One of the things I have appreciated throughout my ministry is how many of you are amazed that I can stand up here without looking at my notes. Please know that this doesn’t make me special – many pastors do not bring their notes with them into the pulpit or what I call “the Holy Circle” – but it is part of what makes me who I am.
There is a lot of work that goes into this 20-25-minute time of deep discipleship each week. In fact, a good rule of thumb is that for every minute of a sermon, there is about 30-60 minutes of prep. That includes prayer, studying, reflecting, writing, and, of course, banging my head against the wall.
Among my favorite aspects of sermon prep is examining the context surrounding a specific passage. By context, I mean looking at what takes place within the story beyond just the words written on the page. We forget sometimes that the Bible was written in real time, focusing on real people, who lived in real space. Studying the situations, history, and ways someone would write at the time helps us to understand more about what is going on in a verse or passage of Scripture.
It’s tempting to look at a passage and say, “well, this is what it says” and move on. However, when we look at the context within a Scripture passage, we see more of what God is trying to tell us through these words. We grow deeper by engaging the depths of Scripture, both its challenges and hopes, and by taking in what it means for our lives.
This particular passage from Luke 13:10-17 offers multiple places where the context of the time in which Jesus found himself and the situation of this particular engagement helps us understand what takes place. That same context gives us a window to look within our own soul and see where we may be like the characters of the story and how Christ calls us to respond as a people and a community of faith.
Our encounter with the story begins with Jesus in a synagogue. A synagogue was, and is, a central place of worship for the Jewish community. A synagogue would be created whenever 10 or more men gathered to create an assembly. The building would be designed to face the site of the Temple. The synagogue was the center of Jewish life. It was where you would go for worship, education, and community connection.
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus has joined the community for worship in the synagogue. We are not sure where this is located. He been focused upon going to Jerusalem, where he will enter conflicts with the religious elites, die on the cross, and rise three days later. That journey to Jerusalem takes Jesus into various encounters along the way as he shared life with the people around him. It could be anywhere along the path he took from the Galilean region to Jerusalem.
For Jesus, sharing life meant following the religious practices of his time, including being in the synagogue for the Sabbath. We think of Sabbath as Sunday, which we set aside as a day of rest from labors and a time to worship God. Sabbath, or shabbat, in the Jewish culture lasted from Friday evening to Saturday evening. It was a day for rest, renewal, and recovery that centered on the creation narrative and God’s desire for creation to experience renewal through rest from work and entry into a posture of worship. Sabbath practice was designed by God to enable his people to be transformed by the rest, renewal, and the recovery as a response to God’s love throughout the week.
One of the central aspects of the Sabbath was the community gathering together in acts of worship. This would take place in the synagogue, which is where we see Jesus at the start of our story. It is the last time Luke records Jesus in a synagogue. In previous moments in a synagogue, Jesus identified his messianic calling through the words of Isaiah 61:1-2 by saying he has come to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, to give sight to the blind, and to break free the chains of bondage. These are the words that almost got Jesus killed in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth.
When the community gathered for worship, men entered through one entrance and women, another. This includes a synagogue in Jesus’ ministry base of Capernaum, where women and servants would enter through a backdoor that led to steps that went to the balcony. It is likely among the other women that we find the woman of our story. She has come for worship even though she has suffered with a debilitating illness for 18 years.
She refused to allow her pain to keep her from worship. In the churches I have served, I have been amazed at the numbers of faithful people who attend worship despite their suffering. I am thinking of members who have lost loved ones, and yet were in worship the following week. I am thinking of members who battle ailments with pain that we can’t understand, and yet they were always in worship. In doing so, they were claiming the same hope that the woman of our story claimed – that God is present in this community and will touch us in our deepest places of need.
Jesus noticed this woman as he taught. Teaching took place from a seated position, so he is looking up when he sees this woman. He doesn’t look away from her difficulties and struggles. He pays attention to her and calls her to come near. I can imagine her struggling to come forward, perhaps with the assistance of others, to see Jesus. When she approaches, Jesus looks at her and says, “Your faith has made you well.” He touches her, and immediately her illness goes away. She experiences the renewal of her body.
