In Jewish Passover meals I have attended, there is a time when the person who presides at the meal asks the others present to take three drops of wine out of their cups and sprinkle them onto their plates. This symbolizes the deaths of the Egyptian firstborn children, and the drowning of the Egyptian soldiers in the Red Sea. Most of the evening is about the deliverance of the people of Israel from captivity in Egypt, but the intention behind this gesture is that we recall that as long as one part of the world is grieving and heartbroken, we cannot drink a full cup of joy. So some drops are removed from the full cup. And—maybe not accidentally—they look a little like drops of blood.
It is a profound symbol—a reminder that all is not well with us if all is not well with all. But it’s also depressing. Can we never truly rejoice? Isn’t someone somewhere always unhappy? Yes, but this is not God’s dream for the world. In God’s dream, everyone’s cup of joy is always full to overflowing. If there is suffering anywhere, God is grieved. When we pray “Thy kingdom come,” we are praying that all the hungry will be fed, all the sick will be made well, and all the tormented will be given peace—because that is God’s dream.
But how are the poor going to get money unless the rich give it to them (which would make the rich less rich)? And the hungry only get fed if those whose cupboards are full, share. Which means we might have less to eat. And so on. Is the only way to fill a need for someone else to create one for ourselves? Who wants to do that?
This kind of thinking is too limited to express God’s vision of the Kingdom. It is a human vision of the world as a place of scarcity. “There isn’t enough food (or money, or prestige or love, or whatever it is) in the world to go around. I’m going to be sure I get my share (of food or money or prestige or love or whatever it is) and hold onto it. If anyone else gets a little bit more, I’ll have to have a little less. And I don’t want that. And I don’t think God wants that either.” We all want full cups. And we are right to believe that God wants us all to have full cups too. But we don’t understand how such a thing is mathematically possible.
Today’s Gospel reading about the bent-over woman opens up the equation for us in some surprising ways.
To begin with, we learn that she’s been bent over for 18 yrs. Can you even imagine? For 18 yrs. no one has ever seen her smile. No one has seen tears spring to her eyes when she heard magnificent music or an unkind remark. Nor has she seen anyone else’s smiles or anyone else’s tears. What must that kind of isolation do to a person’s spirit? We know what it did to the people around her. They forgot her name. They forgot who she was. All they could see was her ailment–“the bent over woman” she is called. She has become defined and recognized not by her sense of humor, or her fantastic lentil stew, or her advice about curing diaper rash, but for what makes her different and weird and somewhat scary.
The people around her point at her, or feel sorry for her, or are annoyed with her for not taking better care of herself. Perhaps they wondered, as people are wont to do, if her problem was God’s punishment something bad she did. And maybe they wondered what that thing was! Surely if God loved her, if she had been faithful in her prayers and tithes and good deeds, she wouldn‘t be in this mess. Isn’t it true that God provides good things for those who live faithfully?
Beneath all of these thoughts and accusations is the fear of scarcity. The fear that there isn’t enough love, or grace, or health, or happiness in the world. The fear that, “If we give her our compassion and respect, there won’t be enough left for me. I need to keep what I have.” The people around this woman were also, in their own ways, “bent over.” They had lost the capacity to see beyond their own shoes, to imagine what it was like to be in hers. They were curled in on themselves—in curvatus se—which is how Martin Luther defined sin: to be curled in on oneself, unable to care for anyone or anything else. Before we accuse them of being unfeeling and assert that we certainly wouldn’t let that sort of judgment infiltrate our good souls, we need to look carefully at the relationships we have with people who different or weird. Or should I say, the absence of such relationships?
I am proud that this congregation cares for homeless families through the Road Home, and that many volunteers not only contribute money, but also their time and energy. It’s one thing to write a check for a charitable cause, and another thing altogether to sit down and ask, “How was work today?” or “Would you like some milk?” Seeing someone’s smiles or tears is altogether different from seeing only their outstretched hands. Jesus shows us this by his response to the woman in today’s story.
Jesus doesn’t ignore her physical predicament, but he doesn’t define her by it either. He’s the only one in this whole story who doesn’t call her “the bent over woman.” Instead he calls her “Daughter of Abraham.” He names her as a descendant of the one through whom God initiates us all into one family, an inheritor of God’s promise that we will never be left alone in the darkness, that God is always be working in and through our daily lives to bring harmony to all of creation. Daughter of Abraham. The title gives her dignity. And it connects her to all the people around her who had spent so much time thinking how different they were from her, how grateful they were not to be like her. Aren’t we all “children of Abraham”?
