Sunday, 25 August 2013

What binds us to the past?
What stops us from moving on?

Christ healing an infirm woman on the Sabbath, by James Tissot (1886-1896)

Patrick Comerford

Saint Ann’s Church, Dawson Street, Dublin,

Sunday 25 August 2013,

11 a.m., Morning Prayer

Readings:


Jeremiah 1: 4-10; Psalm 71: 1-6; Hebrews 12: 18-29; Luke 13: 10-17.

Luke 13: 10-17

10 Ην δὲ διδάσκων ἐν μιᾷ τῶν συναγωγῶν ἐν τοῖς σάββασιν. 11 καὶ ἰδοὺ γυνὴ πνεῦμα ἔχουσα ἀσθενείας ἔτη δεκαοκτώ, καὶ ἦν συγκύπτουσα καὶ μὴ δυναμένη ἀνακύψαι εἰς τὸ παντελές. 12 ἰδὼν δὲ αὐτὴν ὁ Ἰησοῦς προσεφώνησεν καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῇ, Γύναι, ἀπολέλυσαι τῆς ἀσθενείας σου, 13 καὶ ἐπέθηκεν αὐτῇ τὰς χεῖρας: καὶ παραχρῆμα ἀνωρθώθη, καὶ ἐδόξαζεν τὸν θεόν. 14 ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ ὁ ἀρχισυνάγωγος, ἀγανακτῶν ὅτι τῷ σαββάτῳ ἐθεράπευσεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς, ἔλεγεν τῷ ὄχλῳ ὅτι Ἓξ ἡμέραι εἰσὶν ἐν αἷς δεῖ ἐργάζεσθαι: ἐν αὐταῖς οὖν ἐρχόμενοι θεραπεύεσθε καὶ μὴ τῇ ἡμέρᾳ τοῦ σαββάτου. 15 ἀπεκρίθη δὲ αὐτῷ ὁ κύριος καὶ εἶπεν, Ὑποκριταί, ἕκαστος ὑμῶν τῷ σαββάτῳ οὐ λύει τὸν βοῦν αὐτοῦ ἢ τὸν ὄνον ἀπὸ τῆς φάτνης καὶ ἀπαγαγὼν ποτίζει; 16 ταύτην δὲ θυγατέρα Ἀβραὰμ οὖσαν, ἣν ἔδησεν ὁ Σατανᾶς ἰδοὺ δέκα καὶ ὀκτὼ ἔτη, οὐκ ἔδει λυθῆναι ἀπὸ τοῦ δεσμοῦ τούτου τῇ ἡμέρᾳ τοῦ σαββάτου; 17 καὶ ταῦτα λέγοντος αὐτοῦ κατῃσχύνοντο πάντες οἱ ἀντικείμενοι αὐτῷ, καὶ πᾶς ὁ ὄχλος ἔχαιρεν ἐπὶ πᾶσιν τοῖς ἐνδόξοις τοῖς γινομένοις ὑπ' αὐτοῦ.

10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’ 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.’ 15 But the Lord answered him and said, ‘You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?’ 17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

The Kahal Shalom Synagogue, with the women’s gallery behind and above the tevah (Photograph: RhodesPrivateTours.com)

May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

This morning’s Gospel readings reminds me of the Kahal Shalom Synagogue, the last surviving, functioning synagogue on the Greek island of Rhodes, and an elderly woman who gave me a guided tour of that synagogue, not just once but twice during a hot summer’s week in Greece.

The interior of the synagogue follows the traditional Sephardic style of having the tevah or reading platform in the centre, facing south-east towards Jerusalem. Behind it and above is the balcony, created in 1935 as a result of a liberalisation of religious policy, for use as a women’s prayer area.

Before that, the women sat in the rooms beside the south wall of the synagogue, and could see into the main body of the synagogue, through curtained openings. Those rooms are now used for the Jewish Museum of Rhodes.

The brave woman with an extraordinary story who showed me around the synagogue and the museum, Lucia Modiano Soulam, was bent over and in her 80s. She was a woman of exceptional bravery with an extraordinary story too. She was a survivor of Auschwitz and she spoke Greek, Ladino, Italian, a little French and Turkish and very little English.

Because there are only seven Jewish families left on Rhodes, the synagogue depends on tourists to make up a minyan and to lead public prayers.

As a family, we attended a sabbath service in the synagogue as her guest, and she sat with us, so that there were two women among a congregation in which the minyan was made up thanks to Israeli and American tourists.

