It’s been a few months as some significant events in our culture and a focus on school work took priority for me, but I’m back to diving into a closer look at Luke. We’ll see how consistently I’m able to go through the second half of the Gospel according to Luke since we’re due to welcome a baby any day now (quite literally, the due date is tomorrow). However, I will strive to return to a more consistent post schedule going forward.
The stories in this chapter continue the theme of Jesus showing love and grace to those in need and being criticized by the religious elites. It’s difficult not to see some striking analogies with our current cultural context. Starting in verse 10, Luke tells of Jesus healing a woman who had suffered from a painful disability for 18 years. However, he healed her on the Sabbath, which prompted outrage from the Synagogue ruler. Jesus’ response is to point to the hypocrisy of criticizing healing on the Sabbath as “work” while those same people tend to their animals to ensure they survive.
Over the past several months we’ve seen some horrifying actions carried out by representatives of the state against citizens. The primary message of these citizens’ protests has been the simple statement that Black lives matter. Three words, one sentence of affirmation. This should not be controversial, especially to those who profess to follow Christ. If we truly believe that we are the image bearers of God, then we must believe that every single life matters. There are no exceptions. So when someone sees the pain, inequality, and injustice in our society through the images and videos of police executing unarmed Black people in the streets (or in their homes), we must cry out in pain. We must seek justice. Because Black lives matter.
How does this connect to the story above? The religious elites were not opposed to Jesus healing people and ending their suffering. At least, publicly they weren’t opposed to it. I hope they weren’t opposed in their hearts, because that would expose yet another level of evil and heartlessness. However, they complained about the process and timing of the healing. The woman had been suffering for 18 years. But the response from the synagogue ruler was this: “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath” (14).
The synagogue ruler sees 18 years of suffering and anguish in front of his very eyes but does not empathize with that. Instead, he prioritizes a religious ritual done in the name of a God who loves, heals, and created humanity in God’s own image. In his mind, the healing is not a great good, but a crime against God. Further, his words show that he places the blame on the woman for this act. The story does not suggest that she asked Jesus to be healed. Instead, it shares that she was in the synagogue hearing him teach on the Sabbath. She was simply there to learn more about God and respect the Sabbath as she had been taught. Jesus saw her in a way no one else had for 18 years and felt compassion for her. He healed her. It was his choice and his act. And while the synagogue ruler is angry at Jesus, his words are pointed at the woman, placing the blame on her as if she’d done wrong.
We saw (and continue to see) the exact same treatment as people protested the injustice and disregard for Black lives in our country. We heard the familiar refrain, “I support protesting injustice, but you have to do it the right way.” In this situation, it was being critical of a minority of protestors (who in many cases may have actually been people opposed to the protests seeking to promote dissension and blame to undermine the protests themselves) who caused property damage. Or, it was being critical of protestors interrupting the daily experience of people in the cities. With Colin Kaepernick several years ago, it was respectfully kneeling during the National Anthem. In Washington, D.C., it was simply peacefully protesting in the road the President wanted to parade down for a partisan photo op using the Bible and a church building as a prop.
It is amazing that in all of these cases (and so many more), the complaint is always that the protestors are going about things the “wrong” way. If we’re honest, the common thread is not the method, but the protest itself. We see the same thing with immigration, as people claim they support immigration when people do it “the right way,” through the legal process. Yet the “legal” process has intentionally been made so convoluted so as to render it virtually impossible for the people who desperately need it to seek sanctuary from violence and oppression to follow that path. And, statistically, the same group of people who get on their high horse to talk about doing it “the right way” is the group that supports making policies that make the “right” way even more difficult and more restrictive. Again, if we’re honest, we’ll see that it’s not really about the “right” or “wrong” way; it’s about keeping people in their place.