All of this takes place on the Sabbath. Jesus lived into the deeper purposes of the Sabbath by providing the pathway for this woman to experience true renewal. What better day, what better opportunity, for this woman to experience hope than on the Sabbath and in the synagogue. She is healed by the One who provides true renewal.
Everyone in the crowd was ecstatic for this woman. Everyone, that is, except for the leader of the synagogue. He comes out and is not happy. He is upset that this woman was healed on the Sabbath and wants the crowd to know it.
Why is this important? A synagogue leader was charged with the proper teaching of Scripture. This is akin to my role as the pastor. I am charged with maintaining the proper teaching of Scripture, the administration of the sacraments, the leadership and administration of the church, and our witness in our community. It is a heavy and humbling responsibility that the leader of the synagogue, and I here today, take seriously. The leader believes Jesus has violated Scripture by partaking in this healing.
This leader is focused on an interpretation of Deuteronomy 5:13-14 that calls the people to keep the Sabbath by not working. What really has upset this leader is that Jesus is in conflict with the interpretation of the Talmud. The Talmud was an ethical code that outlined the religious practices for the community in an attempt to maintain the Scriptures and avoid sin. It was based on the belief that if the community was ethically and ceremonially pure, then it would be holy in God’s eyes. This is an admirable desire, but the problem came in its implementation. Religious leaders and elites were more concerned with people living out the practices of the Talmud than they were in following God’s desires. In many cases, the leaders were unwilling to actually follow the Talmud themselves.
Jesus points this out to the leader when he responds by calling the leader a hypocrite. The Greek meaning of the word is someone playing the part of an actor. A hypocrite is someone who calls others to do something that they are not willing to do themselves. A religious hypocrite is more concerned with the actions of others and want others to follow religious rules and precepts they themselves have no interest in following.
Where this comes to a head in this passage is that many religious leaders, perhaps even this one, were willing to violate their own rules when it benefited their own needs. This was the case when an animal needed to get water on the Sabbath. That was acceptable work, but healing a woman who had been sick for 18 years… well, she needed to come back when it was acceptable.
What Jesus wanted the leader to see is that they were missing the point of the Scripture they said they valued and proclaimed. The Sabbath wasn’t made to create barriers to keep people from experiencing God’s love. It was created so that all people and all creation could experience renewal and hope. It was created so that they would be able to share these aspects of renewal and hope with the people they encountered. Jesus was teaching the people to see the deeper meaning of the passages. They shouldn’t ignore the opportunities to offer God’s renewal and hope to all people, especially this woman who, we can assume, had been to this synagogue many times before.
This encounter gives us a chance to reflect on how easy it is to miss opportunities to share renewal and hope with people, because we get caught up in our own self. We can easily be like the hypocrite and get focused on our own ideas of the world, our own prejudices about others, and our own beliefs about the way things should be, so that it creates a barrier to sharing God’s grace. We do this, while, at the same time, we proclaim that we want to experience this same act of renewal and hope for ourselves that we are unwilling to share with others.
When this happens, we miss the opportunities God places before us to be healers, to be Sabbath workers, who share God’s renewal through simple acts of grace. We miss the opportunities for us to be faithful to where God is leading us because we get more concerned with our own acts of self-protection. We miss opportunities to provide a simple touch of grace, because of the barriers we erect, the rules we establish, and the patterns of distrust that prevent us from sharing God’s love and hope.
It is easy to hear a message like this, and immediately think that it is meant for someone else. I know within my own life how easy it is for me to say I want to share God’s hope, but only want it for myself. I know how easy it is for me to get caught up in my own ways and miss the opportunities to share a simple touch of grace with someone. We all need to hear how easy it is to become a religious hypocrite and miss the opportunities to share God’s love. We can all fall into this religious leader’s trap and miss the opportunities before us.
If we are to be faithful to wherever God leads us, then we must be willing to live like Jesus. Living like Jesus means finding the opportunity to share grace and hope, especially when it challenges and stretches us. When we do, we’ll discover that there are more opportunities than obstacles before us as we share God’s grace and hope with the people around us.