Act now

This is a message in the series “Good counsel for a good life,” preached Aug. 25, 2019, at Edgerton United Methodist Church, Edgerton, Kansas, by the Rev. James Hopwood; from Luke 13.10-17

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Some people – and you may be one of them, but I’m not pointing fingers – simply cannot drive faster than the posted speed limit. If the signs say 65, you’ll drive up to but no more than 65. Some people – and I hope you’re not one of these – make sure they don’t speed by deliberately going 5 miles below the speed limit.

These folks, frankly, drive me crazy. I suppose they do what they do because they cannot abide the notion of breaking the rules. Rules are rules, they say. If the sign says speed limit 65, that’s what it means. Speed limit. No more than 65.

Fine. Takes all kinds, I say. But sometimes rules are made to be broken.

Say you’re driving down the highway at no more than the posted 65 miles per hour, and one of your passengers becomes suddenly, violently, gravely ill. She’s choking. She can’t breathe. She is in great distress. Would you drive faster to get her to a hospital, if you could do so safely? Of course, you would. It’s a matter of priority. Hang the speed limit. The welfare of a human being comes first.

The traffic rule is relatively insignificant. Its value pales in comparison to the value of a human life. If you can safely break the rule to save a life, you probably should do it.

Jesus broke a lot of rules in his day. Today we’ll explore part of what that can mean for us in our day.

It’s the Sabbath – Saturday by our reckoning – and Jesus is teaching in a local synagogue. No doubt his reputation has preceded him, so the synagogue leaders are pleased to have him, but maybe also apprehensive about what he will say and do.

As a teacher, he has been known to say some pretty outrageous things. As a healer – well, healing is a wonderful thing, but he has been known to heal people on the Sabbath. Strictly speaking, that’s forbidden. It’s against the rules. And Jesus is known for breaking the rules.

Sure enough, into the synagogue comes a woman who has an obvious problem. She walks bent over, and the curvature of her back makes it obvious that she cannot stand up straight.

Several medical conditions could cause this kind of deformity, including severe arthritis. Just the other day, I saw a man who walked so bent over that he could not crane his head far back enough to see ahead of him. He needed someone to guide him so he wouldn’t walk into things.

This woman has suffered with her condition for 18 years. Our gospel says it was caused by a demon or evil spirit that had taken up residence in her. Most forms of illness in that day and age were attributed to bad spirits.

Whatever the cause, her condition ruled her life. Besides the obvious constraints it placed on her everyday activities, she also was marginalized, if not outcast, in the town. It takes a courage for her to walk into the synagogue this day and risk being politely ushered back out into the street. Because of her demonic possession, she’s considered unclean and untouchable.

As soon as he sees her, Jesus calls her over to him. That, in itself, is exceptional. She’s supposed to stay on the women’s side of the room. Then he says, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” Then he lays hands on her – another exceptional act. Miraculously, she is able to stand up straight, and she praises God for her cure.

The leader of the synagogue is aghast. Not once but several times, he tells the people, “There are six days of the week on which work can be done. He could have healed her on one of those days, not on the sabbath, when work is forbidden.”

His point is simple, and as far as it goes, perhaps accurate. If a person’s life is at stake, that consideration could overrule a sabbath restriction. But this woman has suffered from this problem for many years and is in no immediate danger. What is one more day going to matter?

To Jesus, even one more day of suffering is intolerable. “Hypocrites!” he says. “If your ox or donkey was thirsty on the sabbath, wouldn’t you untie it and lead it to water? It wouldn’t die without water for one day. But you would break the law to get the animal a drink, wouldn’t you?”

And then the clincher, as far as he is concerned: “Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for 18 long years, be set from this bondage on the sabbath?”

Part of what they’re arguing about is an interpretation of one of the 10 Commandments. There are two versions of the 10 Commandments in scripture, and they give different reasons for observing the sabbath.

The version that’s found in Exodus chapter 20 says: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. … For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh.”

God stopped working. So should you. End of story.

But the version of the commandment found in Deuteronomy 5 provides a different motivation. “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day” (Deuteronomy 5.15).

In Deuteronomy, sabbath is a day to cease work in order to celebrate freedom. It’s a day of celebration as well as a day of rest. So in the mind of Jesus and others who interpret the law this way, it makes perfect sense to heal the woman on the sabbath. Jesus sets her free from bondage on the day that celebrates freedom from bondage. Glory to God!

