Life is good. Life is hard. Sometimes life is more good than hard. Sometimes life is more hard than good. Many of us live our lives in a context where we experience some degree of both. There are people, however, who face such overwhelming hardships and difficulties in life that their trials overshadow what goodness there is. This inequity and imbalance is due to two realities. One, it’s due to the randomness of life, which we cannot do much about. We have no control over many of the circumstances that affect our lives. That’s one factor. The second reason is due to the injustice and evil in the world, which we can do something about if we are willing.
I believe the Psalmist captures something of the longing of God when he says that God wants to forgive all our sins and heal all our diseases. Of course, we know that many do not experience God’s forgiveness because their hearts are closed to it and we certainly know that all our diseases are not healed. But I believe this expresses God’s longing. It’s what God wants for us. God’s longing, according to the Psalmist is to “redeem us from the pit” of death and crown us with “love and compassion.” God’s longing is to “satisfy our desires with good things so that our strength is renewed like the eagle’s.” When the Psalmist says that the Lord “works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed,” the Psalmist is expressing both God’s longing and God’s present activity. God works on behalf of all the oppressed. However, God is limited in what God can do because God depends on you and me to do God’s work. This is what it means to be the body of Christ in the world. This is why God gets angry with God’s people when they practice or support injustice. We are called to be God’s advocates for justice in the world.
In story after story in the Gospels we see Jesus, as the quintessential Son of Man, as the representative human being, sharing God’s longing. We see Jesus doing God’s work to bring forgiveness to those who are willing to receive it. We see Jesus bringing healing to the physically, mentally, and spiritual broken. And we see Jesus bringing liberation to the oppressed and to victims of injustice.
There is no doubt Jesus had a widespread reputation as a healer, but I also believe that the individual healing stories in the Gospels were meant to be read as parables of the good news that Jesus embodied and proclaimed. They are rich in symbolical and spiritual meaning highlighting the healing and wholeness and liberation God wants to bring into our individual lives, our communities, our society, and into our entire global village.
Here is a woman who has been crippled for eighteen years and unable to stand up straight. The text says she was bound by Satan. Satan simply means “adversary” and I read Satan as a symbol for the oppressive system – a patriarchal, male dominant system that had left her crippled. We miss this in the English translation but in verse 11 the Greek text says she was crippled by a “spirit of weakness.” The NSRV and NIV both simply read “spirit” and so this is easy to miss, but the Greek text reads “spirit of weakness.” This spirit of weakness had crippled her, made her feel weak and of no account.
What might have happened those eighteen years ago that so crippled her life? Was she abused by a domineering husband who treated her as inferior and unworthy? Was she silenced by the men in her community when she cried out for help? Was she forced to live a battered life in silence because she had no advocates crying out for justice? All we know is that she was crippled by Satan; crippled by the adversaries of God’s justice. This spirit of weakness, this spirit of oppression had beaten her down and diminished her own spirit.
Jesus’ own religion was often used by those in power to reinforce and justify the oppression of women in that culture, just the way our religion was used to justify slavery in our own national history or to justify exclusion and condemnation of our LGBT sisters and brothers today. One of Jesus’ primary roles was that of reformer, which eventually got him crucified by the powers that be.
Sometimes we hear people say that religion is a major source of oppression and injustice in the world. Or they might scapegoat a particular religion and say this religion is a major problem in our world. But sisters and brothers, it is not religion in general or a religion in particular that is the source of oppression and injustice. It’s how we use religion that is the problem.
In our story, the misuse of religion is symbolized in the leader of the synagogue. His concern is not for the crippled woman. Nor does he particularly care that Jesus has healed her and restored her sense of personhood and dignity as a true daughter of Abraham and a daughter of God. His concern is that Jesus did this on the Sabbath. The religious gatekeepers, whom this synagogue leader represents, had imposed some very strict laws to guard the holiness of the Sabbath. When Jesus healed this crippled woman on the Sabbath, Jesus disregarded the holiness of their laws and opted for a holiness of compassion instead. (Under the Mosaic covenant the main mantra was: “Be holy because God is holy.” But interestingly the one place in Luke’s Gospel that alludes to that changes it up so that it reads, “Be compassionate, just as God is compassionate.”) Jesus didn’t reject the holiness of the Sabbath. He rejected their understanding of what that holiness involved and the laws they had established to guard that holiness.
