Lectionary 21C (August 25, 2019)

We are people of Holy Baptism. We read Scripture from within the deep waters of Christ’s baptismal font. This is not always as attractive as reading the surface from outside. Here’s a good surface reading: “There are six days on which work should be done.” It’s nice. It’s concise. It’s the sort of statement that would fit on a bumper sticker, or in a tweet or an internet meme. You can use it on lazy children. You don’t do your chores, mom says, “there are six days on which work should be done!” You can use it on the boss: “Why aren’t you working?” “There are six days on which work should be done. This is the seventh. Beer me.” You can use it on ladies who’ve had bent backbones for eighteen years and the men who heal them. The removing of Bible verses from context and using them to justify what you wish to do was not invented with the Tweet, the meme, or the bumper sticker. It was a thing when Jesus lived.

            It’s important that we understand that’s what happens in today’s gospel. Someone takes a verse and tries to make it say what he wants. This scene is not intended to be anti-Jewish and should not be read that way. Christians have long identified themselves over against Judaism, so, we’re inclined to interpret the “Leader of the Synagogue” as representing Jews or Judaism. However, Jesus’ counterargument is thoroughly Jewish. The Leader of the Synagogue—not, notably, the Rabbi—wants worship to happen and does not want this kind of woman interrupting it. He has a ready Bible verse that says what he wants. He has, however, failed to grasp the meaning of what he says.

            If we follow Jesus’ counterargument we dive into a deeper place. Jesus’ counterargument begins by calling the Leader (and anyone who agrees with him) a hypocrite. This is a loan word direct from Greek. In Greek it means “under judgment.” It was used for stage actors. Actors were “under judgment” of theater critics and in thespian competitions. Jesus calls the Leader of the Synagogue a hypocrite, that is, he calls his whole citation of Scripture an act. It’s for show. It’s meant to to look pious.

            Next, Jesus dives a little deeper. I said his argument was Jewish. The Leader of the Synagogue quoted Exodus and Deuteronomy: “There are six days on which work should be done.” Diving in, we see it’s part of the explanation of the Third Commandment: “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.” We also see there’s more explanation. Deuteronomy 5:15 says, “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.” According to Deuteronomy, the sabbath is about liberation from slavery, it’s about freedom, unbinding. So, while the Leader has quoted Scripture accurately, he has not quoted enough. He’s missed the point. Unbinding is good sabbath activity. We know Jesus knows this part of Scripture because he justifies his healing with the image of unbinding an animal on the sabbath, and then moves to the unbinding and liberating of this woman on the sabbath.

            Jesus keeps diving. Jesus calls the woman a Daughter of Abraham. That’s more than a way of giving her dignity. There’s a famous story of the binding and unbinding of a child of Abraham. The story is known as the Aqedah: the binding of Isaac. It’s a disturbing story by necessity: it’s the story that bans child sacrifice. Child sacrifice was performed in ancient times. Jews lived surrounded by people who practiced this. Offer up the firstborn to God. Don’t do it, God gets mad. In Genesis 22 God instructs Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. The original, pre-biblical story probably had Abraham go through with it. Everyone would’ve known that’s how the story goes. Genesis has God stop it: “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him.” By stopping the story, derailing it, and showing God doing it, the authors of Genesis powerfully declared to their fellow Jews, “God will never require this from you. Do not do it.” Then in the story, famously, Abraham looks up and sees a ram caught in a thicket and offers it on the altar in Isaac’s place. Abraham declares “the Lord has provided.” Isaac is next seen unbound. That’s a story of a Son of Abraham unbound.

            Jesus evokes this story when he says of the woman, “This daughter of Abraham should be unbound on the Sabbath, a day of liberation.” The story in Genesis bans child sacrifice. It took a dreadful story everyone knew and broke it to say God desires life. Jesus takes that new story and makes it be about the woman he healed. God desires life for her. This woman was bent over. The rabbis said that walking upright was one of the things that set us apart from animals—I don’t know how they explained birds and monkeys. This woman was subhuman because of her backbone. Jesus is not going to wait to help her, not after this has been allowed to go on for 18 years. She is like Isaac, bound up and awaiting the final blow. Now, she’s free. We are horrified by the idea of child sacrifice, in part because the Aqedah outlawed it and now the idea of it is alarming. Jesus is saying, “Aren’t you alarmed and horrified that this woman’s suffered for 18 years?”

            The waters don’t end there. We can dive deeper. Early Christians seized on the Aqedah, because, after all, there’s a famous guy who Christians say died in our place, just as the ram died in Isaac’s place. Early Christians interpreted the ram in the thicket as Jesus. So, in today’s gospel, you’ve got Jesus—the ram in the thicket—telling us that this Daughter of Abraham—who is like Isaac—should be unbound because that’s what the Sabbath is about, and that’s what God is about, God provided the ram in the thicket—who is Jesus. If that sounds convoluted or squishy, well, the early church didn’t care; they went with it. What happens if we go with it?

            Where is the “ram in the thicket”? What is it that God provides? Where, today, is Christ? In today’s gospel, Christ is healing. God provides unbinding for the woman. In today’s gospel, Christ the ram in the thicket fights for the woman against an uncaring and oppressive system. I doubt the Leader of the Synagogue considers himself an oppressor; he just wants worship to run smoothly. But he is okay with the bent-over woman being less than human at least for the rest of the day. He’s okay with it, complicit in it, okay with her being subhuman, okay putting off her unbinding for another day, okay not seeing God at work at the synagogue on sabbath for crying out loud. He tried to use scripture to support that. He found the tweetable, meme-able, bumper-sticker-ready prooftext that was about what he wanted.

            The deeper we’ve dived into Scripture with Jesus, the less that prooftext has been able to stand. It did not merely get debunked. The conversation shifted completely. We’ve not talked one bit about working on the Sabbath. The Leader used a text to put a woman back in her place and tell God to stay in God’s lane, but that text floated in a sea of other texts and traditions and stories about a God who frees and unbinds. What the Leader wants to say turns out not to be the topic of the story. It’d be like using sentences from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to prove IHOP is open for breakfast. It’s not what the book is about. If you get into the book, you might just find yourself thinking about what the book is about. That’s what happens when you immerse yourself in God’s story—in Scripture, in God’s work through the Holy Spirit. It stops being about you and starts being about God.

            So, it is today. Today, after centuries of Christians reading the gospel without understanding that Jesus is arguing in good, Jewish manner, it is easy to see the Leader of the Synagogue as representing Jews; to latch on to Jesus’ exclamation, “you hypocrites,” as though it applies to an entire religious population and declares them to be all for show without substance. Anti-Semitism’s been normalized again. People in high places can say dreadful things and masses will rush to their defense. Biblical images, titles, verses, are set before us like a pool of water we are to accept as justification for horrible things. If you dive in, though, you find that’s not where the waters go. The waters go to God loving and freeing everyone.

            We are people of Holy Baptism. In the covenant God makes with us, God calls us to know where the waters go—to live and worship among the faithful, hear the word, share the meal—and to tell the world where the waters go—proclaim the good news of Christ through word and deed, serve all following Jesus’ example, strive for justice and peace in all the earth. And, God gives us the spirit to do these things, to be baptized both in here and out in the world, to know where the waters go and to tell where the waters go. The world is full of dangerous surface readings. People are bound because of them. The world needs to know that the waters go to God loving and freeing everyone, sabbath or not.