In today’s Gospel lesson (Luke 13:10-17), we find Jesus teaching in a synagogue on the sabbath. This is the day of the week in which Jews must cease from their ordinary work and tend to God. Hearing of Jesus’ healing powers, a woman crippled for 18 years, likely an outcast, entered the synagogue. After Jesus heals her by laying on hands, the woman stands up and begins praising God. The leader of the synagogue gets angry at Jesus, accusing him of working on the Sabbath. Jesus answered in his usual cryptic way, “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? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on sabbath day?” At this the leaders of the synagogue were ashamed while the crowd cheered Jesus for his miracles.
The church bulletin (ELCA) suggested that the story represents Jesus’ attitude toward the sabbath, in which “The sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the sabbath.” The rules of religious observance should neither completely define nor hinder the doing of God’s true work of healing, feeding the hungry, and helping the poor. You should apply yourself to worship with your whole heart, not holding yourself back but “standing up straight” like the possessed woman did after Jesus healed her.
Pastor Bair took it a step further and added that the bent-over woman was likely an outcast in the congregation. Jesus’ example was to release her from her sins so she could be at peace and a member of the community. A church must be that kind of place – where acceptance and healing occurs rather than judgment and condemnation. For it is through the grace of God through Jesus’ healing touch that we are made right with the world.
As the sermon drew to a close, it suddenly hit me that while these are good and valid lessons to draw from the day’s Gospel, that it might actually be what the passage was about. Rather it is about the nature of Jesus’ authority and the source of his healing power. There are three things you must be aware of to see it:
- The medical profession, such as it was, consisted of healers, mystics, witch doctors, and the like. Medical science was a long way off. Instead of germ theory, the people of the time explained disease in terms of being occupied by evil spirits. Jesus was one of many healers, notable mainly because he did not charge for his services.
- In Judaism of the time, it was believed that God’s authority was exercised through the Temple. The priests were the bearers of that authority.
- Jesus was not widely accepted as the Messiah, only as an itinerant healer and holy man. He was preaching to a devoutly Jewish but rebelliously Galilean audience. His task was to convince them that he was the Messiah.
So what then was the scene all about?
An itinerant healer comes to town and heals people for free, telling them in exchange about the coming Kingdom of God. On the sabbath he goes to the synagogue, where he does some teaching. While he’s there, a sick person appears in the crowd clearly hoping to be healed. After Jesus voluntarily uses his powers to heal her, the “pastor” then accuses Jesus of “working” on the sabbath. Did he actually perform “work”? It depends on what you mean by “work”. Who did the work?
By whose power did he heal the woman?
Remember, this type of healing was not uncommon and not necessarily associated with God or religion. The revolutionary part of it was that Jesus healed freely and claimed it was sign of the gift of the Holy Spirit. So whether he was working or not reduces to whether Jesus’ power was his or God’s. That it was so is evident in Jesus’ own answer: “You the leader of the synagogue do the work of the synagogue every sabbath so that they people may be spiritually fed, so why do you get angry when I do the same? For eighteen years this woman has been set apart from God. Today she is set free, and your criticize me because it is the sabbath?”
It would be difficult for the priests to accept this answer because of credentialing issues. If he healed by God’s authority but was not sanctioned by the Temple, then the Temple’s authority must not be authentic.
Stories in a chapter flock together
In the Gospels, the stories in a chapter tend to adhere to a single theme or make a common point. Chapter 13 of Luke is no different. In this context, the point of the story is the immanence of the coming of the Kingdom of God and the need for repentance as Jesus makes his way toward Jerusalem. Whereas the sabbath was made for humans to be observed by humans, the coming of the Kingdom of God is on a different schedule, an event so immanent and massive that you should stop worrying about small things like the sabbath and Jesus’ legal authority in order to save a soul.
The stories at the start of chapter 13 are about “Repent or Perish.” First Jesus says that Galilean rebels whom Pilate had crucified were less guilty than those who hear Jesus’ words and do not repent. Then he tells of a fig tree planted three years earlier that would be chopped down soon if it did not bear fruit. The caretaker begs the owner to give the fig one last chance to bear fruit. In other words, this is your last chance to repent or you will be chopped down.
Then there is the story of the woman healed on the sabbath, in which a disfigured woman who repents and gets healed is worth breaking the sabbath to save, while those who condemn the breaking of the sabbath are denounced as hypocrites.
These words are followed by the parable of the mustard seed and the yeast. I imagine that as Jesus with his twelve disciples and various other followers marched toward Jerusalem, they were asked, “You guys are bringing the Kingdom of God to Jerusalem? How is such a small group to take on such a big city?” “Well you see the kingdom is like a mustard seed. We are going to plant it, and it will grow into a big tree. Or we will be like the yeast that turns sixty pounds of flour into dough.”
In the parable of the narrow door, Jesus warns that if you hear Jesus’ words but take no heed, then when the Kingdom of God comes, it won’t do any good to knock on the door and say that you knew Jesus once, that he preached in your town. Bandwagoners will be cut down; only true believers will make the cut.
Then Jesus is told by Pharisees that King Herod wants to kill him. He responds that he’s on his way to Jerusalem because it does a prophet no good to die anywhere else. He then “predicts” that he will be killed in Jerusalem and that Jerusalem would be desolated before Jesus comes again.
Remember these words were written after Jesus was crucified, a couple decades after Rome razed Jerusalem in the First Jewish War. Also remember that in history, nobody knows what’s going to happen next until it happens, and then it usually takes some time to sort out what actually happened. (And that all historical narratives are to some extent simply narratives that are constructed in your head and are “true” to the extent that they seem reasonable to you.) You see some of this in the alleged prediction of Jerusalem’s destruction as a way to claim special knowledge. Supposing these stories and sayings were indeed uttered by Jesus on the road to Jerusalem, what did he mean by them?
The stories in Luke 13 suggest that Jesus believed Judgement Day to be near. Repent now while you still can. The tree will be chopped down. We can’t let the Romans catch until we get to Jerusalem because that is where prophets must die. We don’t need an army to take Jerusalem because God’s power is like yeast – it can level temples and destroy cities. For those who truly hear and believe, this will all be a great comfort, but woe to those who don’t.
Ah, but maybe the message was more subtle?
Yes, as written, it surely must have been. In interpreting Jesus’ words, the authors had to contend with Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, as well as the historical events leading from there to the First Jewish War and the ensuing diaspora. Jesus himself was an illiterate but devout carpenter who became a disciple of John the Baptist before beginning his own eschatological ministry following John’s imprisonment. “Subtle” and “illiterate” are adjectives not often used in conjunction. Jesus was more likely to have said what he meant than not.
Luke was written not by illiterate peasants but by literate, Greek-speaking Hellenistic Jews. While not the equals of Plato and Homer, they were more cosmopolitan than their Hebrew counterparts. Consider that Luke was Paul’s assistant, and also wrote Acts as an apologia for Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles. Here Jesus’ words in Luke 13 suggest more that since Jesus came to the Jews and they didn’t listen, they would be cut down (as in Jerusalem) as the word of the Kingdom of God spreads to the Gentiles. That would be a topic for a different day.