Compassion Even For Her (11th Pentecost, Proper 16C)
“Compassion Even For Her”
11th Sunday Ader Pentecost (Proper 16C)
Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, "Woman, you are set free from your ailment." When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 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." But the Lord answered him and said, "You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 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?" When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.
It was an ordinary weekend in Galilee -- a beautiful morning on the day of rest. The markets were quiet, the shops closed, and the town was calm and tranquil. As the sun rose, people rose with it, but not to work the fields or engage in commerce. Many Jewish people got up to go to worship at the synagogue.
The gathering place was extra crowded today. The word on the street was that there was a young traveling rabbi who was stopping in this morning. He had gotten famous quickly for his profound teaching and public debates with the ordinary religious leaders. He was known to perform healings and miracles, he challenged the Sadducees when they got stuffy about Temple worship and he challenged the Pharisees for their legalism with the Bible. And he called out all of them for neglecting the poor and needy people, the underprivileged majority who seemed to be crushed by the rich, whether they were Jewish or Roman. Oh, and apparently, he was known to visit with tax collectors and spend time in bars and brothels. Very scandalous!
Something unusual happened in worship today. The visiting rabbi, Jesus from Nazareth, was teaching. That part was normal. The local rabbi allowed for the guest preacher. But then he stopped, almost mid-sentence. To be honest, I can’t remember what he was even talking about. But he stopped when he noticed the old woman who can’t stand up straight -- you know, the one who begs outside since she can’t work, a really sad story. I had forgotten she even walked in; I usually don’t notice her at all anymore. But Jesus stopped what he was saying and called her forward. After he laid his hands on her, she stood up and began praising God!
The synagogue leader is indignant. He reacts by scolding the crowds who came to worship. He blames this unnamed woman who had been suffering for eighteen long years. The crowds of people shouldn’t come asking for healing on the Sabbath because it is against God’s Law. According to this rabbi, God would rather that you wait in pain and torment until tomorrow than come and ask a healer for help today. This woman’s pain and infirmity don’t matter to the synagogue leader or his version of God.
This is just another example of men in power ignoring the needs of women. Women are so often accused of insanity, of exaggerations, of hysteria when it comes to their pain or troubles. You don’t need a doctor you need bedrest. That man didn’t hurt you if no one heard you scream for help. You don’t know what’s best for yourself but we do.
But this wasn’t about the crowds initiating anything. This woman did not ask to be healed. She didn’t beg, like in other stories. Jesus didn't cure her because of her faith, like in other stories. Rather, it was a complete gift of grace. Jesus acted first. Jesus called her over and signaled her out. He noticed her. He saw her ailment and intervened. God stepped in to alleviate a daughter of Abraham from her suffering. God thought that was important enough to do on the sabbath, the holiest day of the week. Jesus saw that the Sabbath was the perfect time for healing and liberation; this good work fulfilled the purpose of Sabbath, namely, restoration with and by God.
So Jesus asks the synagogue leader, Do you worship God or a set of rules? Are you able to apply the Law for good instead of as a way to justify your own selfishness, laziness, or comfort with the status quo?
God is not a rule book. God is real, a real being, with a real personality, thoughts, and emotions. Yes, God is all-knowing and that means that God understands nuance. God knows that different situations call for different responses. A list of rules (even lists as long as you find in parts of the Bible) simply cannot account for every earthly scenario.
Instead, the Law given to Moses, the words of the Prophets, and the teachings of Jesus are meant to teach us how to think in a God-like way. God entrusts the human race with “memory, reason, and skill” (BCP, 370). And we are supposed to use these gifts in the pursuit of love and fairness for all. The rules and laws found in the Bible are guardrails around our behavior. They are intended to prevent us from steering too far off track, because left to our own devices, we often turn against God and turn against one another (BCP, 370).
But the point is that we become gracious and merciful people, just as God is gracious and merciful to us. It doesn’t matter that you obey all the rules to a T if the rules make you ignore the needs of others. According to Jesus, not all rules are equal to each other. There are “weightier matters of the Law: justice and mercy and faith” (Matt 23:23).
Jesus, God in the flesh, was willing and able to see the bent-over woman’s pain and suffering. He empathized with her in a time and place that made it easy to overlook her. It was “inappropriate” to single her out for healing during worship on the sabbath, but Jesus did it anyway. Jesus had compassion for a person in need. Jesus has compassion on us in our times of greatest need. And Jesus calls us to be people of compassion in this callous world. Amen.