Proper 16 C; August 25, 2013
Our gospel lesson today is only incidentally about healing a woman’s crippling ailment. This story is really about who is entitled to be healed – who is to be included – who is privileged – and who is not.
In the religious communities of Jesus’ day, ritual purity was very important. Cleanness and uncleanness, health and sickness, who could be touched and who could not be touched – all of these considerations were the basis of religious laws. Doing any work, including the work of healing, was forbidden on the Sabbath, the day of rest.
These laws about cleanness defined who was in and who was out. If you were sick, as this woman was for 18 years, you were isolated, alone, probably shunned by your family, with begging your only option for making a living. So Jesus was not only doing some work – the work of God – by healing on the Sabbath; he was healing someone deeply unclean, someone shunned, someone the men in the synagogue would never touch – would perhaps not even look in the eye.
Jesus healed this woman, on this day, on purpose. Way back in the 4th chapter of this same Gospel of Luke, Jesus said this in his first sermon in his hometown synagogue: “Today this scripture has come true in your hearing.” You could say that the rest of the Gospel is an embodiment of that statement. In everything else he does in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is the living example of the work of God – the mission of God. If you want to know what scripture means, what God’s work of creation means, look no farther than me, Jesus said. Look no farther than this woman, this daughter of Abraham, that I have set free from her bondage to all of you.
If Jesus embodies healing and liberation, then those the gospel calls his “opponents” embody privilege, institutionalized privilege that shuts the “unclean” out. Institutionalized privilege is “business as usual.” If you do something, and someone says to you, “How dare you!” you are likely to have snubbed that person’s sense of privilege. Institutionalized privilege means you get to set the rules. You get to define what is normal, what is clean, who is worthy. You never have to earn this privilege; you just get it, by virtue of being … privileged. It is hard to question privilege that is institutionalized, because it is in the very air you breathe – that all of us breathe, those on the inside of privilege as well as those on the outs. It’s just the way things are.
That’s why the healing is only incidental to this story. What Jesus is doing here is upending a whole institution of privilege. Or you could say that healing IS central to the story but what Jesus is doing is healing all of these people of their sin of privilege – of their sin of pretending to be better than this woman – of their sin of thinking they are better than God.
In the midst of the coverage of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I caught a re-run of a
This week we are reminded again how difficult it is to raise questions about white privilege. The journalist Charles Blow wrote,
… my worry is that we have hit a ceiling of sorts. As we get closer to a society where explicit bias is virtually eradicated, we no longer have the stomach to deal with the more sinister issues of implicit biases and of structural and systematic racial inequality.
I worry that centuries of majority privilege and minority disenfranchisement are being overlooked in puddle-deep discussions about race and inequality, personal responsibility and societal inhibitors.[i]
There were people in the 1960s who found James Baldwin terrifying. He grew up in the church. He knew the power of the wrath and thunder found in writings like our passage today from the Epistle to the Hebrews. One of his most famous books takes its title from a spiritual that could have been inspired by this passage – and Baldwin used those lines to warn society of the true wrath to come at the dismantling of white privilege:
God gave Noah the rainbow sign/no more water – the fire next time.
But at heart he was a true believer in God’s work of creation, a true believe that God’s grace was about the healing and reconciling of all of humanity. At the end of the film, we hear Baldwin say,
The day will come when you will trust you more than you do now, and that you will trust me more than you do now, that we will trust each other. I do believe, I really do believe in the new Jerusalem. I really do believe that we can all become better than we are, I know we can, but the price is enormous.[ii]
James Baldwin was able to say that, with that kind of hope and realistic optimism because he knew these stories of Jesus upending privilege just to heal some unnamed woman who had been sick for 18 years. James Baldwin, and all of us, were watching Jesus that day, and James Baldwin, and surely all of us, were among the crowd who rejoiced.
[i] Charles M. Blow, “Fifty Years Later” http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/24/opinion/blow-50-years-later.html?partner=rssnyt&emc=rss
[ii] from the documentary, James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket, http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/james-baldwin/film-james-baldwin-the-price-of-the-ticket/2632/