surely those of us who take our seats in rector's offices, vestry meetings, diocesan conventions, meetings of Executive Council, and General Convention are more like the lawyers and Pharisees of Jesus' day than the poor, crippled, lame, and blind guests he urges us to invite to our table. Where is our focus? We're pretty good at talking about inclusion and radical hospitality, but is that our focus? How much of our time do we spend talking about, planning for, and legislating the preservation of the institutional church, and how much of it do we spend making sure our churches are full of society's outcasts? Do we care more about buildings and burses or buskers and broken hearts? Do we care more about who is allowed to be married in the church or who needs the saving love of Jesus Christ? We've spent a great deal of time and effort and money legislating our way toward a more inclusive church, and I've been a part of that. This gospel lesson reminds me that there's a danger in confusing earthly and heavenly concerns. Like the Pharisees and lawyers, we think that having the right rules here on earth is what gest us closer to heaven, when, in fact, it's suspending the rules that makes our fellowship look more like kingdom fellowship.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Serving Others Isn't Easy


A few weeks ago, fitness guru Ogie Shaw came to our Rotary Club to talk about his plan for ending the obesity epidemic in our nation. Perhaps you've seen his TED talk. He said several interesting things, but my favorite thing that he said is this: the biggest mistake fitness instructors have made in the last few decades is to convince you that exercise is supposed to be fun. It's not. If you're having fun exercising, then you're not doing it right.

Our Monday-morning bible study is reading Kee Sloan's book Jabbok, and there's a part in the book in which a wise old man shares his perspective on the Christian faith with a senior class of seminarians. Jake, a retired black tent preacher, has been challenged by a curmudgeonly seminary professor to teach his students what really matters in ministry. In response, he delivers a sermon about the centrality of God's love, in which he sums up his wisdom with a long list of proverbs, including one that I particularly enjoyed: "If you ain't joyful being a Christian, you ain't doing it right."

The gospel lesson appointed for the feast of St. Bartholomew (Luke 22:24-30) is a familiar passage in which Jesus confronts the disciples about who is the greatest. We know the story. They were arguing among themselves about which one of them was the greatest, and Jesus responds by telling them that "the greatest must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves." I think we've become so familiar with Jesus' servant-leadership model that we've forgotten what it's really about. I think a second look at this passage--and at the nature of Christian discipleship--teaches us that, if being a Christ-like servant isn't hard, dirty, exhausting work, then we're not doing it right.

The phrase in the gospel lesson that stuck out to me this morning is Jesus' response to his own rhetorical question. He says to the disciples, "For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves." Who is greater? We all know where this is headed. We know what the "right" answer will be before Jesus even finishes asking the question. Jesus is a servant, and we're supposed to be servants, too. Because of that, I have a tendency to jump over the intervening statement, but I think it's worth pausing long enough to embrace the counter-cultural reality that Jesus' servant ministry represents. Who is the greatest? It's the one at the table. It's the one who sits and enjoys a fine meal with his friends. It's the one who places the order, waits for the meal to be delivered, asks for more wine, enjoys the food, and then pays the bill before leaving to go on to whatever evening activities await him. The servant has to stay behind and clean up the mess. Who is greater? There really isn't any doubt. There's not supposed to be.

But Jesus doesn't sit in that place. He is among us as one who serves. Unfortunately, the exalted status with which we hold Jesus makes it hard to remember the basic, simple, nitty-gritty nature of servant ministry. When following Jesus, it's a lot more fun to pursue the resurrected, triumphant king than the table servant. We cloak ourselves in mock-humility because we know what the ultimate outcome will be--a seat at the banquet table. But using servant ministry as a way to follow the victorious Jesus into God's kingdom is a lot like clamoring for the seats at his right hand and at his left.

I don't really know what you're supposed to call a step-cousin, but I didn't like mine very much. After my father's mother died, my grandfather remarried. His wife became my grandmother, and eventually her daughter-in-law gave birth to a boy a year or two younger than me. We didn't spend much time together, but, when we did, we were competing for our grandmother's affection. We raced to see who would open the door for her. We bumped each other out of the way to see who would help her with her chair. We fought for the opportunity to set the table and take out the garbage. Neither of us really wanted to be helpful, but we did it to win her esteem.

