I have to admit: I kind of feel sorry for the leader of the synagogue. He’s such an obvious villain: the chief elder of the synagogue, the center of the Jewish faith outside of the Temple in Jerusalem, clearly a man of privilege . . . yet who cares more about the rules than he does about experiencing the living proof of God’s love in their midst. Also, he apparently he has so little spine that he cannot address Jesus for what he sees as breaking the law of sabbath and so little regard for the woman who has been afflicted with a debilitating condition for 18 years, that rather than speaking to either of them directly, he chews out the crowd! What a pompous, self-righteous jerk. Let’s all boo and hiss at the leader of the synagogue! It’s easy to make him into a 2-dimensional villain.
And yet, I feel sorry for him. First, I feel sorry for him just on general principle. Because rarely do we meet a character in the Bible – or in our lives – that is purely one thing and not another, purely villain with no redeeming qualities or mixed motivations or extenuating circumstances. Reality is more nuanced than that, right?
But I also feel sorry for him because, even though he’s clearly misguided, I wonder if he’s also been misunderstood. I wonder it because St. Luke tells us that the guy “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.’” He kept saying it, according to our translation. That means he said it more than once. It implies that he said it over and over again. That makes me think that he was feeling pretty anxious about what was going on. Why it was so urgent for him to get his point across? Maybe he was trying to keep order. Maybe he was just trying to protect the proper observance of the sabbath – making sure that all the hubbub wasn’t distracting people from their purpose in coming to the synagogue in the first place: learning the scriptures and praying to God. Maybe he saw himself as the custodian of the tradition and felt responsible for maintaining the status quo. Maybe he even felt like the times were changing with Jesus attracting so many followers, and because of those changes, his congregation was slipping away from him, his way of worship was slipping away from him, his status and his very way of life were slipping away from him. I’m guessing he was feeling threatened, experiencing a good deal of fear. That doesn’t excuse the way he prioritized traditions and rules over mercy and justice. But I feel for the guy.
Fear is a terrible motivator. Actually, no – fear is a terrific motivator of terrible actions. Fear of losing our status in the world can make us lean toward nationalism, advocating for policies that support our interests to the exclusion or even the detriment of any other nation’s. And that is contrary to the kingdom of God, in which we are meant to help and serve one another. Fear of losing our status in society can make us antagonistic toward anyone who looks different or comes from a different country or thinks differently or believes differently or loves differently than we do. And that is contrary to the kingdom of God, in which we ought to embrace the “other,” even as Jesus did, time and time again. Fear of losing our church can make us hold onto our traditions so tightly that new ideas never flourish and new people never meet Jesus through us. And that, too, is contrary to our kingdom goals. Fear makes us turn our attention inward on ourselves – our wants, our needs, our preservation – so that we don’t even see the needs of the world around us. That’s why, I suspect, the leader of the synagogue had so little regard for the disabled woman – he never even saw her need because he was too concerned about his own needs. He wasn’t able to witness the wonder of her change in status because he was too worried about losing his own.
But we need not be afraid, friends. There is no need to let fear motivate our actions. That’s what I wish the leader of the synagogue could have known – that there is no need to be afraid. Because Jesus sees us – all of us. Just like he saw the woman. Though she was a woman, and therefore no doubt in the back of the crowd; even though she was doubled over, making her virtually invisible; Jesus saw her. He saw what she needed and called her to himself, just as Jesus calls us to himself. We are his focus and he knows what we need. We won’t slip through the cracks. And just as Jesus made the woman whole, so will he make us whole.
Fear is not our motivator as followers of Jesus Christ. Only love is – the love of Jesus which turns us outward so that we can see others in need of mercy and justice, so that we can help them, and so that we can lift them before Jesus, who makes us whole. For whatever changes or losses may come, as we also read in the book of Hebrews this morning: “we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken – let us give thanks.”