The Wrong Righteousness
Text: Luke 13:14: “...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.”
There is a church in the middle of the gospel story this morning, and there is perhaps some profit to us in paying attention to that story. All summer long we have been in a deep vein of stories from the gospel of Luke, stories from gospel that often wants to hold up before us the that the righteousness and justice God seeks is not somehow in a realm set apart from the justice of this world, and the lives of the people whom we are meant to understand as our neighbors.
The basic story is familiar to us and pretty simple. The setting is a synagogue on the sabbath. That means it’s a place keeping the expectations of the covenant on a day set aside by that covenant. There is a woman there who for many years—we can imagine since she was a small child—has been disabled in some way.
We don’t know what kind of exchange she has with Jesus; we don’t know what they say to each other. And we are never told what her place in the community might be. Because the story tells us that folks thought her disability was caused by a spiritual force, we can pretty easily conclude that she would have been ostracized from the community and regarded as unclean. She is one of them, but on the periphery.
What we know is that Jesus calls her over, lays hands on her, and heals her with some very particular words; he pronounces her set free from what had been burdening her those eighteen years.
Now, looking at this story from the perspective our much more advanced age, we can see a great deal wrong here with how Jesus conducted himself. First, in dealing with someone who had a disability that gave her mobility challenges, he called her over, to him rather than going himself to her.
And then there is this whole troubling image of Jesus laying hands on someone in the context of a worshipping community, something that would certainly be seen in our church as at least inappropriate and just possibly a matter for discipline.
If all that sounds a little narrow and whingeing, then we have exactly tuned our ears to the voice of the leader of the synagogue in this story. Something quite amazing has happened right in the context of the sabbath-day gathering, and the person who is supposed to be the leader of the faith community is...outraged. Maybe he feels his authority has been challenged. Maybe he’s unhappy that this traveling celebrity preacher has decided to pull off one of these miracle healings right while he was in the middle of the fourth of his seven-part sermon cycle on the importance of observing the laws on ritual purity.
We don’t know the reason; we only know the outburst. And of course Luke’s point in writing the story as he does is to make that rabbi look not just foolish, but essentially incompetent.
• • •
The wisdom of the Jesuits is to suggest the idea of reading a story like this from scripture not from the distance of a reader, but by placing yourself directly in the action of the story and imagine it happening around you. Like I said, it’s story that is unfolding in a moment just like this one—in a worship gathering on the sabbath day. And I can’t help but think, as I try to place myself in this story that I would manage to end up looking like that intemperate, intolerant, self-righteous rabbi.
The question posed at the middle of this story is: What are the things we do unquestionably because we are sure they’re right—not only right, but somehow the right way of being Christian—that Jesus would call us out on?
We are a worshipping community. We know who is part of the community and who is not. And when someone who is not comes in the door, we are likely to know it. And we make a kind of instant judgement about them: Are they here to affirm us in who we are, by telling us we’re just the kind of church they have been looking for? Are they here to ask for something? Are they angry? Are they dangerous? And here’s the real question—what would Jesus make of our having any of those questions uppermost in our mind?
We are a worshipping community gathered for the purpose of worship. We are people of liturgy. We like order. We like the idea that there is a righteousness in the idea that some things come before other things. We do not like things to be out of order. We do not like spontaneity.
But the inbreaking of God as Jesus lives it out among us is very spontaneous. It is nimble, flexible, instantly responsive to the need of a person seeking God and seeking healing in that very moment. God’s love as we see it in the midst of this story does not unfold from beginning to end, from entrance hymn to final blessing, but as a series of absolutely present nows.
So I read this and wonder to myself—how would I end up looking like that self-absorbed rabbi in the presence of Jesus? What are the things that we have created to express our faithfulness that ultimately get in the way of the grace God offers us every moment?
Would I call the bishop and report the laying on of hands as a potential Title IV violation? Would I point out to everyone that Jesus was presuming to take part in the worship service without wearing the correct vestments?
Would I place obstacles in the path of someone moved to receive communion by telling them they had to be baptized first? Or tell a couple wanting to be married in the church that first they had to become communicants?
All of that might make me feel as though I had some kind of satisfying authority, or it might make us feel as though other people were respecting our traditions and our inheritance.
But I am not sure that the Jesus who enters into world in a manger, in the farm fields, in the fishing villages, and even in the midst of a sabbath-morning service—I am not sure that Jesus would have much patience with any of that.
• • •
It’s already past the middle of August, and we are on the downhill slide into the new school year, the new program year, the new year of work and planning and programs and worship in the life of our church. Maybe we can take these precious few days left to us before that all comes cascading down on us again to wonder:
How might we be more responsive in the year to come to our spontaneous, restless God?
How might we more closely align ourselves to Jesus’s outrageous willingness to close whatever gap opens between God’s love and God’s people, to collapse any barrier that we devise, with all good intentions and for all righteous reasons?
How might we look for those things, inspect them, interrogate them—and find the faith to withstand the discomfort of setting them aside?