One of my greatest fears is that I will become a hunched over old woman. We see them all around us, a few people whose spines have degenerated and they can no longer walk up right. Men and women both suffer from this ailment. It looks terribly uncomfortable to walk, and painful to live with.
Whenever I see someone hunched over from spinal disease, I avert my eyes, I don’t want to stare. And as uncomfortable as this makes me today it was even worse for people in Jesus day.
A person with any ailment or disease was considered impure, unclean, and forbidden to be touched. These people were often banned to the outskirts of town, rejected by the community, viewed with disdain. Soon the person would become invisible. Certainly if one lived with the ailment for 18 years there would come a point when no one noticed the person any longer.
Think about it. How long does it take us to stop seeing things around us? How quickly does the extraordinary become ordinary and then blend into the landscape? War, violence, rain, destruction, even these we can become accustomed to. It’s not so unusual to reach a point where we fail to see people. It may be even easier to do this if we are taught that it’s the right thing to do.
Walter Wink, in “Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament,” suggests that the bible reality has an inner aspect and an outer aspect. The outer aspect is its material shape and organizational structure. So, the temple has the building and the rooms, the priests, the hierarchy of authority, and the people. The inner aspect is its spirit that determines the purpose, direction, and meaning of the outer aspect. This aspect is how people worship God, nurture their faith, and live their lives.
The same would be true for us today. We have the outer aspect of church, either this particular church or the National church, or Christianity broadly speaking. Each has its structure of leadership. For us this means Bishop, priest, deacon, people, rules – which we call canon law, and norms, that which is the normal way of governing ourselves and being community. And we have an inner structure which is the way we understand ourselves as a people of faith and what we do day in and day out to nurture and practice that faith.
These realities can be inherently good or evil depending on what’s inside, what the intention is. So from Wink’s perspective governments, institutions, and cultures that oppress people have an inner evil spirit. Evil, Satan, is not some disembodied thing floating around in the world. Nor is it a specific being. Rather evil, or another way of stating it, sin, lives in the individuals and social realities that embody acts of oppression. Sin manifests in brokenness of relationships, whether it is in our families or on a larger scale the marginalization individuals and groups. The Holocaust is the modern world’s most potent example of this – but that kind of genocide happens every day around the world: in Darfur, in Iran, Iraq, and countries in Africa, Central and South America. A more subtle form happens in this country with racial and ethnic, social, economic, and cultural, divisions.
In order to get at what’s going on in this Gospel reading this morning we need to remember that he stories in our gospels always point us to multiple layers of truth. Taken at one level this is a story about a hunched over woman. She exemplifies for me one of the things I worry about while growing older. But we know that the stories are not always about specific individual people. Rather the stories are intended to use ordinary examples of life to point us to something deeper. In this case the woman’s bent-over posture symbolizes that she is oppressed by her society – think of it this way – she is not eye level with others, nor they with her. In our society we honor someone by looking them in the eye and speaking to them. Not seeing someone allows us make them, or keep them, nameless and faceless. And if we don’t see them then they really don’t exist and the problem they bring is not ours to deal with.
We have all kinds of nameless, faceless people in our midst. We can easily pretend that domestic violence is not the biggest problem the encountered by the police in this suburb of big city by the lake. We can deny addiction and mental illness and ignore the homeless, hungry of this country. It’s even easier to ignore those made homeless and hungry by violence in another part of the world. We can pretend that the 8 million refugees are not our problem because we don’t see them.
When Jesus talks to this woman he breaks the custom of his society’s oppression. Traditionally women were not spoken to in public, in fact they were invisible. This tradition still exists in many parts of our world today.
So when Jesus addresses her as “woman” he moves her from being invisible to being visible – he sees her and names her; she is a real person. This is the essence of Jesus’ ministry – the invisible become visible. Then when Jesus touches her, according to the synagogue reality, he is again breaking with tradition – touching the sick means touching something impure, and that is a sin.
The real conflict here is between how the temple leaders understand God’s intent and how Jesus understands it. At this point in time the temple leaders have no problem with the fact that Jesus touched and healed this woman; for whatever reason touching and healing is not the issue. Now, notice that the leaders do not address Jesus directly, they speak to the crowd. They point out that he could have healed her on any one of the other six days of the week. So, the issue they are arguing is that he healed her on the Sabbath and one was not to work on the Sabbath. The 8th Commandments says: “remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.” The question from our readings today is, what does it mean to keep the Sabbath holy? Healing, they argue is a form of working. And apparently working is not holy.
In our modern world we don’t spend much time debating the Ten Commandments, per se. Oh sure there was the issue of the judge who wanted them posted in the Court house, but other than that they really don’t come up much. I bet most people don’t even know more than one or two of them. Don’t ask me, I can’t recite them either…But most of us do spend time debating theology – how we know God in the world. Some of us are holding firm the Letter of the Law through the particular lens of theology through which we understand God. The thing is, there are lots of different theologies out there: Moral, Process, ethical, liberation, feminist, contemporary, atonement, systematic – just to name a few. And each offers us a method, a way to get a handle on the mystery that is God. Most of us know and live by several theologies that have been woven together by what ever spiritual leaders have been our teachers over the years. And, as I’ve said many times in the past, it helps to remember that we all have a lens, a bias, through which we understand life. All theology is a human construct designed to help us understand the nature of God and God’s relationship to creation, especially to humanity. Because it is created by humans no single theology is complete in and of itself. All theology has limits. When we bind ourselves to one or two particular theologies we limit how we see God and understand God’s action in the world. Even as we embrace a certain theology to ground us and give us a foundation to live and work we need to maintain a degree of suspicion of that theology in order for us to be open to what God is really doing in the world around us.
The problem our Gospel presents us with today deals with how the outer reality of our world, the way we construct our society, church, and individual lives expresses itself in how we actually live and care for others in this world. All of our theology needs to be understood through the teaching of Jesus that he uses to summarize the Ten Commandments, in fact he says this to summarize all 613 commandments found in the Bible: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength – and love your neighbor as yourself. This is the very prayer we pray ever Sunday in Lent to remind ourselves what we are about. To help us remember how we are called to balance the inner and the outer aspects of our lives.
The temple leaders have lost sight of this. They are focusing on only one aspect, how to keep the Sabbath holy. Jesus argues back that he is in fact keeping the Sabbath holy because he is doing what God intends. From the beginning of our tradition God has been about freeing God’s people from oppression. God frees Abraham and Sarah, Moses and the Israelites, and now, in this Gospel reading, God is freeing people from the limitations of society and cultural prejudice. This gospel story is a good one for us to remember as we ponder what is going on in our world and our church today. Jesus is living the Spirit of the Law by seeing people for who they are. Jesus models for us how to love people just as they are, in all their brokenness. In the process Jesus is loving them whole again. It seems to me that we are called to do likewise.