An Offensive Gospel

Inspired by Luke 13:10-17

My dad, like I’m sure many of yours, has always been larger than life to me—even when I passed him in height when I was in junior high. Still, larger than life. He could do anything, fix anything, overpower anything, create anything, there was no hurdle that was too high for him. I may physically look down at him, but will always look up to him. But, as often happens, time catches up to us, as it has with him.

I’ve noticed that many of our conversations evolve around sharing stories of each other’s physical ailments that come with age. A few months ago, we were having one such conversation, when my dad disclosed just how bad his back was. He told me that he could no longer stand upright, he could barely stand at all, but when he did he had to walk almost facing the ground. There was dead silence on my end.

I was trying hard not to react too strongly to that news because I was glad he was sharing this with me but I was having a hard time holding back tears. Here was this larger than life man in my life, who could once do anything, fix anything, stronger than an ox, in spite of his size, no longer being able to stand upright. I could not even imagine this in my mind’s eye as he was describing this to me. I felt like a robot who could just not compute the information that was being given to me. I was stunned, as I continued to listen to the frustration, anger, disappointment, in my dad’s voice. I can scarce imagine how that experience must have been for him. If it was me I’d think I’d feel incomplete, broken, alienated.

Our reading from Luke’s Gospel today recalls a story of a woman who had been suffering from some ailment for eighteen years. Luke reports this ailment as having a spiritual element to it as well but from what we know today it’s unclear if that was just their attempt at explaining the un-explainable, with maybe a dash of bad theology thrown in as well. However, for our purposes today it really doesn’t matter. What matters for us today is that she was saved from a long life of suffering, rather than what exactly it was. And not even how she was saved was important. You also may have noticed that, unlike many other miracle stories that have lots of details, Luke skips any details here. All Luke says is that Jesus touched her, and then he moves on in his story.

So, the what isn’t important, the how is apparently not important either, and unfortunately the who doesn’t seem important either because here we have another case of another woman who doesn’t get named. She doesn’t even get a title, at least the man in this story gets described as a synagogue leader. She gets, woman. Now, it’s no secret that that these stories come from a very male dominated, misogynistic society but the reason I want to quickly point that out, even though I’m going on a bit of a tangent, is because this behavior hasn’t gone away. If you’ve been following the Olympic coverage you know that we have a long way to go before sexist perspectives and language stop being the default. But I digress.

So, if it’s not the what, how, or who, then that leaves the why, where and when. Let’s leave the when for the end, and let’s tackle the why and where of this story together because they are closely tied. It’s no accident that this story takes place in the synagogue, which was not only the spiritual center of Jesus’ Jewish brothers and sisters, but it also contained it’s leaders who considered themselves over and above Jesus, they thought they were Jesus’ leaders too! That sounds preposterous doesn’t it? But that was their world view and to be fair, they didn’t know Jesus. They didn’t know who he was, let alone what he was, the son of the living God, the ruler of the cosmos that they couldn’t even fathom in the first century mind.

And Jesus knew that. And so Jesus brings his compassionate ministry of healing and restoration to the synagogue for all his “leaders” to see—because he knows their hearts and minds. Those who have been following him for the last thirteen chapters are already starting to get it, starting to understand who this Jesus is. But these synagogue leaders, well it seems this one is only there to criticize Jesus. He’s been waiting for an opportunity to pounce on Jesus. He’s had to deal with these guys for thirteen chapters now and I’m guessing he’s reaching his breaking point. But rather than lash out, he chooses to teach them something pretty radical—so radical that they are going to consider this blasphemy, heresy, an evil in their sight.

Jesus was going to heal someone on the Sabbath. [Gasp!] Gasp! That was supposed to be your reaction. Let’s try that again. Jesus is going to heal someone on the Sabbath! [Gasp!] If you were a first century Jew reading this for the first time that would have been your reaction. Even if you were a fan of Jesus, you’d be saying to yourself, “What are you thinking Jesus! No! Don’t do it!”—because in their minds this was breaking a commandment. The third commandment, keeping the Sabbath day holy meant not working on that day, doing nothing that day but worship. And they took this to the extreme! Even your food had to be prepared the day before! And like we humans do, they ended up using this to judge others any chance they got.

And Jesus says no, to all of this nonsense, in a very dramatic, controversial, and offensive way. How about that, Jesus wasn’t afraid to offend people for the sake of the gospel! What a concept! There’s the beginnings of another sermon right there! But I’ll move on. He heals this woman, in the synagogue no less, on the Sabbath, as his way of saying the Sabbath was never about not working, it was about restoration—restoration of the body, mind, and spirit. It was supposed to be about intentionally opening yourself up to being transformed by the healing, restorative power of God, which is why we come here, to this place, to that table, to that font, week in and week out.

Before I give you my final thought I want to give you some homework. It’s only fair, our children and youth just went back to school! This week I want you to think about your own ailments. Maybe their physical, and that’s ok, but go deeper than that. What do you suffer from that needs healing and restoration? Anger, fear, prejudice, a past hurt? Only you know. But I encourage you, I dare you, to be brutally honest with yourself. Because here’s the danger if we don’t—those ailments can become debilitating in the blink of an eye. Before you know it, you’re walking bent over, half the person you were the day before. And an even bigger danger than that, years go by and walking bent over becomes the norm, and you’ve even stopped asking for healing. Did you notice that she never asked Jesus to be healed?

Which brings me to my final thought. This story is dripping with grace. It has its challenges too, especially if we were to put our feet in the synagogue leader’s shoes but maybe next time we can do that. But overall, this story is just overflowing with grace as we hear Jesus deal so compassionately with this unnamed woman. But the most grace-filled moment for me in this story has to do with the when of this story, and I don’t mean that it occurred on the Sabbath. Jesus saved this woman from a long life of suffering, and when did that happen? It was before she even knew it because she was not asking to be saved any longer, she was not seeking out a savior, she was not looking for Jesus. He saw her. And “when he saw her, Jesus called her to him.” That is the most grace-filled moment in this story. “When he saw her, Jesus called her to him.”

Our job in this crazy life of faith that we lead is not to seek God out, not to search for God, not even to call out to God. God is finding you. God is finding you in this chaotic crowded life that we lead. And when God sees you, with your list of ailments that you pastor asked you to think about, God calls you to God's self—ready, willing, and able to heal, to restore, to transform, to love you like no other can. Thanks be to God for that. Amen.

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