The world is changing. Don’t watch the news, it seems only to give the bad news. More change is afoot than the news cycle can capture, and we’re part of it.
In the sense that we have feelings of a generalized and imminent change, we can probably share the mood of many who first heard Jesus. They often felt they were living at the end of an age – they looked forward to the end of the present age and the beginning of “the Age to Come”, when their hope of God’s blessings would be realized. They lived in anticipation of the newness of life God would bring to pass – they were pioneers in time.
So often it seems God’s purposes have not prevailed in our time. The suffering experienced by so many from the greed of others seems only to increase. We continue to live, then, as pioneers – as ones who are lured on through history by the hope we find in Jesus. Lured on to a New Age….
The parables allude to the Age to Come – which is happening – which forever eludes us and yet is near at hand. They point toward a future that is already making an impact upon the present. But rather than listing a set of moral principles, the parables offer us a glimpse of an age in which an entirely new viewpoint is called for. Just as life events – a natural disaster, a wedding, a funeral, a war require distinctive behavior, so the parables set forth the perspective of the Reign of God, which bids us consider a whole new approach to life. The parables don’t even try to give details about what we are to do, they merely suggest what is possible and fitting within God’s purpose and action in the world.
Perhaps you’re saying, “What does this have to do with today’s gospel?” “Has Fr. Ed lost his mind?” Well, a little, maybe, but I hope not entirely. It’s just that our story today of the bent-over woman, is framed by parables. The parable of the barren fig tree precedes, and the twin parables of the mustard seed and the yeast follow. And I feel like something about this framework enriches the story in between.
For starters, it’s essential to know that the fig tree tale relates to two incidents of great and sudden suffering: one concerned Jews from Galilee who were struck down by Pilate while they were worshipping; and another tells of 18 people who were killed when a tower collapsed and fell on them. In both these instances, Jesus absolutely decries the notion that the events were punishments for the sins of the victims. He goes on to tell the parable of the fig tree, where the owner of the garden wanted to have the non-producing tree cut down, but he was prevailed upon by his gardener to add some care and wait and see. As a way of affirming that suffering does not imply sinfulness (a common belief in the 1st century), Jesus tells a tale that proposes patience and mercy.
In the parables that follow our healing story, we find first the mustard seed. And the important thing to know is how the mustard tree contrasts so dramatically with its humble beginnings as the, theoretically, smallest seed of all. How much more will the Age to Come contrast with the halting and fragile steps we take to bring about God’s Reign? We’re assured, and not discouraged, by the fragility of the seeds of God’s Reign which we find, and sometimes even offer, in glimpses and traces.
And then the yeast, or leavening, used by a woman baking, comes virtually in the same breath as the mustard seed, and takes the metaphor further, indicating that though a small part at first, these glimpses of the Age to Come – glimpses of God’s Reign – have the potential to infuse and permeate the whole and dramatically transform it. Like the fermented dough – God’s Reign on earth begins with aliveness – with bubbling vitality. The miracle is in the contrast between the humility of its beginnings and the magnitude of the result. In these examples of picture thinking that Jesus uses, lie traces of reassurance.
When we reflect upon the parables – which represent fully one-third of Jesus’ recorded teachings – we have the chance to enter into one of the most dynamic and revealing gateways to the very person of Jesus. In the parables it’s not so much that we’re instructed by Jesus, but that we stand with him and view life through his eyes. And in doing so, we can begin a process of learning how to perceive all of life in his light. We’re not told what to see. Rather a scene is set in brisk strokes and we’re invited to view exactly what’s before us and, in doing so, find our own way into fuller expression of God’s Reign.
And so we have Jesus teaching in this exciting, engaging, and freeing way through parables. And sandwiched in between we find another of his amazing healings.
He’s just told a tale of mercy. Immediately following, he walks into the temple and begins, once again, to teach. He notices a woman in need and he allows her to interrupt his teaching, just like the man with the withered hand did some 7 chapters previous. In neither of these cases does “faith” come up. Instead, Jesus demonstrates his power over “spirit” forces in the case of the woman, and over natural forces in the case of the man. And while both are healing stories, more significant is the controversy these healings create in that they occur on the Sabbath. A perfect opportunity to explore the person of Jesus as relates to faith community standards and practices.
It seems these stories of healing on the Sabbath are not meant to offer theological content regarding the nature of illness or physical deformities. It seems, instead, and let’s just stick to the woman in question, the story is not really about any kind of theological issue involving her person. Rather, it is about God’s person and about the role and function of our religious traditions – in this case, concerning claims about what should or should not be practiced on the Sabbath. One “take-away” is that special religious practices may become hindrances to inclusion. We must be diligent to recognize what ideas about worship we may hold dear that might disallow full participation from others. Jesus is clear about this. He does not disrespect the Sabbath. Instead he simply will not be someone who allows the tradition to exclude people from access to the community and the potential for their healing there.
It’s important to consciously observe that, here, Jesus does not supersede Jewishness with his claims about the Sabbath. No. He intensifies an organic and global grounding in the necessity of God’s purpose to heal, to liberate and to unbind.
This gospel story and the way it is tucked in between two parables that contain a small constellation of glimpses into God’s nature – truths, such as:
• How suffering does not equate with sinfulness
• How it’s mercy that allows for God’s fullest expression
• And how God’s Reign actually depends upon humble and fragile beginnings.
This gospel story of a woman healed points yet again to the mystery of God’s action which, in this moment, seeks to reframe how Sabbath works, even as it opens greater understanding in us, regarding relationship with all daughters of Abraham. This is no occasion for Gentile gloating over some kind of Jewish comeuppance. Instead, we are being led to the activation of celebrating and praising God along with the Jewish crowd.
I guess that part of what Jesus is trying to tell us is that, when God is up to something, we might do well to be prepared to be unbound: whether from a confining physical condition, or from social norms about persons with different abilities, or even from our holiest pieties.
And here’s a connection that caught me a bit by surprise: the fact that Jesus does this from within the Jewish tradition, and for a daughter of Abraham loudly proclaims that God intends to keep showing up and stubbornly continue to draw the circle just a little wider – moving what we might think of as “the divine horizon” far enough to inspire rejoicing over the breaking of every human confinement – over the gentle progressive elimination of anything that separates us one from another, regardless of established conventions.
We’re called to be both comforter and agent of hope to all daughters and sons of Abraham, even as we consciously recognize the leader of the synagogue in our story as symbolizing what it means for us when we place form before substance. And the greatest thing about such conscious recognition is that it has the potential to encourage persistence in us as we explore questions about our own abilities – our own gifts and attributes that lurk deep in us, awaiting empowerment for prophetic witness and healing spirit.
Jesus taught that the Reign of God – The Age to Come – The New Age – of which he was alternatingly bearer, agent and mentor – this new reality is to be glimpsed in actions and relationships which we experience day-by-day. He told people that they were always dealing with issues of the New Age right in the midst of their normal activities, be they secular or worshipful. God’s Reign is always breaking in anew all around us.
If we can locate something of ourselves in a good story – a parable or a story of gospel healing – we can have an opportunity to experience God’s Reign in miniature.
By its very nature, the New Age of God’s Reign is not a place or a time, so much as it is our choice to be open to God’s dynamism and gifts to the world through us.
The ultimate, says Jesus, is to be found in the immediate.