These days, service work is the cool thing to do. Servant leadership is a popular philosophy taught in management courses and leadership seminars. If you want to get into a prestigious college, you need to have some service work on your resume, and, if you want to be revered as a top executive, you'd better figure out how to show your shareholders that you have a servant's heart. But Jesus didn't come to transform servanthood, somehow making it chic and glamorous. He didn't give his life for the world so that executives could climb the corporate ladder until they ascended to a corner-office throne room. In the incarnation, he gave up his position and status as Son of God to become a slave to the whole world, and he did it to show us who God really is--the one who gives all he has for the sake of the other. God's nature is to care for the needs of the world. Paradoxically speaking, God's nature is to be servant of all.

Following in the footsteps of Jesus isn't simply a journey towards paradise. It's a path that leads to the recovery of our true nature. There is a banquet table prepared for us in heaven, but our servanthood is more than a means to an end. Jesus shows us that our true place is not at the table but as the servant of others. We are baptized into his death and sacrifice not so that we can be transported instantaneously into heaven but so that we might die to the world--yield all we have in the service of others just as Jesus did. This is where we belong.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Hiding Money


This post originally appeared in the parish newsletter for St. John's in Decatur, Alabama. To read the rest of the newsletter and learn about St. John's, click here.

Whether I intend it or not, my attitude toward money is teaching my children something about God. Perhaps I should consider what lessons I want it to teach them.

Like most of you, I grew up in a middle-class family that didn’t talk about money. If I ever asked how much my father made, the response was, “That’s private, and it’s rude to talk about it.” Of course, that didn’t stop me from getting into playground arguments over whose parents made more money. Likewise, if I ever asked how much our house cost, my parents would say, “That’s none of your business, and it’s rude to talk about it.” I could tell that we lived in a nice house, but, for some unknown reason, quantifying that niceness was a social taboo. Most of my parent’s finances were hidden from my brothers and me, but occasionally they would share with us that the monthly utility bill was “a whopping $300” and that we all needed to do a better job of turning off the lights. I recall a stretch when my father was in between jobs, forcing us to cut back, but, except for a general admonition about the importance of frugality in lean times, the burden of that curtailment was kept from the children.

There was one financial practice, however, that wasn’t hidden from us. Once a month in church, my father would take out his checkbook, write a check for our family’s monthly pledge, and then fold it and hand it to one of us to put in the alms basin. How exhilarating it was to be invited into this act of private devotion! I remember feeling a sense of pride and a protective instinct that was awakened within me because I had been trusted with this piece of confidential financial information. Uncharacteristically, my father didn’t forbid us from taking a peek at the amount, which, to a boy with no appreciation for finances beyond a $3 weekly allowance, seemed staggering. Enthralled by its relative magnitude, I pinched the piece of paper tightly between my fingers lest anyone else should see what was written on it.

As a clergyperson, I don’t sit with my kids in church. Even if I did, we pay our pledge electronically, so there wouldn’t be anything to show them. How, therefore, might Elizabeth and I teach them the value of giving money away? How will we show them what it means to be rich toward God? Elizabeth could hand each of them a dollar bill to put in the plate, but would that instill within them the spirit of trusting deeply in God’s provision? We aren’t great at remembering to give them an allowance, so asking them to give a tenth of it away isn’t going to work either. We often encourage them to share, to be generous, and to use their time to help others, but emphasizing the “time and talent” approach to stewardship almost always obscures the exclusively treasure-focused moment of bringing our offerings to God when the ushers pass the plate down the pew. What can we do to teach our children what it means to give a significant portion of what God has given us back to God through a sacrificial, proportional, first-fruits offering?

If we want our children to know what Jesus meant when he said, “Don’t worry about your life, what you’ll eat or what you’ll drink, or about your body, what you’ll wear” (Matt. 6:25 CEB), we need to start talking about money. Unfortunately, our silence is teaching them the wrong lesson. I like clipping coupons and prefer to keep our thermostat at a modest setting. We rarely eat out, and I enjoy shopping at thrift stores. And I admit that I am likely to wave a midsummer utility bill in the air as I walk around the house, turning off lamps and calling for even less air conditioning. But I don’t do those things because I am worried that we will not have enough. I do them because that’s how I value money as a gift that’s been entrusted to me. That’s how I express my stewardship of God’s blessings. And the practice of financial stewardship—sacrificial, proportional, first-fruits giving—has given me an attitude of abundance instead of scarcity, of faithfulness instead of fear.

That’s the attitude I want my children to know, which is why Elizabeth and I need to talk with them about our money—specifically how much we are given and how much of it we give away. I want them to know that by global standards we are rich—in the top 0.06% of the world’s population[1]—and I want them to know that we don’t take those blessings for granted. I want them to see that we give 13% of our income back to God and that we do it joyfully because that practice helps us learn to depend even more fully on God. This fall, when it’s time to fill out a pledge card, I hope everyone in my family will be involved so that we might all grow together in our appreciation of God’s blessings and our confidence in his provision.

