The disturbing nature of the kingdom

Pentecost 13

Luke 13:10-17 (18-21)

Marian Free

In the name of God whose kingdom shakes us up and sets us free. Amen.

Of course, we all know what today’s gospel is about. It is a simple miracle story about Jesus’ healing a woman. We might add to that, that it is a story about Jesus’ breaking the Sabbath and his conflict with the authorities. However, before we accept the account at face value, there are a few things that we need to note. First of all, we note that the account is set in the context of a synagogue. For the first century listeners, this setting would have evoked memory of the first time that Jesus taught the synagogue – in Nazareth. On that occasion Jesus announced that he had come to set the captives free and to bring good news to the poor and he narrowly escaped being chased off a cliff.

The second important thing to note is that the incident occurs on the Sabbath. Those listening to the gospel would have immediately understood the sensitivities of this time of the week and the sort of strictures that applied to behaviour on that day.

Thirdly we need to look at the characters in the story – Jesus, the woman, the leader of the synagogue and the crowds. Jesus’ actions are censured by the synagogue leader but cause rejoicing by the crowds. The woman is an outsider, excluded from society by her condition. The leader of the synagogue takes the place of the scribes and Pharisees as the opponent to Jesus. His role is to ensure the reading and teaching of the law. In the story his place is to critique Jesus’ behaviour in relation to the law, which in turn allows Jesus to interpret scripture in such a way that he is able to reveal the true nature of the kingdom.

A fourth point to note is the action.  Jesus and the woman are in the synagogue. Jesus is teaching, he is the centre of attention. The woman is no one special. She is not seeking Jesus’ attention or looking for healing. However, Jesus notices the woman and calls her to him. In so doing, he brings the woman into the centre of the scene thus making her the focal point of the action. Symbolically Jesus brings the outsider to the centre. The one who was excluded in now included – she is identified (restored) as a daughter of Abraham..

Finally the context makes it clear that the healing of the woman on the Sabbath is not primarily a story about healing or even a conflict story. The story is situated between a between a series of warnings about the coming end and the urgency of responding on one side and the parables about the mustard seed and the yeast on the other. In fact the parables belong with the story as is indicated by the “therefore” which introduces them.

What we have then is something like this. Jesus is in the synagogue on the Sabbath when a bent over woman attracts his attention. He calls her over to him and sets her free from her ailment – from the power that binds her. The synagogue leader fulfills his legitimate role by reminding the crowd how the Sabbath should be observed. He points out that the woman’s condition is not life-threatening. She has been bent over for eighteen years. It is not unreasonable to point out that the people have six other days on which they can seek healing.

Jesus responds to the synagogue leader with his own interpretation of the law, based on the same text – Deuteronomy 5:13 and 14 in which the prohibition against work refers not only to humans but also to animals. “3For six days you shall labour and do all your work. 14But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you.” Using a rabbinic technique of lesser to greater, Jesus make a number of parallel statements to illustrate the point that not only is it not against the law to heal on the Sabbath, but that it is absolutely appropriate that the woman should be liberated from her bondage on this day.

Based on the fact that animals are allowed to be untied on the Sabbath and allowed to walk to water, Jesus asks: If an animal can be unbound on the Sabbath, why not the woman – this daughter of Abraham? If an animal bound for only a few hours, why not this woman who has been bound for 18 years? If an animal can be set free on the Sabbath (as well as the other six days) why not loose the woman’s bonds on the Sabbath? Jesus’ argument not only illustrates his point, but also serves to expose the hypocrisy (and ignorance) of the synagogue leader and all whose interpretation of scripture is as limited as his. They interpret scripture in a way that binds. Jesus’ interpretation is one that liberates. Again we are taken back to Jesus’ announcement in Nazareth: “I have come to proclaim release to the captives.”

Jesus’ teaching in action is reinforced in the parables which follow: “Therefore, ‘What is the kingdom of God like?” It is like a mustard seed, which when thrown carelessly into the garden grows with wild abandon, or the yeast which produces effects beyond the expectation for something its size. Jesus catches his audience off-balance – mustard seed and yeast are strange images to use for a royal dominion. At the same time the wildness of the mustard seed contrasts with the orderliness of the synagogue and the domestic imagery of yeast sits uneasily with the male-dominated interpretation of the law.

Seen in its context, Luke’s account is quite subversive. Jesus has warned about the imminent coming of the kingdom. Now he moves to reveal the revolutionary nature of that kingdom. Jesus’ healing of the woman demonstrates that the coming of the kingdom will see the defeat of the cosmic forces which conspire against him. By setting the story in the synagogue and on the Sabbath, Luke explodes the current interpretation of the law and thus of the nature of the kingdom. The addition of the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast demonstrates that the kingdom of God cannot be contained by the limited imagination of the synagogue leaders or by the narrow interpretation of scripture or by the law. God’s healing power cannot be confined to certain times and places. Compassion cannot be constrained by a set of legal requirements. The kingdom of God is about liberation and restoration. It is wild and uncontrollable and its effect extends far beyond our capacity to imagine it.

Luke’s message is this – the coming kingdom will be unsettling and disturbing to all those who try to live their lives according to set patterns and behaviours. It will upset all those who think that they already have the answers. It will raise up the downtrodden and the arrogant will be put in their proper place. Those who are bound by societal expectations, by disease or infirmity will be set free. This is not a breaking of the law, but a radical understanding of the same.

A woman set free from 18 years of infirmity illustrates liberation from cosmic powers and the freedom, generosity and pervasiveness of the kingdom.

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