I think of her as having been captive to Satan in Auschwitz for many years because of the sins of so many men. Now she was old and bent over, but taking her place in a synagogue where once she would only have been seen in the balcony above and behind the tevah, or behind the screens and curtains in the adjoining women’s rooms.

In her suffering, Lucia had become, truly, a Daughter of Abraham.

But let me ask some questions about this Gospel reading.

Which images, which characters leap out at you in this story?

Perhaps Jesus, but in what role? As a teacher (verse 10, verses 16), as a keen observer of humanity (verse 12), as a healer (verses 12-13), as the Lord God (verse 15), as a judge (verse 15), as an affirmer (verse 16) or as a wonder worker (verse 17)?

The woman? She is unnamed. But then, so too is the town in which this synagogue is located.

How do you see her in your mind’s eye? In her previous physical condition? Or as she looks after Jesus heals her?

Or were you struck first by the leader of the synagogue? He too is unnamed. But his demeanour should be a challenge to all clergy at all times. As clergy, do we ever behave like him?

Who are the hypocrites in verse 15? Who are the opponents in verse 17? The leader of the synagogue and … who else? As congregations or parishes, do we ever behave like them?

An icon of the Nativity of Christ … the ox and the ass are inseparably linked with the manger, but are not mentioned in the Gospel accounts of the Nativity

What about the ox and the ass? Do they remind you of the ox and ass at the first Christmas – although they are not identified in Saint Luke’s Nativity narrative? Or of the colt who is to be untied so Christ can ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (see Luke 19: 30, 33)?

Did you think of Abraham? No? Yet, apart from Jesus, he is the only other character who is named in this story.

The crowd, the many? The fickle crowd that rejoices now, like the crowd that is going to rejoice at Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday … and then call out “Crucify Him”?

Let us look at some of the figures in this story.

What makes this woman unusual, or what makes this healing story unusual?

No other woman in the Bible is referred to as a daughter of Abraham. Indeed, the Book Genesis records no named daughter of Abraham, and the rabbis argued over whether Abraham had any daughters (see Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra, which records an argument between R. Meir and R. Yehuda).

So, seeking to compare her with a daughter of Abraham, or to compare her with other women in the New Testament, is chasing after shadows.

There are two men in Saint Luke’s Gospel that she might be compared with too:

1, The unnamed rich man in the story of ‘Dives’ and Lazarus (Luke 16: 19-31) who addresses Abraham as ‘father’ or ‘Father Abraham,’ and who is addressed by Abraham as ‘Child.’

But in this morning’s Gospel story, the child of Abraham is the outsider who has been left waiting on the margins for too long and is brought in. So the woman is more like Lazarus than ‘Dives’.

In this morning’s story, Christ shows what it means to be a citizen of God’s kingdom – through his actions. He heals this woman and calls her a “daughter of Abraham,” which makes her, remarkably, a full member of Jewish society. Christ is saying the Kingdom is open equally to women and to the sick and to the disabled and to those on the margins.

2, The description of the woman as daughter of Abraham is matched later in this Gospel when Christ insists that Zacchaeus is “a son of Abraham” (Luke 19: 9), a point that is also made in the face of a crowd, this time a crowd that rejects Zacchaeus the tax collector as a sinner. Think of how this woman’s physical position of being bent over is symbolic in the same way that Zacchaeus is short in stature.

It is also worth noting that the woman does not ask to be cured, and no one asks so on her behalf. Christ notices her himself (verse 12). This involves his turning round.

She enters while Christ is teaching. If he has the scrolls in front of him, he is facing forward in the bema in the synagogue, and so she is behind him, either above in a balcony, if it is a large synagogue, or, in a smaller synagogue, hidden behind a curtain. She is unlikely to have been visible to Christ unless he turns around.

What does Christ do?

He turns around, and he calls the woman down or calls her over. He tells her she is free, and he lays his hands on her. He has not yet addressed her as “Daughter of Abraham.” So it is not this label that causes offence.

Is the difference in calling the woman into the centre of the assembly? The ritual implications for many men present are outrageous and even incalculable.

Ever since this story was written, I imagine, the synagogue leader has been typecast as the bad guy. Yet it is he who twice describes what Christ does as healing (θεραπεύω, therapeuo twice in verse 14). Would he have been seen as the “bad guy” on the day itself?

His indignation is neither unusual nor outrageous, but is justified given who he is speaking on the behalf of, given the religious culture within which he is living.

His first concern may have been for the men in his synagogue who risked being ritually tainted on the day. He voices his objections not when Jesus calls her over, not when he lays his hands on her, but only when she stands up and praises God – a man’s task in the synagogue.