What about you? What does your attitude toward money say about your relationship with God? How do your spending and saving proclaim your faith that God will always provide? How does the transaction history in your bank account reflect your belief that God is the source of all your blessings? You might be a coupon-clipper, or you might be a spendthrift, but, either way, you can still use your money to build your faith. Whether we like it or not, our attitude toward money says something about our faith in God. Maybe we should all be more intentional about what beliefs it communicates.


[1] To calculate your place in the Global Rich List, check out www.globalrichlist.com.

Good Advice or God's Advice?


Luke seems to mislead us in his description of the dinner exchange we will read in this Sunday's gospel lesson (Luke 14:1, 7-14). He tells us, "When [Jesus] noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable," but the words that follow aren't really parabolic. There just good advice. "When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host..." Can you imagine how embarrassing it would be for the host to say to you, "I'm sorry, but you'll need to move down the table; I've reserved this seat for so-and-so?"

I must confess that this dinner-table advice sticks with me. Whenever I go to someone's house for dinner, I look for the seat of least prominence. Partly, that's because I want to be able to slip out early without anyone noticing, but it's also because of Jesus' advice. I don't really expect anyone to tell me to move to a place of lower status, but I certainly don't want people thinking to themselves, "Oh, look where the preacher is sitting. Who does he think he is?" In fact, this strategy often produces the result Jesus anticipates: a host saying, "No, no, don't sit in the corner; sit over here!" Good advice, Jesus. Thanks.

The only problem is that I've missed the point. And the second half of the gospel lesson makes that clear.

Jesus said, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous." Now that's just silly, Jesus. Who would ever do that?

I'm still not convinced that this is a parable, but, when you hold these two pieces of dinner-time instruction together, you get a counter-intuitive, parable-like teaching. In truth, it's pretty silly to give up completely dinner parties with friends and family so that you can invite the poor, crippled, lame, and blind. At one level, I think Jesus means this literally. I do think he means that we're supposed to make room at our table for those whom society has left behind. But I also think this second part of the teaching is supposed to drive home the point that Jesus isn't just offering good advice but a teaching about the kingdom.

I choose the lowest seat because it feels good to be humble, and it's nice to be rewarded for my humility. (If you can't tell that's a self-righteous trap, trust me: it is.) But that's not why Jesus urges me to take the lower seat. The earthly benefit is only the introduction. There's a kingdom benefit that Jesus points us to. Take the lowest seat because that's where we find the kingdom--not when the host says, "Move up higher," but when God sees that we've made room for others at the table. Unless we actively participate in the reordering of society--from top to bottom, from rich to poor--we aren't taking part in the kingdom.

Jesus is using the familiar setting of a dinner party to get this point across. Everyone knows not to take the seat of prominence unless it's clear the host wants you there. You don't need Jesus to tell you that. But what Jesus does show us is that our place is on the fringe so that the fringe of society can find a seat at the table. We take the lowest seat as an act of our faith. We abandon any claim we have to power and position because we know that our earthly status doesn't matter the table in God's kingdom. In fact, we recognize that our claim to earthly power actually stands in the way of the fulfillment of God's kingdom. And so we take the lowest seat. And we throw a dinner party for poor strangers. That's God's advice for life in the kingdom.

Monday, August 22, 2016

We Are Set Free


August 21, 2016 – The 14th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 16C
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
 
When is a fever just a fever, and when is it something more? Back in seminary, we had prayer teams that were available during the weekly college Eucharist. Pairs of students and faculty would stand together in the corners of the chapel, ready to offer prayers of healing for anyone who came forward. We were trained on how to do things like keep our eyes open in case the person we were praying for began to fall or pass out. We practiced praying together as a team so that one person could open the prayer and the other person pick up seamlessly where the first one left off. We were told where to place our hands and how firmly or gently to touch the person who had asked for prayer. But the one thing we were never taught was when to say, “You know, prayer is a powerful thing, but I think you might need to see a doctor or a therapist.”

Sometimes a fever is just a fever. Prayer, I’m sure, helps, but for strep throat or a sinus infection, antibiotics are probably the way to go. The bible is full of miraculous healings, but a modern patient would rightly be skeptical of a doctor who reached for the Good Book instead of a prescription pad. For some, the stories of Jesus’ exorcisms are more offensive than they are amazing because they label what was probably epilepsy or a similar disorder as a demonic possession. Granted, the end result was the same—healing and wholeness—but surely it would be a mistake to describe someone with a seizure disorder as being possessed by the devil.

