Tag Archives: Esau

Genesis 32:22–31; 33:1–12 “Improvement versus Healing – Is There a Difference?”

Genesis 32:22–31; 33:1–12 “Improvement versus Healing – Is There a Difference?” [Psalm 17:1–7, 15; Romans 9:1-5; and Matthew 14:13-21]

Caitlin Trussell on July 27, 2014 at Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, CO

 

Genesis 32:22-31 through 33:1-12 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”  31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

33:1 Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two maids. 2He put the maids with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all. 3He himself went on ahead of them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother.
4But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. 5When Esau looked up and saw the women and children, he said, “Who are these with you?” Jacob said, “The children whom God has graciously given your servant.” 6Then the maids drew near, they and their children, and bowed down; 7Leah likewise and her children drew near and bowed down; and finally Joseph and Rachel drew near, and they bowed down. 8Esau said, “What do you mean by all this company that I met?” Jacob answered, “To find favor with my lord.” 9But Esau said, “I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself.” 10Jacob said, “No, please; if I find favor with you, then accept my present from my hand; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God — since you have received me with such favor. 11Please accept my gift that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have everything I want.” So he urged him, and he took it.
12Then Esau said, “Let us journey on our way, and I will go alongside you.”

 

This is our fifth and final week with the story Jacob and Esau.[1]  A good time to press pause and recap the tale.  Jacob and Esau are twins, Jacob is born second and comes out clutching the heel of his brother.  As the boys grow up, they each become a favorite of one parent – Esau favored by his father, Isaac, and Jacob favored by his mother, Rebekah.  There are manipulations that begin with Esau selling his firstborn birthright to Jacob for a bowl of lentil stew and culminate with Jacob lying to his blind father, telling Isaac that he is Esau so that Jacob receives the deathbed blessing of their father.

As you might imagine, hell hath no fury like a brother scorned.  Esau’s reaction to Jacob’s final betrayal includes his spoken vow to kill Jacob.  Rebekah catches wind of Esau’s plan so the next thing Jacob does is packs up and travels a long distance to Haran to get married.  On the way to Haran, he dreams his almost-famous Jacob’s ladder dream in which he hears from God.  In Haran, he spends seven years trying to marry Rachel, is sneakily married to Leah instead, and works another seven years to finally marry Rachel too.  Jacob stays in Haran and becomes father to 12 sons through Leah, Rachel, and their servants Zilpah and Bilhah.[2]

“Like sands through the hour glass, so are the days of our lives.”[3]

We pick up the tale this morning after the passing of many years.  Jacob acquires wealth and status in Haran that includes his 12 sons as well as droves of animals of all kinds.  In the verses just before ours today, God tells Jacob it’s time to leave Haran and head back to his home country.  Anyone remember who and what Jacob left behind in his hometown?  Yup, Esau and his fury-laden vow to kill Jacob are still out there.

Jacob is afraid of Esau’s revenge.  Before heading out for his homeland, Jacob sends messengers ahead of him and his family.  These messengers take along droves of oxen, donkeys, flocks, and slaves as an attempt to curry favor with Esau.  The messengers return telling Jacob only that “We came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.”[4] Jacob sends more droves of animals to appease his brother Esau, this time including goats, cows, and camels.

And then Jacob is alone.  Alone with his thoughts and his fears.  But not alone for long as a wrestling match breaks out between Jacob and a man.  They wrestle the night away.   Jacob’s hip was put out of joint by the other man but still Jacob hangs on to the break of dawn.  Here’s one of my favorite parts of the whole story.  The man asks Jacob his name and Jacob says, “Jacob.”  Many years ago, when asked his name by his father, Jacob said, “I am Esau, your firstborn.”[5]  Now he comes full circle, Jacob is about to meet his brother after years of manipulation, including the latest gift of animal droves, and Jacob says his own name in a seemingly unprecedented moment of honesty.

“What is your name?”  “Jacob.”

This moment of naming himself is followed by a blessing from God and an emotional reunion with Esau.  This moment of naming himself followed by the forgiveness between the brothers has me wondering about the difference between improvement that comes with maturity versus being healed.  Is Jacob’s transformation simply because he is older, wiser, and afraid?  Or is Jacob’s transformation a healing?

