The Case of Healing on the Wrong Day
March 4, 2007
2nd Christ on Trial sermon series for Lent
In the church I attended as a little girl there was a older woman, Mrs. Turner, who was stooped over. She always looked uncomfortable to me in so many ways. I remember asking my mom why was she hunched over like that. And my mom told me it was because she didn’t stand up straight and that if I didn’t do a better job of standing up straight I would end up like her. You know moms they are going to use anything to teach a lesson to us kids. And if there was one thing my mom was on me about was to stand up straight, don’t slouch, and of course she had a person to remind me that I was going to end up like her if I didn’t. So I would dutifully practice standing up straight. The story of the crippled woman always makes me think of her. Today we would probably say that both woman probably had some form of osteoporosis.
Our scriptures today tell us that she had lived 18 long miserable years with the pain. The Greek language tells us she was “bent double,” She wasn’t able to stand up straight, see in front of herself, or speak to anyone eye to eye. Imagine coming to worship in that state Frankly I cannot imagine. But many of you know what it is like to live with some kind of long term chronic pain, or arthritis. I met a woman Friday who had just been put on a new kind of medication for her back. She said that prior to that her getting out, her being able to do things was limited by her back and the pain it caused. She was rejoicing that she was able to get out and get around.
You then can imagine how happy the woman who had been crippled was once she was healed. And you would think everybody would have been happy for her too. But there was one who was not, it was the leader of the temple, the keeper of the law. He had to go and spoil the praising and singing and dancing, with these words. There are six days in which men ought to work: in them therefore come and be healed, and not on the day of the Sabbath. There’s always one critic in the room that is going to spoil a celebration. But of course he was right, the Sabbath was the Sabbath and should be kept holy, no work, and I do mean no work could be done on the Sabbath. Jesus had broken the law.
Six days you shall labor and do all
your work. But the seventh day is
a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall
not do any work…(cf. Deut 5:1314).
You know how it goes; God created the world in 6 days and rested on the 7th and this became the Sabbath. But what is the big deal about the Sabbath that this guy would go a little crazy over it? Well here’s the deal. When the Babylonians captured Jerusalem, the Jewish nation was shaken to its foundation. During the Babylonian captivity, Isaiah heard God speak about Israel’s theological underpinnings, “If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day . . . I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob” (Isaiah 53:13-14). when the third temple was built, and continuing into the exile and the years between the testaments, rabbis and scribes began to interpret what it means to keep the Sabbath. They developed 39 categories of rules to define “work.” For example, even picking up a tool on the Sabbath meant one was working. Penalties were established, and Sabbath-breaking could lead to excommunication and even death. Keeping the rules became the focus of the religious leaders, and Sabbath became a burden rather than a delight. It was this twisting of God’s intention and the turning of delight into drudgery that Jesus confronted again and again in his ministry. You could say they set up all sorts of "fences" around the Sabbath By the time of Christ, there were 1,521 things one could not do on the Sabbath.(4) And you guessed it healing was considered work, and well you just didn’t work on the Sabbath.
Jesus was giving the Pharisees and the temple leaders more for the case they were building against him. And this one especially got their goat, that he would heal on the Sabbath, and of all things heal a woman.
Well, Jesus response to them shows us that he is no wimp, and is not scared of those in authority Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox... And ought not this woman… bound for eighteen
long years, be set free…? Jesus knows enough about their laws, that he knows there is allowance for the care of animals on the Sabbath. And to add to it he calls them hypocrites. ought not this woman…be set free?"
In another context Jesus declares the Sabbath made is for us, not us for the Sabbath. To me, this is another way of saying our religion and our religious institutions are made for us, not us for them. The Sabbath Day was given to us to worship God, relax, rest, and recuperate. The Sabbath is to free us from all the work we have been doing this past week. The Sabbath wasn’t made in order so human beings had a bunch of rules and regulations to follow. The Sabbath was made for us people, so we could rest and rehabilitate.”
We would have to say that Jesus was about doing something revolutionary then by healing on the Sabbath, and by taking on the leader of the Synagogue. But what he was really taking on was how the law had become so binding, so ritualistic that it constrained even the people from truly worshiping. In a sense they themselves had become just as bent as that woman. Their hands were tied. Their worship constricted. Most of it had lost its meaning. My guess is they didn’t even know why they did what they did anymore.
But this is nothing new, it is the nature of all human institutions to put thousands upon thousands upon thousands of little regulations on people in order to hold them down, tie them down and control them.
Think about how the Federal Government has its red tape about any of its programs like Medicare or Social Security.
It is the nature of all human institutions, whether they are churches, schools or governments, to start to make a shift. To where the original purpose of the institution was to serve people, and instead, the people start to serve the institution. It happens again and again and again. The legal needs of the institution become greater than the real needs of the people. A shift occurs and the needs and regulations of the institution become greater than the needs of the people. Could we say that the church has become like that today?
