A Bent Reed
© copyright 2004 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Sunday, August 22, 1010
Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham
whom Satan bound for eighteen long years,
be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?
One all-American – perhaps even “all-human” – principle found in almost every culture holds that our possessions are ours, and that other people ought to keep their hands off them unless invited to do otherwise. This is an almost universal principle. But could there ever be a time when an alternative principle could set aside our attachment to our exclusive rights to our possessions to make way for expression of another principle?
Consider, for instance, something we take more or less for granted, the principle of exclusive ownership of our automobiles. Second to our homes, probably no place is more personal to us than our cars. If you have ever had your car broken into or stolen, then you know the sense of violation commonly felt in regard to that particular possession. A thief who smashes a window on his way into our car has transgressed something very basic, has presumed against our personal place and space. Yet for another perspective on the issue, consider the plight of urban dwellers in New York City, who endure almost legendary difficulties protecting their automobiles from theft and burglary. Oddly enough, one way that some New Yorkers have come to prevent excess damage to their cars from attempted break-ins has been simply to leave them unlocked. This works on the premise that anyone who wants to get into a locked car can do so with little difficulty, so a person might as well hold damages to a minimum by making sure they won’t need to break a window or lock to get in.
Now consider the story of David Black, a New York novelist and television producer. In order to realize an even fuller personal value from leaving a car unlocked for security purposes on a New York City street, he had to have his mind changed about his right to the exclusive use of his car. After a period of leaving the car unlocked he discovered that somebody had begun living in it. The car was always empty when he or his wife arrived to use it in the morning, but they knew they had a “tenant” because they found cigarette butts in the ashtrays, and the radio – one of those that work without the ignition key – was tuned to a salsa station that neither of them ever listened to. At first Mr. and Mrs. Black felt outraged and violated – as any of us would – until they realized that their tenant was doing no damage and was, in effect, serving as their car’s night watchman. Creatively altering their principles on the issue of ownership and use of possessions, they began leaving a pillow and a blanket in the back seat for their “tenant.” Every morning they returned to the car to find it in the condition they had left it, with the blanket neatly folded.1 They had to think a new way, see their principles from a new perspective to make this little symbiotic relationship work.
One of the unexpected gifts that Jesus granted people was in forcing them to imagine their principles on a larger scale than they had become accustomed to doing. I think he is still doing this for us. When our lives, our thinking, our praying fall into predictable ruts, Jesus’ ministry reminds us that the work of God is capable of a bigger truth than we had imagined, of continuous surprise, of taking us off in unexpected directions if only we would be attentive.
There’s an old story about a church that was rather nice, a respectable church, but one that was a little stuffy, one often caricatured by folks in other churches in town as “The Frozen Chosen.” One Sunday the people of that congregation had gathered for worship, all dressed out in their Sunday finest, when a man walked into the sanctuary who just didn’t seem to belong. There was a whiff of alcohol about him, and his clothes had that slept-in appearance.
The usher did give the man a bulletin, and motioned him toward an out-of-the-way pew, but the visitor staggered down the center aisle to the front pew, and planted himself there. So far, so good, the ushers hoped. Then the pastor began his sermon.
“Hallelujah!” shouted the newcomer, almost immediately.
The minister gave him a stern, quieting look, but pressed on. A moment later, the visitor interrupted him again. “Praise the Lord!” he proclaimed.
One of the ushers came over and whispered to him, as nicely as he could, “Sir, we don’t do that here!”
“But I’ve got religion!” the man objected.
“Yes, sir,” said the usher. “I’m sure you do. But you didn’t get it here!”
Jesus grants a new perspective to us if we will only be attentive. Street people in the city, wobbly “morning-after” visitors to church, these and others appear with regularity to keep us off-guard, to remind us that no matter how neatly we’ve drawn our religious circle, Jesus wants it drawn bigger. There is a world of stooped-over people out there waiting to hear his word, and he wants us to tell them.