My husband Rob and I just wrapped up watching a History of the Eagles[6] – the iconic American rock band that formed in the 1970s, disbanded, and regrouped in the 1990s to a lot of fan enthusiasm and more top-selling albums.  The retrospective includes the musicians themselves and those who know them dishing on the music as well as the egos, the money, and the drugs that fractured friendships and ultimately the band itself in its earlier days.  Toward the end of the documentary, the band is getting ready to launch its 1994 reunion tour.   Glenn Fry, one leader of the band, is asked this interview question: “How have you changed as musicians over the years, both as a group and individually?”  Fry replies, “Well, your whole mandate is just to improve, you know, life is about improvement  whether it’s as a musician or as a singer or as a songwriter or, you know, all the other different hats we all wear; hopefully we’re just getting better.”

In the throes of God wrestling Jacob this week, I am caught by Fry’s use of the words “improvement” and “getting better.”  I am caught because even in the face of what is going on for Jacob having to go meet Esau, he was still working all the angles in the hope of being forgiven.  And yet, in the end, healing for Jacob launched into the mix from outside of himself – from God’s hip-striking smack-down to Esau’s running embrace.

Joe Walsh, one of the Eagles’ guitarists and singers, talks in the documentary that he knew he was headed toward an early death from an addiction to alcohol and cocaine.  He describes his addiction beginning as an inspirational high and then the rest of the years spent chasing the high with no sign of inspiration in sight.  At the time of the Eagles reunion in ’94, Glenn Fry and Don Henley went to Joe Walsh, inviting him into the band’s reunion on the condition that he get sober.  Hearing their invitation as a last chance at life, Mr. Walsh takes them up on it and is driven to rehab.

There is a slippery line between an invitation to life and a person’s response to the invitation.  Just like there is a slippery line between the way Glenn Fry talks about improvement versus the healing that Jacob experiences through being wrestled by God and embraced by Esau.  There is a tendency in some circles of culture to make the purpose of life about an improvement project some might call the pursuit of happiness, rather than the purpose of life being something else entirely.

As a pastor, people talk to me from time to time about their addictions to alcohol, drugs, porn, sex…you name it and people are struggling with it.  Maybe you yourself are addicted or someone you love is struggling with addiction.  One of the big questions people ask is whether or not God actually forgives them for the pain inflicted from that person and their addicted place.  The answer to that question is an unequivocal, “Yes!”  The next question is often whether or not the people in their life are going to be able to forgive them too.  My answer that question is, “I don’t know.”  There are consequences to hurting people and the hard work necessary to make amends to those who have been hurt.  In the absence of chemical or other addiction, Jacob seems to understand that his impending meet-and-greet with Esau includes making amends.

There are consequences to non-addictive behaviors that hurt other people and there are consequences from the pain heaped on self and others by the illness of addiction.  Jacob’s story offers a glimmer of hope as he says his own name in the wrestling match and throws himself on the mercy of God and on the mercy of his brother.  The line between improvement and healing may be blurred but there is no line between God’s mercy and the healing that flows through it.  After the wrestling match, Jacob says, “I have seen God face to face…”[7]  After the reunion with Esau, Jacob says to his brother, “…for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God.”[8]

Like Jacob who holds onto God as a desperate act and won’t let go, today we pray with the Psalmist…

I call upon you, O God, for you will answer me; incline your ear to me and hear my words.

Show me your marvelous loving kindness, O Savior…[9]



[1] Amy Merrill Willis on Genesis 25:19-34 at WorkingPreacher.org on July 13, 2014.  “Genesis 25:19-43 begins a group of narratives that biblical commentators usually call “the Jacob Cycle” and which the Hebrew Bible calls “the toledot (generations or descendants) of Isaac” (25:19).  http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2149

[2] One of my Hebrew Bible professors liked to tells us that stories like Jacob and Esau’s story survive through hundreds and thousands of years, in part, because they are really good stories.  The characters’ twists and turns capture us into the drama with them and we are able to see ourselves in the Biblical story.

[3] Days of Our Lives, a daytime television drama on NBC known as a “soap opera”, begins with these opening words.   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=98T3PVaRrHU

[4] Genesis 32:6

[5] Genesis 27:18-19

[6] http://www.eaglesband.com/store/product/history-of-the-eagles-3-dvd-set

[7] Genesis 32:30

[8] Genesis 33:10

[9] Psalm 17:6-7

Genesis 25:19-34; Romans 8:1-11; and Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 “Freedom is Complicated [or A Very Expensive Bowl of Soup]”

Genesis 25:19-34; Romans 8:1-11; and Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 “Freedom is Complicated [or A Very Expensive Bowl of Soup]”

Caitlin Trussell at Augustana Lutheran Church on July 6, 2014

 

