Today’s Gospel points to what traditionally we might refer to as ‘sin against the spirit’ and I’d like to reflect on this this morning. Firstly, the religious authority’s response to Jesus’ healing on the sabbath betrays their blasphemy – calling good evil and evil good. They have forgotten the original meaning and purpose of the sabbath, to bring people release and freedom, because when healing happens in front of their eyes, they see only law breaking. This inversion of basic values is compounded by their hypocrisy – they will tend their own animals on the sabbath, but they object to Jesus’ compassion for other people. Absorbed in their own self-importance they see the vulnerable as less than human, indeed less than their animals.
Secondly, we can see the treatment of a disabled woman who is said to have been bowed down for eighteen years by a spirit of infirmity, attributed to Satan’s power. As is the case elsewhere, Jesus’ healing carries a significance beyond the individual or an individual infirmity. Rather it proclaims victory over the forces of sickness and oppression.
Jeffrey John notes that of all the evangelists, Luke was most determined to record Jesus startlingly new and liberating attitude to women. Women are especially prominent in his gospel. It is Luke who gives us the story of Mary, the daughter of Zion that the prophets foretold would bring forth the saviour…overshadowed and indwelt by the spirit to be the vessel of God’s very presence in the world… It is Luke who gives us Elizabeth, the Baptist mother whose own immediate faith and recognition of God’s work in Mary is contrasted with the questioning doubt of her Priestley husband Zachariah. It is Luke who gives us the story of Mary and Martha with its unavoidable implication that the best place for women is not in the kitchen but doing theology. It is Luke who gives us the widow who nags the judge until he bestirs himself to do something. She is commended precisely for not being submissive but rather challenging the legal and religious status quo and asserting a right to be heard. It is Luke also who uniquely in New Testament portrays God in the presence of a woman in the parable of the housewife and the lost coin.
The church did not perpetuate the liberating attitudes that characterised Jesus’s treatment of women in the Gospels. Older, deep rooted, negative attitudes gradually reasserted themselves. There are clear signs of this reversal in the Pauline letters. In Galatians, an early epistle, Paul stated as a fundamental principle the equality of all beings in Christ – there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. As time passed though Paul allowed the application of this principle to be tempered by practical circumstances. So for example his epistles also include equivocal acceptance of women’s participation in worship and even the command that they should keep silent in church and if there is anything they desire to know to learn from their husbands at home.
Tertullian, one of the Church fathers of the second century wrote-
No woman who has come to know the Lord and learned the truth about her own (that is the female condition) would wish to adopt two cheerful (still less ostentatious) a mode of dress. Rather she would go about in humble clothing, with a down cast air, walking like Eve in mourning and penitence. Her dress should seek to atone for, to expiate what she inherits from Eve namely the shame of the first sin, and the odium of being the cause of human downfall… Do you not know that each of you is an Eve? God sentence on your sex continues to this day and your guilt necessarily continues also. You are the devil’s gateway. You are the one who unsealed the forbidden tree. You are the first to have broken the divine law. You are the one who persuaded the man, whom the devil was not brave enough to attack. You so easily destroyed God’s image in man! It is on account of the punishment you deserve – death- that the son of God himself had to die.
Clearly a man who struggled to get on with women then! I’m sorry to give voice to such hateful drivel but I do so as I think we must face up to what is dark in Church history and recognise the ways in which previous generations accepted what we regard as abhorrent.
Of course, this pattern isn’t unique to attitudes to women. It is relatively recently in Church history after all that slavery has been regarded as unacceptable. Whilst there were many abolitionists who were Christians there were plenty in the Church who maintained that as Jesus didn’t expressly object to it, Christians had no business doing so.
There continue to be many people continue to feel excluded by the Christian Church. There are plenty of Christians for example who feel it necessary to pronounce damnation on others on the basis of their sexuality. This calls for discernment, for me these attitudes betray the same sin against the spirit that we observed in our Gospel we have always struggled to emulate Christ’s radical inclusivity.
I’ll close with another quotation, this time from the YWCA bible study called ‘Through the eyes of a woman”. It really requires an accent like Barak Obama’s to do it justice, but bear with me, I’ll do my best! It says of this Gospel passage-
By healing her on the Sabbath Jesus restored the Sabbath to its original meaning of healing from bondage. By touching her, Jesus revoked the holiness code with its male scruples about menstrual uncleanness and sexual enticement. By speaking to her in public, Jesus jettisoned male restraints on the freedoms of women, born of the fear of female sexuality. By placing her in the middle of the synagogue, Jesus challenged the male monopoly on the means of grace and access to God. By asserting that her illness was not divine punishment for sin but satanic oppression, Jesus liberated her from domination, whose driving spirit is Satan. This tiny drama takes on world historic proportions. In freeing this woman from Satan’s power, Jesus simultaneously released her from the encompassing network of patriarchy, male religious elitism, and the taboos fashioned to disadvantage some in order to preserve the advantage of others. Her physical ailment was symbolic of a system that literally bent women over. For her to stand erect in male religious space represents far more than a healing. It reveals the dawn of a whole new world order.
Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus.