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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 08/25/2019

For those of us raised in the church, and it doesn’t really matter which one, at some point we learned the Ten Commandments, all the “Thou shalts” and “Thou shalt nots.” When we were kids, most likely we heard these as rules, things you are supposed to do or not supposed to do and as such there was probably a little fear, maybe a lot of fear about what might happen if you broke a commandment. At some point you hope the level of fear was reduced and the commandments were better understood more positively as guidelines for living a good, God pleasing life as opposed to just negatively being a bunch of prohibitions.

If you were raised Lutheran, probably in confirmation you used Luther’s Small Catechism in studying the commandments and what he wrote continues to be useful 500 years later. What Luther does in his “What does this means?” is he does explain what it means to negatively break the commandment but he also states what it means to properly observe the commandment and that’s a good thing as it does provide for a more positive approach to them.

What Luther doesn’t do though in either the Small or the Large Catechism is to go very far into the gray areas of some of the commandments: For example, Thou shalt not kill. What about a soldier in war? What about abortion, assisted suicide, capital punishment? Thou shalt not steal. What if my family is starving? In other words, are there times when it’s OK to break the rule? There are gray areas that Luther didn’t get into and those gray areas persist and continue to be controversial; well meaning, faithful people, don’t agree.

Based on texts like today’s though, it is quite clear that Jesus felt like there were times when a commandment could be violated, at least the third one, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” There’s one time when he and his disciples pick grain on the Sabbath and there are several times when he does healings on the Sabbath, thus violating the prohibition against working on the Sabbath and thus irritating the religious authorities like the leader of the synagogue in today’s reading.

When trying to interpret this story there’s the temptation to want to dismiss the leader of the synagogue as a rigid keeper of the rules, someone who is so obsessed with the letter of the law that he can’t see the good thing Jesus has done in healing a woman who has been crippled for 18 years. Before we give in to that temptation though, let’s consider the point of view of the synagogue leader. Rather than simply being a legalist, he could be understood as someone who was upholding the tradition he was part of which is what religious leaders do sometimes; you make vows to uphold a tradition.

In the Lutheran church when one is ordained there’s the promise to preach and teach in accordance with the Holy Scriptures and the creeds and confessions of the church. In different church bodies there are differing degrees of latitude in how the scriptures, creeds and confessions are interpreted but still, it’s not a free for all. Whatever the denomination, there is a tradition to uphold.

The prohibition from doing work on the Sabbath was not intended as a rigid, legal thou shalt not, but instead it was seen as a gift from God. Remember that the commandments were given as the people of Israel were escaping slavery to Pharaoh in Egypt and heading to the Promised Land. In Egypt there was no rest for the weary, just production quotas to meet, bricks and more bricks. Sabbath rest then was a humane alternative to that, providing a day to just be, a day to honor God without worrying about productivity, trusting that God can take care of things.

Exceptions could be made in cases where life was threatened and the leader of the synagogue would have known that and Jesus would have known that; but the bent over woman wasn’t such a case. Jesus could have said to the woman, “Today is the Sabbath, come back tomorrow.” After 18 years what difference would one more day make? That way, Jesus would observe the commandment, the woman would still be healed and the synagogue leader would have no reason to complain. It would seem that Jesus could have respected the prohibition of work on the Sabbath and the end result would have been the same minus the conflict.

But what about the woman? Let’s think about her for a moment. I’m reading between the lines here because Luke is short on details, but it may be that she was a fixture at the synagogue, always there to the point where she had become pretty much invisible to the others, maybe even invisible to herself in a way, just accepting of her crippled condition and having no hope that anything could be done about it; note that she didn’t ask to be healed. If that’s the case, that she was always there, she was part of the community, but then again she wasn’t. They tolerated her, but no one really welcomed her…until Jesus came along.

That’s one possibility, but another one is that her appearance at the synagogue was a surprise and not a pleasant surprise for those gathered, as her appearance upset the order of their self-satisfied worship. In this scenario, she didn’t belong, so the immediate thought would have been, how do we gently or not so gently ease her out of here, but then…Jesus came along with a different agenda.

However you look at it though, whether the woman was a tolerated, invisibile presence or an unwelcome presence, you get the idea that she would have been OK with Jesus telling her to come and see him on one of the other six days of the week, in fact, she would have been more than OK, she would have been thrilled; one more bent over day wasn’t going to bother her. So…why did Jesus do it? Why did he violate the Sabbath? In last week’s gospel Jesus said that he would cause division so is this the kind of thing he was talking about? Maybe…but for me, the short answer as to why he did it is because, being Jesus, he had to do it.

There’s a sense of urgency about Jesus. Remember that in this part of Luke he’s on his way to Jerusalem where things could unravel so he knows that he quite likely doesn’t have much time. That could be a factor but it’s more than that, and actually, Jesus himself tells us why he does what he does. “Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for 18 long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?”

For Jesus, this isn’t just a woman, she’s a daughter of Abraham, part of the chosen people of God, a representative of Israel but one who has been bound by Satan for 18 years. When Jesus first preached at the synagogue in Nazareth he quoted Isaiah saying that part of his mission was to proclaim release to the captives and this woman was one. For Jesus to be Jesus, she must be set free. What gets translated as ought in our text, “ought not this woman be set free,” is actually “must” in Greek: “must not this woman be set free.” It’s an imperative and as an imperative, it sheds light on Jesus’ action; he has to do it. Sometimes it does help to know a little Greek.

Jesus doesn’t specifically mention the kingdom of God in this text although right after this he does, but this is an example of the kingdom being revealed. The kingdom is happening, now. God is becoming Lord of Israel, now. Satan is being bound, now. People, like this woman, are being set free from what binds them, now. For Jesus, it can’t wait until tomorrow. Even if it means violating the Sabbath, he must act, now.

While all of that might be interesting, when I got to this point in writing this sermon I was still left with the question, “But what does any of this have to do with the people of Bethany Lutheran Church on a late summer Sunday?” Jesus’ various violations of the Sabbath do raise the issue of gray areas in the commandments but while that’s a presenting issue in this text, I don’t think it’s the main one. Jesus’ sense of urgency about the kingdom is also of note as it tells us something about him, but it’s a sense of urgency that is hard for us to share, a sense of urgency that we perhaps ought not share, at least in terms of needing to act immediately. Getting Jesus pleasing change accomplished in our world might require us to move more slowly.

To make that change though, to make change that reveals the kingdom that Jesus talked about, it involves seeing what Jesus would see. You can’t do what Jesus would do until you see what Jesus would see. That perhaps is what this text has to do with us. For Jesus, the bent over woman was not invisible and she wasn’t an intruder. What he saw was a daughter of Abraham which for us can raise the question, who is invisible to us rather than being seen as a child of God? Who do we see as intruders rather than being children of God? Jesus does provide a model, but he doesn’t offer a how to manual. What he might say though, is “Seeing those invisible ones, seeing those intruders as children of God, ought not action be taken on their behalf? In fact, must not action be taken on their behalf?”

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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