Text Study for Luke 13:10-17 (Part Two)

First, a correction to the previous post. The healing of the man with dropsy in in Luke 14, not in Luke 6. While there are parallels between the healing in Luke 6 and our text, the parallels are more pronounced in the Luke 14 text. In fact, it would appear that the healing of the woman in Luke 13 and that of the man in Luke 14 create a small inclusio.

If this is the case, then the material between the two healing stories offers some interpretive clues for both of the healing stories. And the healing stories create both framework and interpretive context for the material between them. I’m going to go with the assumption that the Lukan author has created a small framework here for the listeners.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

As the Lukan story was told aloud, it would only be a few minutes of listening from the one story to the next. Thus, the parallels would be far more obvious to those listeners than to those of us who read or hear the text piecemeal in our lectionary schedule.

The settings of the two healings are different. However, the content of the controversy is virtually the same. We see in this repetition the Lukan tendency to double stories so that we have a female lead in the one scene and a male lead in the other. The controversy is about whether healing on the Sabbath is permitted by the Torah.

While Jesus heals the woman on the Sabbath in a synagogue, he heals the man in the house of a Pharisee on a day that we can assume was not the Sabbath. In the woman’s story, the question is pressed by the ruler of the synagogue. In the man’s story, Jesus pushes the question toward his host and his host’s colleagues. In the woman’s story, the healing precedes the controversy. In the man’s story, the controversy climaxes in the healing.

These small differences give a sort of chiastic structure to the two healings when placed side by side. This is further evidence that the Lukan author intends for the one healing to lead into a sort of theological discourse, and for the other healing to lead out of it. Despite the differences, Jesus’ response to the controversy is remarkably consistent.

In each case, Jesus reasons from a lesser case to a greater case. You certainly feed or rescue your livestock (or a child), whether it is the Sabbath or not. Should you not then rescue this woman or this man as well, whether it is the Sabbath or not? In each case the opponents do not answer the question, thus rendering it rhetorical. The answer, it would seem, is obvious. Of course, we would effect the feeding or rescue, regardless of the day. And, of course, we would effect the healing, regardless of the day.

The issue is that the religious leaders know what needs to be done. Yet, they put other needs and priorities higher than the rescue and release of the suffering children of Abraham. Perhaps you noticed the label “hypocrites” jumping out from our text again this week. As I discussed previously, this accusatory naming points to the pretense of Jesus’ opponents. Don’t pretend that you are unable to tell the time, he argued last week. And don’t pretend that you are confused about what needs to be done for the suffering, he argues this week.

That’s the hypocrisy that receives criticism throughout this part of the Lukan account. Jesus’ accusation is heightened in our text this week. It is perhaps subtle, but the difference is there. In Luke 13:15a, we read, “But the Lord answered him and said, ‘Hypocrites!” Up until that verse, our text refers to “Jesus” in the narrative. But the accusation of hypocrisy comes from “the Lord.” That raises the stakes of what’s happening here. I suspect that the Lukan author would like us to think about the words of Luke 6:5 where Jesus tells his opponents that “the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

I’m not sure we should judge the ruler of the synagogue too harshly. Rather, I suspect that the Lukan author wishes for us to identify, at least to a degree, with that character. I think the character is legitimately concerned about faithful practice and good order in the life of the synagogue.

It is, after all, only a few hours until sundown. Can’t the whole matter wait that long? If so, then there is no controversy. But throughout this section of the Lukan account, Jesus’ point is that matters of the Kin(g)dom of God will not wait and must not be put off for any reason. The ruler of the synagogue perhaps wishes to be more cautious, to slow down and take all the details into consideration before acting with such haste.

I have made many of the worst mistakes of my life, in church and out, by acting in haste and without due consideration. I have spent hours in meetings with church councils, especially in conflict situations, encouraging everyone to take a breath, to sleep on it, to give it some thought, to spend time in prayer, to reflect and discern – to just slow down, for God’s sake! If only I had taken my own counsel on numerous occasions. There are times when the best advice is, “Don’t just do something; sit there!”

Yet, that’s not the case here. When we actually know what needs doing for the sake of the Kin(g)dom, the best advice, it would seem, is “Don’t just sit there; do something!” Well, more to the point, “Do the right thing!” That’s easier when the “right thing” is a clear and unambiguous choice.

Our anti-racism book group continues to read Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? She has a massively informative chapter on affirmative action. The chapter deals not only with the history and structure of affirmative action programs in the United States. She details studies that explore how and when employment discrimination is most likely to happen within process-based affirmative action programs.

Process-based affirmative action programs, where the emphasis is on “equal opportunity,” tend not to produce any improvements in equal outcomes. We White people should be clear that we cannot be “color-blind” or “non-racist” in our interactions with people of color. Even those most firmly committed to cultural values of fairness and justice for all still act based on unconscious bias. If you’ve never taken one of Harvard University’s “Implicit Association Tests,” take ten minutes and find out the deep truth of unconscious bias.

Tatum describes studies with interesting conclusions. “When the norms for appropriate, non-discriminatory behavior are clear and unambiguous,” Tatum writes, people committed to racial equality “’do the right thing,’ because to behave otherwise would threaten the nonprejudiced self-image they hold.” But when the “right thing is not so clear and unambiguous,” Tatum continues, “or if an action can be justified on the basis of some factor other than race, racial bias will reveal itself” (page 221).

This is why we White people have to be so alert to efforts to “change the subject” in conversations about race. If “the issue” is something other than race – class, economics, ethnicity, politics, etc. – then we will likely succumb to the temptation to make choices based on our (largely unconscious, I hope) bias. And we will feel justified in those choices because we have reasonable bases that happen to suit our preference for White privilege. “Social science research is also conclusive,” Tatum writes, “that, while explicit bias is infrequent, implicit bias (automatic race preference) is pervasive and contributes to the racial discrimination against Black Americans” (page 225).

I don’t think the ruler of the synagogue hated disabled women. Instead, he may well have had what were in his mind legitimate conflicting interests. Given that ambiguity, the ruler of the synagogue went with what suited his interests and agendas – maintaining the status quo and supporting what was, for him, the traditional understanding of how to apply Sabbath Torah.

We (church people) can find all sorts of rationales to maintain our own status quo and sustain our own privilege and power. We can dither and delay all day in order to maintain our own comfort and the niceness of our privileged communities. Most of us do that, not in order to be cruel, but rather in order (we think) “to do the right thing.” In what we experience as ambiguous situations, we choose what is safe and selfish.

Jesus declares that there is no ambiguity or uncertainty. The suffering woman is the priority. The man with dropsy is the priority. That’s how the values of the Kin(g)dom work. If our discernment is in line with the Lord’s priorities, we are less likely to make unconsciously biased choices. If our discernment is not clear in that regard, we are more likely to cooperate in the bondage to Satan that describes the lives of many of our human siblings.

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