Proper 16 / 14 Pentecost — 25 August 2013
Falls – 9:15 am
[Track 2] Isaiah 58:9b-14 | Psalm 103:1-8 | Hebrews 12:18-29 | Luke 13:10-17
If you remove the yoke from among you,…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.…If you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable,…then you shall take delight in the Lord. [Isaiah 58:9b-10,13b,14a]
The leader of the synagogue [was] indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath. [Luke 13:14a]
The Gospel this morning, the healing of a crippled woman in a synagogue on a Sabbath day, sounds like it should be a very familiar story, and if you read the Gospels with any frequency, it probably is to you. There are actually a number of stories of Jesus healing someone on the Sabbath and then getting grief from the Establishment for it. Mark tells a story of a man with a withered hand being healed on the Sabbath in the
Capernaum synagogue, and
Matthew and Luke both repeat that story.
In addition to today’s story, Luke also tells about the Sabbath healing
of a man with dropsy (a form of edema, often a symptom of a serious disorder);
and John tells the story of the lame man healed on the Sabbath at the Bethesda
Pool in Jerusalem. What amazed me when I actually checked is
that apparently we have never told any of these stories in the Gospel at the
Sunday Eucharist! (Well, if you’re
anywhere near being an Old Guy like me, you may remember that in the 1928
Prayer Book on the 17th Sunday after Trinity we heard Luke’s story
of the healing of the man with dropsy.) Only
in very recent years since we shifted to the Revised Common Lectionary have we
heard one of these stories of Sabbath healing on Sunday. Good for the RCL; they got another one
right. This is an important story, and
it was a mistake to overlook it and the several stories like it.
It’s pretty straightforward: Jesus goes to synagogue on the Sabbath and sees this crippled woman, all bent over, and he heals her. He sets her free, as Jesus says and the Gospel recounts. Well, the leader of the synagogue – in Greek he is called the archisynagogos, perhaps we might say the president of the synagogue, not a teaching rabbi, but something like the senior warden – anyway, this guy goes all bananas because technically it’s against the Law to “work” on the Sabbath. “You broke the rules!” he accused Jesus. Jesus of course has little patience with that kind of nonsense, tells him so, and the crowd cheers. (Yay!)
But this brings up a very fundamental issue in what we call moral theology, one which the Church has often dodged, as have other people trying to live in faith. What is the place of “the rules” in determining moral behavior?
One way in which this question is sometimes phrased is: “Is a certain act wrong because God forbids it, or does God forbid it because it is wrong?”
(For those of you who when you are reading a book turn straight to the last page to see how it comes out, let me say that on this particular last page the two questions are convergent; but I think it matters how we get there.)
Some folks have traditionally opted for the first understanding, that a certain act is wrong because God forbids it. Typically the source for the understanding that God does forbid a certain act is the Bible. (And here I am using that word in an inclusive sense, meaning not only our Bible, including the Torah, but also the Qur’an.) This certain act is wrong because it says so in the Bible. This approach may be, and indeed often is, hard to follow in practice, but, as the cell-phone commercial puts it, “It’s not complicated.” Here are the rules: obey them. On the surface this seems to be what Jesus is telling the lawyer (an expert in the rules!) in the Gospel a few weeks ago. But the lawyer is a good enough lawyer that he sees where this needs to go: “Yes, but who is my neighbor?” [Luke 10:29] “It says so in the Bible” is a lot like the old maps of the world that noted around the edges, “Here there be dragons.” The moral guidance may seem simple and straightforward, but be careful! There have been those who have argued, “God says, ‘You shall not murder,’ but if God had commanded instead, ‘Off anybody who seriously annoys you,’ then that would be right.” And I think some folks have thought that. (I suspect that’s what the Army psychiatrist down in
Texas who was just convicted of mass murders
thinks. Jihad justifies all.) This can lead to a very arbitrary reading of
moral obligation. Behind this is a very
strong belief in the doctrine of the sovereignty of God, a doctrine
particularly important in Calvinism and other what we might call “conservative
evangelical” communities. As well it
should be. Except that we need to
understand that God is sovereign as God
defines sovereignty, not as we would
define sovereignty if we were
sovereign. The “sovereignty of God” has
been used, and is being used, to justify a lot of Bad Stuff.
To say that God forbids a certain act because it is wrong (rather than the other way around) is not to constrain God within a larger-than-God moral reality. God is not bound by moral rules. God is bound only by God’s faithfulness to God’s own nature. To the extent that moral rules reflect God’s own being – which of course is Love, as revealed preeminently in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – then they are valid and binding upon us. God calls us, and commands us if you will, to live and act in accordance with God’s own nature: to live, as we say and as Jesus said, in God’s Kingdom.
There is of course the danger that we will use “Love” as an excuse to run amuck over the moral tradition. The moral rules, at least most of them, exist for a reason. They reflect the moral experience and wisdom of millennia of human community life. Any exceptions should be made with great hesitation and trepidation. But the rules themselves are not their own justification, and even as they are ultimately rooted in the being and nature of God, they are in themselves still human constructs. And part of our moral obligation is to seek to perceive the divine reality that underlies them. Whatever the Fourth Commandment says, the primary obligation is to heal the crippled. “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” [Mark 2:27]