13:10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath.
13:11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.
13:12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”
13:13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.
13:14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”
13:15 But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?
13:16 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?”
13:17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.
As a child I was a huge rules follower. I liked having them all laid out for me. I knew exactly what I could do, and exactly what I couldn’t. This made life very simple. Don’t run in the hallways of school. Don’t cut in line. Don’t take what isn’t yours.
Following rules, especially rules made for our own protection, is generally a good idea. These were the kind of rules I encountered as a kid, and so I thought all rules were like that. You didn’t run down the hall, because you didn’t want to get hurt. You didn’t cut in line or take what wasn’t yours because it wasn’t fair.
But one day I started to realize that sometimes rules could be wrong. And that was a problem.
One day in sixth grade I came to school and started hearing that our social studies teacher had instituted new rules. If you had blue eyes, you got to sit at the front of the classroom. If you had brown eyes you had to sit at the back. If you had blue eyes you didn’t have to do all the homework. If you had brown you had to do extra.
All day I kept hearing about these rules and by the time I went to social studies class at the end of the day, I was ready. Before the bell even rang I cornered the teacher. I was a shy kid, so this was unusual for me. “This isn’t right,” I said to her. “You can’t do that.” The Supreme Court may have been mentioned.
“Oh yes I can do that,” she said. “Because I’m the teacher and I make the rules.” She sent me to the back of the class where for the next hour I fumed.
Now, you may have figured out by now that the teacher was recreating a classic experiment, one that divided children on eye color, as a way to talk about discrimination. She was trying to show us, in a less-than-perfect way, what it felt like to live under an unfair system of rules.
I’ve never forgotten that day, and the frustration that I felt. And since then, I’ve known in a real way that rules aren’t always perfect, or even good.
Today’s story reflects that well. Jesus is approached by a woman who was bent over, and unable to stand. She’d been that way for 18 years. And Jesus sees her and he calls out to her and says, “you are healed!” And right away she stands up straight, and praises God.
So, amazing, right? Except here’s the problem. Jesus did it on the Sabbath. And so the leader of the synagogue, the guy who was in charge, yells at Jesus and he says “look, there are six days a week you could have healed her, but you know the rules…no healing on the Sabbath”.
To be fair, those were indeed the rules. They were right there in the Ten Commandments. Everyone knew them. No one questioned them. Jesus broke the rules, no argument.
But Jesus shoots back at him, “You’re a hypocrite. You’ll give your donkey water on the Sabbath, but I can’t heal this woman? It’s been 18 years…she’s a child of God…shouldn’t she be healed?”
Jesus’ disciples rejoiced but the others, the Bible says, were “put to shame”. That fact didn’t help Jesus later on. They didn’t forget that he had violated one of the most fundamental of laws and humiliated the religious authorities in the process.
I still like rules a lot. Especially when things are confusing. They often set good boundaries and are good guides. But rules are not the same as God’s will for us. I learned that in 6th grade. And from that day forward I decided that there were times when rules had to be broken.
Growing up in the South I learned that many others had discovered the same thing. Breaking rules, rules that were codified in law, became the catalyst for change as people sat at lunch counters, or refused to sit at the back of the bus, or resisted any of Jim Crow’s other rules.
Because they broke those rules, the school where I learned that lesson, one that for decades had educated only white children, became integrated.
But something else bothered me that day. And it had to do with the fact I had brown eyes, and not blue ones.
You see, it was easy for me to call that system unfair. It directly impacted me. It meant I had to sit at the back of the class and do what the blue eyed didn’t. And so, in a real way, I was fighting for myself.
But afterwards I wondered…what would have happened had I had blue eyes?
I thought about that a lot. Would I have done the same thing? I hope so. But I don’t know.
I thought about that a lot in years to come whenever I read history. Would I have been a part of the resistance that hid Jewish neighbors in Germany in the late 30’s, or would I have kept myself safe and looked the other way?
Had I lived in the antebellum South would I have worked on the Underground Railroad or stood against slavery, or would I have signed up for the Confederacy like my great-great grandfathers had? After all, slavery was a law they’d known their whole lives, one that was even preached from Southern pulpits as God’s will.
I hope I would have done the right thing. But I can’t be sure. None of us can.
But we can remember this: sometimes the rules need to be changed. Not because we rule this world, but because God does. God’s rules come from a place of justice and love, and so they will always trump our own.
This isn’t the only time in the Gospels where Jesus breaks the law. It turns out that Jesus is kind of a rule breaker. In this case he’s doing it to save a life, even though in the end his rule breaking cost him his own. Jesus was a threat because he challenged the way things had always been done. More than anything, this is what got Jesus killed in the end.
Jesus reminds us that sometimes the way we have always done things, the way we are doing things now, might no longer work. At best it can put up obstacles. At worst, it can keep others from living full lives. Had Jesus not healed that woman that day, she would not have had the life God intended for her. He had to break a law in order to fulfill God’s higher law.
Now, don’t hear me saying that you should leave the sanctuary today and go break the law.
But, I am saying to look around and see the ways that the unwritten laws of our world might be keeping God’s love for us from breaking in more fully.
How are we walling ourselves off to God’s grace? How are we keeping God’s healing from others? How are we so tied to the way we’ve always done things that we are afraid to see a new path.
Those are the places to push a little. But beware. That kind of pushing will always cause backlash.
You may know that. Maybe you’ve tried to do something new before, and you’ve run into opinions that may as well have been the law. You’ve tried something new at work. Done things a different way. Or maybe you have just started to think about what you believed in a new way. And maybe that backlash came not just from the outside, but from within yourself?
I get that. We often have clear ideas of what is right and wrong. But then we find our old framework doesn’t work as well anymore. We meet new people. We are forced to reexamine. It’s hard and yet, like Jesus breaking the Sabbath, we find that sometimes it’s right. And so we take a risk, and we step out in faith, and we find God is there waiting.
That is what courage looks like. And that’s the kind of courage that our faith can give to us.
When I look at the people I respect the most, whose spiritual journeys are the most remarkable, I find that at some point or another this happened. They broke laws, many self-imposed, in order to live into a higher law.
Look only at relatively recent history. Nelson Mandela, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King, Harvey Milk, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the list goes on.
They must have been terrified, and yet, some sort of faith compelled them to break the rules that they had always known. Faith doesn’t mean being not being afraid. Faith doesn’t mean being comfortable. But faith means trusting just enough that God is with you, and God is leading you to new things and new understandings.
If Jesus is God-with-us, and if Jesus is the best example of the life we are called to live, then by our very faith we all have permission to break a few rules, and maybe in the process we can also break the chains that have bound us for too long. Amen?