At that time, Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And there was a woman who had a spirit of infirmity for eighteen years; she was bent over and could not fully straighten herself. And when Jesus saw her, he called her and said to her, “Woman, you are freed from your infirmity.” And he laid his hands upon her, and immediately she was made straight, and she praised God. But the ruler of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the sabbath, said to the people, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be healed, and not on the sabbath day.” Then the Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the sabbath day?” As he said this, all his adversaries were put to shame; and all the people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him.Luke 13:10-17
In today’s gospel we hear about a woman who for eighteen years could not stand up straight. Perhaps she had scoliosis or sciatica or a ruptured disk or some kind of arthritis. I would imagine that she experienced great pain, and a great deal of social isolation and sadness.
What is striking is the lack of empathy on the part of the ruler of the synagogue. Empathy is when we see the pain of another person and we decide to simply have fellowship with them and be with them in their pain. Empathy is not trying to solve their problems for them, not trying to control them, not trying to impose rules on them. “You are in pain. I care about you. I will be with you in your time of pain.”
Naturally, there is a time to offer help and relief. But many problems cannot be solved by you. One of the two main reasons we neglect empathy are fear and shame. The ruler of the synagogue is afraid that God will be angry if the Sabbath is broken.
When I encounter a person who is grieving, perhaps I am afraid what will happen if I open myself to grief. Will my own feelings of grief and pain overtake me? Will it be too much to bear? I shut myself off to the feelings of other people. I try to “cheer them up.” I try to tell them, “you don’t have it so bad, think of the people who have it worse.” When I am afraid I don’t want to hear about your pain.
The other thing that kills empathy is shame. When I feel that my own worth as a person is in doubt. When I secretly believe that no one can love me. When I believe that my own weakness and vulnerability are signs that I am unlovable, I do everything to hide from my own weakness. I don’t let anyone in.
Therefore, I look at a person in pain and I think, “I don’t want anything to do with that weakness and vulnerability. My own survival depends on me understanding that the weak and vulnerable are not worthy of love. I survive by hating weakness and vulnerability”
Empathy is born out of the realization that God loves us unconditionally, especially when we are weak and vulnerable. This is the message of Jesus when he says, “Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the sabbath day?” He is showing that God sees us with the same compassion as the farmer sees his animals. A farmer does not hate or judge his animals. A farmer does not make his donkey feel ashamed for needing water. The farmer provides for his animals because he understands their needs.
God also provides for our needs out of love and concern for us. He gives us the Sabbath rest for our sake, not for his sake. God gives us the church services for our sake, not for his sake. The traditions of when to make the sign of the cross, when to bow, when to do this and that – those are all for OUR sake, not God’s.
And so the soul-crushing legalism and slavery to rules, and over-concern with the minute details that we often observe in the church – those are all man-made and sinful and prideful and life-destroying fables.
We keep order in the church because it makes for a better worship space and a better experience of God’s presence. We keep order in the church so that our worship is not the arbitrary product of my wants and preferences or your wants and preferences. We keep order in the church to show honor and love to God, and to show great honor and respect to our fellow Christian who needs an orderly calm place to pray.
But our rules are not about avoiding the anger of God. Our order of service, what hymns we sing, when, the pageantry of the liturgies and services – it is all made for our needs, not for God’s needs because God does not need anything. We should never be so afraid of doing something wrong that we judge and scold and pester other people in the church. We should never be so ashamed of being vulnerable that we resent the children for being care-free, and for being unable to follow all the rules.
Jesus shows us that God knows our weaknesses – and for the person who is deathly afraid of weakness it is a terrifying gospel to hear. You have weakness. The secret is out. You are weak and you need to be shown compassion. God loves you in your state of weakness and vulnerability. God does not see you as unlovable because of your weakness and vulnerability.
Only by God’s grace can we slowly internalize this message. Only by the gift of the Holy Spirit, and by participation in the prayers of the church, by reading and hearing the gospel, by receiving the body and blood of Christ, can we take baby steps towards a state of mind which is loving and empathetical. You can only achieve empathy by learning to receive the free and bountiful love of God.
But you can also fake empathy. Fake it ‘til you make it. You can do what empathy does, and hope that your heart will grow into empathy. Visit those who are suffering and mourning, visit those who are lonely, or just having a bad day. And instead of trying to “cheer them up” or argue with them about whether their pain is really all that bad, tell them, “I hear you saying you are sad, (or lonely, or angry, or whatever emotion) and I am with you.”
“I hear your pain and I am with you.” That is the incarnational model. Jesus Christ came from heaven to dwell amongst us. To be with us. His power to heal us came from his love for us, and his willingness to remain with us through whatever pain that involved.
When you and I give freely of our presence to others, when we pray for them instead of bossing them around and creating a stack of rules, then the healing presence of Jesus Christ becomes a reality in our community.
Brethren, I, a prisoner for the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all. But grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.EPHESIANS 4:1-7
St. Paul says we were called to hope. We are called not to be enslaved to legalism and the memorization of rules. We are called to hope. And hope leads us to obedience. And obedience gives birth to love. A hopeless obedience leads to death. A hope-filled obedience is the gift of God.
Paul writes that we have a bond of peace. Bond hear means something like a set of handcuffs. Being chained with shackles. We are handcuffed with peace towards each other.
We should be eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
We are obligated to keep a peaceful demeanor towards one another (not a nagging legalism, and over-attentiveness to what others are doing wrong). We are tied up with the obligation to maintain peace.
Lord Jesus Christ our God give us the gift of receiving your unconditional love. It is a terrible gift to receive because we don’t think we are worthy. We struggle against the lavishness of your love for us. Help us to accept this love so that we can show it to others.