An Open Table where Love knows no borders

To Free or Not to Free

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

With a federal election less than two weeks away, we are being bombarded with attempts to persuade us that one political party or another can best structure social policies so as to produce the society we all dream of living in, and one of the rather questionable assumptions in all that noise is that getting the legislation right is what it takes to get everyone to begin living happily and harmoniously. Political and church leaders have always been rather susceptible to the delusion that they have the power to control such things. Some years ago, Archbishop George Pell actually suggested that the government should consider requiring people who divorce to pay more tax as a way of encouraging people to stay married. Apart from the obvious obscenity of suggesting that appealing to people’s greed might be a good way of building healthy relationships, I thought it was a rather unfortunate example of this besetting sins of power brokers. It has certainly afflicted organised religion since time immemorial. That sin is the belief that godliness can be promoted by making rules about everything and forcing or coercing people to keep them. George Pell is certainly not the first religious power-broker to fall for that one, although he does seem to do it rather often, and I’m sure that he and others like him are actually perfectly well-intended, but power has a way of clouding the judgement of those of us who hold too much of it.

In tonight’s gospel reading we heard the story of Jesus encountering another such well-intentioned but misguided religious leader. This one was the president of a synagogue — a job roughly equivalent to mine here — and Jesus was attending his synagogue on the Sabbath day as a guest preacher. While he was there, Jesus came across a woman with a crippling physical disability that kept her hunched right over. Jesus laid his hands on her and said, “Woman, you are now set free from what has crippled you.” And sure enough, right then and there she stood up straight for the first time in eighteen years. Pretty much everyone in the congregation was cheering and applauding this wonderful event. The chances are that most of them had known the woman for a long time and to see her finally free was cause for great celebration.

Do you think the president of the synagogue could see it that way though? Not on your life. He was ropable. All he could see was that one of the rules was being broken. He was so wedded to his precious rules that he wanted to have rules about when people could and couldn’t be healed; about when they could and couldn’t be set free. Unfortunately, what he couldn’t see was that he was probably the person there who most needed to be healed and set free, if only he would allow it.

Jesus was on about setting us free. It is true that our freedom in Christ is not a lawless freedom from all responsibility — on the contrary we are set free to be what God wants us to be and that will be seen in radical obedience to God. But it is also true that such a freedom to obey God cannot be codified and controlled by other people, no matter what position they occupy in the church’s hierarchies. Radical obedience to God is a fruit of our freedom in Christ, not the prerequisite for it. So, you can be rightly suspicious any time you hear any kind of church leader telling you that in order to be Christian or to be on the right side with God, you must obey their rules and conform to their prescriptions of appropriate behaviour and lifestyle.

The specific rule over which Jesus disputed with the synagogue president was the rule about not doing any form of work on the Sabbath. The rabbis taught that an act of healing on the Sabbath was only permitted in a life or death situation, not in chronic cases where another day or two will make no difference. Jesus is clearly opposing this accepted principle. His method of argument was a common one among the rabbis — if you can show that a certain principle works in one situation, then it will necessarily hold true in situations of greater significance. So in this case, if you can do a work of mercy for an animal on the Sabbath, then it is even more appropriate to do such a work for a “daughter of Abraham”. From other passages, though, we can see that Jesus’s arguments about the sabbath laws went beyond this. In Mark’s gospel (2:28), Jesus argues that the Sabbath exists to serve the needs of human beings, not the other way around. This highlights the point he is making in practice in today’s story, that if we try to turn godly practice into rules, we end up losing sight of their actual purpose. To legislate that everyone should be entitled to a day off is a good thing if it serves to allow people to look after themselves and become more whole as God wants them to be. But if the law becomes an end in itself, then it becomes something that takes away people’s freedom and makes them less whole.

It is worth noting the implications of the fact that the person who Jesus healed in this story was a woman. In Luke’s gospel, there is a strong emphasis on Jesus’s elevation of women to positions of honour and respect within the community of his followers. Frequently where Luke has a story with a male central character, he will add a similar story with a female lead and indeed this story is quite similar to one involving a man in chapter 14. The descriptions of the woman’s condition in this story highlight her diminished status as a woman. Her condition prevents her from “standing upright” and is attributed to a “spirit of weakness” — a term which probably didn’t imply a demon, but just an illness. Jesus’ words in v.15 even indicate that she was being treated as less than an animal. However, Jesus lays hands on her as a sign of both healing and blessing, enabling her to stand up straight and praise God, and calls her a “daughter of Abraham”. In so doing, he removes her “shame”, and the story describes his male opponents as having be “put to shame”. And of course, it is women who have often borne the worst of male church power-brokers making and enforcing rules to keep everybody in their place and behaving as suits the needs of the status quo and its beneficiaries. It is certainly not only women who have suffered under such misguided abuse of religious power, but often women have copped it more systematically as a whole class.

Many of you have experienced these kind of legalistic control mechanisms in churches you’ve been part of, or witnessed it in churches your friends have been part of. We’ve had a number of people in this congregation who have found it very hard to trust us and commit themselves to us because the last congregation they had been involved in had claimed to be the only true church and sought to rigidly control every aspect of the lives of its adherents. And despite the measure of security and certainty that people sometimes find attractive in that, it usually becomes apparent over time that such an approach does not build freedom, love and faith, but fear, timidity and uncertainty. And leaving such places is frequently traumatic, and it takes some time for the wounds to heal sufficiently to allow them to entrust themselves to another congregation. We are honoured whenever people who have been wounded in such ways see us as a people worth belonging to. We intend, with Jesus, to reach out a hand of healing and welcome, regardless of what “the rules” might say.

What we most want to celebrate, and indeed what we are celebrating every time we gather here around the stories and table of our Lord, is that Jesus is still healing people and setting them free; that Jesus is still meeting those who have been bound and bent over by powers beyond their control, and lifting them up to new life and freedom. And if the religious leaders are threatened by that, it is they themselves who will lose out, for Jesus intends to go right on healing and setting free all those who will entrust themselves to him.


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