© 2017 Rev. Dr. Ben Trawick. If material herein is quoted under Fair Use, please give credit to the author.
Once upon a time, there was a lovely and lively community swimming pool, and behold, the citizens of the community did come unto the pool and did bathe and play in its waters with pleasure and delight.
But the children of the community were a bit high spirited, yea, verily it may be said that they were unruly and rambunctious and they did run upon the pool deck and there was great danger of slippage and injury and great fear of litigation. And so, a sign was made and affixed to the fence and the sign did say NO RUNNING and the running ceased and peace was restored.
But then the children did sit upon one another’s shoulders and do battle in the waters of the pool, and they did push and shove and attempt to cause each other to tumble into the pool and they called this practice “chicken fighting.” And there was danger of injury and behold the lawyers of the community were lining up around the fence and so a sign was made and affixed to the fence and the sign did say NO CHICKEN FIGHTING AND NO POULTRY ALTERCATIONS OF ANY SORT, and peace was restored.
Then the children, being children, did roll their towels into tight rolls and dip the ends into the water and they did call these devices RAT TAILS and they did pop one another across the backs and buttocks. And all of the adults did say, “VERILY, SOMEBODY IS GOING TO LOSE AN EYE!” And a sign was made and affixed to the fence and the sign did say NO HORSEPLAY AND NO LOSING OF EYES. And the pool was serene once more.
And all of these rules were good and necessary and they gave clarity and order and they kept the pool safe and the people happy. But the signs on the fence did multiply greatly. The children did play loud music and so a sign was made saying NO RADIOS, and they did drop their sandwich crumbs upon the pool deck and so a sign was made saying NO FOOD OR DRINK, and they did disturb the neighbors greatly with their yelling of MARCO and POLO and so a sign was made saying NO YELLING.
And the lifeguards did blow their whistles with zeal and point at the signs and they did enforce the rules vigorously and rigorously, and the rules were very good. But the pool was not so good. It was not the place it once had been. The pool did become a place of NO RUNNING, NO CHICKEN FIGHTING, NO HORSEPLAY, NO FOOD, NO DRINK, NO RADIOS, NO YELLING–
NO LAUGHTER, and NO FUN. And somehow along the way, the lifeguards forgot their original and singular role. They took seriously the tasks of blowing whistles and pointing out infractions but they looked so closely at the rules that they forgot that their chief PURPOSE—was to save people from drowning.
Now of course, the example I have shared is exaggerated quite a bit–but it illustrates what takes place when good and necessary rules become more valued or important than the very thing they seek to protect. A pool with no rules is chaos. A pool with only rules—is not a place of recreation or welcome or genuine community.
The same thing can happen as well in religion, when specific doctrines become more important than the God they seek to understand and describe, or when particular faith practices become more important than faith itself. It moves us from faith to legalism, and from a joyous and freeing worship of God to a rigid worship of our assumptions about God.
I am not saying that rules and doctrines are bad–but the purpose of the rules is to protect the pool rather than the purpose of the pool being to preserve the rules. It is a fine distinction–but it is the very distinction that is in play in our scripture lesson for this morning.
In our scripture lesson, Jesus is teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath. As he teaches, he sees a woman who has suffered for eighteen years with what Luke calls a crippling spirit–the exact medical nature of her ailment is not shared and not important, but she is bent over our text tells us, and quite unable to stand up straight.
After eighteen years, muscles and tendons that should keep her upright and in a healthy body alignment have become rigid and locked down and they are actually twisting her body and contorting it painfully. A simple act like glancing skyward is a labor of awkward agony for her.
Jesus sees the woman as she comes to the synagogue, and he has compassion and love for her. Whatever scriptural point or abstraction he was teaching becomes for the moment unimportant. Instead he sets aside the lesson and he sets aside the rules—longstanding Jewish custom and religious law would prevent his healing her on the Sabbath–and he calls her to him and he says, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”
And then he touches her. Now his touch likely breaks a second rule–the woman is understood to have “an unclean spirit.” Physical contact with her is therefore understood to make the one who touches her ritually impure or unclean–thus in the midst of the synagogue, Jesus violates both the Sabbath law and purity laws (which are not, of themselves, bad things) –because he sees her need. And because he sees the drowning person more clearly than he sees the signs on the fence–the woman is loosed from her sinewy bonds AND from her social exclusion. She has NO DOUBT as to the source of her healing. Immediately, she stands upright and begins to praise and glorify God.
But the leader of the synagogue is indignant. Our text tells us, he KEPT SAYING TO THE CROWD, as if it bore much repeating, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, but NOT on the Sabbath day.
