Luke, the writer of our text today, gives a prominent place to those who would normally have been on the fringe of society; the poor, Gentiles, women. For example, in contrast to Matthew who writes “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt 5:3) Luke writes “Blessed are you who are poor.” (Luke 6:20. An example of Luke’s emphasis upon women is found in Luke 23 and the first part of 24 which contains his account of the trial, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus. I would encourage you each to take time this afternoon to read through this section and pay attention to “the women.” From the time Jesus is sentenced all the way through to his resurrection there are some “women” present. Initially they remain unnamed until Luke reveals their identity in 24:10. The men come and go, they have their moment in the story, and then they disappear – Simon of Cyrene, the two criminals on the cross, the centurion, Joseph of Arimathea. But the women, they are there the whole time. The disciples don’t even gain a mention until later in chapter 24, apart from Peter who runs to the empty tomb after the women have been there. They are the eyewitnesses to everything at the most crucial moment in the story, indeed the most important moment in the history of humankind. They stay and watch the trial, the procession to the cross, the death, the burial, and finally they are the first to see the empty tomb.
They are crucial to everything!
In fact, when Jesus says to Cleopas and his travelling companion on the road to Emmaus “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!” I don’t think Jesus is referring to prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel or Elijah. I think he means these women. All of this is an example of Luke elevating the place of those who would normally be on the fringe of society to a place of prominence within the gospel story.
Turning to our passage today Jesus is teaching in a synagogue. The synagogue had a different purpose to the temple in Jewish worship. The temple centred upon sacrifice. The synagogue centred upon the Torah. Synagogues began to emerge as the Jewish people spread throughout the Roman Empire. Wherever there were ten respected men a synagogue could be formed. The role of teaching in the synagogue was an important one. Imagine a seat in the front and centre of the room. It is a seat of authority and the place where teaching happened from. When Jesus taught in his home synagogue of Nazareth Luke tells us that he read from the scroll of Isaiah, rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. He wasn’t sitting back in his spot in the congregation, rather he is sitting in the seat of authority teaching the gathered congregation. Jesus would have been sitting teaching again in this passage today.
And in walks a woman.
The English translation we’ve just heard is a little matter of fact about it in comparison to the tone that Luke uses. He really wants to draw your attention to her, to imagine yourself in the synagogue in the middle of Jesus teaching, and see everyone’s heads turn as this woman walks in.
She’s hunched over. She’s been that way for eighteen years.
Jesus sees her. He calls to her.
Can you imagine her reaction? The reaction of others in the room?
He lays his hands upon her and says “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” She stands up and begins praising God. Of course, it’s the perfect time and place for praising God, right? In a synagogue on the Sabbath?
Up speaks a man. A man in power. A man with authority. Not just one of the ten men who formed this synagogue but the number one. The leader of the synagogue. But does he raise his complaint directly with Jesus? No. He goes to the crowd and speaks to them.
“According to the Torah you can’t heal here today.”
“That’s not in the liturgy. What kind of Rabbi is this guy?”
“He should stick to the preaching. That’s what he’s here for.”
“We’ll have to report this to the synagogue council, I’m afraid.”
“Tuesday afternoon is the healing service. She should come back then. Oh, and bring a plate”
If this guy lived today he’d probably pull out his iPhone and post something on social media to shout his misguided views into his online echo chamber.
The way this man speaks about this woman to the crowd, and not to Jesus or her, serves to “other” her. It’s a tactic used by all sorts of people in power. Consider how in Australian political discourse the language used to describe government policy regarding asylum seekers has used the phrase “Stop the Boats.” The focus is not on the people because the Australian public might actually care about people. No one cares about “Boats,” right? They describe what they’re doing as “illegal” to make them sound like criminals and then call them “boats” to take away their humanity completely.
Jesus is having none of it. In response he speaks directly to him and those who follow him. “You hypocrites!” And then he forces their gaze back upon her. He forces them to see her. Jesus saw her. He wants this man, and the crowd, to see her too. To see this woman who only moments ago was hunched over and had been for eighteen years. Now she is standing upright and praising God. Not only that, he emphasises her place within the family of God. She is their sister – “ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham.” It’s the same tactic Jesus used in Simon the Pharisee’s home when a woman of ill-repute walked in and dared to wash Jesus’ feet with her hair. On that occasion, when Simon attempted to “other” her, Jesus forced Simon’s gaze upon her and said to him – “Do you see this woman?” (Luke 7:44).
In this synagogue, in today’s passage, Jesus saw her. He called her. He healed her. And this man tried to exclude her for it.
And the crowd, and the woman, did what was right and joined with Jesus in the celebration.
We sit together here at Holy Name of Jesus parish. The core values of this parish are listed on our website:
Traditional worship style
Safe and trusted environment
Multi-cultural and inclusive
Engaged and participatory congregation
I recall the first time I entered this church building. I too was hunched over and burdened by my own brokenness. I experienced a moment when it was like Jesus touched me on the shoulder and said to me “Adam, you are set free from your ailment.” I stood up straight and praised God. I experienced a safe, trusted, inclusive, engaging, and participatory church that reached out to me and made me feel welcome.
I read those core values and honestly feel they are reflected in the lives of the people that are here today. I’m so glad God led me to this parish and that it has become our home. I join with you in trying to live out those values every day.
Those values suggest that we are a church where everyone is welcome regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, physical ability, intellectual capability, sexuality or past Christian experience. Welcoming, safe, trusted, inclusive. All of these words are important and I think consistent with our passage today and the gospel of our Lord that we proclaim together.
The challenge is to live these values out. To be a place that is genuinely these things all the time towards all people.
Otherwise, we’re just hypocrites.
So let’s be a welcoming, safe, trusted, inclusive, engaged and participatory congregation. And let’s join together, with Jesus, in the celebration of the wonderful things that God is doing in this place.