Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Calling the Silent Woman to Cross the Line

Scripture for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost includes Jeremiah 1:4-10; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17

Ho hum, another healing. The temptation is to under-read this story because it doesn’t lend itself to great cinematography. Not much action. The woman in whom the miracle happens doesn’t get any good lines to speak. This video clip won’t go viral.

But there are facets of this story that deserve wiping off to see how they refract light.

Read the whole Gospel of Luke and you’ll see that this is the last time Jesus visits a synagogue. From here out, he’s outdoors, on the street, in the market, at other venues… but not in church. Could be that this encounter today convinces him that he has spent enough redemptive capital addressing the hypocrisies of the local parish. He’s got the tee shirt that says “God’s sabbath is for consistent acts of lovingkindess: Love your neighbor as yourself, whether your neighbor is an ass or a human.” He’s got greater challenges ahead than the local parish church.

But it’s in this house of prayer that he embraces one of those challenges: the place of women among the people of God.

Let’s open that subject by acknowledging that two thousand years later, women are still not ordained bishops in the Church of England. In the Episcopal Church here in the states, ordained women still report resistance to being called to serve as rectors in the larger parishes.
Globally, I’d bet the ordination of women is practiced by only a minority of Christians. Among the great majority of Jesus’s followers, men wear the vestments and claim the voice of authority, while everyone knows without the women there would be no church. The place of women among the people of God in the 21st century is still distorted by hypocrisy.

Yes, it was worse in the 1st century. Here’s a description: “The Palestinian Jewish culture was one of the most patriarchal in the Mediterranean crescent. The home and family were basically the only spheres where women could play significant roles in early Judaism. This was true not only because of the extensive power that a father had over both his wife and daughters in determining their activities and their relationships, but also because various levitical laws were interpreted in such a way that women were prohibited from taking significant roles in the synagogue due to their monthly period of levitical uncleanness. Women could not make up the quorum that constituted a synagogue, could not be counted on to recite the daily “Shema, Israel” (of praise) or make the pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the major feasts, nor are there any known examples of women reading the Torah in the synagogue in Jesus’ era.”

Indeed, this woman Jesus calls forward today is silent. For eighteen years, a spirit has crippled her: “She was bent over and was quite unable to stand upright.” Standing is the classic posture for prayer and praise and participation in the worship of God’s people.

Where was she in that synagogue? Were the women in an ell or a room to one side, separated from the men? Wherever that was, it must have been there that she appeared, and Jesus noticed her. He called her over, invited her to cross that dark line of separation, apartness, otherness-- to cross the steep mountain range separating the women from the men.

What drew his eye to her? Was it her disability? Her determination? I’ll bet you can call up the image of someone from your circle of family and friends… my late aunt Jessie, severely bent over, moving slowly, deliberately… my colleague Don, a burley guy who was a cop before he was a priest: I sat behind him at a funeral in Worcester last week; even with a back brace, he too is unable to stand up straight. Cords of compassion are set thrumming at the sight of a person with some condition that has done its crippling worst. In Greek, it reads “a spirit of weakness” (how loose and roomy language is!). And that may be what summons compassion, this sense of being diminished, of losing certain freedoms, not possessing former strengths—none of which leaves the person spiritually weak. Aunt Jessie didn’t lose her spark, her laughter. Don, with that bent body, celebrates the eucharist this morning at the altar in Worcester. Deep strength is not invalidated by physical weakness, may even rise from it.

As she makes her painful way to him, slowly, deliberately, her weight against a wooden staff, her face cast down by the physics of her ailment, I’ll tell you what I hear: expressions of shock, hummings of encouragement, sharp intake of breath, cluckings of disapproval, the shufflings of people making way for her, the firm landings of her stick upon the floor.

And there she is, standing before the men and the women, and the One in whom male and female meet complete. On that spot Jesus announces to her emancipation from her bondage, resurrection from her living death, inclusion in the people of God, revelation as a daughter of Abraham and Sarah. Immediately he makes the Word flesh by laying his hands on her. And I can only assume that the sounds we heard before we hear again, only sharper, clearer, as he violates yet one more levitical law, touching a woman in public.

Indignation pours from the heart and the mouth of the local pastor, flooding the room with his sour breath. “Six days have been defined as work days. Come on one of the six if you want to be healed, but not on the seventh, the Sabbath!” So he kept shouting, perhaps egged-on by some of his flock, men of substance, guardians of obedience, culture police.

Don’t you think there must have been some who shot back, “And who will heal us if we do? You?”

Now Jesus makes a strategic choice. He hears the presiding minister repeating his pathetic public policy statement, and Jesus shoots back, responding to this fellow’s message but actually addresses the congregation: “You frauds! Each Sabbath every one of you regularly unties your cow or donkey from its stall, leads it out for water, and thinks nothing of it. So why isn’t it all right for me to untie this daughter of Abraham and lead her from the stall where Satan has had her tied these eighteen years?”

That’s how it reads in “The Message”, which goes on to say, “When he put it that way, his critics were left looking quite silly and red-faced. The congregation was delighted and cheered him on.” Jesus’s strategic choice was right on: rather than arguing with the pastor in a closed loop, Jesus rightly located the hypocrisy in the divided inconsistent hearts of many within that room, and rather than framing a conversation within the ecclesiastical system (where it would be all about religious law), Jesus intercepted the message of the minister to his flock, feigned a return volley to that fellow but in fact lobbed his reply to the people, and made it all about justice and mercy.

The New Revised Standard Version, our lectern text, says, “When he had said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.”

Maybe. But it won’t be long before that kind of nervous twittering is heard at the gates of Jerusalem, when Jesus arrives to face his ultimate challenge.

The shame that Luke mentions may be an important facet of this story. You could say that this woman’s crippled condition, her weakness, represents a basic shame laid on the backs of all women by cultures that perpetuate inequality by specious primitive prejudice. That is truly the spirit of weakness that afflicts woman: it is the men’s arguments and self-ordained authority that cripple her. These are among the powers and principalities that Jesus disarms, for male and female to meet in him and be saved from the alienating power of shame.

This is radical stuff. Before Jesus, no Jewish women were allowed to be disciples of a great teacher, but that is where his movement goes, and this woman who now stands before him eye to eye is part of that movement. And so are we.

(The description of the place of women in 1st-century Palestine is given by Ben Witherington, III, in his article, “Women: New Testament” in “The Anchor Bible Dictionary”, Vol. 6, page 957.)