Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The walking death of hypocrisy

From Eastern Mennonite Seminary, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Here's a little sermonette I preached yesterday to a "congregation" of two classmates in a preaching class.  We were pushing the lower limit of Jesus' words in Matthew 18: "For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am with them." (NIV) First, here's the biblical text we were working with, Luke 13:10-17 (also NIV):
On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, "Woman, you are set free from your infirmity." Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.

Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue ruler said to the people, "There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath."

The Lord answered him, "You hypocrites! Doesn't each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?"

When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing.
Read on after the break for my short sermonic reflections...

In this scene from Luke's gospel we see Jesus teaching in a synagogue on a Sabbath day. Placing ourselves amidst this crowd of worshipping first-century Jews, we see Jesus stop mid-stream and call a sick woman over in order to heal her, which he does. In the midst of this woman's praising God for her healing, the leader of the synagogue erupts. Jesus has broken the rules! And not just some simple rules, but the Mosaic Law that keeps the Sabbath holy for the Lord.

But then Jesus does one of the things that he does best: He turns the tables. Does this synagogue leader assume that Jesus doesn't know his Jewish Scriptures and teachings? If this is the leader's assumption, it is a poor one. The leader has appealed to Torah in order to criticize Jesus' healing of the crippled woman. In response, Jesus appeals to traditional Jewish teaching on Torah that says bound animals may be freed on Sabbath in order to be fed and watered. These animals must live. What good are they dead?

And what of this woman, this daughter of Abraham, as he names her? Bound for eighteen long years, why should she continue to suffer, a kind of walking death? The synagogue leader points at the letter, but misses the spirit of Torah. Jewish teaching itself knew some of the spirit and Jesus knew it more fully. Standing in judgment of his own tradition, the synagogue leader's grumbling is drowned out by the peoples' celebration and praises to God. A captive has been freed.

We know how it feels to see someone break the rules: When someone blows through a red light, you look around and say, “Where are the cops when you need 'em?!” When someone is fired from their job for trying to shed light on corrupt business practices, we feel a ball knot up in our stomach. When politicians are more interested in protecting themselves and their personal interests, we take to the streets in angry protest. We know injustice when we see it, and we often have the just the thing to right these grievous wrongs.

The synagogue leader had the Torah. What's our tool for justice these days? Stronger law enforcement, usually implemented by more police with more weapons? A massive fence forming a dotted line along the southern border of our nation? Do we hold up the Constitution as a kind of Torah? Do we vote all those crooks out of office and bring in a batch of fresh blood and ideas?

To all kinds of nervous, anxious, territorial, and indignant attitudes and actions, Jesus says: “Not so fast.” In the face of our religious zeal, always for all the right reasons and with best intentions, Jesus asks us to think twice.

In the text we find a woman whose entire way of life was crooked. Jesus finds her, sees her condition. Through his deep compassion, he knows her. Perhaps this woman had resigned herself to her condition and didn't actively seek out healing as others did with Jesus. And Jesus clearly knew this as well. Perhaps this congregation had known this woman for years and resigned themselves to her condition as well. In his indignant cries, the synagogue leader indicates that healing does happen (just not on the Sabbath), so why wasn't this woman healed before?

Seeing through all this patterned life and thought, Jesus steps in to bring life to this woman, and to show the power of God to not only her but the entire worshipping community. And their response? Joyful praise to God Almighty. Behold! God is making all things new, and Jesus has just brought newness out of the old order, the unimaginative, the safe status quo.

Our well-worn, indignant cries for justice may be indications that in our zeal, we are just as bound as the crippled woman. If we see the binding spirit of hypocrisy alive and well in our own lives, in our own families, our own communities, churches, and nations...we should be actively seeking release from Jesus Christ. And if we aren't actively seeking it, Jesus may come looking for us. Too often we have resigned ourselves to the realities and supposed necessities of life.

Jesus steps into this stale, fragile existence, with all its fear and anxiety. His victorious life before and after his death on a cross are the ultimate signs that God is not content to let us grow cold and die. The Spirit melts our cold hearts and lifts the veil off our clouded vision. With new lives and new communities of faith, crackling with imagination and possibility, we not only see the world differently, but we step into it and act in the confidence that God is making all things new. And for that, we praise God.

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