Genesis 25:19-34   This is the account of Abraham’s son Isaac. Abraham became the father of Isaac, 20 and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah daughter of Bethuel the Aramean from Paddan Aram and sister of Laban the Aramean. 21 Isaac prayed to the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was barren. The LORD answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant. 22 The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, “Why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the LORD. 23 The LORD said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.” 24 When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb. 25 The first to come out was red, and his whole body was like a hairy garment; so they named him Esau. 26 After this, his brother came out, with his hand grasping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when Rebekah gave birth to them. 27 The boys grew up, and Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was a quiet man, staying among the tents. 28 Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob. 29 Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished. 30 He said to Jacob, “Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!” (That is why he was also called Edom. ) 31 Jacob replied, “First sell me your birthright.” 32 “Look, I am about to die,” Esau said. “What good is the birthright to me?” 33 But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob. 34 Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and some lentil stew. He ate and drank, and then got up and left. So Esau despised his birthright.

[Please note the Matthew and Romans scripture are available at the end of the sermon post.]

 

Being a middle child of five kids sandwiched me between an older brother and sister and a younger brother and sister.  My younger sister is 5 years younger than me.  The two of us began sharing a room very early on.  Initially she was folded in with my older sister Hilary and me.  Until the day we moved into the house where there was a bed nook just big enough for Hilary’s bed and her things connected to the room Izzy and I shared.

Mostly this room-sharing worked out okay.  There were big belly laugh moments like the time Hilary and I were talking after Izzy had already fallen asleep on the top bunk, only to watch her sail by in slow motion on her way to the floor while falling out of bed asleep.  (She was fine.)  There were the typical off-limits kinds of things between siblings and over-time her tidier nature meant she had to have some patience for her big sister.  And, of course, there were times when having my little sister around was just one too much to bear.

In my pre-teen years, we developed a ritual, Izzy and I.  I would be doing homework or reading or generally hanging around and in would enter her five-year-old energy wanting to connect and play.  I would walk over to my desk, open the drawer, pull out a few possessions I could part with and told her she could choose and keep what she wanted if she went away and left me alone.  I was then free to continue whatever it was I doing without her being there.  A negotiated freedom that happily met my own ends – I had what I wanted and Izzy got a win out of the deal too.  Or so I thought.

Jacob and Esau, in the Genesis story today, are well into an age where sibling shenanigans aren’t quite as innocent.  Although we might be able to argue that the underlying motivations are similar.  Esau’s apparently been quite unsuccessful in the latest hunt and arrives home with a fierce hunger.  He’s looking for freedom from his hunger.  A hunger that blocked everything else from his mind and creates immediate need regardless of the consequences.  Esau walks into the house and rides the smell of warm soup and fresh baked bread right on into the kitchen.  And right into Jacob who is also nursing a desire for freedom.  Freedom from his place as the second sibling; freedom into the rights of the firstborn.  This moment between brothers is a perfect storm of self-interest that frees one brother from a raging hunger but at the cost of his birthright.  A perfect storm that leaves the other brother free from his social location as the second in line but at the cost of relationship with his brother.   The brothers’ freedom from their original problems came poorly thought through by one and highly manipulated by the other.

With freedom as a front and center topic this week, my first remembered Fourth of July came to mind.  It was the Bicentenniel celebrated in 1976.  200 years had passed since the signing of the Declaration of Independence and just a few months had passed since we began living in Washington DC.  It was like a red, white, and blue factory had exploded and the shrapnel blanketed the city.  There were American flags both historic and current of all sizes.  There were banners made of cloth, paper, and ribbons.  There were fireworks, fireworks, and more fireworks.  To my seven-year-old mind, everything around me was about the colors and sounds of Independence Day.  At the same time that was happening outside of me, everything inside of me was aware of the new freedom that my family had found by our move to D.C.  Having just left my mentally ill and violent father in Pennsylvania a few months before, we had a new found freedom from him and from the fear of him.  My single mom and the five of us kids were negotiating that freedom in the face of our poverty.  I learned early on that freedom is complicated.

That first memory of the 4th of July is a microcosm of the complexity of freedom on a larger scale.  During the American Revolutionary War, thousands of people gave their lives for freedom from tyranny of all kinds – political, religious, moral, and financial.   The Declaration of Independence describes the new freedom gained by the ultimate sacrifice of those who died and also served as the basis for freeing slaves well on into the Civil Rights movement.  The flip-side is that these freedoms were gained on land where there were people already here enjoying it as their birthright.  Freedom is indeed complicated.

