The healing stories in our Gospels are never just about physical healing, they always have spiritual and theological meanings. The woman in our story had been plagued by a crippling spirit for eighteen years. It kept her bent over and unable to stand up. Can you see the fairly obvious symbolical and spiritual implications here? A crippling spirit of this kind can diminish our sense of worth and value. We find ourselves spiritually and emotionally and psychologically unable to stand straight and take our rightful place in the realm of God.
Jesus calls the woman he heals in our story a “daughter of Abraham.” A daughter of Abraham who has been bound by Satan eighteen long years. Satan here is a symbol for the crippling spirit, the spirit that has kept her from living life in its fullness in God’s kingdom. But she is still a daughter of Abraham. She is still a daughter of God. She is still God’s chosen. God’s beloved. Jesus sees through and beyond the crippling spirit. Can we?
According to a Greek legend Helen of Troy was kidnapped and whisked across the seas to a distant city where she suffered from amnesia. In time she escaped from her captors and became a prostitute on the streets. Back in her homeland, her friends refused to give up on her. One admiring adventurer who never lost faith set out on a journey to find her and bring her back. One day as he was wandering through the streets of a strange city he came across a prostitute who looked strangely familiar. When he asked her what her name was she responded with a name that he didn’t know. Then he asked if he could see her hands. He knew the lines of Helen’s hands. When he looked at her hands and realized who it was he exclaimed, “You are Helen! You are Helen of Troy!” “Helen” she replied. When she spoke her name, her true name, the fog began to clear and a sense of recognition registered on her face. She discovered her lost self. Immediately she discarded her old clothes and old life and became the queen she was called to be.
Do you know what your true name is? It is child of God. It is son of God or daughter of God. That’s who we are in our true self, the Christ self. The problem is that the true self gets hidden and buried underneath the false self. What we have to do is strip back the layers of the false self, so the true self can emerge. Then we will be able to straighten up and walk upright and learn how to love and to be loved.
Another kind of crippling spirit takes us in the opposite direction. We can be crippled by an inflated ego just as we can be crippled by a deflated one. We can be crippled be a spirit of arrogance and egotism. Most of us who are crippled by this spirit do not see ourselves as crippled at all. We think we have it all together. The Pharisees in our story represent those crippled by a spirit of arrogance and egotism. And too often it expresses itself through self-righteous attitudes and acts and does considerable harm to others. The Pharisees in our story today do not care that Jesus just liberated a woman who had been crippled for eighteen years. Their only concern was that Jesus did this good work on the Sabbath in violation of their interpretation of Sabbath law. “There are six days of the week when people can be cured of their ailments,” they say, “Do your healing then.” But did they really regard the law with such sacredness? Jesus points out their inconsistencies. He says, “Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?” “Does not each of you do common work on the Sabbath? Of course you, do.” “You hypocrites,” says Jesus. They don’t care about this crippled woman. They are offended because in their mind Jesus does not respect their place and position. They consider themselves to be gatekeepers. They set the rules. They determine who is in and out.
I think religious leaders today struggle with this as much as anyone, maybe even more so. A couple of weeks ago I had an aspiring religious leader comment on one of my social media posts. He is a doctoral student at Dallas Theological Seminary, a school that teaches biblical inerrancy and dispensationalism. He said my posts “sickened” him. He was determined to debate me and show me and my congregation (he wanted to show you folks) the foolishness of my faith. He wouldn’t let it go. He kept insisting that he had the truth, and he knew the truth, and he was sure that if I would just debate him he could expose my fallacies. I finally said to him, “I know all about the positions you hold. I used to hold those same positions.” I told him that I had earned my Masters degree from a school similar to the school he is attending, a school that taught, I assume still teaches, biblical inerrancy and dispensationalism. I informed him that I was back then very similar to the way he is now: I had the truth and I wanted everyone else to see and know the truth just the way I saw and knew it at the time. But I did tell him that I did not think I was quite as arrogant about it as he is. Certainly, I had a lot of ego invested in it that was expressed through self-righteousness. I still struggle with this from time to time. But this guy was just plum full of himself. He was severely crippled and didn’t know it.
So how do we find healing and liberation from such crippling spirits as self-degradation on the one hand, and arrogance on the other? In the tradition I was taught faith was the way of salvation. But it was a rather mechanical understanding of faith that focused on beliefs. I was taught that if I just believe that Jesus died for my sins and if I confess Jesus as Lord I would be saved. But did that really save me? Did that really heal me, change me, transform me? Not at all. All it really did was put my ego back in charge. I felt that because I believed the right things, and made the right confession, and said the right prayer that gave me the right to be a child of God, to be forgiven all my sins, and to gain the promise of heaven. I felt I had done all the right things, and that made me God’s chosen over all the other people who didn’t know the truth. Richard Rohr says this about such a notion of faith (I have included the quote in your worship bulletin): “Such a mechanical notion of salvation frequently led to all the right religious words, without much indication of self-critical or culturally critical behavior. Usually, there was little removal of most ‘defects of character,’ and many Christians have remained thoroughly materialistic, warlike, selfish, racist, sexist, and greedy for power and money – while relying on ‘amazing grace’ to snatch them into heaven at the end. And it probably will! But they surely did not bring much heaven onto this earth to help the rest of us, nor did they speed up their own salvation into the present. Many ‘born agains’ have made Christianity laughable to much of the world.”
