“You hypocrites!” No not you, that’s how Jesus begins his mini-sermon to the crowd that had gathered to witness a healing. “You hypocrites!” It’s an unsettling way to start a teaching. The word hypokrites, is a compound noun: made up of two Greek words that translate as “an interpreter from underneath.” Actors in the ancient Greek theaters used large masks, so it was understood that the story came “from underneath their masks.”1 You who live under the mask, you who act in contradiction to what you say you believe, you hypocrite, listen up.
Jesus’ voice seems magnified and his spirit unrestrained. And it’s not just what he is saying. It is where-he is teaching in the Synagogue on a Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. This on its own could be perceived as intentionally escalatory. And then an unnamed woman approaches him- bent over, in pain, her body reduced by something so harsh that the only name they had for her condition was “a spirit that crippled,” or as some translations put it, “a weak spirit” maybe, they thought, a demon. Being in pain and apart for any amount of time would be harsh enough, but the story says she had not been able to stand up straight for eighteen years…
When Jesus sees her, he says, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”
Notice she didn’t actually ask him for anything. And he never asks her anything. He doesn’t seem interested in knowing who she is. What is her name? What is her story? Where is she from? Jesus lays his hands on her and gives her a blessing. Somehow that changes everything. His touch is a new beginning.
Now remember in that First Century context, being touched by a healer makes her “clean” ritually speaking, which means part of her marginalization can end and she can join the community again.
Because of her ailment she was unwelcome and seen as unlovable. Having a spiritual leader bless you with these words in a crowd, “Woman you are set free!” That is a game changer.
And yet the religious leader on duty was furious. He repeats loudly throughout the crowd, that there shouldn’t be healing on the Sabbath- that such behavior is against the law.
To be sure, the woman was not going to die right there. If she had been this way for eighteen years, why not heal her tomorrow? Why not honor tradition? But as one commentator put it, “It is easy to counsel someone else to be patient. Rules are more likely to be considered reasonable when they do not affect the rule enforcer.”2 Jesus heals outside the lines and stirs anger, causes tension.
Here is where the white American mythological nice Jesus would respond with a “Yes sir,” or a “Let me explain.” But instead he shouts in anger, “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? 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?”
You who act in contradiction to what you say you believe, you who live under the mask…
After this, we read that the crowd felt shame.
I believe that what comes immediately following this story is no coincidence. The very next line, one we didn’t hear this morning is a question Jesus asks the crowd, “What is the kingdom of God like?”
“It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds perched in its branches.” “What is the kingdom of God like? “It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds[a] of flour until it worked all through the dough.”
After Jesus blesses this woman who had been outside the circle, he asks the crowd to ponder where God is found and what the realm of God is like… As if to say something like, “Hint, hint! Did you see what just happened here?”
The Kin-dom of God is like this… The Kin-dome of God is like when even one is set free. A life infused with Spirit is one in which the tiniest of kindnesses are worth our time or our need to be right. We never know when we are planting the seed or kneading the dough for someone else’s heaven.
What God cares about is in the realm of what the world casts off or casts aside as insignificant. Seeds. Yeast. And stopping time and tradition to show kindness to the one looking down.
In the frame of our faith, greatness is small. But mustard seed is invasive and so is compassion. And yeast can carry on for generations and so can love. In the Kin-dom of God, the web of which we are all a part, the Universal Light, in the words of Ronald Byars, “In the reign of God, the world will be (and is) repaired…”
Even though we know there is a lot in our world that is in need of healing- ecosystems, bodies, institutions, relationships- all in need of repair, we must also know that we are living the reign of God, when we have found our even seemingly insignificant way to repair the world.
Where do you find yourself right now? Where are you in the story? Where do we need to set free? I invite you to prayerfully ponder with me, let your heart, mind and spirit hold these questions as we enter into a meditation…
Notice the places that you are like the religious leader, stuck in a failure to see a bigger view? In the words of Dr. Emilie Townes, how do we take on our call “rather than being content with well-meaning but unfaithful religious hypocrisy?” Each of us asks: Am I putting my need to be right over my call to be righteous?
Notice the places you are like Jesus, the rule breaker, doing good, but stuck and angry and tired of going against the mainstream? Each of us asks: How can I reach deeper? How can find the energy to keep doing what is right?
Notice the places you are like the ones in the crowd, feeling called out, feeling shamed… Each of us asks: How can I listen and learn and grow? How can I do better? Where is God calling me? How can I leverage my privilege for the healing of others?
Notice the places you are like the woman, who in the words of Emilie Townes, is “bent over and unable to look up and see the sun… knowing only the dust and dirt underneath her feet, struggling to see the path before her by straining and twisting, because she cannot look straight ahead?”3 Each of us asks: How can “I mend my soul as I mend creation?” How can I not be stuck looking down, in the places where something or someone shows up and makes it possible to look up and see the sun? How can I be set free to be me?
Beloved of God, in whatever place you find yourself, may you be set free…from needing to start big… May you be set free from needing to be right over needing to be righteous. May you be set free from needing to find the energy to keep doing good. May you be set free from knowing only the dust and dirt underneath your feet. May you be set free from the struggle to see the path before you by straining and twisting … May you be set free to stop and see the light, look up and see the sun. May you be set free to take a risk for the sake of someone else’s freedom. The Kin-dom of God is like this… May it be so. Amen.
2 Ronald Byers in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After, Pentecost 1, Proper 16
3 Emilie M. Townes in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After, Pentecost 1, Proper 16