The Healing Touch

In today's gospel reading, Jesus kills it. He's teaching in one of the Galilean synagogues on the Sabbath day. He's not singing or doing stand-up comedy, but he's drawing a crowd anyway. Just then, a woman appears -- she has a spirit that has crippled her for 18 years, leaving her bent over and unable to stand up straight (vv. 10-11). Jesus calls her over and says, "Woman, you are set free from your ailment." He lays his hands on her, and immediately she stands up straight and begins to praise God (vv. 12-13). Jesus is victorious over the crippling spirit, and to accentuate his triumph he drops the mic. Boom! But not everyone is impressed. The leader of the synagogue is indignant because Jesus has broken a religious law by healing on the day of rest. The leader says 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". He scolds the crowd for seeking healings on the Sabbath and criticizes Jesus for performing the work of healing. Jesus responds by saying, "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?" The people nod their heads yes, admitting that they do this. "And ought not this woman," asks Jesus, "a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for 18 long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?" Again, they nod in agreement, realizing that he's right. The opponents of Jesus are immediately put to shame, and the entire crowd rejoices at all the wonderful things that he is doing. Jesus has nailed it in that Galilean synagogue, set the place on fire and achieved a complete victory over his opponents. Once again, he drops the mic. That may not have been Jesus' self-assessment, but it certainly was the assessment of the crowd. He nailed it! They were delighted. Sabbath day or not, there's nothing wrong with celebrating a healing and a victory over hypocrisy. When a crippled woman is healed, shame on anyone who gets hung up on religious regulations about Sabbath-keeping. Jesus knows that God's focus is on the needs of the woman, not on the letter of the law. In a similar way, we should not be timid about doing God's work -- in particular, freeing the oppressed and speaking the truth to power. We can begin by liberating oppressed people, as Jesus did when he healed the woman afflicted by a crippling spirit. Although Luke doesn't tell us the exact nature of her affliction, we certainly know people today who are burdened by life and cannot stand up straight: Abused women, unemployed men, substance abusers, teenagers caught up in sex trafficking, children who struggle to be successful at school. For over 25 years, members of Calvary Presbyterian Church in Alexandria, Virginia, have put time and energy into the Eagle's Wings Tutoring Program, which supports the students of the school next door, Mount Eagle Elementary. The students come from 40 countries and speak 28 languages, and many are needy, disadvantaged or have struggles with the English language. The members of Calvary know that these children are burdened by their schoolwork. It is hard for students to stand up straight when they cannot understand their assignments and participate in class. So church members volunteer to tutor on Wednesday nights, and to establish relationships with these students. One-on-one pairing between tutors and students seems to be the greatest benefit in the Eagle's Wings program. A member of the Mount Eagle faculty observes that these children often lack the confidence to speak up in class. "They come here [to Calvary] and get that reinforcement," she says. "The next day, when the teacher reviews, they may be ready to raise their hands." Her conclusion: "It's made a huge difference." One-on-one tutoring is a critical intervention in the lives of needy and disadvantaged students. It is in line with the work that Jesus did to free the oppressed and bring good news to the poor. Christians who serve in this way are helping children to stand up straight, mount up with wings like eagles, run and not be weary, walk and not faint. Christians can also speak the truth to power, as Jesus did when he blasted people who objected to his work of healing on the Sabbath. A similar kind of truth-telling was done when clergy members from across the state of Georgia traveled to Atlanta to criticize the governor's plan to block Syrian refugees. Alyssa Aldape, from First Baptist Church of Dalton, pointed out that "in the gospels we have a Savior who was born a refugee child who was seeking refuge for the first years of his life." As an immigrant herself, she said to 11Alive News (November 19, 2015) that she experienced a warm welcome when she first arrived in Georgia. She wanted to provide that same comfort to refugees fleeing the violence in Syria. Clergy member Donna Mote serves as the Episcopal chaplain at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Every week, she greets refugee families arriving in the United States. She made the point that "no one enters our country as a refugee, with refugee status, without having been thoroughly vetted." These clergy spoke the truth to power, stressing the importance of showing Christian hospitality to refugees. While they know that our country needs a strong screening system to keep us safe, they side with Jesus in wanting to ease the suffering of fellow human beings. Laws certainly have a place in our religious and national lives. On the whole, our Christian tradition encourages us to be law-abiders and commandment-keepers. Jesus himself said that he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). But the apostle Paul made clear that "the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself'" (Galatians 5:14). And Jesus was clear that his mission was to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, and freedom to the oppressed. "Ought not this woman," asked Jesus, "be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?" (v. 16). The answer in the time of Jesus was "yes," and it is still "yes" today. Clergy in Georgia took a stand in support of receiving refugees, and urged their elected officials to do the same. Then they prayed with members of the governor's staff, in hopes of a changed outcome.

In a synagogue in Galilee, Jesus freed the oppressed and spoke the truth to power. His actions healed a crippled woman and put his opponents to shame. Today, Jesus challenges us to do the very same, with the boldness that he showed to the crowd and to the leader of the synagogue. Maybe our mission is to tutor disadvantaged children, or assist battered women, or fight sex trafficking, or work with substance abusers, or welcome refugees, or support pregnant teenagers or participate in creation care. Like Jesus, we can take bold stands as we free the oppressed and speak the truth to power. The good news is that these actions lead to celebration, not condemnation; to rejoicing, instead of rejection. Luke tells us that the healed woman immediately began praising God (v. 13) and the entire crowd rejoiced at all the wonderful things that Jesus was doing (v. 17).

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