The theme of mercy is overflowing and abundant throughout scripture. It really should give us pause that Jesus was far more interested in speaking about mercy than he was about judgement. Our passage from Luke’s gospel provide a contrast between a rigidity of living that causes harm versus offering mercy and life abundant.
Scripture: Luke 13: 10-17
There are many themes that we will find within scripture. One of the most prominent themes is that of mercy. Luke’s gospel contains its fair share of divine mercy. In Nazareth Jesus quotes from Isaiah, proclaiming good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind and to set the oppressed free. (Luke 4: 18). This is divine mercy.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is divine mercy. (Luke 10: 25-37)
Jesus eating with those who are described as sinners, is divine mercy. (Luke 5: 27-31)
The sermon on the mount, is divine mercy. (Luke 6: 20-26)
When Jesus takes a meager amount of fish and bread and feeds the 5000, that is divine mercy. (Luke 9: 10-17).
Divine mercy is everywhere in the gospels. You’d really have to work hard not to find it at work. Today’s passage is no different. Divine mercy is on full display. Jesus is teaching at a synagogue on the sabbath. Nothing unusual or out of the ordinary with that. It’s what happens next that catches our attention. Honestly, the women who is healed while a significant event might not get such attention if it weren’t for the synagogue leader.
The woman is referred to as a daughter of Abraham. This is a reminder of who the people are, that God has walked with them and been merciful in the past, just as Jesus is now being merciful. We will return to this woman in a moment, but for now let’s focus on the synagogue leader who has made all the fuss.
The concern of the synagogue leader is that Jesus heals on the Sabbath. In various places in the Old Testament we find a prohibition to work being performed on this day. What qualifies as work is largely undefined, which allows the reader to place their own understanding on what work means. It’s easy to see how disagreements would form.
Luke provides for us a critical piece of commentary when in verse 15 Jesus is referred to as Lord. This elevates the authority of Jesus over the synagogue leader. The healing on the Sabbath reminds us that God wishes us to be both free to live in creation and free to worship God. In other words, God wants us to experience mercy. Carolyn Sharp writes about this passage and how it reminds us that, “honouring God and pointing to liberation as a fundamental characteristic of God’s realm.” (Carolyn Sharp)
When we take a step back from the immediacy of the passage, the healing miracle we witness, and the teaching moment Jesus provides we see a larger picture. Through this passage Luke is demonstrating a wider understanding of scripture. The synagogue leader has a narrow view of what is and what is not permitted. The result of the synagogue’s narrow view is an individual continuing to live in pain. The actions of Jesus force us to recalibrate our understanding of what is permitted, not through the lens of the law, but through our understanding of God’s grace and mercy. The result? Our experience is widened and we are enriched.
In what ways might our understanding of the gospel, of God’s mission in the world be expanded if we were to take a step back and reframe our understanding from a legalistic one to one based upon grace and mercy?
Chelsey Harmon frames the reaction of the synagogue leader in this way: “Don’t go getting any ideas. That’s the leader’s message to the multitude of people who have gathered on the Sabbath day and were just given a spark of hope.” (Chelsey Harmon)
Don’t go getting any ideas.
It’s important for us to examine the behaviours of the individuals in this story, to attempt to understand their motivations and actions. We have a woman who needs healing and receives it. After being healed she praises God. There is Jesus who sees the woman in need and heals her, setting her free from her ailment. There are the people present that day who are likely filled with amazement and hope. Then there is the synagogue leader. Pay attention to his actions, he doesn’t rebuke Jesus. He addresses the crowd and says come back another day. No more healing today as this is the Sabbath. He doesn’t address Jesus, instead he tries to exert his authority over the crowd as he is accustomed to doing.
The synagogue leader seems to think that healing someone is work. This is what his words and actions imply and I find that sad. To think that restoring someone to wholeness, or repairing a relationship, or caring for creation is work and not an act of worship towards the God who created all. The actions of the synagogue leader speak a great deal about himself and are a reflection of a system of oppression.
Scripture further illuminates that the synagogue leader has a narrow interpretation of what is permitted on the sabbath. “In a parallel story in Matthew 12, Jesus poses a question to the Pharisees who challenge him for healing on the Sabbath:
He said to them, “Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:11-12)
Jesus’ question makes it clear that the Pharisees did, in fact, consider it lawful to rescue an animal who had fallen into a pit on the Sabbath.” (Kathryn Schifferdecker)
The actions of Jesus in this passage, speak to an expansion of the understanding of the law. The actions of Jesus work towards a revelation of grace and restoration.
Now think about the woman who was healed. Her spine is bent, she can’t look up. Did she come to the synagogue that day seeking Jesus, seeking healing?
No. She is unable to look up, she doesn’t see Jesus, she doesn’t know who is teaching, and the text gives no indication she arrived seeking him. It is Jesus who sees her and offers mercy. If Jesus sees her, then Jesus sees us and expresses the same care and concern for us that this woman received. Jesus very much walks with us as we experience burdens and ailments that bring us low and cripple us.
Kathryn Schifferdecker writes the following about this passage, “Hear again this good news: God in Christ frees you from whatever binds you. God heals you. God gives you rest. God forgives you and frees you to live life, and to live life abundantly.” (Kathryn Schifferdecker)
That is good news indeed and it looks a lot like grace and divine mercy. This is the God we follow; this is the God we serve. May we be like Jesus in our interactions with others. Amen.
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St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cobourg is part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The congregation was established in 1833 and continues to serve the community.
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