By Father Casey Shobe
This weekend we’ll hear one of the great healing stories from the Gospel of Luke. It tells of a day Jesus is in a synagogue on the Sabbath and notices a badly crippled woman. Hunched over with pain, she is virtually invisible to the crowd, but Jesus has a profound ability to see people the rest of us don’t notice. So he approaches and touches her with healing, and she immediately straightens up for the first time in 18 years. God be praised!
But not everyone is happy with this miracle. The local religious leader speaks right up, chastising the woman for seeking healing on the Sabbath and reminding everyone of the law about work on the Sabbath. He is part of the law and order police, rebuking those trying to bypass the system or bend the rules. There is a proper, legal way to do this, after all, and she has not obeyed it.
It’s disheartening to me that so many Christians today seem to have more in common with the synagogue leader than with Jesus. Their primary allegiance is to law and order, and they loudly oppose efforts to help even the most desperate people in our world if it would threaten the sanctity of “the rules.” They brandish justice as a bludgeon to keep people in line and orderly, even when the result is the unnecessary extension of suffering. Yet, the Jesus we encounter in the gospels was undeterred by legalism when faced with suffering, and he reserved some of his harshest words for those who were more loyal to the rules than to their fellow human beings. “You hypocrites! 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?”
Perhaps the synagogue leader was doing what he had always been taught, and is more ignorant than evil. But power mixed with religious certainty become dangerous when they are used to control the lives of others. It’s like Barbara Brown Taylor once wrote,
“Jesus was not brought down by atheism and anarchy. He was brought down by law and order allied with religion, which is always a deadly mix. Beware those who claim to know the mind of God and are prepared to use force, if necessary, to make others conform. Beware those who cannot tell God’s will from their own.”
If our Christian faith is not expanding our capacity for empathy and mercy, it may mean we need to revisit the gospels and reread the stories of our Lord. Faith in Jesus should inspire us to follow his example, to seek out the people others are overlooking and figure out how we can help them. And when we find ourselves in complicated positions with seemingly competing principles tugging at us – if, for example, we are faced with situations in which strict adherence to the law seems to exclude our ability to help a suffering person – the way of Jesus always prioritizes compassion over rule-following. And besides, as St. Augustine said back in the fourth century, “An unjust law is no law at all.”
That doesn’t make the right thing to do always obvious or easy, and we don’t get to just make up our own rules whenever we want simply by branding our actions as religiously motivated, but we will almost always behave rightly if we remain oriented toward the one who broke the rules for the sake of love.
About Father Casey
Casey became the fourth rector of Transfiguration in October 2014 after having served churches in Rhode Island and Houston. He is married to Melody Shobe, also an Episcopal priest, and they have two daughters, Isabelle and Adelaide. Casey grew up in Temple, Texas, and holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Texas at Austin. His Master of Divinity was earned at Virginia Theological Seminary and his Doctor of Ministry at the School of Theology at the University of the South (Sewanee). He loves playing golf, road cycling, hiking, brewing beer, and working in his yard. You can contact Father Casey by email.