As we all know, far too often, the primary purpose of the church is to preserve its religious customs, its rules, regulations and rituals. The primary purpose for many Lutheran churches is to retain their Lutheran heritage. The same for Presbyterian churches to preserve their Presbyterian heritage. And for Baptist churches, to preserve their Baptist heritage. Even we Methodist it seems that our primary purpose is to preserve our Methodist heritage. We have our rules and regulations here at our congregation and we quietly impose them on people who belong. Sometimes, it begins to feel like the purpose of the church is to preserve our religious customs, rules, regulations and rituals, more so than doing the compassion of God. The rules, regulations and rituals take on a life of their own, and preserving the rules, regulations and rituals becomes more important than doing and being the compassion of God.
There is a cartoon character named Calvin the Dog. In one of his cartoons Calvin the Dog wonders why people feel any wonder or presence of God when they go to church, “…for they are made to sit and stay in but one room of the building on hard sofas for an hour or more while one person barks, allowed occasionally to stand and bay together at the yowl caused by someone scratching the teeth of a box. (Calvin T. Dog, Translated by Chris Glaser, Unleashed: The Wit and Wisdom of Calvin the Dog [Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998], p. 29). (JWH)
The Jesus on trial here is one of compassion, the power to heal, the one who cares enough to stop his teaching to notice someone in need and set them free. But he is also the one not bound by traditions, rituals and laws that make us to live the one law the greatest commandment of all. Jesus means freedom. From other sermons and Bible lessons, we know that Jesus means freedom. He frees us from the sinfulness of our lives. Jesus also frees us from the guilt that binds us. But in today’s stories, Jesus means freedom and he frees us from the rules, regulations and rituals…from those customs that we have become convinced are the will and purpose of God. In order for us to be religious or spiritual, we are to follow our religious customs, our rules, regulations and rituals. But Jesus frees us from all customs that interfere with helping people praise God and be compassionate to one another.
Jesus said in the gospels that he did not come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them and give them a deeper and richer meaning; he taught that our holiness must surpass the extreme legalism of the scribes and Pharisees (cf., Matthew 5:17-20). When asked which was the greatest commandment of the law, our Lord answered that we must love the Lord our God with our whole being, and then added that we must love our neighbor as ourselves: "On these two commandments the whole law is based, and the Prophets as well" (Matthew 25:35-40). In other words, Jesus taught that our Christian religion must always be more than a moral code and an observance of rituals. It must flow from an inner attitude of the heart, be motivated by love and not fear, and express itself through a radical commitment to discipleship. Herein lies the essence of the relationship between law and love.
Did you know the Greyhound bus lines doesn't allow pets on their buses. So, late one night at a rural truck stop in Florida a Greyhound bus driver pulled over and kicked an 80-year-old woman off his bus. Why? She was returning home from her birthday party with her present: a puppy named Cookie.
Dogs aren't allowed on the buses and the driver refused to make an exception, leaving this poor elderly woman about 80 miles from home at 3 in the morning. A security guard summoned by the bus driver called sheriff's deputies to escort her away which added to this poor woman's fright. She said, "When the bus pulled away and I saw all those policemen I was scared. I thought they were going to put me in jail. I don't know, I was crazy with fear. I've never gone to jail."
This could have been a terrifying ordeal for the woman. You see, she walks with a crutch and has trouble hearing and seeing. But instead, it became a story of inspiration. After getting her a sandwich and something to drink, police from five different jurisdictions teamed up to ferry her home.
"I've never seen so many people so nice with me an old lady," she said. "They gave me love, respect, attention. Love has a lot of names," she continued, "compassion, respect, friendliness." Greyhound apologized and gave her a refund. The unidentified driver, a 20-year Greyhound veteran, was suspended.
All of that could have been avoided if that driver had shown a little compassion. That was one of the chief characteristics of Jesus, compassion. Most folks looked at this woman's crooked body and cringed not just at the sight of it but also at the thought of the sins that must have caused this. But not Jesus. He looked at the heavy burden he illness had caused her and with compassionate hands reached out to lift the burden by healing her.
The question for us is, will be like the bus driver or the leader of the synagogue or be like Jesus and show compassion and love to others?
Today Jesus still shows compassion and love for those who are sick, grieving, needy, lonely, addicted, crippled, burdened down and reaches out to you too. Today as part of our communion service we will offer healing at the very end of it. If you desire to receive the prayer and anointing of oil for healing you may come forward when invited. Today Jesus wants us to turn our focus off the rules, the regulations, the traditions, and turn our focus on him, as we prepare ourselves to receive communion.
(This is the written word, but the sermon is oral and may be different in some ways.)