Okay–it’s all too easy to pick out the bad guy here. It’s the guy with the whistle pointing at the sign on the fence. The party pooper. The legalist. But hear for a moment his point–there are six days that you can come seeking healing. But the seventh day is the Lord’s day–a day set apart entirely –a day of worship. If you make the seventh day a day of healing, he is saying, it is no different from the other six. There becomes no day entirely set apart for God. The rules exist for a reason. And as hard as it is for us to imagine in our day, when we do not even blink about a sporting event preempting our Sunday worship, or about mowing our lawn on a Sunday afternoon…the honoring of the Sabbath is one of the ten commandments, and the very practice of Sabbath was to keep the Jewish people mindful that they were set apart and called as God’s people.
If you start making exceptions, the leader is saying, it’s a slippery slope to chaos: the synagogue on the Sabbath will be soon be filled with people who have come not to worship but to be healed, not to serve God but to receive services. The leader of the synagogue does not object to the woman’s healing, but he is holding out for the Sabbath Law—heal her yesterday, or heal her tomorrow, but Today is the Lord’s day. The point is a legitimate one.
But Jesus pushes back to make the larger point–when someone is drowning, you don’t focus upon the rules about running and radios, you save the person who is drowning.
Since the leader of the synagogue has invoked the Sabbath law, Jesus lifts up the law interprets it more fully. The law says: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord Your God. you shall not do any work–you or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox, or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male or female slave may rest as well as you.” And healing is work. The Law is clear and detailed and unambiguous. This is what the synagogue leader points to.
But Jesus goes one verse farther in his reading. The next verse continues, “Remember that YOU were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God brought you out with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore, the Lord Your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.”
As Jesus interprets the Law, the purpose of the Sabbath day is NOT to legalistically prevent work; it is to CELEBRATE FREEDOM FROM BONDAGE. TO REMEMBER AND CELEBRATE GOD.
“You wouldn’t leave your ox or donkey tied up on the Sabbath to prevent it from getting life giving water,” says Jesus. You’ll make THAT exception to the Law. Ought not this woman who has been held in bondage for eighteen years be set free from bondage on the VERY DAY that celebrates God’s freedom? What glorifies God more—the legalistic observance of the Sabbath—or the actual liberation of the oppressed from bondage?
Where the synagogue ruler points rightfully to scripture, Jesus interprets the same scripture more broadly as the revelation of God’s love.
“It’s a pool!” Jesus shouts! “Not a fence full of rules!” The rules have a purpose but they serve the pool and not vice versa! That is the distinction between literalism and liberation.
It is interesting that the woman’s affliction becomes in a way a metaphor for the synagogue ruler’s own “affliction.” In the case of the woman, the healthy muscles and sinews that were intended to keep her upright have become rigid and twisted and over-functioning with the result that she cannot even see the sky.
In the case of the ruler of the synagogue, the laws, rules, and customs that are intended to keep him and the people he serves “upright” have become rigid and over-functioning, with the result that his view of God has become twisted and in his own way, he can no longer see the sky, either. And his paralyzing enslavement to legalism would have him leave a woman in the bonds of a paralyzing ailment rather than violate his idea of the Sabbath.
In the text, Jesus sets everybody free–the woman is freed from her spirit of infirmity–the synagogue leader is cut loose from his rigid legalism–and the entire crowd rejoices, because the freeing love of God has been displayed in their midst. The rules get bent or reinterpreted–but the woman is UNBENT. She is healed and God is glorified and the synagogue is filled with a life and a joy that was SIMPLY NOT PRESENT before her boundary-breaking healing. That is how the presence of God is evident!
It’s a powerful story.
But if we stop with the story on the page, we have understood the text for what it says abstractly or conceptually–but we have not yet applied it to our own lives.
What is the challenge of the text to us? Well, I suspect it is this–in our day no less than in our biblical story, synagogues and churches can often become places of rules, unbending doctrines, and unchangeable customs, both written and unwritten. We concern ourselves with what behaviors are appropriate, what attire is acceptable, what music is meaningful, what theological understanding is orthodox, with who is pure enough and fit enough to lead and who is not.
And these traditions and rules, doctrines and customs are not of themselves bad–they are born of good and faithful intentions. They have developed out of necessity and convenience and faithful practice over time, they define boundaries, preserve order, and normalize practices–but we must remember,
We must always remember, we are a pool full of swimmers and not a fence full of rules.
The purpose of a pool is to be a place where all are welcome to come and delight in the water. A place where friends fellowship and the drowning are saved. Where the rules serve that purpose, they are life giving and good. Where they obstruct it–they become twisted, over-functioning, and crippling.
That is a fine line, but it should always be walked on the side of service to God and to God’s people, not of service to the pool rules.
Might it be okay–indeed might it be a worthy witness to the world–if the pool were a place of freedom, and swimmers actually came RUNNING, and filled the place with rambunctious and unconstrained joy, and nobody blew a whistle. And might it be okay, and a worthy witness to the world—if the church invested its energy in genuinely celebrating and living out the kingdom instead of fencing it and regulating it.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Grace Presbyterian Church
26 March 2017