Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews
Heads turn as the woman shuffles towards the front of the synagogue. Bent over, she makes slow and painful progress towards Jesus. So used to being on the edges it is strange to be seen. Usually she is overlooked by those who see her disability and think judgement or sin, or overtaken by those who find her slow and useless. Now they all wait to see what will happen, why he’s singled her out, what this means.
This happens in a synagogue, on the sabbath. In fact, Luke is so keen that we realise it’s the sabbath that he tells us it is five times in six verses. This is not incidental detail. Near the start of Luke’s gospel, on another sabbath in another synagogue, this time in Nazareth, Jesus had stood up at the start of his public ministry, unrolled the scroll, and read from the prophet Isaiah: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ Then he had sat down and told the gathered crowd, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ Luke has been preparing us for this, since the angel appeared to Mary, and Mary sang Magnificat, of the lowly being exalted and the hungry filled with good things because of God’s mercy, when the child through whom God’s promise is fulfilled was no bigger than a mustard seed in her womb.
When Jesus read from the scroll the crowd at that time had been amazed, wondering at the gracious words that came from Joseph’s son. Then they chased him out of town. This time round, the crowd rejoices. For in his healing of the woman, Jesus once again announces that the scripture is fulfilled: this is a sign of the nearness of the kingdom. Jesus had said he was anointed to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and let the oppressed go free. And here, for this woman, so used to being overlooked and invisible, or judged and dismissed, good news, release and freedom arrive. Here, on the sabbath day, in an unnamed synagogue to an unnamed woman bound for 18 long years, the kingdom of God comes near. It’s so near she could touch it. Or rather, it touched her.
But it’s the sabbath. And the action of Jesus in healing and liberating the woman is scandalous to some. The leader of the synagogue, whose job it is to teach and interpret the law, takes Jesus to task. Sabbath observance was an important marker of Jewish identity: it distinguished the Jewish people from the surrounding culture. And it was commanded by God in the 10 Commandments. So the synagogue leader thinks he’s on safe ground in objecting to Jesus healing the woman. In effect he says ‘she’s been like this for years. What does another day matter? The sabbath is more important than her healing.’ The synagogue leader states what he takes to be self-evident, and he assumes the priority of the sabbath will be taken for granted by the others in the synagogue also.
But Jesus, the anointed one of God, is the authoritative teacher and interpreter of the law. And he reminds the leader of the synagogue not merely of the fact of the sabbath, but of its purpose. Deuteronomy 5 commands rest on the sabbath for animals as well as people, yet it was permitted to untie, literally, to loose the bonds, of animals on the sabbath in order to give them water. If you can do that for an ox or a donkey on the sabbath, says Jesus, how much more should you allow God to loose the bond of this woman?
For the command to observe the sabbath day and keep it holy is given as a sign of redemption. The people are commanded to keep the sabbath holy to remind them of what God has done for them: ‘Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm,’ says God in Deuteronomy (5.15). The sabbath is not meant as a burden for the people, a legalistic practice to secure righteousness with God. It’s given to recall them to who they are, and whose they are: they are God’s people, made in his image for relationship with him. It’s given for their freedom as they remember that foundational event of the exodus through which they, the oppressed, were made free.
And if the sabbath is given for freedom, then Jesus’ actions make perfect sense. The woman was bound, and now she is free. And while this went against what the leader of the synagogue assumed was the tradition of sabbath holiness, Jesus also has tradition on his side. In our Old Testament reading we heard both a call to justice and a call to honour the sabbath. And these are in fact one and the same. Isaiah speaks to a people whose religious practice mocks God. They observe the sabbath and the appointed festivals. They appear to practise their religion as the law requires. But their actions show the shallowness of their observance. You cannot, says Isaiah, honour God on the sabbath and then oppress your neighbour the next day. You can’t offer God a sacrifice and ignore the hungry whose empty bellies growl. If the sabbath is given to remind you who you are and whose you are, it is given to form you as a people holy to the Lord, a people whose lives make God’s character visible.
For Isaiah, as for Jesus after him, worship without justice is a mockery, even a blasphemy. To be a people holy to the Lord is to be a people who depend on the covenant. When you remember that God has shown you mercy, you are more merciful to others. When you give thanks for the gift of your life and for the love of God, you are compelled to see your neighbour as a gift also, equally beloved of God.
In this gospel reading, Jesus shows what this looks like. He sees the woman others ignore or judge. It is not in the leader of the synagogue, or any of the other local dignitaries that Jesus makes visible the kingdom of God, but in a bent over woman, used to living on the edges, economically, socially, and religiously of no value. Mary, another woman on the edges, sang Magnificat over the child she bore, the one in whom God fulfils his promise of mercy to Abraham and his children for ever. Here, he affords this woman the dignity and the freedom that religious tradition and social convention had denied her. She is a daughter of Abraham. God’s mercy is for her, too.
Straight after this episode in Luke’s Gospel Jesus will talk of the kingdom of heaven being like a mustard seed or a grain of yeast. It is in the small and the insignificant, the overlooked and the marginal that the kingdom comes near and grows. In the midst of political turmoil and climate crisis it’s easy to feel helpless, or to resort to despair or cynicism or head-in-the-sand fatalism. But for a people formed by God’s mercy, a people set free by the new covenant in Christ’s blood, our worship requires something different. Every day, every encounter brings the possibility of choosing justice and loving mercy. As those formed as Christ’s body by the body and blood we receive in the sacrament, as those commissioned and anointed through baptism and confirmation to share in Christ’s ministry, to us is entrusted the task of proclaiming the good news. And what Jesus shows us in the gospel today is that if it does not bring freedom and healing and justice most especially for the poor, the marginalised, and the hungry, then it is not good news. Our lives, our choices, our actions may feel like tiny, insignificant things in the face of the burning Amazon rainforest or the fragmentation of society. But it is in and through the small and the seemingly insignificant that the kingdom draws near and grows. Jesus could have spent his ministry among the influential, the powerful, the decision-makers of his day. But he didn’t. In an obscure town he saw a woman that others ignored. And he gave her freedom. Pay attention. Every day you have the opportunity to be a sign of grace to someone. And they will more often than not turn out to be a sign of grace for you, too. If you’re not sure how, ask God to show you, to help you see with the eyes and the heart of Jesus. And be ready for him to answer that prayer, and to work in you to make his kingdom known.