In today’s Gospel lesson (Luke 13:10-17), Jesus is teaching in a town synagogue on a random Saturday — the Sabbath. When a bent and emotionally crippled woman approaches him, he interrupts his teaching and heals her with the words: “you are set free from your ailment.” An indignant elder immediately hurries over to chastize Jesus for breaking the Fourth Commandment (the law banning work on the Sabbath) — and in a place of worship, no less.
All Jesus has to say to the religious official is: “You’re a hypocrite” and the battle is joined. He points out that the Fourth Commandment (“Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy”) also provides that God’s people enable their animals and servants and any aliens under their roof to rest on the Sabbath, with the obvious effect that they should not be tied up or yoked or in any way unable to rest. How, therefore, could it be against God’s law to unbind this woman on the Sabbath?
Most of us would probably agree with Jesus’ perspective here. However, we ought not make the mistake of thinking the argument was really about what does and does not constitute “work” under the Fourth Commandment. It might be worthwhile for us to reflect on examples in which we or our own church leaders use religious teachings to bind others or keep them bound — much as the good law against work on the Sabbath was used as a weapon against Jesus’ freeing a middle-aged woman from her sickness.
We know that some fundamentalist Muslims have used their Holy Scriptures as a justification for terrorism and murder. But we should also remember that Christians have interpreted our Bible to justify all kinds of violence, as well as slavery and discriminatory treatment under the law of people outside the white, male, property-owning norm.
Jesus’ issues with the “organized religion” of his time had to a great deal to do with the application of religious laws — not for their original purposes of legislating humanity and compassion and justice — but to enforce the power of those who had it and collaborated with it. Jesus, who routinely hobnobbed with women and other have-nots of his society, was a living rebuke to the political and religious authorities of his time.
What is amazing is how quickly his words and behavior can move from the safely religious to the unsafely political. Relevantly, in last Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus cautioned that he came to bring division, not peace. In the Bible, such division is reconciled by the Cross. How do we reconcile the tender words of Jesus with the discordant effects they had then and still have when we apply them in real life?