As I imagine this scene in my mind, it is impossible for me to imagine that Jesus says these words standing over her. From what I know about Jesus, I believe he would have had to look her in the eye when he was talking to her. And to do so I think Jesus got down on his knees in front of her, took her face into his hands, and looked into her eyes when he called her Daughter of Abraham. I am guessing that Jesus was the first person in 18 years to see her smile. Or cry. Or perhaps both at the same time. I believe that’s why, more than anything else, she was able to “stand up straight and praise God.”
I don’t know if she literally stood up, if her spine actually straightened. It seems possible to me that whether or not her physical condition was changed, inside herself this woman was able to stand up straight and claim her place in the human family again. Wouldn’t it be miracle enough if she could see herself with the same loving affection that Jesus offered her? Isn’t it a holy thing, a wondrous thing, just remember that she was recognized for her true self and claimed by God’s love forever? And isn’t it a holy thing, a wondrous thing, that in our baptisms, we also receive that same gift?
Jesus’ words to the woman are, “You are set free from your ailment.” Not “you are healed,” or “you are made well,” but “you are set free.” Can a person be healed and set free but not be “cured“? If she was still hunched over when she left that day, would it mean Jesus’ touch was not efficacious? I guess that depends on what actually “ailed” her. If what she most needed was physical assistance, a medical change, then she had to stand up straight in order for Jesus’ miracle to have occurred.
But what if it wasn’t her physical condition but her isolation from the community that caused her to suffer most? What if what caused the most pain was her separation from her sisters and brothers? Perhaps Jesus’ setting her free was enabling her to reconnect with her community, with the world, reminding them that she was someone, giving them all new eyes and smiles. Maybe what she most needed was to be recognized as someone other than “the bent over woman.”
If the world operated on a system of scarcity, then the crowd would have to have been nervous about her healing. If there is only enough health for a few, then it would stand to reason that in her wellness, one of them must now become ill. But that is not how it works in God’s kingdom. There is enough grace to go around. God’s desire and capacity to bring healing is unbounded. In the last verse in today’s reading, we are told that not only did the woman stand up and praise God, but the whole crowd rejoiced as well! We do not need to protect our share of joy. In fact, miracle of miracles, our joy becomes magnified when it is shared. It’s like the miracle of the loaves and fishes. What looks like not enough becomes enough for all, with left overs besides! When all of our sisters and brothers have their needs met, it does not mean we have to go without. In fact, it is only then that our needs are truly met as well.
Does it strike anyone else as strange that the in-breaking of the kingdom of God only comes when Jesus apparently breaks one of the 10 commandments (“Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy”)? Some of the religious leaders wondered, “Shouldn’t he be chastised working on the Sabbath instead of keeping it holy?” Jesus did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. His healing is not intended to imply the Sabbath is not important or holy. He is simply redefining what the Sabbath is all about. What holiness is all about.
As it turns out, keeping the Sabbath holy is not about strictly following the letter of the law, so much as it is about following the Law of Love. God’s Law operates on a theory of abundance, not scarcity. What loving action will bring about the abundance of God’s grace, God’s dream for a world that is whole? What will bring more life into this person, this community, this world? What is the holiest thing I could do in this situation? Keeping the Sabbath holy, behaving as citizens of the kingdom of God is not about upholding existing structures of power so much as it is about meeting the needs of those who are curled in on themselves. Keeping the Sabbath holy involves reaching out to those who have been excluded or forgotten or wounded. That is what the Sabbath is for. God’s abundant grace covers all the empty places, straightens all the bent angles.
When we live out of a belief in abundance and not scarcity, our compassion can help set people free from what ails them. And in the process of offering God’s abundant care to others, we will find we are also free! In looking up from our own feet into the eyes and into the smiling or weeping faces of people who are different and scary and somehow “not quite right,” and seeing there the face of Abraham’s child (God’s child!), we will are set free from fear. We do not need someone else to feel inadequate and unimportant in order to see our own preciousness. As we acknowledge one another’s significance, we discover that our own bones seem stronger, that we are able to stand up straight and praise God. Jesus’ desire to bring wholeness to all of creation extends to us and through us. For this gift of grace, for our overflowing cups of joy, let us stand up straight in the abundance of God’s dream, today and always.
~Pastor Susan Schneider