An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Put to Shame

A sermon on Luke 13: 10-17 by Nathan Nettleton

No doubt the recriminations have well and truly begun inside the Australian Labor Party. Even if they manage to form a workable minority government and hold on to power, they have been well and truly smacked by the Australian people in yesterday’s election. In an election that should have been a comfortable victory for them, and which only a few months ago seemed assured, they have been given a most humiliating wake-up call. There will be much finger-pointing. In particular, those who pushed for the recent change of leadership because they thought it would improve their chances at the polls will now be red-faced and bracing themselves for much of the burden of blame. They did what they thought was bold and right and in the interests of all, and it has blown up spectacularly in their faces. They may well feel themselves put to shame before their colleagues.

At the end of our gospel reading tonight, it said that Jesus’ opponents were put to shame by his dispute with them over the healing of the woman on the Sabbath. In some version it says “they were humiliated”; in others it says “they were put to shame”. And it got me to thinking a bit about being put to shame. Most of us know the feeling of being put to shame, and certainly lots of our politicians and their advisors do this morning. But what I started wondering was what role shame plays in the work of Jesus; in the good news of the realm of God. If these opponents were put to shame, did Jesus intentionally put them to shame? Was shaming someone, or humiliating someone his goal? Is shame ever a good thing, and can it lead to anything good, or is it always a sickness.

Shame is not just an afterthought in this story. The whole story is a shame reversal. At the beginning of the story it is the crippled woman who is living in shame. She has been bent over for eighteen years by some condition that weighs her down. It is described as a “spirit of weakness”. The phrase does not really take a position on whether this was some sort of demonic spirit, or just a physical illness. The phrase is ambiguous, but the form of the story is typical of the healing stories, rather than of the exorcism stories. Perhaps the writer was making it clear that the cause of the condition was not the point. That in itself is a statement, because in the religious culture of the time, any sort of crippling illness was generally considered to be a punishment from God. Being so obviously bent over, as she was, identified her to everyone as a conspicuous sinner, one who was under God’s judgement. She was likely then something of an outcast, treated with suspicion and aversion. The combination of the illness and the alienation probably prevented her from playing a productive role in the community, and from marrying and bearing children, which was the main source of status for women in that day. Thus, we can be pretty sure that for this woman, the burden of the illness was added to by a significant burden of shame, further weighing her down and crippling her.

But when Jesus encounters her, all this is turned upside down. She is healed. Or as Jesus puts it, she is set free. She is immediately able to stand up straight, and begins to praise God. But every bit as significantly, Jesus gives her back an identity as a full member of the community. He calls her a “daughter of Abraham”. Before she was seen as a daughter of sin and judgement, but Jesus designates her a “daughter of Abraham”, one of the favoured names of the people of God, of the community as a whole. No longer bent over under the weight of sin and judgement, now she stands tall, shoulder to shoulder with her fellow daughters and sons of Abraham, to praise the God who has set her free.

But not so the leader of the synagogue. While the woman makes the transition from shame to honour, he begins the story proud and self-assured and honoured by the community, but ends it put to shame. He has been exposed as something of a hypocrite, because his commitment to the religious customs and niceties has prevented him from perceiving and celebrating the gracious work of God in the life of a needy human being. He has been further exposed by the argument that Jesus uses that implies that the synagogue leader would be more compassionate to a farm animal than he is being to this needy human being.

And it is probably most normal to preach on this story by highlighting that issue and showing how true faith and discipleship never rigidly adhere to the outward forms at the expense of compassionate action for needy human beings. And, of course, in an age where even the most positive healthy forms of sabbath keeping have become rare, and very few people have any sense of there being anything you might not be able to do on a given day for religious reasons, that is a rather safe approach to the story. There are probably none of us who are likely to refuse to help someone because of a passion for the keeping of the sabbath. And so we laugh at the synagogue leader and feel affirmed by the story.

But something about the synagogue leader being put to shame niggled at me. Maybe it scares me a bit because I have similar role. I too am a leader of a congregation, so there is a reason I might ask if there is something here directed at me. But I’m not sure that the niggle I’m feeling is specific to my role. I think there might be something here for all of us. At least, I hope there is, because otherwise I’m just preaching to myself!

You see, this is not really just about the sabbath. It might have been on this occasion for this particular leader, but really it is more than that. It is about the things we hold sacred; the things that are really important to us and which give us our sense of security and acceptance and belonging. The things that make us confident that we are good and worthy people in the eyes of God, the eyes of others, and the eyes of ourselves. And it is about how we let those things get in the way of what God might be wanting to do in us and through us and around us.

There are any number of genuine needs we could be responding to at any time, and we actually respond to very few. And very often we explain it to ourselves in terms of “I can’t do that because my family needs me at this time,” or “I can’t do that because I have other pressing commitments,” or “I can’t do that because I already gave at the office and it is someone else’s job.” We stay within our bounds of comfort. We do enough to assure ourselves that we are good people, but we keep it within the bounds of normality, of socially prescribed expectations, of decency and niceness and respectability.

But I’ve noticed that every now and again something breaks through my defences and stirs up a little sense of shame. And what is it? It is nearly always the same thing it was for the synagogue leader in this passage. Someone else steps beyond the bounds that I’ve stayed within, and shows that it is not so impossible after all. Someone else trespasses on the military base in a civil protest against the war, and I feel that my excuses for keeping myself safe have been exposed as a bit hollow. Someone else opens their spare room to a refugee family, and my unwillingness to put myself out is exposed. Someone else reaches out his hand to a bent over woman and restores her to health, and desire to keep everything normal and orderly and manageable is exposed as fear and hypocrisy.

I know that as a pastor, I’ve been even more guilty of this, because there have been times when I have shied away from encouraging one of you in some adventurous new step of courageous faith because it is more than I’d be brave enough to do myself, and so I hose down your enthusiasm rather than rise to the invitation that is there fore us both.

And it is not only about what we will do for others. It is also about what we will accept for ourselves. Probably none of us would refuse to be healed because it was the sabbath. But plenty of us shy away from the healing God offers for other reasons. Too many securities and sacred cows are at stake. I can’t afford to change in this area of my life because I’ve got a job to hold down. I can’t afford to change in this area, because it wouldn’t be fair on my kids. I can’t afford to address that because that’s not the done thing in this community. It is not the right time or the right place. And we stay weighed down and bent over and screwed up.

Now this might all be sounding like bad news, and a rather discouraging message, but then I realised something else about this story. Yes, there is a big reversal — the woman is lifted from her shame to a place of honour, and the leader is put to shame. But Jesus is always reaching out his hand to those weighed down by shame, and inviting them to arise to new life and new health and new hope. So, if that is so, then the very act of finding myself identified with the shame of the leader, of being discomforted and judged with him, returns me to the place of the bent over woman, with Jesus now standing before me saying, “Child, arise, you are set free from your condition.”

There is no one in this story, or any other, who is beyond the love and grace of God. Whether you identify more easily with the woman — disabled, outcast, afraid and alone — or with the leader — respected, confident, doing okay in the world you live in, but afraid to risk anything for the unexpected ways of God’s Spirit — either way, Christ reaches out to you a hand of welcome and promise, and longs to free you from whatever it is that binds you, and lead you into the adventure of new life in the wide open spaces of God’s love.


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