For these religious gatekeepers religion had become a way to control who they would let in and who they wanted to keep out. They cared very little it seems about the plight of the oppressed and destitute. What they cared about was their own position and power and authority to set the rules and maintain the status quo. And you know sisters and brothers, this kind of unhealthy, life diminishing use of religion can be found in all religious traditions, and it has frequently marked our own Christian history. In fact, we see it reflected in our own sacred scriptures. Not everything in our Bible is good and life affirming, which is why it’s so important to read scripture critically and discerningly and spiritually.
A case in point that goes right along with this story is how our scriptures have been used to both liberate women and to oppress women. Mainline biblical scholarship argues that of the 13 letters that bear Paul’s name, seven are clearly authored by Paul. (These seven undisputed letters are 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Romans, and Philemon.) There is no debate around these letters. And in these letters Paul’s stance toward women is miles ahead of his culture. In the churches he founded women preached and prayed and occupied positions of leadership. Gender was not a factor. Paul viewed women prophets and teachers as his co-workers in the ministry. The theology that Paul based this on was a social and spiritual vision of oneness in Christ which eradicated all barriers of race, gender, and social status. In fact, there is good reason to believe that the practices of these early Pauline churches stood in stark contrast to the hierarchical and patriarchal culture and practices of Roman society. And there is good reason to believe that this caused those churches to come under the scrutiny and suspicion of Roman officials. And that may explain why there was such a pushback against these egalitarian practices in the church. They were afraid Rome would crush them.
We see something of this pushback in the household codes reflected in Ephesians and Colossians – in the instructions given to husbands, wives, children, and slaves. Pauline scholars debate whether or not Paul actually authored these books and the arguments are inconclusive on both sides of the debate. If Paul was the author (which I personally doubt) then Paul was pushing back against his own earlier egalitarianism. However, mainline biblical scholarship is quite unanimous in their conclusion that 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus were written several decades after Paul’s death by someone within the Pauline tradition, writing in Paul’s name,which, by the way, was not uncommon in the ancient world. (Disciples of prominent teachers were known to write in the name of their teachers after their teacher died.) And in 1 Tim 2:11-14 the writer bearing Paul’s name makes a serious attempt to correct Paul.
He says, “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man, she is to keep silent.” This is quite a throwback isn’t it? And it’s in clear opposition and contradiction to Paul’s egalitarian practices in the churches he founded. Here’s the reason the writer gives for this instruction: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” That is terrible theology sisters and brothers, most likely born out of fear. The writer of 1 Timothy is basically arguing that women are to be silent in church because they are morally inferior and are more gullible. I have no doubt that this was their way of trying to bring the Pauline churches to be more in line with Roman culture. So clearly, here is an example in our own Christian tradition were our religion (the Christian faith) is used as a means of control, and in particular, as a means to keep women subjugated to men. As Richard Rohr often says: Our sacred texts mirror our own spiritual growth and enlightenment or lack thereof. It’s three steps forward and two steps back. And that very pattern (progression – regression; forward – backward) is reflected in scripture.
And of course, Christian leaders and churches are still doing the same thing today with regard to women. There are many churches in our country where women are not equal to men and are denied certain leadership roles because of their gender, and as you all know this is especially prevalent in Southern Baptist churches.
In our Gospel story Jesus exposes the hypocrisy of this kind of religion. He points out how the synagogue leader and his fellow gatekeepers make exceptions to their Sabbath rules to lift their own ox or donkey out of a pit, but will not lift a hand to lift this crippled woman out of the pit she had been living in for eighteen years. It’s no wonder, sisters and brothers, that the percentage of people in this country who describe themselves as nonreligious is the highest it has ever been. There are multiple reasons for this, but certainly one of the main reasons is that they see too much of this kind of hypocrisy in the church.
