Luke 13:10 – 17 Standing up Straight


A sermon preached on August 22, 2010 based upon Luke 13:10 – 17.

Our Gospel story this morning has a lot packed into it.   Let’s quickly review the story, then probe more deeply into what took place.  As is his custom, Jesus gathers on the Sabbath with the community in the town in which he is visiting.  As he is teaching in the synagogue, his attention is drawn to a woman who is bent over with an affliction, which has, it turns out, caused her suffering for eighteen long years.  Jesus calls her to come forward, and then says to her, “Woman, you are freed of your affliction.”  He places his hands upon her, and at once she stands up straight and praises God.

Now the president of the synagogue is not pleased by what has happened and begins to yell at the ordinary people in the synagogue, telling them that they have six days each week to come looking for healing; they shouldn’t be coming to be healed on the Sabbath.   Jesus in turn lashes into the president and the other leaders in the synagogue calling them hypocrites, pointing out that if they had an ox or donkey tethered on the Sabbath, they would surely untie it and lead it to water to drink.  How much more so, he asks, should this daughter of Abraham who has been in bondage to Satan for eighteen years be set free if the opportunity avails itself on the Sabbath?  With that the crowd began to rejoice.

A question arises immediately about this story:  why didn’t the president of the synagogue rejoice when something so unmistakably good took place — the healing of a woman who has suffered for eighteen long years?  He would say that he was taking a stand on a sacred principle:   God has commanded that no work be done on the Sabbath; healing is a form of work, and therefore it must be prohibited.

Does the president of the synagogue really believe this?  I think this is a key question, because it gets at the way we human beings can say one thing, even believe what we are saying to some extent, and yet, be motivated by something all together different.  It gets at our capacity for self-deception, which is another way of describing hypocrisy.

As we ponder the story, it becomes clear that the thing the president claims he is upset about isn’t really what he’s upset at, even though there probably is a part of him that believes it is so.  The real issue is one of power:  the president feels his power being threatened on two levels:  First, this visiting rabbi named Jesus is exercising an innate authority and power which leads the president to feel that his authority and power is diminished.  And second, as expressed in the poor woman being able to stand up straight for the first time in eighteen years, the little people are being empowered, and the president’s sense of power is dependent upon their subservience.  The underlying assumption is one that is alien to the kingdom of God:  that there is only a limited amount of power to go around, and if you have some, my power is diminished.

The hypocrisy of this man is revealed by the fact that the president unleashes his anger at the little people rather than at Jesus.   A fascinating detail of this story is that unlike a lot of other healing stories, the woman is a totally passive agent in her healing.   The initiative is all with Jesus.  Contrast this to the story, for instance, of the woman who came to Jesus determined to touch the hem of his garment in order to be made whole.   In that case, Jesus commended her for her faith.  In this morning’s story, there is no mention of the woman’s faith.   Apparently she was so beaten down after eighteen years of bondage and oppression that she is not even capable of the initiative that is expressed in faith.  There is an implication here that the woman’s physical affliction is related to an emotional, spiritual oppression that she has experienced within this community where the people with the power have a vested interest in keeping her down.

So all the initiative is with Jesus, and if the principle at stake is keeping the Sabbath free from work, then Jesus is the one who should receive the onslaught.  The man lashes out instead at the people because, on the one hand, he feels the need to “put the people in their place” to reinforce his sense of superiority.  He has a perverse need to cripple the people.  On the other hand, the classic bully dynamics are at work here:  the president senses that Jesus has the power to kick his butt.   Better, in his mind, to bully the ones who won’t fight back.

But Jesus sees through the hypocrisy and takes the bully down anyway.

So, on a personal level, what are we to make of this story?  With who are we invited to identify?  It seems to me that there are three different people with whom we can identify.

First, we can identify with the woman.  The story reminds us that God is for us, not against us.  The God revealed in Jesus is not a god that wants us to go through life crippled, weighed down by guilt and shame.   God wants us to have life and have it abundantly.  A lot of people have picked up the mistaken notion that it somehow pleases God to see people reduced to timidity through the afflictions of their life.  Hardly.

We have all fallen short of the glory of God, and as an early church father put it, “The glory of God is human beings fully alive.”  It does not bring glory to God to live small, cramped, crippled lives.  The story invites us to consider the places in our lives where we are being a mere shadow of our true selves, the child of God made in the image and likeness of God.