A mechanical notion of faith or salvation will not heal us and liberate us from our crippling spirits. What we need in order to experience authentic healing and liberation from our “defects of character,” from the forces that keep us crippled is a genuine encounter with God’s expansive, magnanimous, inclusive love. I wonder how many Christians who use “born again” language have actually had such an encounter. It can come to us in many ways if we are open to it and ready for it, but it certainly doesn’t just happen as a result of believing the right things. A mechanical notion of faith and salvation not only does not bring real healing and liberation, it may actually serve as a substitute that prevents us from having an encounter with Divine Love, which alone can change us. We think that if we believe the right things, do the right things, say the right things that we will be healed/saved. And yet all we have really done is create another system of meritocracy, another worthiness system similar to the one the Jewish leaders had created in Jesus’ day. It’s a system that fuels the ego and makes us feel superior. Then we send out missionaries to get people in other places to believe exactly what we believe so they can feel superior too. No real conversion happens.
Now, another way we go about this is that we substitute repentance for faith, which does, on the surface, seem to be an improvement. This works something like this: We tell people that they are sinners, that they should fear the judgment and punishment of God, but instead of insisting they believe the right things, we insist that they repent of their sins, and obey God. And on the surface it seems to work, at least at first, but then it quickly fizzles out or it just devolves into legalism, because it’s based on a worthiness system too. These two approaches have dominated American Christianity. Isn’t it obvious that two approaches haven’t worked? Look at the state of Christianity today both in our country and our world. As Richard Rohr has pointed out the majority of Christians in America are just as unchristian as everyone else – just as prejudiced, warlike, greedy, egotistical, and materialistic as everyone else. Both of these systems, one based on belief, the other on repentance haven’t worked, because love is dangled as the prize at the end. Both are systems of retribution and reward, and no system of retribution and reward really changes people. It functions pretty well at modifying behavior for varying periods of time. But it doesn’t bring about real transformation. Real healing and transformation occurs when our sin drives us into the loving arms of an Unconditional Lover from whom we have nothing to fear and who has loved us all along.
I can illustrate this from a beautiful story in Luke’s Gospel – the story of the prodigal. Actually, it’s more about the Father than the prodigal. You know this story. The son treats the Father with disdain. He requests his inheritance. Leaves home. And squanders every penny “in dissolute living.” He loses it all. This Jewish boy becomes so desperate that he hires himself out to a Gentile and goes to work feeding his pigs where we are told that if could he would “have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating.” That’s about as desperate as one can be isn’t it? So he makes a decision to eat crow, which is better than pig food, and return home. He decides he will make a confession to his father and ask to be treated as one of his father’s hired hands. Now, do you think the Son is really sorry at this point for the way he treated his father? I don’t get that impression in the story. One of the great things about the stories Jesus told is that they leave a lot of room for our imaginations and for the Spirit to work. I see nothing in the story that would suggest that at this point he is remorseful or sorrowful for hurting the Father. He seems to be just like the person who comes to God out of fear or guilt or social pressure or something else. There is no real desire to change. Just a desire to escape punishment. Or in the case of the prodigal to escape hunger and poverty and humiliation. Desperation sends him on his way back to the Father, but desperation doesn’t save him from his false self.
So what happens? Jesus or Luke describes it this way: “While he was still far off his Father saw him coming. [This implies that the Father has been waiting and watching constantly. The Father is up on the hill every day looking for his son.] The Father, filled with compassion, ran to meet him. He embraced him and kissed him.” This was all before the son spoke a single word. The Father expresses what the Father always felt – unconditional love for his son. Now, when the Son actually confesses to the Father he doesn’t do as he rehearsed. There is no mention of working as a hired hand. He drops that completely. Why? Apparently, now, having experienced the Father’s love, he feels no need to try to barter or squeak out a deal. What I think is that for maybe the first time he experiences the overwhelming, unconditional love of the Father and what flows out of that experience is true repentance. Repentance is the consequence of being loved, not the cause. God removes the barter system, the rewards and punishment system completely. In God’s system of grace, in contrast to systems of meritocracy, love precedes repentance and is the true cause of repentance.
In God’s system of grace genuine sorrow and regret over the hurt and harm we have done to others is never produced by guilt or fear of punishment. Fear, like desperation, may cause us to modify our behavior, but it cannot change our heart. But when, in our fear and desperation, we experience the unconditional love of God, then our heart changes. As John says in his first epistle, “There is no fear in love, and mature love cast out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, with retribution, and whoever fears,” says John, “has not reached maturity in love.”
We are all crippled to some degree and on some level. We all struggle with the ego. It may be a lack of value or self-worth that keeps us bent over, unable to walk tall and straight. Or it may be a spirit of arrogance and a sense of entitlement that leads us to think of ourselves as better or superior or even more blessed than others. Either way we are crippled by our ego. Some of us are more crippled than others. Some of us less. But we are all in need of healing and liberation on some level. Now sisters and brothers, healing will come, liberation will come, authentic conversion and true repentance will come about, not through guilt or fear of punishment or law keeping or social pressure or believing the right things or just modifying our behavior– it will only come about when we experience for ourselves God’s eternal, God’s immense, God’s magnanimous, God’s unconditional, God’s inclusive love.
O God, let our hearts and minds be open so we can see and understand why no system of reward and retribution can ever really change our hearts and minds. Let us be open to the experience of your great love. For only then can we begin to love others the way you love every single one of us.