What about the woman in today’s gospel lesson? Luke tells us that this bent-over woman had suffered from a crippling spirit for eighteen years. Later on in the story, Jesus himself describes this “daughter of Abraham” as having been bound by Satan for those eighteen long years. What was really wrong with her? Was it a spiritual possession, or was it a spinal deformity like scoliosis or Scheuermann’s Kyphosis? Maybe it was an autoimmune disease or the result of ankylosing spondylitis. In general, it is offensive to say that someone with a medical diagnosis needs a spiritual solution because it assumes that their faith is broken when, in fact, something is wrong with their body. Sometimes a fever is just a fever, but, then again, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes a spiritual malady manifests itself in physical ways. And, in this case, regardless of what a twenty-first-century physician would say about this woman’s condition, this gospel lesson isn’t about a physical infirmity. It’s about a spiritual assault that has so consumed this woman that her entire life has been bent down toward the ground.  

There are two keys in this story that let us know what is really going on. For starters, the way Luke describes the woman’s healing shows us the true nature of her ailment: “When [Jesus] laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.” She didn’t fall on her knees and thank Jesus the way that many of his patients did. She didn’t run home to show her husband or children or neighbors what God had done for her. Instead, she immediately stood up straight and began praising God right there on the spot. For what it’s worth, the verb that’s translated “began praising” God is in the imperfect tense, which means that she started something that she didn’t finish—a praising God that could not stop. This crippling spirit—and we’ll get to the source of that spirit in a minute—was the one thing that was keeping this woman from doing the thing that God had created her to do: to praise her maker with all her heart.

The other key to understanding the nature of the woman’s ailment is what comes next: “But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.’” Can you see that man? Can you hear his voice? Can you hear the fear behind those words? Can you hear how he is grasping desperately for the power that is slipping through his fingers—clutching for control of the congregation before Jesus completely takes it away? Notice that he doesn’t direct his criticism at the one who has healed the woman. Instead, he appeals directly to the crowd, but it isn’t working. They don’t need a religious leader to tell them what God wants. They’ve seen God’s will unfold before them in a miraculous way. And no appeal to a religious law book will persuade them to reject what they had seen.

But, before the crowd could respond, Jesus interrupted and took it a step further. You see, the word that the leader of the synagogue had used to reiterate the importance of keeping the sabbath was a word that means “binding.” That’s hardly a coincidence. “It is binding that work should only be done on six days,” the leader said to them. “Come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” But Jesus took those words and used them against him. “Binding? You hypocrites want to talk about binding? Doesn’t each one of you untie your ox or your donkey on the sabbath and lead it to water? Isn’t it binding, therefore, that this daughter of Abraham, whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”

With that retort, Jesus revealed the real source of the woman’s oppression. It wasn’t a demonic spirit that had plagued her but the inflexible legalism of the religious authorities. They had become so focused on defining who was and wasn’t good enough to receive God’s blessing that they had used the rules of their religion to keep her tied up and weighed down and bent over, when, in fact, those same rules had been designed by God to set his people free. Refraining from work on the sabbath was originally a gift that would enable God’s people to praise the one who had created them, but, over the centuries, the authorities had used that law to reinforce their standing until not even a crippled woman was able to find the healing that would set her free. The difficult truth about human nature is that it’s easier to tell a bent-over woman who shuffles from place to place why she can’t have God’s healing than it is to see behind the rules and give her what she really needs.

What’s it like to hear the world tell you over and over that you’re not good enough? What does it do to your emotional state to hear people say more times than you can count that you don’t belong? What happens when God’s representatives declare that you aren’t good enough to receive God’s love? Do you think that might crush your spirit? Do you think that would wound your soul? Do you think that might weigh down your heart and mind and spirit until your whole countenance is bent down toward the ground? Then, when people see you, they can tell that something’s wrong. Even without knowing anything about you, they begin to treat you as if you don’t matter, as if you have less worth, as if you are untouchable. And why? Because the people who have the authority and power and control reinforce their authority when, in the name of God, they withhold their esteem from those who don’t measure up. But that isn’t God’s work. It’s Satan’s work. It is the oppressive work of the Evil One to say to someone, “You aren’t good enough for God’s love.”