It fascinates me to see which side Christians take when reading the Bible and which side they take when living their daily lives. Because I guarantee every Christian reading this passage either scoffs or is heartbroken (we’re called to be the latter, but human nature means most of us – including myself – are far more often the former) at the synagogue ruler who “doesn’t get it,” who cares more about religious structure than the meaning and purpose behind them. But then we see people protesting because their very lives are put in danger every day they go about their lives by the people sworn to serve and protect us. And our pinpoint focus goes to the graffiti. Or the “criminal background” of the one whose death is being protested. We say things like, “well, there’s more to the story; this guy had a rough background!” or even worse, “If you don’t do something wrong, police will leave you alone,” despite the evidence in front of our eyes. We see innocent blood spilled on the ground and instead of crying out for what was lost, we hedge and suggest they somehow deserved it. Or, even worse, we somehow equate minor property damage with the taking of human life. No, scratch that. We prioritize and place a higher value on property damage than the taking of human life.
Jesus saw a woman suffering from 18 years of disability. His heart broke, and he healed her. Immediately. He did not hesitate to state with his actions that her life mattered. He did not hedge or hem and haw because he doesn’t agree with everything she’s said or done in her life or because acting in this case might technically violate the Sabbath practices of the community.
Related to this, Jesus goes on to share the parables of the mustard seed and yeast. Both of these parables show how the Kingdom of God starts as something small but works its way through everything and transforms all it touches. Yeast cannot be partitioned into only a piece of the dough. You cannot experience a Kingdom of God transformation and yet ignore the focus on justice, generosity, and love when it’s convenient for you either politically or to not upset your personal narrative. You can only do that if you haven’t actually put the yeast in the dough. Choosing to put the yeast in the dough or the mustard seed in the ground is acknowledging that, moving forward, nothing will be the same.
Finally, Jesus warns about the narrow door. I’ve heard this teaching throughout my life and heard it used to explain how so many who claim to be Christians aren’t “real” Christians. It’s always been used as a point of excluding outsiders, because the people preaching that message are never considering themselves as not the “real” Christians. It’s used as a message of segregation and rejection, inflating our own self-image as the “real” followers of Christ who “get it” compared to those heathens outside who think they do but so obviously don’t.
Here’s the thing, though. If we actually read the words of Jesus, that’s not the picture he paints. Here’s the second half of the passage, verses 26-30:
Then you will say, “We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.” But he will reply, “I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!” There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.
Notice how the people who will not make it through the door are those who actually did eat and drink with Jesus. Further, they recognize the presence of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the prophets when they see them in the house. These are people who know the scriptures and engaged with Jesus, and yet they are being left out. Instead, people will be coming from all directions to take their place at the feast. While that might not sound like much for our modern travel-heavy culture, such a suggestion indicates Jesus is including outsiders from long distances who never encountered him in life. These could be people from thousands of miles away who never even heard about him. He does not explicitly say that, but the contrast is severe between people from every direction who are welcomed and those physically next to Jesus who are rejected.
This message goes to another level with the conclusion of the chapter when Jesus laments Jerusalem’s treatment of the prophets. Again, he is showing that those who know better, those who actively engaged with him and the prophets before him, were likely the ones to reject him and be left out while so many others are welcomed in.
As “followers of Christ,” we are called to, well, follow Christ’s example. Unfortunately, far too often, “Christians” in our society showcase attitudes and actions that bear a striking resemblance to those of the people who actively opposed Christ in these stories. Instead of fighting for the cause of justice, mercy, and healing wherever there is a need, we ignore the pain and suffering and complain about the methods and timing. Instead of acknowledging something as simple as the three-word statement that Black lives matter, we feign concern that we might be endorsing an organization that we don’t wholeheartedly agree with. Somehow that concern doesn’t come up with Christians endorsing Donald Trump and the Republican party, and I can only hope and pray that those two examples endorse ideas that Christians don’t wholeheartedly agree with (although the evidence strongly suggests the opposite).
When we look at protests, do we see the pain of centuries of injustice, or do we see graffiti? When we hear about yet another unarmed Black person killed by police officers, do we see the shedding of innocent blood, or do we seek to find an excuse (such as a misdemeanor on their record that means they were a “criminal,” and, by extension, deserved to die) to justify it? When we see healing on the Sabbath, do we see 18 years of disability come to a loving end, or do we see a violation of religious ritual?
We must see the world as Jesus did, recognize humanity and human need takes precedence over religious structure. We must invite the yeast to work its way through us and transform everything about our priorities and mindset, and we must acknowledge the simple truth that far too often it’s those who cling to religion the most that miss everything and end up on the outside of the causes for justice and the kingdom of God. We must do better.