August 21, 2022
Tell me if this sounds familiar to you: you have met with your doctor and talked about a procedure that you’ll need to have. Both of you agree it’s necessary and needs to be done soon, so you go and schedule it. Then, something happens and it has to be rescheduled. And then rescheduled. Insurance snags, scheduling conflicts, and even good old-fashioned mess-ups push the date out further and further. Until by the time it finally gets done, you’re left wondering why it needed to take so long and why it was so difficult to be taken care of when it was agreed that it was necessary and urgent.
Delays are part of life, admittedly. Having to wait for things is a discipline that we can use to grow in self-control. But when something is wrong, when something is broken, when something needs to be fixed now, it can be beyond frustrating when it’s put off—especially when there’s no good reason for it to be put off to begin with. Whether it’s our bodies that need fixing, or our homes that need fixing, or our society that needs fixing, being told we have to wait for no other reason than just “because” is just not good enough.
It’s a lesson Jesus demonstrates in our reading today, when a daughter of Abraham walked into the synagogue, bent over with a debilitating 18-year spinal ailment. She didn’t come to the synagogue expecting anything different. In fact, after eighteen years she was probably resigned to the fact that she would never be better. From her ailment she had been isolated—unable to meet people’s eyes, unable to look up and look around with ease, unable to participate in the life of her community the way she wanted. And then, one day, she met Jesus, who told her she was freed from her bondage, and she stood up straight!
Jesus saw no reason to delay her healing. He didn’t see any reason that she should be forced to suffer one more day. But the leader of the synagogue, it seems, did. Now, he had his reasons. Jews in the first century were known for three things: their unique devotion to only one God, their specific dietary requirements, and the way they honored the Sabbath. And the argument about what constituted “work” kept shifting the boundaries of what was allowed on the Sabbath. You could save a life, sure, but this woman wasn’t dying. So the synagogue leader, trying to use this as a teaching moment, rebuked her for being healed.
What a cruel response! Here this synagogue leader, a man with clout in his community, took the time to tell a woman, an outcast woman, that she should endure her bondage a little longer to satisfy his understanding of work on the Sabbath! That her lived reality should conform to his hypothetical legal understanding. That she needed to endure something he would never experience, just because it went against his interpretation of what was “right timing.”
Well, obviously, Jesus was having none of that. First, Jesus took this woman out of anonymity by naming her a daughter of Abraham. She wasn’t just some hypothetical figure to measure the Law against. She was a living, breathing human being, a daughter of Abraham and a member of the community. And then he compared the exceptions the synagogue leader would make for his animals, untying them so they could get water to drink on the Sabbath, and asked if this woman, this daughter of Abraham, was less worthy of wholeness than a donkey?
I mean, you don’t have to be a first-century Palestinian Jew to wince at that burn.
This story is about so much more than a woman being healed and made whole. When we read it, and we see what Jesus does and how the synagogue leader reacts, it asks us the question: does mercy guide the Law? Does compassion direct our rules and regulations? Because the gut reaction we have to this story is a reminder that we want mercy to override the strict black-and-white of the Law. We don’t want justice to be delayed because it’s inconvenient or doesn’t fit someone else’s interpretation of right timing. And if we applaud the way Jesus reframed the rules about the Sabbath to show mercy to this daughter of Abraham, how do we extend that same applause into our lives today?
It makes me think of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, where he responds to criticism of the campaign for direct action in the South. A whole group of leaders—priests, pastors, rabbis, and other moderates who genuinely supported his cause—had written an open letter cautioning his movement to go slowly, to not be so pushy or they would alienate others. And Dr. King’s frustration is clear in the Letter, when he describes his fear that the biggest obstacle to the movement was “not the Ku Klux Klanner, or the White Citizens Councilor, but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice.” Like the daughter of Abraham bound for eighteen years and told by the synagogue leader to still “wait” for her healing, Dr. King was being told to wait by people who were not being directly affected by the brokenness that kept him and his people down.
Or as we find ourselves facing the prospect of rising prices and the constant squeeze for more needing to be done with less, having our concerns about providing for ourselves and our families, the disruptions to our community from so many quarters, being told to take a back seat for decades. We’re told to be patient, to work harder, to trust that things are getting better—to wait. The burden that keeps us bent over needs to be healed today, and not at a more convenient time for someone who isn’t experiencing the burden we are holding.
Or as we face the growing reality of climate change as wildfires grow more destructive, storms more powerful, weather more unpredictable, and droughts more severe all around the globe—the push against doing anything just yet to address it continues. Even as we’re called to steward the earth, even as people in the most vulnerable places are being directly impacted, the word is still “wait” from too many. Like the synagogue leader looking on the daughter of Abraham, the current crisis is seen as something that we can address tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.
But Jesus doesn’t wait until tomorrow. Even when it’s the Sabbath and he is supposed to abstain from all kinds of work, Jesus heals because it is the right thing to do. He brings wholeness. He fixes brokenness. He extends mercy when it is most urgently needed. And he invites us into that practice of mercy today, justice today, and wholeness today. He enacts hope and wholeness for the people who need it most now, not abiding by our timelines of propriety or “good sense” or moderation. He leads us to healing and wholeness today, because we’ve waited long enough in brokenness.
So let’s start living into the wholeness he brings us today. Even when the leaders tell us to wait, to be patient for the day of justice, we act in Jesus’ name with urgency. We trust that God is making all things new, and straightening the backs of those bent over with bondage even as we speak. We trust that God works through us to restore wholeness today, and will work through us whether it’s at a convenient time or not. We trust that justice is not limited to only our situation, but to everyone who is in need. And we partner with God to make that justice, that wholeness, that healing, that liberation, happen today.
Thanks be to God. Amen.