Jesus came to undo all of that. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a woman who was trudging along, bent over toward the ground. And he called her over, bringing her right into the middle of the assembly, into the place of power. And he used the power and privilege that he had been given as a man, as a rabbi, and as the Son of God to give this woman what had been taken away from her—her dignity. He laid his hands on her and declared, “You are set free!” And immediately she stood up right in the spot where she didn’t belong and began praising God. Who would get in the way of that? Who would dare stand in between this woman and her rightful place at center stage, where she stood in the spotlight to praise God? Who would say that she is wrong?

For too long, voices of power have used the name of God to say to those on the fringe of society, “You’re not good enough to be here. You’re not good enough to receive God’s blessing. Move along.” We may not appeal to sabbath regulations, but we make up our own religious rules of discrimination. We tell people that they don’t belong because of their gender, their ancestry, their accent, their disability, or their sexuality. We pronounce judgment against people because their marriage fell apart, because their business folded, or because their house is in foreclosure. We turn our backs on people who have a criminal record or who suffer from addiction. We do it because it’s easier to believe that we’re good enough for God’s love when we convince ourselves that they aren’t. We do it because the voice of doubt—the devil’s voice—whispers to us, telling us that we aren’t good enough either. And, if we can find a way to convince ourselves that at least we’re better than the anonymous reprobate that shuffles past, then maybe there’s hope for us.
 
But Jesus has something else in mind. In the incarnation of Christ, God gives up all of his power, all of his control, and all of his holiness to become a human being so that he can declare once and for all that we are all good enough to receive his love. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God takes all of us by the hand and brings us out of the shadows and into the spotlight where we hear him say, “You are set free!” There is no one whom God does not love. There is no one upon whom God does not shower his blessings. So stand up straight, and make room for those whom Satan has kept down for too long. Jesus has set them free. He has set all of us free. And for that we stand up and give thanks and praise to God.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Untying Greek Knots


I have made it a practice never to appeal explicitly to the Greek text during a sermon. Before I was ordained, I remember rolling my eyes at the preachers who seemed to care more about impressing the congregation with their intellectual prowess than preaching a good sermon. That and the use of the word "pericope" were enough to make me walk out in the middle of the service. I'm preaching this week and, like every week, although I won't talk about the Greek words behind Sunday's gospel lesson (Luke 13:10-17), I will use them to help me understand the passage a little better, and this gospel lesson has me all tied in knots...and then untied again.

The translation that the NRSV uses gives us a surface appreciation of the role of binding a loosing in this text. "Woman, you are set free from your ailment," Jesus proclaims as he heals the bent-over woman. Later on, when refuting the synagogue leader's objection to Jesus' Sabbath healing, he says, "Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger...And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?" In those few verses, we see multiple references to being bound and set free. But a look at the Greek text shows that these images run much, much deeper through this passage.

For starters, the word that is translated "set free" is "ἀπολέλυσαι" which is the 2nd-person singular perfect indicative passive form of the verb "ἀπολύω" which means "I set free" and itself is a construction of the verb "λύω" which means "I loose" or "I untie" and is also the first verb I ever learned in Greek. At its core, what Jesus does to the woman is untie her, loose her, unbind her from this affliction. (Since it's the passive voice, it is perhaps better to say that what Jesus does is pronounce her untied or loosed, but you get the point.)

But there's more. When the leader of the synagogue objects, he says, "There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day." But within his objection is hidden another attempt at binding. The word translated as "ought" is the Greek word "δεῖ," which is the 3rd-person singular present indicative active form of the verb "δέω" which means "I bind." That's how something obligatory is rendered in Greek--as being binding. The synagogue leader, therefore, makes the case against himself by saying, "There are six days upon which it is binding for work to be done." That's an awkward translation, and we're all grateful for the NRSV making it simpler and more straightforward, but the preacher shouldn't miss the fact that the same binding that has happened to the woman in her ailment is the binding that the synagogue leader would impose upon the congregation. They are all bound--tied up--by the prioritization of legalistic demands.

This shows up a third time when Jesus says, "And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?" Using the same word "δεῖ," Jesus is essentially saying, "Isn't it binding that this woman whom Satan bound be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day? It's a head-spinner, yes, but it's also the heart of the Christian faith.

That's the question being presented by this passage: what's binding? Is it sabbath observances? Is it the command to help someone in need? Is it tradition? Is it the rejection of tradition? What is binding for us? Which bonds--which knots--will keep us tied up? To what are we chained? What is restricting us? And how has Jesus come to set us free?