The story also invites us to contemplate the ways in which we can play the part of Jesus in the lives of others.   Jesus began his ministry in Luke’s Gospel by reading a passage from Isaiah in which the one speaking states that he has come to set the captives free and liberate those who are oppressed.  This, Jesus declares, is his mission statement.   How can we, individually and together as the body of Christ, be about this work on behalf of the bent-over people we meet in this world?

I heard a story in which a woman described a momentary interaction that changed her life.  She had been in an emotionally abusive relationship with a man.  She felt dependent upon this man, and a part of her assumed that his constant criticisms and put-downs of her were somehow justified.   She accepted the premise that she was defective, inferior to this man.

She recounts how one day she was standing with the man waiting for the light to change at a New York City street corner.  A building across the way caught her attention and she made a comment about the beauty of the architecture.

In response, the man adopted a condescending tone he commonly took with the woman, showing off his knowledge of the history of architecture, belittling the building’s design, and by implication, the woman herself.

What neither of them had noticed was the presence of a third person, a woman known to neither of them, who also stood there waiting for the light to change, overhearing the entire exchange.  Abruptly, the woman turned to the belittled woman and said, “You are right. That truly is an extraordinarily beautiful building.”  And then, turning directly to the man, she added, “And you, sir, are a pompous ass!”

With that the light changed, and the woman strode off, leaving them both stunned.  The woman telling the story said that something changed for her in that moment.  Catching a glimpse of their relationship through the eyes of this third party, it was as if a spell were broken, and she saw the sickness of her relationship to this man who felt the need to perpetually put her down.  Shortly after that she broke off her relationship with him, despite his pleas as well as his insults with which he tried to persuade her not to leave him.

The third person, and perhaps the character we may feel the most resistance to identify with, is the president of the synagogue.

There’s that old story I am fond of telling of the man who is down on his hands and knees under a streetlight at night searching for something.  Another man comes along and asks him what he is looking for.  “My house key.  I lost my house key.”

The second man gets down on his hands and knees and proceeds to search as well.  After about five minutes without any success the man asks, “So, where exactly did you lose your key?”

“Oh, I lost the key halfway down the block, but the light is better here.”

The light may be better in identifying with the woman in her need to be healed, and with Jesus, in his ministry of empowerment.   But perhaps it is in the darkness of our own hearts where the real searching is requried.

We all cripple others at times, perhaps especially the people we profess to love the most.  Can we dare to look at the ways we do this?  Here are a couple of ways we might recognize:

We fall into the pattern of living as bookkeepers, keeping track of all the things we have done for the other, regularly finding subtle ways of letting the other know of the magnitude of their indebtedness to us (by our calculations, at least.)

Somebody proposes an idea, and instinctively we begin thinking about all the reasons why the idea won’t work.   We may claim that we’re just being practical and realistic.  But could there be a deeper, darker motivation that feels the need to tear down the idea simply because it wasn’t our idea?  Could it be we feel threatened by the glory others (and not ourselves) might receive in the implementation of the idea?

Do we ever catch ourselves stuck in a posture of criticism and judgment, habitually focusing on the faults and flaws of others?  We may try to justify our posture by pointing all the more vehemently at the damage done by the other’s shortcomings, but could it be that the real reason we are taking this stance is because a good offense seems like the best defense.   If I can keep the focus on what is wrong with others I won’t have to admit all the stuff that’s wrong with me.  Jesus was well aware of this kind of self-deception when he asked why we paid attention to the speck in the eye of our neighbor while overlooking the log in our own.

The posture of criticism and judgment expresses, in its own way, a deformity — a kind of bondage from which we need to be set free.  The president in the synagogue also needs to be healed, though often times his need for healing is the hardest kind to admit.  A big theme of the Gospel story is that it was the good, reputable people who conspired to have Jesus crucified.  To the end, they were determined to believe that there was nothing whatsoever wrong with them selves.

Our bishop has asked the pastors of the conference to read a book and instigate conversations about the book within our congregations.  The book is entitled, “Change the World:  Recovering the Message and Mission of Jesus,” written by a pastor in Ohio named Mike Slaughter.

In the introduction there is a section entitled “Something is not working,” in which he points to the all too familiar statistics of decline for the United Methodist Church as well as other mainline churches in America.  He goes on to reference some polling data in which young people ages 16 to 35 were asked to associate words with the Christian Church. Here are the three most commonly referenced words:  1) Anti-homosexual; 2) Judgmental; and 3) hypocritical.

Ouch!   No wonder we are in decline! How did the Church get so far away from Jesus?   How did we come to be seen more like the Pharisees who resisted Jesus tooth and nail?

Lead us home, Jesus.  Lead us home.