By The Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger
Did you see the article in Friday’s paper headlined “Wheat Intolerance Invalidates Girl’s First Communion?”(1) Dateline, Brielle, N.J. — “An 8-year-old girl who suffers from a rare digestive disorder and cannot eat wheat has had her first Holy Communion declared invalid because the wafer contained no wheat, violating Roman Catholic doctrine. Now, Haley Waldman’s mother is pushing the Diocese of Trenton and the Vatican to make an exception, saying the girl’s condition should not exclude her from the sacrament, which commemorates the Last Supper of Jesus Christ before his crucifixion. The mother believes a rice Communion wafer would suffice…Church doctrine holds that Communion wafers, like the bread served at the Last Supper, must have at least some unleavened wheat. Church leaders are reluctant to change anything about the sacrament.” Are you kidding me?
Here is another story. “A spokesman for Afghanistan’s Taliban guerrillas told Reuters that they had slit the throat of Muslim cleric Maulawi Assadullah on June 30 because he was propagating Christianity in the remote Awdand district of Ghazni province. Speaking about the convert from Islam, Taliban spokesman Abdul Latif Hakimi said, ‘A group of Taliban dragged out Maulawi Assadullah and slit his throat with a knife because he was propagating Christianity. We have enough evidence and local accounts to prove that he was involved in the conversions of Muslims to Christianity.’ Hakimi also warned that any foreign aid workers found to be involved in spreading Christianity in Afghanistan would face a similar fate.(2)
If you wondered about the sermon title this morning, there are two stories that are positively painful in demonstrating how repressive religion can sometimes be. Indeed, our lesson reflects the same thing. It opens with Jesus teaching in a synagogue where services were normally rather informal: primarily prayers, reading of scripture, comments, and offerings for the poor. Any man in attendance could read from scripture and then teach or preach if he were so inclined, and on this day apparently, Jesus was. He notices a woman, identified in scripture as only “crippled” and “bent over” – some disease that deteriorated the spine, maybe osteoporosis or scoliosis – a condition she has suffered for eighteen years. Jesus calls to her to come forward. “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” Jesus touches her and, voilá, immediately she straightens up and praises God. Ta-da!
Of course, we know there is more to the story. Enter the rabbi in charge. He thunders to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.”
One of my friends has noted that the rabbi’s complaint, even though it had to do with what Jesus did, was directed to the people. He says it’s the same in churches today as well – somebody gets mad with the minister and instead of coming to him or her about the problem, they pick up the phone and call all their friends. “Did you hear what the preacher did?” Uh huh.
Truth be told, what Jesus did was bound to cause a stir. He had healed this woman on the Sabbath. That was a clear violation of God’s commandment: “Observe the Sabbath day to keep it holy…Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work…”(3) Healing is work; ask any doctor or nurse.
Good Jews to this day are scrupulous about what may and may not be done on the Sabbath. Some of the rules may sound nit-picky, but the tradition goes back to the days when the nation was in exile. Sabbath-keeping was the way Jews then and Jews now assured themselves a unique identity. Through the centuries, the rabbis had set up all sorts of “fences” around the Sabbath to assure it’s special place. By the time of Christ, there were 1,521 things one could not do on the Sabbath.(4)
For example, they said bearing a burden was work. Then as a corollary of that general rule, they said that while a woman could have a ribbon sewn onto her dress, it must not be merely pinned on. If it were only pinned, it was not secure enough to be considered a part of the dress, and in wearing the ribbon with a pin, she was BEARING A BURDEN. Under the same heading, it was solemnly set down that false teeth were not to be worn on the Sabbath…they were a burden (and some of you who wear them might agree). I am afraid some Jewish brothers and sisters looked less than their best on synagogue days.
In Mark’s gospel, there is an account of some Pharisees complaining to Jesus that his disciples were gathering corn on the Sabbath…reaping.(5) That was work. But consider this: a woman was not allowed to use a mirror on the Sabbath to prevent exactly the same sin. You see, they were concerned that she would see a gray hair and pull it out, and pulling out gray hairs was REAPING. OK.
Now Jesus does this healing. Work. And not even an emergency healing. In fact, the woman had not even asked to be healed. But Jesus did it anyway.
It is not much of a stretch to conclude that he did it on purpose. He knew the rules. And it is not that the rules were designed to be repressive. On the contrary. It was this commitment to the Sabbath that reminded the Jewish people who they were and whose they were. Why would Jesus deliberately tweak their ecclesiastical nose? And while he is at it, call them a nasty name?
“You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”
There was not much the local synagogue leaders could say. In fact, the gospel writer sums the story up with, “…all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing.”
