Will you follow Jesus to Jerusalem? A sermon preached by Graham Low on 25.8.19
I’d like you to try and imagine that you are somewhere in the crowd of people we have just heard about who are following Jesus. You are not in the front but somewhere in the middle. Maybe you have not heard everything that Jesus has said, but you think that you have got the general sense of his message. You find this message very compelling indeed, and yet you also sense some fear about its possible consequences, both for you and for others. Remember that today, on this sabbath day, you are in the synagogue. What can you see and what does it mean?
Firstly, you see a well-known woman in great difficulty. She is so bent down that she can only see the ground. She cannot look people in the eye, but everyone else sees her and is watching her. Now, our names are a deep part of our self-identity. But here we see a nameless woman. She is a victim. Her shoulders have borne huge and isolating weight, physically and metaphorically, for eighteen years. She is placed in the gospel as an example of all those nameless people who have a beauty and a heart that are unseen because of a label placed upon them: immigrant, disabled, autistic, asylum seeker, homeless…and many other forms of what we may collectively call victimhood. In our imagination let us remember that we are in a village and so everyone knows everyone else, and they all know this woman has had problems for many years, though the reason for them is not made clear here. Luke tells us that she has “a spirit of weakness”, causing her to be bent double. People in today’s world might be wondering whether this problem has a psychological basis, though in the language and understanding of their day, the villagers express the cause as satanic. Maybe she has been physically or verbally abused over a long period, and eventually her body has responded by being bent double. Even in the 21st century such things are not unknown.
We also become aware that a power struggle is going on in the synagogue. Though there is a president in charge, everyone is looking at Jesus. And then in an instant, with a touch and a word, the woman ishealed by Jesus. She is set free. Her back is put right and she stands tall. Jesus has upstaged the president, who becomes angry. He shows this in an official public rebuke, saying that Jesus has broken the rules. This is completely understandable when the village hierarchy encounters the quite extraordinary and unpredictable actions of Jesus. But let us pay attention to Jesus’ answer. As we have followed Jesus before this moment, we have heard Jesus’ penetrating analysis of what is wrong with Israel. And we have heard his predictions about trouble ahead.
But now he speaks of double standards. “You do one thing yourself, but when I do essentially the same thing, but with greater importance to the person concerned, you object. You are simply play acting. You are quite happy to untie an animal that needs water on the sabbath. But you object when I untie a daughter of Abraham who is suffering from satanic forces”.
This is the only place in the Gospels where this expression is used. Part of this woman’s healing is to be called an heir to Abraham, the person who on a starry night received the promise from God that a great and blessed people would come from him. She is an heir to this blessing and is to become a blessing to others. Jesus has, as it were, turned this woman’s full stop into a comma, so that she can start a new life, with herself, her neighbours and community, and with God. Jesus continues by asking if there could there be a better day than the sabbath to do this.
So, yes, we can see the parallels between untying the animal and the woman. But what is he saying about the woman? She is a daughter of Abraham and has been bound up by dark forces for 18 years. The same forces have held Israel in a grip for years. Now Jesus has won a victory. And we begin to see that this untying, this freeing, of this woman is what Jesus also desires to do for Israel as a whole. Jesus sees that Israel has had an evil power over people, including tight boundaries and rigid understanding of the sabbath law. He sees that unless the kingdom message of his action heals this unnamed woman, he can see no hope for the kingdom as a whole.
In the verses immediately following those we have just heard, we read more about this kingdom. It is like a tiny mustard seed producing a huge tree, in which the birds of the sky can nest. When Jesus sows a seed the most astonishing things may happen to any of us. In freeing this woman from a spirit of weakness Jesus has sown a seed in the kingdom. We may wonder how this woman’s life will be shaped as she is freed to grow into and live in God’s kingdom.
So how do you now feel about what we have heard and seen and thought in the temple today? Maybe you too find that you need to be freed from something. Shall you follow Jesus up to Jerusalem? If so, it will surely be unpredictable and risky. But where else would you choose to go? Amen.