SHOOK UP Hebrews 12:18-end and Luke 13:10-17
Introduction – a story
A woman has been bent double from her youth. Slowly her shoulders curved.
She was left behind by sisters who married whilst she remained alone.
She was ridiculed and treated as an outcast. Children shouted “Hunchback!”
at her or scurried by looking scared. She made friends with ants and caterpillars
and marvelled at the anemones in the spring. Her only chance to gaze at
the moon was in a rare puddle of rain. She saw the high Judaean hills
only as reflections in the lake. But she has waited and listened and learnt
the wisdom of patience, and the patience of the wise. She saw only a fragment
of life. But who really sees the whole?
and patience include regular attendance at the synagogue. She could have
grown bitter, turned against God and religion, but instead she comes and
listens to the chanting of psalms and the reading of the Holy Scriptures.
She hears words of hope for her people. She contemplates how others may
be bowed down in ways that are not physical like her, but are none the
less burdened. Her people, once freed from slavery, are once again suffering
under the yoke of foreign power. The rich are weighed down by worldly
cares and concerns. The rulers have their sights set only on what they
can see at their feet. The poor are crippled by unpayable debt. Even the
synagogue leader is bound by the rules and spends his energies on trying
to keep the people in line.
Then one Sabbath her life is changed. She did not beg or pray for a cure
– perhaps she used to, and has given up, or found that her prayers
were answered in other ways. She hears Jesus has come to her synagogue
and indeed he is there, explaining the scriptures in a way she has never
heard before. It lifts her heart. She feels free, begins to sense a joy
creeping over her heart. She stays in the shadows, in the corner where
she has felt safe, away from too many gazing eyes, in the furthest part
of the women’s enclosure. She has no friends to lower her on a mat
through the thatched roof of a crowded house. She does not push her way
through a crowd to reach out and touch the hem of the saviour’s
robe. She does not expect healing, but she does know what it is to receive
divine wisdom in her heart.
voice stops. There is silence in the congregation. She wonders what caused
him to break off his sermon and then realises that the heads of women
near her have turned in her direction. She only just has time to realise
the teacher’s gaze has landed on her before she hears him speak
again: “Woman, you are set free!” There is a disturbance,
the preacher is making his way through the men, has even entered the women’s
section, and is coming to her. She feels hands on her back – gently
moving over her crooked spine. She has never felt the hands of a man on
her, let alone a healer’s hands. The hands move and lift her chin.
Instead of resistance in her back as she tries to look up, the stiffness
falls off. There is the man! He smiles, and then breaks into a laugh.
She holds her back, stares round in amazement, and is then engulfed in
an enormous embrace by the shaking, laughing healer. All the years of
patience and wisdom gather within her, falling back from the embrace,
she flings her hands in the air and lets out a cry of relief and joy.
The bonds which kept her imprisoned have been released. She is free! She
is able to stand up straight! She can look everyone around her in the
The synagogue is in an uproar. The congregation is shouting and the service
has come to an abrupt end long before the proper ending. Some are rejoicing
with the healed woman, jumping up and down in their glee. Some are complaining
at this interruption to their worship. Others are remarking loudly about
what they have just witnessed. Trying vainly to be louder than all of
them is the synagogue leader. He is shouting for order, for calm. He is
trying to regain control of his congregation. But if only he could hear
himself! Has he any idea what he sounds like? When his attempts to be
heard by everyone fail, he starts turning to individuals. “There
are six other days of the week to do work. Come to the synagogue on those
days! The Sabbath is sacrosanct, meant for rest and worship! This teacher
is a scandal! Throw him out! Order, I say, order!” But no-one listens.
The people of his congregation know what they have seen and how good it
all is. God seems to have come alive in their worship, despite the commotion.
It gives them all hope.
The Jesus motions for order and for silence. The synagogue leader is relieved
that some semblance of order is regained, but looks humiliated that it
was not he who managed to get control. He attempts to repeat himself,
appealing to the wide-mouthed congregation: “Six days shalt thou
labour and on the seventh do no work! Healing is work! The synagogue is
open every other day of the week, and all may come and be healed then!”
The congregation laugh at him. He retreats to his special seat. Jesus
takes centre stage: “Hypocrites! Play actors! This woman has been
coming here for years and you did not do anything for her. Hypocrites!
Play actors! I know full well you will go out from this Sabbath worship,
go straight to your animals, untie them and lead them to the water trough.
Work? What is work? What is healing? Is it not to unbind that which is
bound? Is it not to lead the tethered to refreshment? Is it not to show
humanity? This woman is a child of Abraham, like all of you. Why should
she not be treated as such and shown compassion, no matter what day it
is? Is this not worship, to lose the bound, to free the yoke?” Cheers
broke out and the service ended with a spontaneous psalm of praise that
all knew off by heart. Alleluia!
Who told this story? Who were the ones to whom it was told? It was told
immediately afterwards by the congregation members as they went to take
their animals to water, as they sat in the cool of the shade contemplating
what they had witnessed in the morning. It was told the disciples as they
walked along behind Jesus as he travelled to the other villages in Galilee.
It was told by the woman herself, countless times over, perhaps in old
age to her children and grandchildren whom she was able to bear after
Jesus had touched her on that glorious and wonderful Sabbath. The people
who heard it first were those who lived in the same culture and recognised
all the overtones and resonances of the story. They clapped their hands
in delight and exclaimed how they could hardly believe it. They laughed
at how stupid the synagogue leader looked and clucked their tongues incredulously.
the story continued to be told and retold. It was told in places other
than Galilee and in the decades after Jesus had died and gone to heaven.
It was told in Greek and Latin to people who were interested in the story
of Jesus. As it was told over and over its hearers and tellers reflected
on what it might mean for them.
This story was connected to other stories of Jesus. The stories of Jesus
were connected to the stories God’s people heard and told. They
realised that others had said similar things as Jesus: that rules were
all very well, but sometimes those rules can become crippling in themselves.
The synagogue leader, in his way, was just as bent as the woman who had
been healed. He was weighed down with laws and regulations. Perhaps he
needed healing just as much as the woman. Perhaps God’s people tend
to act too much like those who came to Mt Sinai when the Ten Big Rules
were given, and cowered when the earth shook, and God seemed to come down
in fire and storm. They are crippled over in fear of God, and can never
look at the wider scene. There is another sacred mountain, Zion, and God’s
Son invites all to approach with joy and confidence. God cannot be kept
at arm’s length, tied up in rules. He sees each one, comes over
and embraces you with healing and freedom when you least expected it.
Now doesn’t that leave you all shook up?
© Rev Paul Smith