As many of you know, I’ve moved around a lot in my life as both a child and an adult: I was born in Knoxville, TN and spent my early years in different places in the South, but I spent all my elementary school years in the Lehigh Valley before moving back South to Atlanta.
As an adult, I spent almost 20 years in New York City before returning to the Lehigh Valley to serve this church. So while my parents are both clearly Southern in terms of identity and culture, I am a strange amalgam of those different regions, and that’s never more clear to me than when we make our annual summer pilgrimage back South to see family, as I did this past July.
I remember once, after I had lived in Manhattan for a few years, I made one of those trips South, and one day my mom realized that we were missing some ingredients for a meal she wanted to make. So I volunteered to go to the store and pick them up. As I was standing in line to check out, I felt someone touch my arm and say, “are you all right, hon?” Startled, I turned around to see a woman in line behind me who reminded me a lot of my grandmother: white hair, sparkling eyes, with one of those Southern accents that seems like honey being squeezed slowly out of a bottle.
“I’m sorry?” I stammered, confused by the question. She smiled gently, and said, “well, I’ve been talking to you for a while now, but you just kept looking off into space; I thought maybe something was wrong.” I stared at her, wondering if she was joking with me; I literally had not noticed her or anything she said. Then I realized the problem: Southerners talk to each other, a lot, everywhere, whether they’ve met before or not. And they expect others to do the same. “No,” I explained sheepishly, “there’s nothing wrong. I just wasn’t paying attention. Sorry,” I admitted: “I’m from New York.”
Now that I’m here in the Lehigh Valley, I’ve literally had to learn to pay attention to people in public again, because in New York, not paying attention, regardless of what is demanding otherwise, is practically an art form. If you’ve ever been to New York City, you know that the greatest and first commandment of riding the subway is, “Ignore thy neighbor.” It’s not actually rude; partly it’s how people cope with living with 8 million other people in such a small area.
But partly, it’s a way of protecting themselves from people or situations that make them uncomfortable when they can’t get away. All sorts of strange and disturbing people or things can show up next to you on a subway ride. The only effective reaction, then, is to neither engage nor react: no words, no eye contact, nothing. It’s almost a Zen-like exercise: if you refuse to notice somebody, if you don’t actually see them, do they really exist?
Well, no matter how much we might want to pretend otherwise sometimes, most of us would say yes, they do exist. But that’s because when we answer that question, we’re answering it physically: they are alive, they have physical bodies, and no amount of ignoring them will make that go away. But most ancient societies would have answered that question differently, because they would think of existence in social terms rather than only physical terms.
Even today many cultures define existence communally rather than individually. When a Zulu person meets you, the standard greeting is, “Sawubona.” It usually gets translated as “Hello,” but what it literally means is, “I see you.” And the response you give is, “Ngikhona,” which literally means, “I am here.” Behind that exchange is a very different cultural understanding from our own. “I see you;” “I am here.” Until the person being greeted is seen by the first, they aren’t really there.
Which is why the woman in the synagogue isn’t really there: nobody sees her. She is described as suffering from a chronic condition that has bent her down and frozen her there for eighteen years, completely unable to straighten back up. She’s suffering from the effects of some sort of external force that has a tight grip on her, and she’s been suffering for a long, long time. In the culture of the day, she would have been ignored and passed by without thought or comment for precisely those reasons.
She was physically deformed, which was often understood as a reflection of spiritual and moral deformity; and she was afflicted by a spirit, which meant she was associated with unclean, even evil, forces. She had to remain unseen, ignored, excluded, because in a very real sense, she was a threat to the health of the community. If they acknowledged her, if they saw her, she and all her problems would become a part of them
Perhaps the saddest thing about this situation is that the woman appears to accept that. In her classic song, “Stormy Blues,” Billie Holiday sang, “I’ve been down so long, that down don’t worry me,” and this woman would have known what she meant. She has been bent down physically, spiritually, and socially for so long, it doesn’t even seem to worry her. She’s accepted it as the state of things; it’s just the way it is.
