I am not a fan of miracle stories like the one we heard from the Gospel of Luke this morning. Sure, the miracle stories have their place, but I believe we spend far too much time focusing on the Los Vegas actions of Jesus, the magic, if you will, and not enough time on what that magic is really telling us.
I am also not a biblical literalist; by that, I mean I do not believe that we are to take every word of Scripture at face value. I have mentioned before that to study Scripture means to push past the surface and what is written on the page to what is lying just underneath the surface. Bible study requires more than the ability to read. One must also have a critical eye and ear. One must have an understanding of the time and the place where these writings came from. Who were they written to? What was going on at the time, socially and politically? Today, we must ask what it was like to live in first-century Palestine.
Something else I like to keep in mind, the Bible is not the word of God. The Bible contains many words and truth; they come in a roundabout fashion from God. But the Word of God is Jesus. Turning to the very first chapter of the Gospel of John, we read, “and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Jesus is the Word of God. What we read on Sunday and other times of the week are the words of God. Or instead, what people say God said translated from the original language and run through the filter of politics and life.
The study of Scripture requires more than memorizing a few passages that one has ready to toss into a conversation to prove or disprove a point. Taking Scripture out of context is not study. It’s not even good scholarship and requires very little thought on the part of the person using it. I have been a student of Scripture for most of my adult life and have been taught by some of the most profound teachers in the Church today, but I have only scratched the surface of biblical study.
All of that is to emphasize why I do not like the miracle stories of Jesus. And today, we come headlong into a doozy of a miracle.
The passage opens with Jesus’ teaching in the Synagogue on the Sabbath. Just as a review, the Jewish Sabbath runs from Sundown on Friday until Sunday down on Saturday. Jesus is teaching, and a woman comes in with “a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.”
Now, understanding 1st-century literature as I do, this could mean just about anything. It is ambiguous on purpose. We do not know what ales this woman. It could be physical; it could be mental; it could be spiritual. Whatever it is, it has bothered her for more than half her life.
I need to point out a few other things here; first, we do not know her name. We often do not know the names of the people Jesus does things for, mainly because it is not about them but rather a much larger issue. She is a woman in the Synagogue mixing with men. My understanding of 1st Century Jewish ritual practices tells me this is an anomaly. Women and men did not mix during worship or even during teaching. Lastly, this woman was just passing by. She did not seek out Jesus for healing; Jesus sought her out.
Anyway, Jesus notices the woman; perhaps he calls her over to where he is sitting. But he touches her. Touch can be healing, and touch can be transformative. When physicians heal, they have to touch. The ritual instructs me to touch the bread and cup when I say the words during communion. In baptism, I touch the water when I call for the Holy Spirit to enter the water, which becomes healing waters. After the water is poured on the child, the ritual instructs me to touch the forehead of the child. When a person is ordained as a deacon, priest, or bishop, it is done by touch, the laying on of hands. Touch is important.
But healing is not confined to touch alone. We cannot say how or why the Spirit acts. We just know that the Spirit does. We often pray for people that we do not even know. We are not present with them, but we pray that God sends Spirit to heal them from whatever it is that ales them. We cannot restrict God. We, humans, always try to say where God is and what God will do, but God has a funny way of working the way God wants to work and not always the way we think God should act.
I was recently in a discussion in that fine bastion of all knowledge, Facebook. I often ask myself why I get involved in this discussion. However, this time I was in it for the enjoyment of it. A priest was waxing on about using too much water mixed with the wine for communion. Traditionally, a drop of water is combined with the wine in the cup. This is symbolic of the water and wine that came from the side of Jesus after he was pierced with the sword at the crucifixion.
Anyway, this priest was banging on that if you used more than a drop, the Holy Spirit would not come upon the cup at the appointed time, and therefore, that communion would be invalid. Well, not wanting to miss a good liturgical argument, I chimed in with, so if the mixology is not correct, if the recipe is wrong, then God will not bless it?
That seems to limit the power of God to work only with perfect things, and that would assume that you and I would be left out since neither of us is perfect.
I received a few thumbs-ups and a couple of hearts, and then I was blocked from the group. However, humans cannot restrict God. God will work where God wants to work regardless of what we want.
So back to the story.
Jesus lays his hands on the woman and says, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” Ah, another important distinction here, he did not say, “you are healed of your ailment.” Nope, he said, “you are set free from your ailment.”
