Canon Alexander Gordon, chaplain of Holy Trinity Church Geneva, reflects on this week’s lectionary readings: Isaiah 58.9b-14; Hebrews 12.18-29; Luke 13.10-17.
The Sequence for Pentecost Sunday, written by a former reforming Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, in the thirteenth century has the petition in one English translation ‘What is rigid, gently bend, what is frozen, warmly tend, straighten what goes erringly’. Thinking of the plight of the woman in today’s Gospel for the tenth Sunday after Trinity those words came to my mind. It is difficult to imagine the depths of affliction which she must have endured. Aside from the premature aging that this curvature of the spine would bring, there was the sheer inability to delight in her surroundings, or even to see where she was going. No doubt her life would have been punctuated with expressions of apology for bumping into other people who either did not see her or want to see her. All of this contributing to her personal diminishment and spiritual deprivation.
This scene, part of the fourth century Sarcohphagus of the Two Brothers in Rome, may depict a beardless Christ healing the bent woman. [ Christ healing the crippled woman who was bent over, from ‘Art in the Christian Tradition’, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=51253, retrieved August 21, 2019. Original source: Collection of J. Patout Burns and Robin M. Jensen.]
So the liberation which the Lord brings to this afflicted woman is enormous. But of course there is even more going on here than we see at first sight. Her affliction is a symbol for a profound spiritual illness – one concerned with a lack of vision.
The first reading set for this Sunday from Isaiah follows on from some defining of who is truly to be regarded as part of God’s people, and foremost in this is the requirement to keep the Sabbath. That said, there is an opening up of membership of the religious community to a wider group than before – and this section includes the famous verse quoted by Jesus ‘my house shall be called a house of prayer for all the peoples’ (Isaiah 56.7). But the prophet has also been concerned to attack idolatry, which is of course the refusal to see the reality of things – a failure of vision – and he repeats the need for true justice and right behaviour. In our passage, Isaiah describes what might be a true and just keeping of the Sabbath – ‘If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness’.
This is the background to Jesus’ confrontation with the leader of the Synagogue. What constitutes a just and right keeping of the Sabbath? Surely, Jesus argues, the removal of the yoke of affliction from this daughter of Abraham who has suffered eighteen years? But Jesus is also aware of the Mishnah’s commentary on Sabbath regulations which affect the use of animals – they may be untied (even the kind of knot to be used is specified) and taken to water on the Sabbath. Which may be why the leader of the Synagogue keeps addressing the crowd, whom he wants to stir up, rather than Jesus himself, whom he recognises as too much of a force to be reckoned with.
The woman in this Gospel story has much to teach us. Her condition left her unable to see properly – just the ground in front of her. Something that she needs to be liberated from.
In Western society today, we are in a similar kind of danger – the danger of limited vision. Populist politicians discourage us from looking further ahead or deeper into the situations which we face. So climate change becomes fake news. Migrants are a problem to be eliminated. International diplomacy becomes a shouting match conducted by Twitter feed. The European Union becomes a costly bureaucratic nightmare to be dissolved away. The Common Good becomes an extravagant fantasy.
All of this is about a limited field of vision. We need the faith and courage to look further ahead and deeper into the complex realities which our world faces, and to pose the difficult questions which we are not always welcomed.
The cure of our idolatrous short-sight brings us back to worship. In the reading from the letter to the Hebrews, we are reminded of the holiness of God – a holiness which must be respected in reverence and awe in our worship. Our God, the writer tells us, is a ‘consuming fire’. Not a spiritual hot water bottle! As we open our eyes to this God in worship, our vision of the here-and-now is changed and enlarged along with our hearts to embrace in, through and with Christ the work of unbinding. A work of that love which is the fire at the centre of all that is, and which enables all of our being and our doing. We are told that the first thing that the healed woman did was to praise God. Such praise, the first task of Sabbath rest, changes literally everything. It restores delight – in surroundings, in other people, in the absolute love of the God of fire. And with the restoration of delight comes a longer view and deeper vision.