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?

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