A Miracle and a Scandal

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Every day during this season of Lent we’re looking at the miracles of Jesus – his spectacular displays of supernatural power that are reported in the Gospels.    
Every family has its own traditions.  Some of them can be pretty strange.
For multiple generations, the McDonalds have believed – OK, it’s just the men in our family, not the women – that the last person to get out of bed on May 1 is to be designated the Qua-Qua-Quadda. 
There is no living memory of who conjured up such a silly name.  In and of itself, it means absolutely nothing.  But being stuck with that name for a whole year, and being taunted by your brothers, did mean something:  It meant humiliation. 
For no particular reason, my family imposes shame on one of its own members for arbitrarily designating May 1 as the one day you had better not linger in bed.  Speaking as the one who is currently living with the designation of 2023 Qua-Qua-Quadda, I feel confident that happier days lie ahead. 
But many of those who lived in Israel during the time of Jesus no doubt felt crushed by the ever-growing burden of traditions that were imposed by some of the nation’s spiritual leaders.
Numerous sources, including the Gospels, report that the scribes, Pharisees, and teachers of the Law fostered a legalistic environment in which rules and regulations not explicitly spelled out in the Old Testament gradually took on the authority of Scripture.  
More than once, when Jesus comes up against such arbitrary strictures – especially when the health or happiness of a suffering person is at stake – we catch a flash of divine anger.  Luke 13:10-17 is a prime example. 
On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.
Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.” The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”
When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing.
In the space of eight verses, we encounter a miracle and a scandal. 
The miracle is that a woman regains her ability to straighten up after 18 years.  Most commentators believe was suffering from ankylosing spondylitis, an arthritic inflammation of the vertebrae.  It leads to a curvature of the spine and an ever-diminishing ability to flex the joints.  Since there is still no remedy for this condition in the 21st century, we are not reading the account of a “psychosomatic cure.”  Through Jesus’ healing touch, this woman regains her posture, her dignity, and the chance to experience a normal life.
A scandal quickly follows.  But who exactly is guilty of scandalous behavior?  
The synagogue leader points the finger directly at Jesus.  It’s the Sabbath.  The Torah forbids work on the Sabbath.  In his mind, and that of many of his peers, acts of healing fall into the category of “work.”  Jesus must bear the shame of a Sabbath-breaker. 
Jesus points right back.  This is not the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” of traditional Sunday School curricula.  He accuses the synagogue leader of being two-faced: acting as if he’s representing God while actually working against God’s interests.    
Jesus’ most pointed words, in fact, are never directed at tax collectors, Roman soldiers, murderers, or prostitutes.  He always pulls out his biggest guns when confronting religious hypocrisy. 

The word hypocrite is a Greek term that originally referred to the mask worn by an actor during a play.  Gradually it came to refer to anyone who was acting – specifically, anyone pretending to be one thing, while in truth being something else altogether.
A few years ago someone working at a Mattel factory accidentally switched the voice boxes for Barbie dolls and GI Joes.  Hundreds of boys were startled to hear Joe say, “Let’s go shop till we drop!” while an equal number of girls were surprised, to say the least, to hear Barbie shouting, “Hit the ground now, hard, hard, hard!” 
The essence of hypocrisy is the gap between your actions and words on Sunday and what you actually say and do on Monday.
During the first century, many of Israel’s spiritual leaders had become people whose outward message proclaimed one thing, but whose hearts were seemingly stuck in a different time zone.
That included the Pharisees, an all-male cadre of lay persons whose numbers probably never exceeded 6,000.  The word “Pharisee” seems to have meant “set-apart ones” – prime evidence that they considered themselves to be the brightest bulbs in the spiritual chandelier.    
The Pharisees lumped themselves into seven categories. 

Some were called the Shoulder Pharisees, which meant they wore their good deeds on their shoulders, so speak, so you could always see their scorecards.  This group lived in the spirit of Ben Stiller’s character in Dodgeball: “Here at Globo Gym we’re better than you, and we know it.”

There were also the Bleeding Pharisees, men so committed to banishing lustful thoughts from their imaginations that they routinely walked into buildings, pillars, and various objects so as not to cast a single glance at the body (or even the face) of a passing woman.

Then there were the Tumbling Pharisees.  They got their name because they imagined themselves to be so humble that they refused to lift their feet above the ground.  They would slide along until they hit an obstruction, and would then fall down.

Not all the Pharisees were such divas.  Most were sincerely committed to doing God’s will.  It’s not an exaggeration to say that in the minds of the common people, they were Israel’s spiritual heroes.
There is a Jewish tradition (which may have dated back to the first century) that says the Messiah will come if every Jew properly observes two Sabbaths in a row.  So there’s something at stake in this synagogue on the day Jesus visits.  By violating the technical prohibitions against “work,” Jesus seems to be ruining things for everyone. 
The irony, of course, is that the Messiah is already here – standing in plain sight in front of everyone.
And Jesus has a very different understanding of the meaning of the Sabbath and of God’s intentions for human lives. 
He is incensed that the scribes, Pharisees, and teachers of the Law have turned God into a creditor who needs to be paid off with good behavior, instead of a Father extending arms of love to hopelessly broken people.  That’s nothing less than a scandal. 
Turning to the synagogue leader, he wins over the crowd with a sharp rebuke: How can you say that it’s OK to unbind a donkey on the Sabbath so it can have a drink of water, but it’s not OK to unbind a bent-over woman so she can have her life back?  Does God really want us to keep coming up with restrictions so we can label somebody else a spiritual Qua-Qua-Quadda?  Or is God in the business of setting people free?
Perhaps you’ve been at the center of a similar drama – a situation in which earnest spiritual leaders have declared that they have it on good authority that no one, if they ever hope to please God, should be caught dancing, playing cards, singing praise choruses, drinking alcohol, or reading the wrong version of the Bible – even though Scripture itself is either silent or neutral about all of those things.
It may be a great oversimplification, but it’s also true:
When choosing between the options of doing right things or doing things right, Jesus always gravitates to the former. 
We should, too.
Which means we should all sleep in on May 1 without a worry in the world.