I suppose I should give the guy a break. After all the leader of the Synagogue in today's gospel would tell us that he was only trying to maintain order. Sure, he was unhappy that Jesus healed the woman on the Sabbath in the middle of a local synagogue but I guess he was trying to do the right thing.
Of course, he went about it in completely the wrong way.
Instead of going to Jesus and asking him directly what he was up to, he goes to everyone…well, probably every man in the congregation…and complains. By doing that, he draws everyone around him into what essentially a beef between him and Jesus--something we call triangulation.
He does something else. He succeeds in drawing everyone else into his conflict by making the focus of their upset the woman. Here is the trick: Get Jesus in trouble my making the woman both the victim and the troublemaker. “Could she have not waited until another day to be healed?” they ask. “Could she have not gone someplace else besides the synagogue?” Never mind that she didn’t even ask to be healed in the first place! After 18 years, she was basically used to being stooped over like a bent matchstick. Jesus invited her to come over to him. It was all his idea.
So the Leader of the Synagogue does three things wrong: he triangulates; he focuses on the wrong person; and, oh yeah, he stirs up everyone else in the process. All in all, he brings out the worst in everyone except maybe Jesus and the woman who was healed…who was apparently too busy praising God to notice all the grumbling.
You may not have noticed this, but this gospel story ends a section of Luke’s Gospel about repentance which begins with the question of whether it was God’s will that Pilate executed a number of Galileans or if God was the one who caused a tower in a town called Siloam to fall down and which killed 18 people. Jesus said it was not God’s will…God didn’t even do it…life happens…towers fall…and it all the more true that people sin and cause the deaths of other people...but these are all the more the reason to focus on God, God’s love and grace, and to do God’s work while we have the time.
Now we come to the other bookend on this little section of Luke’s Gospel, a woman with an ailment that has her bent over for 18 years. Get it? 18 years with a crooked back. 18 people killed when the tower fell. Coincidence? I don’t think so. I think that the Gospel of Luke and Jesus are trying to teach us something.
So let’s cut through the triangulation, the grumbling and the blame-game, and go right to the Leader of the Synagogue and ask him some questions. We can’t do it face-to-face, but let’s pretend.
When would be a good time to show mercy? Tomorrow, maybe? After all, today is a day of rest. We don’t want to do work on a day of rest. After all, even God rested on the seventh day, right? But as Jesus said, even the most observant of first-century Jews will lead their animals to the feeding trough and to water on the Sabbath. Why? Because animals don’t know about the Sabbath and they don’t care. If you don’t believe me, come to my house at about 5:30 or 6 in the morning and ask my cat. All animals know is that it’s time to be fed or watered or milked and they don’t know or care about our customs, calendars or our need to sleep in. So feeding, watering and milking farm animals on the Sabbath was allowable because it was the right and sensible thing to do. So, Jesus asks in effect, if it is okay to show mercy to your animals on the Sabbath, then why can’t we show mercy—heal—a daughter of Abraham on the Sabbath?
When is a good time to show mercy? Now is a good time to show mercy. Right now.
And I have another question for this Leader-dude. Where is a good place to show mercy? Underneath his complaint about the Sabbath, the man who stirred up the people in the congregation with his grumbling was also complaining about the place of the healing. This is a house of worship, not a clinic. This is sacred ground, where sacred words are said in sacred ways. Take it outside.
So where is a good place to show mercy? Jesus’ invitation to the woman and his healing of her brokenness says that showing mercy, compassion and healing what binds and breaks us is as much the worship of God as all the sacred words and ritual we can muster. In fact, one without the other is pretty much empty. If our worship doesn’t drive us to mercy, then we are not really worshiping God. If our compassion doesn’t show us the face of God, then we are not listening. If our rituals only reinforce our fears then we are only huddling against the cold instead of turning ourselves to God.
Where is the place to show mercy? Here is the place to show mercy. Right where we are, right now.
Finally, I turn to the story which started this section of Luke’s Gospel, this section about repentance and turning our focus towards God: the question of the tower in Siloam and the 18 people when it fell down. Jesus reminded us that God does not work by knocking down towers, or causing car wrecks, or making flimsy hearts or runaway cells. These are part of being free people in a created order that runs on rules like gravity, time and creatureliness. What we can do is be better: build better towers, work to care for and find cures for the people who are sick, be more attentive to the people in our lives, take better care of ourselves and…getting to story at the other end of the section, the one we heard today…we can show mercy where we can.
The Leader-dude of the local synagogue was upset because he thought the sacred Sabbath was violated in a sacred space by the showing of mercy to a woman in pain. He was so upset that instead of taking it to Jesus, he tried to get as many allies on his side as possible as fast as he could. Jesus tells him that the time for mercy is now and the place for mercy is here.
Luke’s Gospel tells us that Jesus’ words were so effective that the Leader-dude and his cronies were shamed into silence. Of course, the silence did not last long. People still challenge Jesus right down to today. They still grumble. They still blame the victim and look for scapegoats. One of the reason that Jesus was condemned to death and went to the cross was because human beings will look anywhere, anyplace—except in their own hearts—to keep what scares them at arm’s length. And it still happens today.
This summer’s extended flap over the Muslim community center in lower Manhattan is not really about sacred spaces or preserving the feeling of victims or even about safety. We hear the same complaints: why here? Why now? It is all about fear. Fear is the opposite of faith. And, you know, there are people who use our fears to build up their own power. You know there are people who love to only feel big and strong when everyone around them is terrified, or angry, or shouting. Just like the Leader in today’s Gospel who stirred up the crowd with his grumbling—except that these days they use the internet and the media to make for a much bigger crowd—they build themselves up by bringing out the worst in everyone else. And apparently those who would set Americans against Americans and encourage hatred between people of faith show no shame. They only tell us how dangerous the world is, and encourage us to make any one who is different into a hated "other". These people gain power by keeping us in our fear.
Yes, it’s true. We do live in an uncertain and often dangerous world, and we do everything we can to maintain some order and create some safety. But as Jesus demonstrates, while we might not be able to keep the towers from falling, we can show mercy where we can. We might not be able to prevent disaster, but we can care for people in trouble. We may not understand our neighbor but we can walk with them. We can't cure every illness or heal every division but we can reach out with healing to the person right in front of us.
When is the time to show mercy? Now is the time to show mercy.
Where is the place to show mercy? Here is the place to show mercy.
(Updated: The photograph originally used on this post has been removed at the request of the owner of the original piece. My apologies to Paris Parfait who brought this my intention today. 6/11/2013. atg+)