Grace in Action
Growing up in rural West Central Wisconsin, we didn’t have a Boy Scout troop near our home so 4-H was the popular choice for youth membership. I can’t remember for sure, it’s been a few years, but I think the only requirement was that we be a certain age in order to join. To join the Boy Scouts on the other hand, there are ten requirements to be met…
1. Be a boy who is 11 years old, or one who has completed the fifth grade or earned the Arrow of Light Award and is at least 10 years old, but is not yet 18 years old.
2. Find a Scout troop near your home.
3. Complete a Boy Scout application and health history signed by your parent or guardian.
4. Repeat the Pledge of Allegiance.
5. Demonstrate the Scout sign, salute, and handshake.
6. Demonstrate tying the square knot (a joining knot).
7. Understand and agree to live by the Scout Oath or Promise, Scout Law, motto, and slogan, and the Outdoor Code.
8. Describe the Scout badge.
9. With your parent or guardian, complete the exercises in the pamphlet How to Protect Your Children From Child Abuse: A Parent’s Guide.
10. Turn in your Boy Scout application and health history form signed by your parent or guardian, then participate in a Scoutmaster conference.
Wow. That sounds as tough as seminary. Whether it is the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, or any other kind of social organization, there are generally requirements that need to be met, right?
Even within the church there are rules that we have accepted. For example, classes are taken before the first communion. Catechism is an expectation for middle school aged children. And new members are often asked to go through a ‘new members’ class for familiarization with the faith tradition and rituals. 2
There are similarities between today’s church and the ancient synagogues. The rulers of the synagogues were highly trained religious leaders. Just like today, there were lay leaders, OT educated Pharisees and Saducees, and Rabbis. These rulers of the synagogues knew Scripture like the back of their hand and many had memorized the entire Torah, known to us today as the OT. One could not be a teacher in the church without years of intense training. There were several requirements that needed to be fulfilled in order to be included in these prestigious positions.
So today we read that Jesus was teaching in the synagogue. That statement alone is a bit curious. We don’t know much about Jesus younger years and it is assumed that he probably was involved in carpentry with his father, based on traditions of the time. But he must have had significant Torah training along with a special gift of enlightened divine understanding, because the Gospel texts reference Jesus’ teaching in the synagogues often within his ministry.
Why is this curious? For two reasons…1) because the rulers of the synagogues didn’t allow just anyone to teach, and 2) the Jewish elite recognized Jesus’ deep insight even though he wasn’t one of them. However, though Jesus knew the OT Scriptures well, his teachings were edgy and most Jewish leaders considered them heretical. So why would they let him teach in the synagogues? It is believed that the rulers of the synagogues would use his teachings against him and that the crowds would reject his non-traditional messages. They thought that they could force him out of the church through public pressure.
Today’s lesson is one of those times. A woman who has been crippled for 18 years, bent over and unable to stand up straight enters the synogogue. Did she ask for healing? No she didn’t. She wouldn’t have considered such a request on the Sabbath. “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work.” Exodus 20:8-10. Not only is it Torah but it is the Fourth commandment! 3
And there is Jesus, not waiting for the woman to come forward for healing, but initiating the process. Talk about pushing comfort zones! The religious teacher is breaking a commandment…IN CHURCH. That would almost be as mind-bending as a Lutheran WANTING to sit in the front pew!
The rulers of the synagogue were filled with anger and were passionately steamed that Jesus would do such a thing! And Jesus calls them Hypocrites. Why? Because nobody is perfect. While the rulers attempted to find flaws in Jesus, they couldn’t see their own imperfections. It was true that they had passed the test to be leaders in the church, but that didn’t provide Gold Club membership in the sight of God. Jesus reminded them that their position and role did not exclude them from the commandments as he pointed out their own Sabbath discretions.
How true it is today within the church and outside of the church. We are quick to point out the flaws of others while we become defensive when others point out our own defects. But to those who want to make church a special club with rules Jesus responds, “And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?”
She worked to get to the synagogue. It probably took all of her energy as a crippled woman to walk on uneven stone streets and maneuver narrow steps to get into the building. Jesus’ love set her free. In all of his ministry, we never hear Jesus scold someone for breaking the rules. He embraces sinners and forgives them. That is the Gospel Message. You don’t have to meet requirements to be acceptable to God. You don’t have to wonder if you’ve DONE good enough or if you ARE good enough. He loves you NOW, just as you are! You can’t earn his forgiveness. He gives it freely, no strings attached, no fine print.
In Matthew 5:17 Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” The commandments were not put into place to hold over other people’s heads as a requirement for acceptance to God. The commandments are to help all of us recognize that it is impossible to live perfectly and therefore we NEED God’s grace. The Gospel message isn’t about keeping the commandments. We all break the very first commandment regularly.
The rulers of the synagogue used the commandments as a tool of control in their church environment rather than recognizing their own need for forgiveness and grace. Jesus fulfills the law through pure love. For Christ, there is no need for commandments because in divine love, all of the commandments are fulfilled.
Like the rulers of the synagogues, it can be easy to discriminate against people whose traditions and practices are different from ours. But Jesus radically teaches that it is not rules, requirements, and club memberships that open doors into the kingdom of heaven. Rather, it is Jesus coming to us like he came to the woman, not by request, but by grace alone. That grace which came through the blood of Christ frees us from the bondage of requirements, and lets us live in the peace and joy of knowing that we are loved, forgiven, and saved. We are called to go out, not condemning, but sharing his love and grace so that the Spirit becomes contagious! Amen.