Friday, October 21, 2011

Bent Out of Shape

On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.
-Luke 13:10-13 (NIV)

She was bent out of shape.
    Eighteen years she had been crippled, nearly two decades of shuffling through life, head down, looking at peoples’ shoes. We’d call it osteoporosis, maybe, or arthritis? Luke gets to the level of spiritual reality when he blames the woman’s affliction on a “spirit.”
    Having seen my grandmother stoop more and more as the years went by, and knowing the pain she was often in, I guess I sympathize with this unnamed woman. I wonder if she was bitter and angry at the hand her body had dealt her, or if, like my grandmother, she somehow managed to remain joyful and optimistic. Either way, sometimes she’d have to think with longing, wouldn’t she, about a time long ago before pain and deformity had shackled her -- about a time when she was younger and taller and straighter, when she walked with step light and head high?
    He was bent out of shape, too. With him it was just a little less noticeable.
    He was a synagogue ruler, so on the outside at least he must have looked good enough and respectable enough for the elders to put him in charge of operations for their village synagogue. He would have been responsible for the upkeep of the building itself, as well as for the services that went on inside. Maybe he was well-known, or wealthy, or influential. Maybe he was particularly pious. Whatever the reason, if it happened in, around, or to the synagogue, he was responsible for it.
    But he was just as bent out of shape as the crippled woman who was a part of his synagogue. His particular deformity was of heart and mind, though no less real than the woman’s spinal stenosis. Its cause was a lack of theological imagination. His was a condition that made it possible for him to stand right in the middle of God’s glory and power and think only about whether the order of worship was being followed.
    The two, spine-twisted woman and heart-twisted synagogue ruler, met one Sabbath. Or maybe they didn’t. Whether they met each other or not, they both met Jesus. And it’s probably not overstating the case to say that it was a meeting neither forgot as long as they lived.
    As a visiting Rabbi, Jesus was asked to teach on that Sabbath – almost certainly by the synagogue ruler himself. The teaching normally would have consisted of the Rabbi commenting on the texts assigned for that day with traditions, parables, and instruction. It was all done in a certain way, with a certain spirit, and the synagogue ruler would not have suffered lightly any action that might possibly have been seen as a disruption.
    Given that, maybe you can understand his discomfort when Jesus calls this woman – a woman –to stand before the assembled congregation. “You’re free from your infirmity,” he says. And at his touch she is. She stands straight for the first time in eighteen years.
    And that’s when we see how bent out of shape the synagogue ruler really is. “Indignant” – that’s the word Luke uses to describe him. To put it more colorfully, he freaks. Blows up. Has a conniption. A hissy fit. With great gravity and dignity, no doubt, he stands up and in his best “Shhh…We’re in the synagogue” voice informs the congregation that the healing they’ve just seen doesn’t count, because it was done on the Sabbath. “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.”
    Well, that’s just laughable, of course. Ridiculous on its face, because clearly God has placed his stamp of approval over the whole proceeding by healing the woman in the first place. And so Jesus sticks a pin in this puffed-up, self-important religious policy wonk. “You phony,” he says – with a smile on his face, I think, because this is funny stuff – “Don’t you untie your ox or donkey and lead him out to get a drink on the Sabbath? That’s all I did – I untied this woman so she could finally be free from the bonds Satan had put on her. Isn’t it especially appropriate that be done on the Sabbath – the day of rest?”
    Well, I don’t know if the woman appreciated being compared to livestock or not, though something tells me she didn’t mind so much. What we know is that the people of the synagogue get it, even if their leader doesn’t it. They’re delighted, Luke tells us. They’re delighted at what they see God doing through Jesus. It might not fit in the order of worship or have Jerusalem’s imprimatur, but they know an act of God when they see it.
    I said before that I relate to that woman. But I relate to the synagogue leader, too, maybe more than I want to admit. I know the value of a well-planned worship service. I know the importance of good exegesis in our Bible reading. I know that not everyone should teach a Bible class or preach a sermon or stand before the congregation, and I know that things in church are to be done “in a fitting and orderly way.” So I get Mr. Synagogue Leader, I really do. I get what he was trying to do.
    But along the way he lost something. He lost his sense of wonder and joy at God’s power and grace and love and unpredictability. Somewhere along the line he shackled his heart to set of rules and traditions and to a processed, plastic, mechanical God who does exactly what his people expect him to. And no more. Somehow he made a vocation of defending the dead weight to which he had bound himself. And it was being shackled to that dead weight that had him bent out of shape.
    And I hope that if that ever happens to me, someone will have the sense to stick a pin in my pomposity. Or at least tell me to get out of God’s way. The fact is that often it’s the very people who are well-versed in Scripture and leaders in churches who get bent out of shape when things don’t go according to plan. A new Bible translation. A different order of worship. A new ministry. A different class of people coming through the doors. A fresh take on an old tradition. Never mind what God might be doing; all we can see is our narrow view of God being trespassed upon.
    I’m just saying that if you’re feeling bent out of shape about something or the other, then  maybe the problem is that you need to go back to Jesus. Maybe you need him to unshackle you from the burdens that weigh you down and restore the freedom and joy of your first encounter with him. Nothing would make him happier. Nothing would make you happier. And nothing would make the people around you happier.
    After all, they need a God who sets twisted, broken people free.

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