Monday, August 19, 2019

Object Of Anger

This coming Sunday's Gospel lesson (Luke 13:10-17) is my favorite healing miracle. It's the story of the bent-over woman, whom Jesus calls to the center of the synagogue and sets her free from the debilitating spirit that has afflicted her for eighteen years. The healing itself isn't as dramatic as calling Lazarus back from the dead or even healing the centurion's servant from a distance. But there's something powerfully ordinary about her situation that makes Jesus' healing really important.

As I read this story again today, I am drawn to the words that the leader of the synagogue directs to congregation: "There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day." Imagine this scene. Everyone is gathered together for sabbath prayers. The leader of the synagogue is well-dressed and wants everyone to see it. He knows his isn't the largest or fanciest synagogue, but it's well-run and a shining gem in the community. The crowd is larger than normal because Jesus is in town, and many have heard that the visiting rabbi is a remarkable preacher and healer. The leader is nervous because he knows that a fire-brand like Jesus can draw as much unwelcome notoriety as sought-after attention, but, at first, things go well.

Then, all of the sudden, Jesus notices a woman who has trudged up to the back. He catches a glimpse of a figure who looks more like a question mark than a person. Calling out to her, Jesus asks her to step forward into the center of the gathering. She freezes. Panics. She begins to turn to walk out, hoping she can get away, but Jesus calls out to her again, and those in the crowd around her gently push her forward, almost against her will. Jesus speaks softly to her, so quiet that no one else can hear it, and he places his hands gently on her arched-over back. Immediately, as if a rubber band had sprung back into its unstretched shape, she snaps upright. People in the crowd are amazed. As they begin to giggle and titter with expressions of joy, the woman herself begins to hop and spin and dance with her arms stretched up toward heaven, tossing her head back and singing aloud a song of joy. It is one of those heart-warming moments that no one who witnessed it will ever forget.

And then the leader calls out, "Settle down, all of you!" As immediate as the woman's healing, the joy floods out of the room. "There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day." Heads drop. Eyes gaze downward. Sandals shuffle along the floor. Even the woman, whose joy seemed uncontainable, has ceased her jubilant display.

In a sense, the leader was right, of course. Her life wasn't in danger. She could have come the next day to be healed. The healing itself was a breaking of God's law, the rules governing rest on the sabbath. But, in several even more important ways, the leader was wrong.

As Jesus remarked, one of God's children had been set free from Satan's grip. This wasn't work on the sabbath but a timeless triumph over evil. Something this good and godly couldn't be wrong. And the leader knows it. Notice that he directs his anger not at Jesus, who had healed the woman, but, through the woman's example, at the crowd: "...come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day." He can see that he is losing the order that he, after years of careful cultivation, has imposed upon the congregation. Jesus' healing and the woman's miraculous dancing are unquestionable signs of God's reign breaking through, and, if the synagogue leader doesn't rein it in, he'll never get it back. He can't afford to direct his remarks at the healer or the one who has been healed because he knows that will only intensify the people's understanding of how God had worked in this moment. He has to go around it. He has to objectify it. Twist that which had been a success into a sign of failure by pointing a finger not at the miracle itself but at the joy that others had received from it. It's a losing battle, but it's a fight the leader knows he must wage.

Sound familiar? It's funny to me--actually laugh-out-loud yet tragically humorous--that so often people, gripping the rules that they believe God has made, refuse to accept the beauty and truth and rightness of what God is actually doing. Despite claiming to believe in the one whose entire ministry was a rejection of the power-centralizing rules of religiosity, these Christians enforce the rules of another generation at the expense of the miracles happening all around them. And the response is the same: "There are six days on which work ought to be done..." Rules for the sake of rules. Miracle be damned.

But the reign of God is breaking through. It is always breaking through.

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