Facing God

Isaiah 58:9b-14, Psalm 103:1-8, Hebrews 12:18-29, Luke 13:10-17

Do you notice that the affliction that has bowed the woman down, bent the back of the woman whom Jesus heals; that this affliction is named as a spirit?

It is a spirit that has degraded her body until it is bowed down to the ground. That is the spirit from which Jesus sets her free, and one would think that for this to happen, and in the synagogue no less, that her community would rejoice with her, as she immediately “stood up straight and began praising God.”

Eighteen years she had faced the floor, and as she raised her lips to sing out God’s praises, the leader of the synagogue was angry:

“There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day!”

He was angry with the woman for getting herself straight, for standing up, for singing God’s praises from an open chest and a full throat, no more constriction and constraint.

There has to be something more to the leader’s anger than simple concern for the Sabbath law. He knows as well as Jesus does that the elders of their religion agree that the only work of the Sabbath is that of mercy, and of kindness and consideration.

But the leader of the synagogue is angry, tries to redirect his flock: “Come on the other six days to be cured!” For now, he says, all eyes should be on me, all ears tuned to my voice. I will tell you the right spirit from the wrong.

The leader of the synagogue is jealous. He is afraid that his authority might be diminished by this miracle, and he is determined that he needs to keep control over what happens in his church.

He is more personally afraid of the Spirit of God than he is of the malign spirit that has kept this woman bent to the ground, face to the floor, for eighteen long and painful years.

At least that is how he sounds to me.

We are all prone to the jealousy and control issues that the leader of the synagogue displays. We have all heard or even said, as though it were a word of comfort, “There’s always someone worse off than yourself.” What a perverse way to comfort one another – to rest in the knowledge that we are not at the bottom of the heap, that someone else’s back is bent even further to the ground than our own!

I know that the stated purpose of the phrase is to engender gratitude that we are not ourselves worse off – but the implications for those around us are dire.

It is difficult to be part of the ruling elite, or even middle management, and to root for the release of the spirit of oppression, the spirit that binds burdens to the backs of those who bear the weight of a system that piles people on top of one another like a pyramid, so that only the upper echelons can stand up straight, and sniff the fresh air, and feel the lightness of the breeze.

The prophet Isaiah directs the people,

remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,

if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,

then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.

Remove the yoke, the spirit of oppression, the spirit that says, “My ox deserves to be cared for on the Sabbath, because it serves my interests; but that woman can wait until tomorrow. There’s always someone worse off.”

if you call the sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honorable;

if you honor it, not going your own ways,
serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;

then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;

Satisfy the needs of the afflicted – remove the spirit of her weakness and the burden of oppression that bows her to the ground, lift her up, and she will praise God, and you will see the lightness that love can bear, the spirit of praise, and not a faint spirit. Lift her up, and you will find yourself lifted free of the need to climb over others to get a better view of God. Lift her face from the floor, and you will find the face of God.

The choice that Isaiah and Jesus offer is between a religion that binds and burdens the people; and one that sets them free. We face much the same choice today. Which gospel will we proclaim in our words and in our lives? Which spirit will we embrace?

The words of the leader of the synagogue echo wherever religion is used to bind people’s backs and burden them, turn their faces to the ground; wherever the spirit of diminishment and degradation whispers, and is not admonished. Where discrimination festers, and disgrace is preferred to embrace. Where the privileged and the oblivious clamber onto the bent backs of women and children of God to get a better view of life, there that spirit of Satan persists. Where, in our religion and our righteousness, we prefer to discourage infringements of our Sabbath observance, instead of encouraging healing, a Sabbath rest from sin and suffering for those bent to the ground.

But Jesus sets the woman free. He will not allow our lack of faith in God’s grace to bind him; our fear that her health will diminish our wealth, or that her miracle will diminish the chance that there will be one left for us when we need it. Jesus will not be bound by a spirit of faint praise or by the fear that he will be thought over-enthusiastic, healing people on the Sabbath, no less, setting them free, lifting her face from the floor to see God.

No, Jesus sets her free, and he stands her up in front of the whole synagogue, and she sings praise to the glorious God.

And all that the leader of the synagogue really needed to do, was to say, “Amen.”

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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