Given my family’s experience with the mental illness of my first father and now my 19 year old niece, it comes as no surprise that I’m interested in mental health diagnosis and treatment.   I recently attended a meeting of Together Colorado which is an interfaith group of leaders whose efforts include the issue of mental health.  Several of the people at the meeting were Christian clergy who had just attended a walking pilgrimage at the site of the Sand Creek Massacre.[1]  In 1864, 150 Cheyenne and Arapahoe women, children, and elders were murdered and mutilated by 700 soldiers of the Colorado State militia.  One of the pastors led a conversation with our group of 15 people about his experience at the site.  He discussed the Christian faith of the perpetrators led by Colonel Chivington who was a soldier and a Christian minister; someone who considered himself a “good Christian.”  He suggested that perhaps what the world needed were “bad Christians.”  I piped up and said, “That’s where the Lutherans come in.”  There was general laughter all around.  Why?  What did that inter-faith group of people think they knew about Lutherans?

Perhaps it’s because Lutherans experience sin and talk about sin as something real.  It’s why we confess our sin when we gather for worship, knowing that God is using us in spite of our sin.  The freedoms we negotiate between ourselves and by ourselves are fraught with the complication of sin.  Whether it’s my 10 year old self trying to be free from my little sister; Esau and Jacob negotiating freedom between hunger and a birthright; my first father’s violence that sent my mother and us running for freedom; or the people of the United States fighting for their freedom in the 18th century even as they declared a country on land that other peoples already called home.

Sin is in bodies. Paul’s language for this in the reading from Romans is that it exists in the flesh.  Sin exists in us.  This is true for us as individuals, which by extension makes it true for us as church and true for us as country.  We can be just as group-serving as we can be self-serving.  Perhaps even more so when we’re grouped together, cloaked in anonymity.   In a group it’s so much easier to justify our same sin when other people dealing with the same sin are giving us the thumbs up.  In the same way, it’s easier to call out another’s sin over and above our own.  Using their sin against them to dehumanize them while elevating ourselves as the arbiters of only the good.

Looking back to the 18th century, the good and the sinful are perhaps more easily recognized than looking back to last week to separate the good and the sinful.  It is there regardless.  The gift, or what Matthew calls “the good soil”, is to have our sin called out by the Spirit of Christ.[2]  This conviction comes from Christ who came in a body, in the flesh, and puts our sin to death through his body put to death on a cross.  Christ’s humiliation on the cross saves us from ourselves and each other, collapsing our differences into a sobering oneness of the flesh.  Through his humbled body on the cross, Christ infuses us with the humility that comes from such a death.  So humbled, we are free to recognize the ways we are more like Jacob and Esau than not like them, the ways we are more like Colonel Chivington than not like him.[3]  Our need for Christ laid bare at the foot of the cross and in the public square – for his sake, for our sake, and for the sake of the world.

 



[1] There are many resources that offer a full treatment of the Sand Creek Massacre.  Here is one of them from Northwestern University: http://www.northwestern.edu/provost/committees/john-evans-study/study-committee-report.pdf.

[2] Matthew 13:23; Romans 8:11

[3] Augustans Lutheran Church mission statement: “Guided by the Holy Spirit we gather in Christian community, reach out and invite, offer hope and healing in Jesus Christ, and walk humbly with God.”

Micah 6:8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

 

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2 Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6 But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 Let anyone with ears listen!”

18 “Hear then the parable of the sower. 19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21 yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. 22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 23 But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

 

Romans 8:1-11   There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. 3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, 8 and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 9 But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

Luke 13:10-17 – “Freed Into Rest [or Jewish Patriarchs through Moses in 2 Minutes or Less]”

Luke 13:10-17 –  “Freed Into Rest [or Jewish Patriarchs through Moses in 2 Minutes or Less]”

August 25, 2013 – Caitlin Trussell

Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, CO

 

Luke 13:10-17   Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” 15 But the Lord answered him and said, “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? 16 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?” 17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

 

I’m going to show my hand and let you know straight out of the gate that my sympathies lie with the leader of the synagogue.[1]  Not because there are parallels between his position and my own as pastor – that would be way too easy  of a target; plus it would leave you all out of it which basically means I’d be preaching to only myself which I can do on any old day without you sitting here while I do it.

To give us some understanding of the leader of the synagogue, think with me for a bit about the history of our Jewish cousins and our common ancestors of faith.  The story of Abraham and Sarah gives us the courageous travelers, uprooted by God and sent to a land far away.[2]  We can appreciate the romantic adventure of their tale from beginning to end; or we could read it through the hard lens of being migrants and immigrants.  Regardless, they were free people.

