“A face in the crowd”
Sunday 25 August 2019
In today’s gospel reading, we find Jesus continuing on this momentous journey towards Jerusalem. And by way of a preview of what is to come when he reaches the great city, he runs up against opposition from the leader of a synagogue along the way.
We are told that Jesus was teaching in the synagogue on a Sabbath. Whenever we hear the Sabbath emphasised in the gospel stories, it should send us an alarm to be alert for controversy because Jesus’ understanding of the Sabbbath always brings him into conflict with the officials of the Jewish faith. While he is teaching, a crippled woman appears in the synagogue and we are told that she has been like this for 18 years.
The number 18 has some relevance in Jewish numerology. The two letters that make up the Hebrew word for ‘life’, Chai, are Het and Yud. In Jewish numerology they are assigned the values of 8 and 10 respectively so the number of the word ‘life’ is 18. In the case of this woman, we could say that the 18, far from representing ‘life’ for her measured the degree of her lack of any sort of decent life.
We know that this woman would be assumed to have sinned greatly to deserve to be overcome by the Satan for such a long period of time. We might make some other assumptions about her. Quite possibly she is not married and so has no male protector and so has no real means of financial support.
She would be a woman of whom no one took any notice – unless it was to avoid contact with her. The woman has probably entered the synagogue late so that she would not have been caught up in the crowd as they entered. We could hardly expect Jesus to have taken any notice of her because women sat in a separate part of the synagogue, separated from the men by a screen or wall called a mechitzah.
But Jesus does see her – just as he does so often, seeing the person in need in the crowd. He calls her over and without asking her anything at all, he said: “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” He then lays hands on her and immediately she stands up and, no surprise after 18 years of suffering, praises God.
What follows was not very edifying for the leader of the synagogue. No doubt he was a big man in town. Being a big man, he feels the need to lecture Jesus on the rights and wrongs of Jewish life. He is insistent in his reproach. We are told that he “kept saying” to the crowd words to the effect that it was wrong to cure on the Sabbath.
Jesus’ retort is both wise and compassionate. He compares the allowable practice of untying an ox or a donkey to lead them to water on the Sabbath with what he has just done – set the woman free from physical bondage on the Sabbath.
We need to remember that there were many and varied activities which had been classified as Sabbath-breakers. In seeing Jesus’ healing of this woman on the Sabbath as a breach of one of the Sabbath regulations, the synagogue leader is objectifying the woman in a most callous way. Jesus attempts to correct the synagogue leader’s view by drawing attention to the fact that the woman is a daughter of Abraham.
So, we have here a richly described account of an incident in the life of Jesus which remained in the minds of his early followers until it was eventually incorporated into the written gospel of Luke – and only in Luke. How might we consider this incident in the life of Jesus in a way that will shed some light for us on our way of living in this time and place? What basic lessons can we find that will help us be more effective members of the Jesus Movement for the spread of the Kingdom of God?
One of the things that occurs to me as being of particular interest as I read this narrative again is the behaviour of the synagogue leader. I think we need to be careful about too quickly writing off Jewish officials as they appear in the gospels. Because we have read and reread the gospels over the years, we have become familiar with a critique that Jesus offered generally of the leaders of the Jewish religion. However, it was not a blanket critique and we have to assess the role of each Jewish leader afresh each time we read the gospels and consider where they stand in relation to this critique.
I think that this synagogue leader must have been a reasonable person to begin with. There is no indication that Jesus chose to speak in this particular synagogue because he wanted to make an example of this particular fellow. It all appears to be fairly random. Jesus just happened to be in the village or town where the synagogue was located on the Sabbath and he quite routinely went to the synagogue as was his practice. Because he plainly looked like a rabbi with a group of disciples, there was nothing unusual about the synagogue leader inviting him to speak.
And yet, the synagogue leader was not able to see the crippled woman with compassionate eyes. In his view, Sabbath regulations were more important than the very real needs of a human being made in the image of God. We can easily look at him with a critical attitude and wonder how he could be so callous.
But on further reflection, what he did is not at all uncommon in the human realm. History is full of examples where people have been able to commit unbelievably cruel acts of commission and omission against other human beings because of the “branding” of the victims which identifies them as less than or other than human.
By way of example, consider the treatment of people within the history of the Church who were seen to be heretics or witches. The very act of branding them as somehow other than human allowed for the most horrendous torture and killing of such individuals.
In the last century, we witnessed the intentional propaganda of the dehumanising of Jewish people to allow for the wholesale murder of millions of them in brutal extermination camps.
We have enough graphic illustrations of this dehumanising branding to give us cause to be not too confident that we are not involved in something similar in our own society.
The sort of branding that immediately comes to my mind is that applied to people who lose their human identity because we refer to them as “mentally ill” or “homeless” or “welfare cheats” or “foreigners”. We each need to examine ourselves as to who are the people that we absolve ourselves from the obligation to render Christian compassion because we label them in some way that takes away their full human dignity.
The example we have from Jesus is powerful. He not only saw through the branding of his day that would see this woman as a sinner punished by God by her disability. He was prepared to extend the compassion of God to her in spite of the potential condemnation he would receive because it could be seen by some as a breaking of the Sabbath. In fact, in his inimitable style, he checkmates his opponent by doing his own branding. He rebrands this woman – a daughter of Abraham, reinstating her human dignity.
Our various forms of news and entertainment media are full of subtle and not so subtle instances of “branding” of people that does not do justice to them as human beings made in the image of God. Over time, we can find ourselves picking up some of these stereotypical ideas rather than the one acceptable view for a follower of Jesus – every human being is entitled to our love and concern because of the dignity they enjoy by virtue of their creation in the image of God.
Let’s reflect upon this beautiful story of Jesus’ eye for the person in need and his willingness to challenge conventional thinking to intervene on her behalf and examine ourselves for the existence of branding stereotypes that we consciously or unconsciously subscribe to. And let’s scrutinise those stereotypes in the light of Jesus’ example in today’s reading.
Archdeacon Allan Paulsen