Bible editors choose a variety of headings to set today’s scripture passage apart from those around it. Our pew Bibles entitle the story, “Jesus Heals a Crippled Woman.” The New International Version extends the idea calling the story “A Crippled Woman Healed on the sabbath.” Commentaries’ reference to the passage vary from “Jesus Heals a Stooped Woman,” to “Jesus and the Bent-over Woman.”
I remember seeing bent-over women on a trip in Eastern Europe. On the bridges of the city, in the marketplaces, along the narrow streets, travelers and citizens encountered these beshawled, bent-over women, with their hands extended in a mostly silent plea for alms. It is as close to a depiction of the meaning behind the word grovel as I care to see.
What is it that bends a person? What takes the proud stature out of us, pushes us down, demeans us, and sets us aside as if to say – as Jesus observed contemporary sabbath practice saying in his own day – we are of less value than ordinary farm animals, easier to ignore than livestock?
Time and again in his ministry, Jesus found himself in conflict with the status quo, the lifelong members, the upholders of tradition – the ones who remark in patronizing tones, “We don’t do that here.”
Jesus encountered high levels of controversy in his ministry in many settings because of his view of the sabbath. Of course, the sabbath of his day was the final day of the seven day week, Saturday, not the Christian Sunday sabbath. Many modern languages carry the memory of Saturday as sabbath day. The Spanish word for Saturday, for instance, is “sábado,” a form of the word “sabbath.” But early on, Christians remembered that Jesus died on a Friday, and was dead all day Saturday – the sabbath – being resurrected to new life on Sunday, the first day of the new week. So they thought of Saturday as a day of death. It was time for Christians to think a new thought and they moved their worship to resurrection day, Sunday, a day of life.
Now, rightly or wrongly, all this conversation about the sabbath is just not an earth-shattering issue for modern Americans. Most have made their peace with whatever is left of the Old Testament command to “Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy,”2 sometimes in traditional ways, sometimes in self-justifying ones. Some claim to worship God in nature on the weekends, many churches offer Saturday or even weekday services to meet the needs of busy modern people. So the sabbath – if it is attended to at all – winds up being a matter of personal choice, a sort of randomly chosen day among seven for worship or recreation, or a day when there ought to be some thought of God.
In Jesus’ day, the regulation among the Ten Commandments to remember the sabbath day and keep it holy was taken with utmost seriousness by the religious leaders. It was what defined the people as the chosen people. To relax standards of sabbath observance would be to threaten the very essence of what called them together as a people of God.
Yet the fact is, the enforced observance of even a good thing can sometimes come to be oppressive. Jesus healed the stooped woman, even though there were sabbath traditions and Old Testament interpretations which defined such healing as work and therefor something forbidden on the sabbath. But Jesus reasoned, if in adhering to the letter of the law we violate some greater principle of our faith, shouldn’t the letter of the law be set aside? Isn’t God at least as interested in human beings as in livestock? Yet the law allowed the watering of livestock on the sabbath, why not the healing of a sick, bent-over, isolated woman?
One thing to remember is that if we are going to have principles – and I certainly think we should – we have continually to struggle to make certain they are big enough, far-reaching enough to be worthy of our faith so that they don’t ever seek to limit the unbinding, freeing, liberating work of God.
When Jesus said, “Come and follow me,” he didn’t say to leave our brains – or especially our compassion – behind. This is the way he transformed a bent-over woman from someone who was called, simply, “Woman,” into a person with the proud and honorific title which he gave her, “Daughter of Abraham.” No wonder she stood up straight for the first time in eighteen years!
We are sons and daughters of the King, we are people who have principles. Yet if any of us is finding ourselves bent over, stooped by the crush of life, beaten down by the withering crossfire of the judgment of others on us, Jesus calls out to us as he did that woman one day in the synagogue, saying “You are set free.” Free. And to do the work of God, we must get about the business of finding the bent-over people all around us, and setting them free. For they, too, are children of the King.
Copyright © 2004 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved
1 Edward Zucherman, "No Radio," Atlantic Magazine, January 1992, p. 42.
2 Exodus 20:8