Jesus sets her free from the ailment that has crippled her for 18 long years.

Jesus sets her free from the demon the caused her crippling.

Jesus sets her free from the shame of demon possession and marginalization within her own community.

Jesus sets her free from the state of ritual impurity that she has lived in because of her illness. By touching her, he reverses the contamination of her condition. Power flows from him to her, cleansing her and healing her.

In one act, Jesus accomplishes so much to help this woman.

The leader the synagogue and his allies probably still don’t get it, but the common folk in the synagogue do, and they are delighted. In their eyes, Jesus’ opponents are put to shame for the shabby way they treat this woman.

If God gave this day to humans as a day of rest, Jesus reasons, it should not be made a day on which some humans impose new burdens on others.

For, he says, “The Sabbath was created for humans. Humans weren’t created for the Sabbath. Therefore, the Son of Man is Lord even over the sabbath” (Mark 2.27-28).

Doubtless, the leaders of synagogues did not set out to create new burdens for others, but that is the effect of what they did. What they were trying to do, most likely, is called “fencing the Torah.”

The idea comes from Deuteronomy 22.8, where you are told to build a parapet around your flat roof so no one will fall off it, get hurt and have cause to sue you. Similarly, the interpreters of Torah built fences around laws to keep people from breaking the laws.

In the same way, we build fences around our houses to keep errant drivers from plowing into our living rooms. Driving 5 miles under the speed limit is fencing the speed law to make sure you don’t break it.

The intent is good. Jesus himself builds some tall fences around the Torah. For example, he says, “You’ve heard it said, ‘Don’t commit adultery.’ I say, if you look at someone with lust, you’ve already committed adultery in your heart” (Matthew 5.27-28).

But problems arise when we mistake the fence for the law the fence is trying to protect. Problems arise when we make the fence into a new law and enforce it so rigidly that we lose sight of the intent of law itself. That’s what some religious leaders in Jesus’ time have done, and that’s why the gospels record so many spats between them and Jesus.

They confuse human and divine teaching, Jesus says, and they lay heavy burdens on the shoulders of others (Mark 7.7, Matthew 23.4).

Sometimes today we frame the argument like this. Which takes precedence: rules or relationship? The rules were designed to foster human relationship, so when the rules fail to do that, relationship must reign over rules.

Love, not legalism, must reign in our hearts and our lives. When we view the Bible as a list of rules we have to follow, we are missing the point of the whole thing. The rules are there to guide us into and keep us in proper relationship with God and others. It’s the relationship that’s most important, not the rules designed to foster the relationship.

Just as the sabbath was created for humans, not humans created for the sabbath, so rules were created for humans; humans were not created for rules. And Jesus is not only Lord of the sabbath. Jesus also is Lord of all rules.

Understand, I’m not saying that rules have no value. I once knew a fellow who violated a safety rule in a factory. His mistake could have gotten himself and others seriously injured or killed. He lost his job, but he now knows the importance of following safety rules.

But when we enforce rules that hurt others, rules that marginalize others, rules that belittle others, rules that trivialize others, we cannot simply shrug and say, “I’m just following the rules.” No, we’re allowing ourselves to be used for evil purposes, and we are using rules as an excuse.

One of the great tragedies of modern Christianity is the way that American evangelicalism has succumbed to the reign of rules enforced by male authority figures. The Pharisees of Jesus’ time might have been proud. I doubt that Jesus is.

What’s the practical application of today’s scripture reading? Simple. People come first. Rules come second. Rules serve people. People don’t serve rules. If you’ve got a chance to do good, don’t wait for a better moment. Do it now.

In his first appearance at a synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus announces his mission statement, which he takes from the prophecy of Isaiah. “The Spirt 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 favor” (Luke 4.18-19, Isaiah 61.1-2).

The sabbath and the Lord’s Day are good days to do these things. But every day of the week is a good day to bring good news to the poor. Every day of the week is a good day to proclaim release to the captives. Every day is a good day to proclaim recovery of sight to the blind. Every day is a good day to free the oppressed and announce the time of the Lord’s favor.

Every day is a good time to proclaim the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ. Every day is now. The time is now – so act now, before it’s too late.

Amen.

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