Sarah and Abraham’s son Isaac and the shenanigans of Isaac’s sons Jacob and Esau lead us right into the Joseph story.[3]  Joseph, the favorite son sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, ends up second-in-command of Egypt – saving his band of brothers as the sun sets dreamily in Egypt over the happy family reunion.  Okay, that last part smacks of Hollywood cinematography but you get the picture.  We get to end of the book of Genesis on a high as Joseph, with his dying breath, tells his brothers once more about God’s promises.[4]  So far, these are great stories of deeply flawed people but wildly free people.

We can literally turn the page to the book of Exodus and all manner of hell has broken loose.  Hundreds of years have passed, the new king does not know Joseph, and has no appreciation for the numerous descendents of Joseph and his eleven brothers.  “The Egyptians came to dread the Israelites…and became ruthless in imposing tasks on [them], and made their lives bitter with hard service.”[5]  These were hard times that lead to harder times that led to Moses’ leading the Israelites out of slavery to the Egyptians into…well, the wilderness.  But they were a free people there!  They were a free people who were given laws – laws given by God to preserve life and protect people’s relationships with God and each other.

Some of you could likely come up with the ten big laws, a.k.a. the Ten Commandments.  The one I’m really interested in this morning is the third one.[6]  After being told to have no other gods and to not misuse the name of God, comes commandment number three to:

“Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.”[7]

Just sit for a moment with this and think about how huge it must have sounded to a newly freed people who were freed from ruthlessly imposed tasks and bitter lives of hard service.  Just imagine that.  It’s difficult at best to understand the magnitude of the freedom given by this law.  At worst, our understanding of it becomes blasé in our current context of labor laws, workers’ rights, and weekends off.  But for the Jewish people of the 1st century, keeping Sabbath meant to be freed into rest by the law of God!  Freed into rest.  Take a breath on that one for a minute.   Freed into rest….

The leader of the synagogue would have worked very hard to make sure that the people followed this law because it was for their good and for their God.  This doesn’t mean he had pure motives when confronted by Jesus’ healing the woman.  It’s a given that he didn’t.  But it does mean that the Sabbath being held up by the leader of the synagogue is a good thing.  So then where does it go awry for the synagogue leader?

Listen again to the beginning of the story:

“ Now [Jesus] was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’ When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.”

Jesus is teaching away, he sees this woman who he can help and so he does.  The problem is that Jesus does this on a day when there is a rule of law about work; a rule of law that has the big history and current meaning of being freed into rest.  And the leader of the synagogue becomes indignant on behalf of this law, starts talking to the people about coming to be cured on any other day but the Sabbath, and gets an earful from Jesus.  Not just any old earful, but a shaming earful.

Jesus clearly did not get the current parenting advice about public shaming.  You may have heard some of this advice.  If your child or grandchild or someone else’s child is up to no good, you are to talk to the child privately to preserve their dignity and create a safe space.  It’s good advice.  It’s even wise advice.  It’s advice that applies well to adults too.  Jesus didn’t get the memo.  While I feel for the leader of the synagogue, I’m grateful for what comes next in the story because then Jesus makes an interesting move that actually isn’t about shaming.  It’s an exegetical move – a move that interprets scriptural law as it has been handed down through the centuries and lived out in that synagogue, a move that breathes new life into the law.

The leader of the synagogue had become so bound into the law, the law was no longer doing its job of preserving life and people’s relationships with God and each other.  Jesus’ interpretation of the law frees the law so that, at least the woman, could be freed by the law.  I like to think that the leader of the synagogue took some time later to ponder the moves that Jesus makes in the synagogue – first freeing the woman from that which binds her, then freeing the law from the person who would try to bind it, and, maybe, just maybe, freeing the lead of the synagogue, the very one who would bind the law.

My sympathies lie with the leader of the synagogue because we can get curved in on ourselves and the law in the same way.  We are given a law to preserve life and protect people’s relationships with God and with each other.  And then we bind up that law, playing a kind of keep-away game between Jesus and law, wondering what will happen to that which we hold dear if we are compelled to a different interpretation of the law – slavery and the role of women in the church are two recent historical examples.  It is into this bound up, curled up mess that Jesus saves by the power of the Spirit.  Calling us on all the ways in which we bind ourselves and each other into the law and freeing us back into the law as a place of rest.

For this and for all that Jesus has done and is doing, thanks be to God!



[1] David Lose, “Dear Working Preacher” for Sunday, August 25, 2013.   http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=2699

[2] Genesis 12-20.

[3] Genesis 21-34.

[4] Genesis 35-50.

[5] Exodus 1:12-13, New Revised Standard Version.

[6] In Jewish tradition, the commandment to keep the Sabbath is number four.  Luther’s Small Catechism lists it third.

[7] Exodus 20:8-11, New Revised Standard Version.