I think I have told this story before. Many years ago, when I was a priest in the Orthodox Christian Church, I was asked to come and hear confessions for members of a church that was becoming Orthodox. They had belonged to another denomination, and the entire congregation was converting, and part of that process was Sacramental Confession. So say what you will about confession; there is power in admitting our faults to another human being and being assured of God’s forgiveness when we cannot see it ourselves.
As I heard confessions, I noticed an older woman, I would guess late 70s or early 80s, in line waiting. She was hunched over, much like the woman in the story we heard this morning. She shuffled up and sat down in the chair before me. She was so hunched over that she could not look me in the eyes. This woman was obviously suffering from something.
We began in the usual fashion with a couple of prayers, and then I asked if she had anything to confess. She said a few things, but my experience had taught me she was holding something back. I asked a few questions, and she revealed that when she was 16 years old, she had an abortion. She was not forced into it, and, at the time, she felt it was what she had to do. She did not regret her decision and went on to get married and have a family, but her decision weighed her down. She confessed that she had never told anyone what she had done. She went alone to the doctor and never spoke of it again.
As I said, I believe in the power of confessing to another human. I firmly believe that God forgives us whether we tell someone or not, but I swear to you, when that woman rose to her feet to walk away, she was standing up straight as if a great weight had been lifted from her shoulders.
She had been “set free from her ailment” not because of anything I did but because she had faith that God had forgiven her. By the way, I did not know her name, but I can see her face in my mind’s eye today as if she had just stood before me.
So, Jesus touches the woman, and she is “set free of her ailment.” But, then, the Pharisees strike.
Pharisees are the keeps of the law. They are always on the lookout for violations and transgressions of things like putting too much water in the wine, saying who is worthy of God’s love, and who we can and cannot fall in love with. Pharisees live and walk amongst us today, and sometimes they are not easy to recognize, but they are usually the ones setting up barriers between humans and God. The ones who say things like “we need to find God” as if God is lost. Pharisees hold to a strict interpretation of Scripture and often bend Scripture to meet their definition rather than allowing Scripture to influence them and their lives. Speaking of their lives, they are very willing to apply Scripture to your life but not so much their own.
So, the Pharisees challenge Jesus on the healing he had just performed because he performed it on the Sabbath when there is to be no work done.
In the 1st Century, there were two schools of thought on the Sabbath. Some held to a strict interpretation that nothing was to be done; although one could feed and water one’s animals, that was the extent of the work one could perform. This is the school of thought that the Pharisees came from a strict, literal interpretation.
The other school was that the commandment was to keep holy the Sabbath day, and thus one could perform Holy works such as the healing, or rather the setting free of this woman that Jesus did. Jesus emphasizes that we should have one day out of seven dedicated to God; however, if we see someone in distress, that is Holy work and not only can but should be done.
Pharisaic rules and regulations are designed to control people and to tell people how and when to worship. I am not saying we should not have some rules and guidelines, but as George Patton so famously said, “Army regulations are for the guidance of the commander,” and we should look to these not so much as rules that should not be broken but rather as guidelines for how we order and live our lives.
As many of you know, our United Methodist Church globally is going through a time of transition; that is a nice way of saying there is a split happening. What is this split about? It’s about limiting the love of God only to people who love a certain way. There are those in the family who want to say that to be ordained in the United Methodist Church; you can only love a certain way. These same, well-meaning folx wish to say that you can only have your marriage blessed by the Church if you follow these rules and love a certain way. They hold to a strict, literal, pharisaic interpretation of the rules. Thankfully our little Church here in Hull has said that is all rubbish love, whoever you want, you are welcome here. We love you the way God loves you, warts and all. We welcome sinners and saints to come and worship with us, and we set no barriers to God’s grace and God’s love. Someone say Amen.
Friends, we have no right to restrict God, and by attempting to limit God, we take away God’s godness and reduce God to something that is ruled rather than the one that rules. Jesus commanded that we love God, and we love everyone, without exceptions. I want to say to you, by loving everyone, we love God, for there is never a person that you will encounter that God does not love, and by that fact, we must, we are compelled, we are commanded to love them.
The ancient and modern Pharisees refuse to see that behind every rule and regulation is a person just trying to get through the day. Life is hard enough. Let’s give people a break.