“Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”
Woman, you are set free.
So says this wandering prophet, this wild-haired man from the backwater town of Nazareth who keeps idly strolling from town to town, coming in to teach in the synagogues even though he has no formal training. Making trouble everywhere he goes. Arguing with the religious leaders. Feeding five thousand men when he had nothing but a few loaves. And all the while working with troublesome people: soldiers of the empire, lepers, sinners, women, outsiders. Who does he think he is, saying this?
Woman, you are set free.
How afraid do you have to be to hate others’ freedom?
The leaders of the synagogue had a lot to lose. They, like most of the Jewish people in Israel during the time of the Roman occupation, had put a lot of trust in righteousness. If they could behave well enough, if they could speak of God correctly, if they could keep the Temple and the priests clean, perhaps God would free them from the brutal Roman army that had invaded their land. They were waiting for the Messiah -- the anointed one of God, who would put a son of David back on the throne at Jerusalem and free the people, once and forever, from all outside forces that sought to destroy them.
And instead they got a Messiah who healed the sick slave of a Roman commanding officer. They got a Messiah who was messy, homeless, who hung out with questionable characters and smelly fishermen. That kind of Messiah is terrifying. That kind of freedom is terrifying. Because life can feel so much easier when there are clear boundaries. We don’t work on the Sabbath. We don’t associate with the Gentiles. Men don’t speak to women. And tax collectors cannot be disciples of the Son of God.
We invest a lot, as humans, in knowing who’s in and who’s out. Who is good, and who is bad. Who is the obvious choice for the next president of the United States and whose candidacy makes you shudder. I don’t think that this is wrong -- well, I don’t particularly care for the anger and mudslinging that comes in a presidential election. But it isn’t wrong to draw boundaries when we are trying to keep ourselves safe. The danger is how easily we can believe the boundaries are sacred. That the rules we create for ourselves and for others are too holy to violate.
One of those rules, in Jesus’ time, was the idea that your suffering was related to your sin. If you were in pain, it might very well be God’s judgment on your life and actions. We hear this echoing in the words of those who tell Jesus of the Galileans who died -- who were murdered by the Roman occupying forces in the middle of their worship. Jesus immediately rejects the premise. They were not worse sinners than anyone else. Their fate could await anyone -- especially those who thought that they were better than the Galileans.
Jesus follows this declaration with a story about a tree and a lot of manure -- a parable. It is not the tree’s fault that it has not grown. Trees do not have faults. They grow, or they don’t. Sometimes by tending them, a gardener can bring out better fruit. But sometimes, no matter what we do, the tree bears nothing. It is a tree. It is no judgment on the owner, or the gardener, or even the tree itself. It’s just a tree that doesn’t grow.
After telling this story, Jesus meets a woman who has suffered for eighteen years with a bent back, unable to stand straight, likely unable to keep her household in order and to do the heavy labor required of life in the first century. And in one moment, her life changes: Woman, you are set free. Not because she had suffered enough, but because God does not want suffering. God, faced with suffering, wants to end it.
Paul promised this to the Corinthian church, as well. God will provide a way out, he promised. And the Corinthians would have been shocked, because they were facing suffering on a multitude of sides. The church in the first century was primarily Jewish, many of them rejected by their families and thrown out of their home synagogues for believing that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah. The Roman occupation forced the Jewish people into hard labor, heavy taxes, unfair trials and judgments, fear on all sides. Yet notice Paul’s promise -- not that suffering was from God, not that God would end all suffering if they were perfect believers, but that God wanted them to find a way out. And not a way out the way their ancestors had in the wilderness -- turning to other gods, worshipping the idols their foreign wives brought to them, complaining about the food or the long desert walk. God wanted more for the Jewish people than this. God wanted more for the whole world.
And this is the pattern with God. One beauty of the Bible is the variety of stories that play along a very familiar theme: God offers life. We choose something else. And God, continually, offers life again.
In all these stories I keep seeing God like Jesus in last week’s reading, standing outside Jerusalem, the city built to house the home of God -- standing outside the city that was supposed to be a light to the nations and instead rejected everything the prophets said to it. I keep seeing God weeping, in every time and place, and saying, over and over:
Stop eating what makes you sick. Stop spending your hard-earned money on junk food. Use your resources for what is right, for what does something good for your body and your soul and the world around you. This life is not limited to the chemical kick of potato chips and beer and televised sports. This life is not limited to strict rules around food, to exercising until we bleed, to a perfectly kept house. Stop eating what makes you sick -- literally and figuratively. Eat what feeds the you God made, the you God calls you to be.
Stop putting your trust in other things. Stop acting as if your own safety is something you can perfectly control. Stop being surprised when putting your trust in yourself, or your work, or your talents, or your money, or your ability to make others happy or sad -- stop being surprised when this falls through. You were not brought out of slavery by your own power; you did not earn your salvation through your own works. This was done for you, by God, out of what seems like an impossibility: because God loves you and does not want to be without you. God does not want you to suffer. God does not want you to be forgotten. God is always extending a hand to you.
Stop blaming people for their pain. Do not fall into the trap of the people who thought the Galileans were great sinners because their death was so awful. Do not fall into the ditch of the vineyard owner who sees no growth and wants to tear down the tree. And when someone finds their freedom, against all possibilities, do not shame them for how they found it. God has come to earth in Jesus, come to set us free. Do not be afraid.
Stop blaming people for their pain -- and that includes yourself. You have said to yourself that you are alone, that you cannot burden others with your own suffering. But none of it, none of it is something that no one else has gone through. We suffer in varieties of ways but the reality of struggle, pain, and heartbreak is one we all know. Stop telling yourself to hide away until you can present a happy face to the world. Your suffering is not too much for others to bear.
Don’t you remember I set you free? I took you out of slavery and into the wilderness. I took you out of the wilderness and into the promised land. After you were captured by Babylon, I brought you back. And after all this time, I burst open the gates of what it meant to be the chosen people -- I welcomed in the Gentiles. The Romans, the Greeks, the Jews, even the Germans and the Norwegians -- I brought them all to the table. I offered every single one of you food to eat that would satisfy you, a community that would care for you, a promise that suffering would not be never-ending. Incline your ear, says God, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.
Brothers and sisters, fellow beloved children of the Most High: let us believe. Let us believe that God wants this for us -- that we stop living our lives in fear, and step into the freedom offered to us.