But on the flip side, healthy religion can be the most transforming force in the world. I would argue it is the most transforming force in the world. We sometimes forget that most of the really great reformers in human history were deeply devoted religious persons. Martin Luther King, Jr was a Baptist minister and it was the best of the Christian tradition that inspired him and many of his associates and followers. So religion can be used for good or evil. It can be used as a means of controlling others, creating worthiness systems, justifying prejudices, and elevating the ego on the one hand. (And we see this use of religion in the way some of our scriptures try to justify violence and prejudice and oppressive structures). But on the other hand, sisters and brothers, religion can be the means for great spiritual and moral advancement, for personal and social transformation, and for healing of the broken and liberation of the oppressed. The Isaiah passage (58:9b-14) that we read earlier suggests that our healing and liberation is connected to the healing and liberation of everyone else. It is in offering healing to others that we are healed. It is in working for the liberation of others that we are set free. It is in loving others that we find love.
I think one of the reasons large segments of the church have gotten so far off track is because we have put the emphasis on the wrong things. We put the emphasis on things like doctrinal conformity and believing correctly. We put the emphasis on the afterlife rather than this life. And this last one may need some elaboration.
I love the story about the florist who mixed up two orders on a busy day. One arrangement was to go to a new business and the other to a funeral, but they got mixed up. The next day, the guy with the new business stormed into the shop visibly upset. “What’s the big idea? The flowers that arrived for our reception said, ‘Rest in peace.’” The florist said, “Well, if you think that’s bad you should have seen the people at the funeral who got the flowers that said, “Good luck in your new location.” I think we really got off track when we turned the good news of God’s healing and liberating grace into preparing for a new location.
In the Christianity of my childhood, youth, and even young adulthood, salvation was primarily about escaping hell and going to heaven. I didn’t know at the time that attributing that meaning to salvation imports something into the idea of salvation that is not present in the Gospels at all. In the Gospels being saved is about being made whole; it’s about being healed, being liberated, being freed from powers of death like this woman in our story. Salvation in the New Testament relates far more to this life than the next life.
Now, I certainly believe in an afterlife. When I am asked about the afterlife my common response is: I haven’t the faintest idea what life after death will be like or look like or feel like, but I believe it will be good, because I believe God is good. That is the bottom line for me. God is good so whatever the afterlife involves it will be good.
Jesus believed in resurrection. His followers believed in resurrection. Paul wrote a long passage in his first letter to the Corinthians arguing that there will be a future resurrection, because apparently some in the church were questioning it or even denying it. But here’s the catch. Whatever they believed about the afterlife (and it’s really hard to know what they believed because they don’t tell us much) they connected it to this world, not some other world someplace else. Paul wrote in Romans 8 about how this earthly creation anxiously longs for and awaits final redemption. Paul and many of the early Christians believed that the new creation of God would be right here and extend to all creation. It would involve, they believed, the transformation of this world, not evacuation to some other distant world. I believe Christianity really lost it dynamic power to transform people, transform communities, and transform society when it changed the emphasis from this world to the next.
It is true that we are pilgrims on a journey, but it is not true that this world is not our home. This world is God’s good creation and as long as it exists it is our home and we are called to invest in it and be good managers and caretakers of it.
I love my religion. I love my faith and the sacred scriptures and traditions that have been passed on to me. I love the beauty and grace and love and faith and hope I see embodied in the stories about Jesus and the stories and teachings of Jesus. I can see the longing of God in these sacred stories and writings. And the deeper I dive into them, the more I want to experience and share and participate in God’s longing, which is nothing less, nothing short of a longing for a world transformed by love. Amen.
Gracious God, the best of our tradition and scriptures teaches us that you long for a world marked by grace and hope, love and mercy, peace and justice, where all people have the capacity to thrive, not just survive. O God, let that be our longing to. And give us the will and courage and heart to translate that longing into the actual practice and pursuit of mercy and justice. Amen.