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Homily: “Religion and the Crippled Woman”

Offered for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time 2016 (Proper 16, Year C)

A thought crossed my mind this week, and it went something like this. “We hear about Jesus curing a crippled woman—crippled for eighteen years. Am I going to be able to continue to focus on what Saint Luke can teach us about religion, when this incident is pretty remote from our experience as a Parish?” “Furthermore,” to continue the thought, “those of us who do have trouble walking are far too intelligent to expect that after hearing this Gospel, or even receiving the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood, they will no longer have trouble using their legs.” Life in the Church, even among the most very faithful, does not seem to match the picture painted by Saint Luke. So it seems that we have a problem—namely, a Gospel reading about Jesus performing a miracle that, as a whole, does not seem to be relevant to religious life like ours in the Parish of Tazewell County, in any way, shape or form.

In fact what this demonstrates is why biblical fundamentalism is not a sustainable approach to understanding Holy Scripture. Now, fundamentalism in and of itself is not entirely devoid of merit. What fundamentalism ever reminds us to do is pay attention to the words on the pages of the Bible, for the words of the Bible reveal truth; these words are sacred words, prayed over quite literally for thousands of years. What hopes, what tears, what dreams, what light hang on the words of each and every book of the Bible! As Saint Benedict wrote nearly 1,500 years ago: “What page or what utterance of the divinely inspired books of the Old and New Testaments is not a most unerring rule for human life?” In our passage today—a woman crippled by a spirit for eighteen years, able finally to straighten up, and praise God! And so we certainly can hear this miracle, and know that if Our Lord can do that, He can certainly help us in our needs, whatever our needs may be.

The fatal flaw of fundamentalism, within the context of parish life, is that a fundamentalist reading of this passage can go little further than that helpful but overly general sentiment. It is true that such a straight reading shows us that Jesus in this moment is counter-cultural, and cannot be boxed in by the rules of Jewish law—much like, you recall, how he could not be boxed in at his Transfiguration by the booths Saint Peter offered to build. His reasoning is certainly clear: if any activity at all is done on a holy day, then healing should be done, because humans have the highest value of any creature on earth. Jesus gives higher priority to the salvation of souls than to social rules. He actively castigates and condemns a system whereby social rules are given more prominence than grace.

All that is good and holy, and can be seen from a more or less fundamentalist, or “straight,” reading of this passage. But what claim does this passage make upon us? or what guidance does it give us on our journey into unity with God? It is important for our lives, we might be told, because Jesus is the performer of miracles. Yes, but how? How is it important for our lives — meaning, how does this fact actually impinge upon our prayer, both liturgical and personal?

One key to learning about religion from Scripture, and from the life of Jesus as reported by the Evangelists, is the principle of analogy. Because rarely if ever will there be a direct, one-to-one correspondence between what is described in Scripture and the conditions we face today as Christ’s Body, we can look to analogy to make the leap, so to speak, from the revelation in Scripture to guidance in our prayer life.

Let me give a specific example pertinent to this reading. Saint Gregory the Great, a late 6th-century Pope, and commemorated on our calendar on March 12, taught that if a person is “lame,” that person “sees the way that he ought to go but through the infirmity of intention is unable to keep perfectly the way of life that he sees because, having unstable habits, he cannot rise to the state of virtue and so his conduct is unable to follow in the direction that he desires” [1]. What he is saying is that the crippled woman described by Luke is like a person who sees the way that she ought to go but because of weakness cannot make that walk.

This analogy fits, particularly when we go back to the story and read that this woman was crippled by a spirit—in fact bound by Satan—meaning, bound by choices in which she gave into Pride, and the consequences of those choices—denying, ultimately, that she was a creature made by God, who is beyond time and space. And so, by means of analogy, this woman seems a whole like more like us now, does she not? We all, at some point, give into temptation, make a choice that deep down we know is wrong—whether it is Pride directly, that is, selfish arrogance, or one of the other six major versions of Pride: Envy, Anger, Covetousness, Gluttony, Lust, Sloth—the Seven Capital Sins.

Sin means separation from God—separation from harmony with the created world, through which God reveals His will for us. When we are separated from God through sin, we are not able to praise God fully and humbly. Again, we are like the woman, unable to praise God until the Word of God—Jesus—spoke to her, caused her to straighten up and gave her the grace to fully and humbly praise God Almighty. Can there be any wonder why these sorts of miracles by Jesus delighted the people who had ears to hear and eyes to see!

And so, yes, a straight reading of the text tells us that Jesus was counter-cultural. Yet by analogy we can grasp that the People of God are countercultural the more we accept the presence of Jesus, the grace of his healing word, and the fruits of the Holy Spirit. A straight reading of the text tells us that Satan bound a woman for eighteen years, kept her bent over, and unable to praise God. By analogy, we can grasp that the choices we face in our lives have high stakes, because choices based on pride and selfishness separate us from the ability to hear God, which means we cannot delight in God’s will and walk in God’s ways—so Satan has us bent over, and Satan has us unable to praise God.

So let us come to Jesus. Let us ever try to hear him. Jesus already sees us, and He is already calling to us. When we know in our hearts, in our inmost being, that we cannot exist without Him, then truly can we hear Him, and truly can He set us free.

[1] Pastoral Rule, para. 11.