Twice in our Gospel story this morning, we are told that the woman has had this illness for 18 years. What difference would a few more hours make? Why heal her on the Sabbath day and deliberately stir up all this conflict?

Jesus is not performing a good deed that, if delayed, could not be performed at a later time. This is not a woman who needs immediate rescue. If this woman has been able to bear her disability for 18 years, surely Christ can wait out the afternoon and heal her after sunset without flying in the face of the Torah?

Could he not wait until sunset? In the meantime, he and the synagogue elders could search the Law and the Prophets together, and then the healing could be seen in all its unquestionable rightness.

Perhaps if Christ had waited until sundown, his wonderful miracle would have supported the people’s expectations of a victorious, triumphalist Messiah. But he constantly announces the coming Kingdom in words and deeds that run counter to their expectations for the Kingdom.

One way of dealing with a message we do not want to hear is to shoot the messenger. Perhaps Christ could have spent all day arguing with the synagogue elders about whether or not it was legal to heal this woman on the sabbath – while she remained ill.

But why does the leader not direct his words to Christ? Instead, he addresses his complaints to the woman and to the crowd.

He does not doubt Christ’s ability to heal; it is the woman’s action rather than Christ’s action that draws his condemnation.

He has no problem about her coming to the synagogue or coming for healing. Instead, he upbraids her for coming on a Saturday, and he tells her to come for healing on any one of the other six days of the week. Yet, it does not appear that this woman comes seeking healing at all. She asks for nothing. Her release comes through Christ’s own initiative.

In his rebuttal, Christ does not attack traditional Judaism. He simply offers one of a number of traditional points of view. This story continues the story in Luke 4, where Christ reads from and teaches from the scroll in the synagogue. He is now putting into action in the synagogue what he has taught in the synagogue.

Meanwhile, Christ has set free or untied the woman. But what was she tied to? To her disability and her infirmity? To Satan? To her community’s refusal to accept her? To one interpretation of what could or could not be done on the sabbath?

Her ailment is described literally as “a spirit of illness” (verse 11) and “weaknesses” (verse 12). The word used here (ἀσθένεια, asthéneia) is used in both verses. Its literal meaning is without strength of body, in other words weakness or incapacity. Often this inability to do something is caused by a physical problem, such as a disease or an illness.

The result of Christ’s action is literally “to set straight again” (ἀνορθόω, anorthoo, verse 13). But it also means “to restore,” “to rebuild,” or “to set right again.” Figuratively, Christ restores her to the Abrahamic covenant or way.

Christ says to the woman, “… you have been set free” (ἀπολέλυσαι, apolélusai) “from your weakness” (verse 12). It is translated here with the present tense, “you are set free.” This word (απολουω, apoluo) is not usually associated with healing. Its general meaning is “to loose,” to unbind, to release, to send away, even to divorce (see Matthew 5: 32; 19: 3, 7, 8, 9).

It can refer to the bandages used to tie a woman to her husband. It is closely related to a word used twice by Christ in this story (λύω, luo) – to “untie” an ox or donkey (verse 15) and to “set free” from bondage (verse 16).

Is this a story about divorce after 18 years of an abusive marriage?

Is this is a story about controversy and division?

Is this a story about healing, wholeness and restoration?

Or – given the two synagogue settings we have seen this morning – is this a story about the practical relationship between what we believe and what we do – getting the balance right between believing and doing, between being and doing?

The woman is not named in this story, and, once she stands up and praises God, she disappears from the story, never to be seen or heard again. She is written out of the controversy at the end of the story. So is this a story about her, or about the reaction of the crowd, our reaction, to the promise of restitution and wholeness that Christ offers?

Apart from teaching that women and people with disabilities have a place in the centre of the community and at the heart of the kingdom, are there other meanings to be found in this story?

Asking what it is saying to us may be more important a question than asking what is it saying about the woman.

But let me leave us with some questions:

When should we do things in the church we believe are right, and only deal with the repercussions afterwards?

When do we need to discuss and come to an agreement before taking action?

What holds people in bondage?

In what ways does legalism bind them?

How are we held in bondage to past successes, defending our habits by saying: “This is the way we’ve always done it”?

Does the way we behave in our churches on Sundays free people or kept them tied up?

And so, on that note, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Collect:

Almighty God,
who called your Church to bear witness
that you were in Christ reconciling the world to yourself:
Help us to proclaim the good news of your love,
that all who hear it may be drawn to you;
through him who was lifted up on the cross,
and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. This sermon was preached at Morning Prayer in Saint Ann’s Church, Dawson Street, Dublin, on 25 August 2013.

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