A sermon on Luke 13:10-17
by Sarah Hedgis
There are some stories in the Bible where I find myself connecting with a character—really seeing myself in that person, in how she thinks or what he feels. In today’s story of the healing of a crippled woman on the sabbath, I feel an unexpected and, more importantly, a dreaded connection with the indignant synagogue leader.
If we transport this story to our own context, as a seminarian I could very well be the synagogue leader. In fact, I encounter this story in a very different way than I did before starting seminary. Now I must admit that Jesus is not exactly the ideal person to invite to your synagogue or church. The stories of Jesus disrupting services all around town linger in my mind more than they did before. I even experience the opening verse differently: “Now we was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath” (13:10). It sounds like a pretty good opening sentence. As readers, we feel like we have arrived just in time for the action. Except when I hear this line now, I think, “We’re almost done! Nothing has gone wrong yet! Maybe we’re in the clear.”
Then the next verse, “And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years.” What was once a line of suspense is now one of panic. I steal a look over at Jesus and I see his eyes locked on someone in the crowd. “Oh no.”
Before I know what’s happening, the long-time crippled woman (I mean, how did he even see her in the crowd?!) is standing straight and praising God. Then I hear the echoes of a reprimand linger in the air, the reprimanding reminder that “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day”—I try not to gasp when I realize the voice ringing in the air is my own, the finger pointed at the woman and Jesus is attached to my hand, my arm...to me.
In some ways, the perspectives of the healed woman and the synagogue leader are completely different. When we hear the story, one is good and one is bad. One is open to God’s healing and the other is not. One is honored and the other is shamed.
Yet, I go back to the moment when these two characters meet, when they’re lives really intersect. I cannot get over what it must have been like when the woman realized she was standing upright—realized that she was no longer looking at the feet but into the face of Jesus.
Our story in Luke is nestled in-between parables describing the Kingdom of heaven growing or rising up, and the woman’s healing has this same movement. She was once hunched and bent and bound but is now healed, freed, and straightened. Seeing the world in a way—from a perspective—she had long given up on, the woman takes her first glimpse at the kingdom of God...and it is anger.
The NRSV uses the word indignant to describe the synagogue leader’s reaction, a word that just feels mean, and is defined as expressing displeasure at something considered unjust, offensive, or insulting. After 18 years, the woman is finally seen, but she is seen as offensive. After 18 years, the woman can finally see, but her first sight is the synagogue leader and Jesus engaged in an argument.
Is this really the kingdom of God?
It is in this moment that both the woman and the synagogue leader connect—in her vulnerable visibility and his enflamed indignation—in this moment, both wish that Jesus had not come into their synagogue. And we, as the readers, feel the tension! It only intensifies as Jesus responds with a teaching that solicits cheers from many in the crowd and causes shame for the others who are named his opponents.
And the story ends here—in division and conflict. Jesus keeps moving to Jerusalem, and we remember that he is moving us towards and preparing us for the kingdom through the cross. We look back to make sure Jesus did not take a wrong turn, read from the wrong cue card, or forget to resolve the problem that lingers over us in Luke 13:17. But when we look back, we see just one chapter before-our-story these words: "Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!" (Luke 12:51). And again we wonder, "Is this really good news?"
Last Friday I went to Woodruff Park with several other Candler students to walk with and for Troy Davis, a name I think we have all become familiar with over the last few days. I squeezed into the crowd and started toward Ebenezer Baptist church. While we were walking, many of us sang and chanted together. After a short silence, I heard someone start a chant that I recognized. "No justice?" he cried— "No peace!" we responded. The first time I heard this chant was when I was working with Interfaith Worker Justice last summer. We were marching with Hyatt hotel workers who were on strike, and I heard that same exchange: “No justice?” “No peace!” It made my skin crawl. This is too threatening, I thought. The language is too strong. It’s probably offensive to the management!
When I heard it last Friday, it did not sound like a threat or an offense or even an angry outcry. It sounded, well, true. There cannot be real peace without justice. There can be silence without justice, forced silence or accepted silence. There can be politeness without justice and smiles without justice. There can be perfectly good worship services without justice. There can also be unnoticed burdens and unexamined routine without justice. But there can’t really be peace without justice.
"No justice? No peace!" It is a truth that also sounds a lot like Jesus' teaching about watering oxen and donkeys on the sabbath. They both have meanings that are easy to recognize but hard to hear, hard to look up and see, and hard to accept. Yet, it is the only teaching Jesus offers. Regardless of our ease or difficulty, the kingdom of God will not settle or be compromised, even when we all wish that it might.
The kingdom of God rejects compromised teachings upheld by paraphrased commandments that point to routine instead of reason. “There is no peace without justice,” Jesus says to the synagogue leader who cannot understand why Jesus could not wait one more day to heal the woman.
The kingdom of God rejects compromised peace that settles for pleasing the majority or the most powerful when there are those left unseen and uncared for. “There is no peace without justice,” Jesus says to the woman who is starting to doubt whether her healing was worth all of the trouble it is bringing to those around her.
The kingdom of God rejects compromised justice that settles for peace-through-revenge and offers this false promise of comfort to those who suffer. “There is no peace without justice,” Jesus says to those who would match a devastating death with an additional devastating death.
I attend a Faith and Justice small group at my church. Yesterday, our leader sent out an email about Troy Davis. He wrote, "It is ironic that this controversial execution has been scheduled to occur during the Wednesday evening "church hour" in a state that prides itself on its Baptist/Methodist religious heritage. So as Troy takes his final steps, and then is put to death Wednesday evening in Jackson, Christians in many places, including here in Decatur, will be gathered to go about our usual and sundry activities of food, fellowship, prayer, and study. I doubt that many people of faith in our state would rise to cheer for an execution. But for the most part, we will simply 'sing louder,' allowing ourselves to ignore what we would prefer not to have to know. In that isolation, we may fail to be a witness for God's promise of redemption and command of love."
When I started preparing for this sermon on Monday morning, I imagined that we would be celebrating another glimpse of the Kingdom of God on earth—another story about how God refuses to compromise over the lives of God’s children. But last night Troy Davis was killed, and once again we fail to be God’s witnesses; we ignore what we would rather not know; we compromise, we settle.
But the kingdom of God does not. And this is the good news.
That amidst the division, conflict, fear, and shame that we bind ourselves in through our rejection of the kingdom of God, a rejection that affects us all, from the praising woman to the ashamed leader . . . amidst all this, there is still—there is always—one uncompromised promise: "No justice? No peace."
Closing Prayer: God of love, giver of life, you know our frailties and failings. You know our compromises. Give us your grace to overcome them, keep us from those things that harm us and others, and guide us in the way of salvation through Jesus Christ, our uncompromising Savior and Lord.
Sarah Hedgis is a 3rd-year Master of Divinity student at Candler School of Theology. She is originally from Rome, Georgia but now calls Atlanta home. At Candler, Sarah works for the Office of Worship and serves on Candler Coordinating Council. Sarah loves Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and exploring how the stories of our traditions and the stories of our lives interact.