Someone has said, “It is the nature of all human institutions, whether they are churches, schools or governments, to start to make a shift. A subtle shift is made, where the original purpose of the institution was to serve people, and instead, the people start to serve the institution. It happens again and again and again. The legal needs of the institution become greater than the real needs of the people. A shift occurs and the needs and regulations of the institution become greater than the needs of the people.”(6) How true!
Walter Wink, in his book Engaging the Powers,(7) suggests that Jesus’ action represented a revolution happening in seven short verses. In this short story, Jesus tries to wake people up to the kind of life God wants for them. He often talks about the Kingdom of God where people have equal worth and all of life has dignity. But in the latter part of his ministry, he begins to act this out. In the midst of a highly patriarchal culture Jesus breaks at least six strict cultural rules:
1. Jesus speaks to the woman. In civilized Jewish society, men did not speak to women in public, even their wives. Remember the story in John 4 where Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well? She was shocked because a Jew would speak to a Samaritan. But when the disciples returned, the scripture records, “They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman.” In speaking to her, Jesus jettisons the male restraints on women’s freedom.
2. He calls her forward to the center of the synagogue. By placing her there, he challenges the notion of a male monopoly on access to knowledge and to God.
3. He touches her, which revokes the holiness code. That is the code which “protected” men from a woman’s uncleanness and from her sinful seductiveness.
4. He calls her “daughter of Abraham,” a term not found in any of the prior Jewish literature. This is revolutionary because it was believed that women were saved through their men. To call her a daughter of Abraham is to make her a full-fledged member of the nation of Israel with equal standing before God.
5. He heals on the Sabbath, the holy day. In doing this he demonstrates God’s compassion for people over ceremony, and reclaims the Sabbath for the celebration of God’s liberal goodness.
6. Last, and not least, he challenges the ancient belief that her illness is a direct punishment from God for sin. He asserts that she is ill, not because God willed it, but because there is evil in the world. In other words, bad things happen to good people.
And Jesus did all this in a just few seconds.(8)
Generally, when people are stuck in a system or a particular way of understanding, they need to be SHOCKED out of the old and into the new. Logic and reason usually does not work. Jesus could have spent all day arguing with the synagogue leader about whether or not it was legal to heal this woman on the Sabbath… while she remained ill. (How many church meetings are discussions about what should be done, rather than actually getting things done?) The healing took place before the discussion about whether or not it was the right thing to do. It is similar to so many situations that arise where it is easier to ask forgiveness than permission. It is such a shame that something that can do so much good – religion – can be made to do so much that is so bad.
Why is there ANY repressive religion in the world? Part of the answer is that folks take religion seriously. This morning there are millions and millions and millions of people gathering for worship all around the globe. FAR more people are related to churches on Sunday or synagogues on Saturday or mosques on Friday than are involved in ANY other voluntary activity. Gallup polls in this country consistently find that more than 95% of the population professes belief in a God; 85% believe that the Ten Commandments are God’s law and should be obeyed; almost 70% of the adult population claims a personal relationship with the Lord. As much as we hear of the decline of religion and the rise of secularism, the doomsayers have a long way to go before they would ever see their prophecies fulfilled.
Move that a step further. Why are the controversies over school prayer or abortion or stem-cell research so pervasive and heated? Not simply because they are caught in the partisan mud of an election year, but because, at their heart, they are religious questions, and people take religion seriously. Ask Haley Waldman and her mom in New Jersey or that Taliban murderer in Afghanistan.
Is concern for a suffering woman what Jesus wanted to convey that day in the synagogue? Not really. The word we are to hear is about religion, or better, about religiosity…and how seriously we are to take it. The point is that there is such a thing as too much. Mae West, in her inimitable style, once said, “Too much of a good thing is…WONDERFUL.” But most of us know that anything good can be pushed beyond its appropriate limits. Be careful.
Eighteen years. Can you imagine seeing nothing but dirt and other people’s feet for 18 years? Jesus offered this woman not just physical healing, but a whole new way to see the world… literally. He offers the same to you and me.
1. Warren Times-Observer, 8/20/04, p. A-5
3. Deuteronomy 5:12-14
4. Joy Davidman, Smoke on the Mountain, (Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 1954), p. 53
5. Mark 2:23-28
6. E. F. Marquardt, http://www.sermonsfromseattle.com/series_c_freedom_from_religious_rules.htm
7. Minneapolis : Fortress Press, 1992
8. Quoted in Suzanne Luper’s sermon, Can Jesus Be Redeemed?, September 17, 2000, North Raleigh United Church, http://www.northraleighunited.org/Sermons/CanJesusBeRedeemed.htm
Copyright 2004, David E. Leininger. Used by permission.