Princeton University Chapel
August 26, 2007
Luke 13: 10-17
First of all, I want to say how thrilled I am, and how blessed I think I am – to join you here at Princeton. I can’t wait to get to know each other personally!
August is often a slow time for hard news. Many newsmakers are vacationing, and people generally are operating at a more relaxed pace, even if they are in the office. I remember a few years ago when National Public Radio’s news hosts made quiet fun of their attempts to fill several hours of airtime. They resorted at one point to airing a long piece by the wife of one of the Morning Edition hosts on what it was like to live with a journalist who gets up for work at 2:00 A.M. There has been some real news this August, though: the mining tragedies in Utah, the search for the killers of three young people in Newark, the rushing through of Congress of a new Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (or FISA), and charges that the Department of Justice instructed U.S. Attorneys (with White House support) to engage in electoral fraud. These last two items are, to some observers, real questions of the spirit vs. the letter of the law. Does the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 really support the kind of collecting of phone calls and other personal data from U.S. citizens? And what exactly is electoral fraud? How should that – and FISA – be defined? Critics of the current implementation of these laws say that the “letter” of each is being manipulated and the spirit violated in order to justify actions and plans by the current administration.
The context of these discussions is decidedly modern but the deeper issues are ancient. What should be the guiding principle when interpreting law? Should it be as literal an adherence possible to its wording, or to whatever one might think was its intended goal? What was the law written to achieve? Is a literal interpretation of the text ever possible, or is there always the interjection of the reader’s opinions or values? Jesus and his religious community lived with these same questions of “the letter vs. the spirit of the law”, as do many religious communities today. The gospels have several examples of Jesus being criticized for healing on the Sabbath – for breaking the Sabbath law against doing work. In the third chapter of Mark’s gospel Jesus is recorded as telling his critics that the law was created to serve humanity; humanity was not created to serve the law. Religious law was given to help us flourish. When it becomes – or is used as – a tool to perpetuate our suffering, its spirit is being deformed. So he healed a man with a withered hand, and in our text from Luke for today, he restored a woman who had a spirit that had left her stooped for 18 long years. She hadn’t even asked for healing, it would seem from the text. Jesus, in his compassion, saw her enter the synagogue for worship. He had the power to heal her. Of course he did so.
Many a sermon today, as this lectionary text from Luke is read in churches everywhere, will say the legalistic religion that overlooks the human being should be avoided. Unfortunately, some of those sermons will pinpoint the Jewish religion for criticism about blind adherence to the letter of the law. I don’t know if that happens in some Jewish communities today. I suspect it does within every religious tradition somewhere. I know it happens in Christianity. I see it at work when we point to scripture to justify the ill treatment, secondary status, suffering, or denial of human rights to certain categories of people we never liked anyway. A sermon contra legalism is a helpful exegesis of this text, especially when it is noted that the point of the text is God’s in-breaking reign over the forces of Satan, and not over Phan’seeism. It is Satan who is said to have caused the stooped woman’s suffering.
This healing by Jesus on the Sabbath is but one fine example of what I’ve come to understand as the central ethic of the Gospel: the point – the goal – of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is liberation. The “spirit” of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is freedom. In a very fine sermon I heard earlier this summer (full disclosure time – delivered by my husband, also a pastor) the point was made that the great, insistent question asked of all who would follow Christ is, “What are you doing to set people free?” Or one person free? Who am I setting free? It’s a question asked not with guilt or scolding; there is no wagging finger. There is a summoning finger, an invitation, warm yet insistent, impatient. People are suffering. People are in chains of many kinds. Freedom can’t wait.
It is always time to set someone free. Jesus says to those in the synagogue, and to you and me. There are no excuses – and certainly not religious law or sacred texts. It is always time to set someone free. We do make plenty of excuses – I am busy. When I finish my degree; when my kids are older; next summer, when things slow down; when I finish that project (book, tenure, promotion, home improvement, weight loss, salary raise) or, I don’t yet have the faith to set anyone free; I’m working on it but there’s so much more I need to know and grow; I’m not the kind of person Jesus is talking to. (Sure you are! He says all you need is faith the size of a mustard seed – the tiniest grain. Just showing up here this morning means you have plenty. Keep growing, of course, but don’t let yourself off the hook.) It is always time to set someone free.
The woman who had come to worship that day was the prisoner of a spirit that had, for 18 years, left her bent over, compromising her mobility and her quality of life. Perhaps she was in constant pain. How many millions – or even billions – of people close by or around the globe are suffering from ailments that are in our power to heal. Two years ago I visited in Vietnam an orphanage for children who are living with HIV and AIDS. They had contracted this at birth; they were born to women with HIV. Their short lives were filled with suffering. No baby anywhere has to be exposed to HIV. If their mothers are given anti-retroviral drugs, the HIV antibodies are not passed on to their children. The reason that they do not get the drugs is probably long, convoluted, transnational, yet comes down to one word: money. It is always time to set someone free.
We can be imprisoned by so many things. We have our demons, like the woman in the synagogue. Malicious voices tell us we are bad or unworthy. Emotional or mental struggles affect the way we experience everything and everyone. They compromise our ability to live life fully; they pull a shroud over our days and years. They are behind our addictions, or slavery to pills, needles, bottles, money. It is always time to set someone free.
Our freedom is compromised by the prejudices or greed of other people, people who need to be freed of their fear of those who are different from them, freed from their hated of certain groups of people, freed from the love of power that makes them keep others down. It is always time to set someone free.
It is always time to be freed from our sin, to accept the help of those who can separate us from our sin, and to reach out to those who may not be able to get perspective on their own. In the Gospel of Jesus Christ lies no antidote to our proclivity for sinning. We remain human. But, as a former minister of mine liked to say, in the Gospel we are freed from the consequences of our sin. It is always time to set someone free.
Jesus defends his healing on the Sabbath by reminding all who are present that they can help their ox or their donkey on the day of rest, so why can they not help a human being? His critics have no rejoinder. Indeed, sometimes we are kinder to our pets than we are to humans – to the poor, the incarcerated, the hungry, those living with violence. We would never let a beloved animal go a day without food (and we shouldn’t), while we permit beloved children of God to do so.
It is always time to set someone free, and when we do so we participate in God’s in-breaking realm, we testify to the love, mercy, and power of God, over which Satan, sin and ignorance have absolutely no chance. We believe in the promise of scripture, that “one day God will be all in all,” and our own liberating works hasten that day just a little bit. It is a long-term project, one person at a time – a woman in a synagogue, an addict in a jail, one person whose soul is broken. When that woman was healed she didn’t say, “Oh thank you!” She didn’t begin to worship Jesus. She began to shout praise to God. She knew exactly what was happening; she suddenly could see the new and holy realm of God right there in her midst.
The spirit of the Gospel is liberation. No matter how we may distort the letter, no matter what convoluted ways we interpret the actual letters on the Bible’s pages, the spirit of the Gospel is liberation. We must let nothing – and especially not our interpretation of the word of God! – convince us that there is an inappropriate time or place to set someone free. Let us never be convinced by any religious argument that there are people we ought not set free. With the expansive compassion of Christ, with his daring in the face of long-held tradition, with his courage in the presence of adversaries, and with his faith that God’s new realm is being born in our midst, let us live out the Gospel call to liberation, for it is always time to set someone free.
Luke, Fred Craddock, Interpretation Series, Westminster John Knox Pass
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