Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Daughter of Abraham

I've never been to a church where women had to cover their heads out of modesty--a strong and peculiar interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:5ff. Some of the churches where I have worked and worshipped had that practice in their history, and I've seen photos from the 1940s of women in the choir with bobby-pinned lacey circular doilies on the tops of their heads. I've never been to a worship service in which men and women were expected to sit on different sides of the congregation, separated by a modesty screen, but I've heard of Conservative Jewish synagogues where that practice continues. I've never been a part of a church that refused to let women speak in the congregation because, of course, St. Paul prohibits such unruly behavior, but I have been--and still am--a part of a church that spent many decades excluding women from positions of leadership because of their gender. On Sunday we will hear a story (Luke 13:10-17) in which Jesus brings a woman from the outskirts of society and places her in the middle of the congregation so that she can rightly praise God, and I think it would be a mistake to miss this gender-barrier-shattering spirit behind his gesture.

One could read this gospel lesson and miss the necessity of the gender confrontation because Jesus never says, "Come on, guys: she has as much a place among us as any of the men does." But Luke records this as a story of clear and direct confrontation over the issue of gender--not exclusively but clearly. Notice how the miracle encounter unfolds. Where is the woman at the start of the story? "Just then there appeared a woman..." She came into Jesus' field of vision. Perhaps she wandered into the back of the room. Maybe Jesus saw her as she was passing by on the road outside the synagogue. But one thing is certain: she was not in the middle of the congregation. She wasn't inside the group. She was where any woman would be in a first-century synagogue: sitting in the back, off to the side, behind the men.

And how does the action get started? "When he saw her, Jesus called her over..." Jesus was teaching in the synagogue. He was up front. He was in the center of the room, where the power of the system was focused and located. Jesus didn't step outside the center in order to heal the woman. He called her over. He put her in the middle. He brought her into the place where everyone in the congregation--particularly the men--could focus on her and watch what Jesus would give to her.

And what is the woman's response to the healing? "Immediately, she stood up straight and began praising God." She's doing what God made each of us to do--to glorify him and his name. But she hasn't been able to do this in her proper place. Her gaze has been cast down at the ground. She was unable to raise up her body and face and focus to heaven. Literally, she had been bent over by a spirit of oppression--one that kept her out of her rightful place. Now that that has been restored--both in the physical healing of the woman and also in the restoration of justice in the synagogue's system of power--she is able to accomplish what she was made to be.

Sure, on the surface, this is a story about a Sabbath controversy. But can anyone read this encounter carefully and fail to see that the Sabbath has very little to do with it? As soon as the woman begins praising God, the leader of the synagogue objects. But he focuses his attention not on Jesus, the culprit of the Sabbath healing he is complaining about, but on the congregation--the crowd who is upsetting the proper order of things. Jesus responds by singling both parties out: the hypocrites who have denied this woman the true healing she needed and the woman herself, calling her "a daughter of Abraham." That's a curious title--one that takes the familiar phrase "son of Abraham" and with one word transforms it from an expression of patriarchy into one of anti-patriarch. In one moment of address, all of the inherited identity that the "sons of Abraham" would esteem for themselves has been stripped of those who clutched it and redistributed to those who have been denied it.

Don't miss the chance to celebrate the "neither male nor female" quality of this synagogue encounter. After Jesus did it and Paul wrote it, the church forgot about it. We ignored and stifled the empowerment of all God's people regardless of gender for centuries. That's the kingdom of God that unfolds in Luke 13. Don't miss the opportunity to proclaim it.

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