This is not one of those stories where someone has come desperately seeking Jesus for healing, redemption, and new life. Shuffling, bent over, she comes into the synagogue on the Sabbath simply because that’s what one does; trying to find an unobtrusive place, hoping for nothing more than an uneventful day. As usual, nobody sees her. But she’s used to it. It’s not just a New York problem; human beings in general are very good at not seeing the most glaring and urgent crises of suffering and injustice even when they are right in front of their face, and that hasn’t changed much since the first century.
Perhaps the most remarkable and powerful aspect of this story is that Jesus notices this woman at all. The story really begins when Jesus sees her. Jesus sees her. That’s no small feat, given that the woman is not only socially invisible, but physically bent over so she would be hard to see. But Jesus sees her, the woman whom nobody saw, nobody acknowledged was here, Jesus sees her, and calls her over to him. Right there in the middle of the service, in the midst of his teaching, Jesus notices her as she appears in the back of the synagogue, and he calls her forward. And when he does so, suddenly everybody in that synagogue has to see her, too.
When she does, Jesus heals her, without any request or warning. He restores her, physically and socially, right there in the synagogue in the middle of the Sabbath worship service. By forcing people to notice her, and then restoring her to health, it is like she suddenly exists again; in that culture, it would be seen as almost a resurrection. Nobody expected that! Certainly not the poor synagogue leader, who is appalled by the spectacle.
So, predictably, he tries to restore order, to regain control. He doesn’t even bother to address Jesus; he speaks right to the crowd: “Okay, people, there is not going to be any more of that. Everybody settle down, and stay where you are. There are six other days for doing work. If anybody else here needs to be healed, you can come on any of those other days, but not the Sabbath. This is not the time or the place for anything like this. After all, the Sabbath belongs to God.”
What the synagogue leader doesn’t understand is that Jesus agrees with him: the Sabbath does belong to God. He just has a different definition of what that means. Jesus hasn’t stopped teaching; in healing this woman, he is proclaiming something fundamental about what God is up to in the world. Jesus is both proclaiming and fulfilling the commission he accepted in another synagogue on earlier Sabbath day: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and…to let the oppressed go free.”
That’s what is happening to this woman; that’s what always happens when the kingdom comes: all heaven breaks loose, and “the way things are” are shaken until they shatter and fall away, leaving only “the way things should be”, the way God intends them to be, the way the kingdom of God was, and is, and always will be.
But the synagogue leader doesn’t see it. He is busy committing one of the great sins that we religiously faithful people are so easily tempted into committing. He thinks he’s protecting God: defending God’s interests, God’s rights, God’s territory, God’s fair share of our lives and our world. But what he’s really doing is protecting himself: protecting his own interests, protecting the neat and predictable divisions between what’s spiritual and what’s material, between faith and life, between what belongs to God and what belongs to us.
But in doing so, he’s not protecting God, he’s resisting God. He doesn’t realize it, but he’s created a conflict of interests between him and God; in trying to “maintain order,” he’s actually trying to keep God from doing what God is determined to do. He doesn’t realize that the kingdom of God does not break into the world, into our lives, according to neat divisions or predictable ways at duly appointed times; God is not interested in claiming one-seventh of our days or parts of our lives.
There is no place, no time, no situation, which is beyond God’s reach or outside of God’s interest; no borders or boundaries or days or seasons in which God’s kingdom will not appear; and there is nothing, nothing, that can keep God from getting to us with grace and hope and new life.
If you continued reading right after this passage, you would hear Jesus ask the congregation, “To what shall I compare the kingdom of God?” And the answer is the very heart of the gospel promise to this woman, to us, and to this world in all of its turmoil and division right now. Does Jesus compare the kingdom of God to the swords and spears of the armies of a great emperor, who conquers the world by marshalling his forces and heads straight for the center in an earth-shaking display of power?
No; to the little bits of yeast that a peasant woman takes and works into a massive heap of dough that she intends to make into bread: her strong fingers kneading the mixtures as the yeast quickly disappears into it, her body bent over with the labor of it, then finally straightening up satisfied, knowing that even though she can’t see them, those few bits of yeast have the power to raise up the whole mixture, and they are already hard at work. Though you wouldn’t see for a while, if you weren’t paying attention.