Glory be to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit,
In our Gospel reading we have a miracle of healing. This miracle has both a literal understanding and figurative understanding. First the literal understanding, this woman had been crippled by an evil spirit and was in need of healing. Jesus did not hesitate but healed her immediately. However, this was done on the Sabbath and brought a reproach from the leader of the synagogue.
As we know from even a minimal perusal of the 1st or Old Testament that there is a great importance placed on it. We have here a discrepancy between our Lord and Saviour’s understanding of the Sabbath and that of the ruler of the synagogue. The one saw it as a day that no work was to be done and the other as a day on which good was to be done.
St. Ambrose explains that it comes down to understanding what it is a day of rest from. We are not to carte blanche rest from any work. No! We are to rest from evil deeds and not good works.
I think the first time this concept really hit me was when I was reading a book by George MacDonald entitled Donal Grant1 or The Shepherd’s castle. In there the one character is repairing shoes for another so that he can go to church. He explains that it is right to obey the Lord regardless of the day.
I had been raised with a very strict observance of Sunday and this did not make sense to me. I talked to the friend who had encouraged me to read MacDonald’s books who had also been raised this way and he didn’t understand it either.
This was the beginning of a long journey for myself to realise what Jesus was teaching here and that in practise I agreed with the ruler of the synagogue. There are just certain things that you don’t do on Sunday. However, I think our or my issue is that we tend to categorise things by deeds rather than by motives. It is much easier to have a list of things that we do or don’t do than to discern if something is loving or compassionate.
Returning back to the miracle, Jesus healed her because she was more precious than an ox or a donkey. We need to be very sure that we do not place possessions on a higher pedestal than the people around us. Our call is to have compassion on others not on our possessions.
We can also note that she was bound by a spirit. From this, we can learn that it is always a possibility to be bound by Satan if we become lax in our efforts towards piety. Satan had no power over the human race before Adam gave him ground. Sickness and disease entered the human race because we chose to say no to God. This is not saying that every sickness is because we have sinned, but if we choose to say no to God we are opening our lives to the attacks of the evil one and one of the weapons that he has is sickness.
Secondly, there is a figurative understanding of the passage. Back in March the lectionary took us through the first nine verses of this passage. Most of us probably don’t remember that, but the fig tree in the previous verses is needful in understanding how the church interprets this passage.
The fig tree is the synagogue or the Jewish nation that was in danger of judgement unless they repented. A judgement that happened in A.D. 70. They then see this woman, the ox, and the donkey as speaking of the Church.
The whole human race, just like this woman, was bent over by the corruption of sin. She had been bound and crippled for eighteen years. St. Ambrose divides this into 10 and 8. The whole law can be summarised in the 10 commandments. In the number 8 we see the fullness of the resurrection. (It is a bit much to go into in this blog, but the early church would say that Christ rose on the eighth day rather than the first day2).
In the eighteen years we see that law and grace has been fulfilled. The time of the resurrection of restoring the human race to stand upright is now here. The human race is healed in the work of Christ, but what of the ox and donkey? This is a picture of the Jews and Gentiles being joined together in one body in the church. The ox is clean – Israel and the donkey is unclean – the Gentiles. Our mission as the Church of Christ is to bring this healing to the nations.
As we turn to look at our 1st Testament reading, I would like to remind us that our theme is The Privilege and Responsibility of the Called. In the Gospel portion we see our mission is to do good and to bring healing to the nations. In Jeremiah we learn that God empowers the called.
The prophet Jeremiah was set apart for ministry before his birth. Some of us here may have been as well, but all of us have been set apart to his calling in our second birth of baptism. If we have been baptised, then we have been called.
Throughout history, both Biblical and in the age of the church, people have responded in different ways to this call. Aaron and Isaiah welcomed the call, while Moses and Jeremiah seemingly shrank back. Both of these responses are good and honourable and we are not to blame those who hold either as St. Gregory of Nazianzus explains,
I also learn that those who drew back were not blamed for their timidity, nor were those who came forward accused of being too eager. The former stood in awe of the greatness of the ministry; the latter trustfully obeyed him who called them.3
There will be parts of our mission or calling that are impossible in our strength. For these we need the grace of God. This is why some shrink back from their calling not because they are disobedient to God’s calling, but because they realise how dependant they are and need to be upon God.
In verse 9, the Lord states that he has placed his words in the mouth of Jeremiah to be spoken to the nations and kingdoms. He does this in every age. As we see here, he did it in the time of the prophets and now he places those words in his church i.e. in us to declare his message to the world.
In the final verse we see how hard it is to undo the evil that we can do good. The human race needs to not only be unbent but it also needs to learn to good. To remove the evil, the passions from our lives we need to uproot, tear down, destroy and demolish. Then we will be free to build and plant the virtues and good works in our life.
Living a godly upright life takes effort. Scripture describes it as a battle. Our salvation has been accomplished by Christ. We cannot add anything to that finished work, but we will struggle all through this life to live in a way that is pleasing to our Saviour.
Moving on to our psalm reading, we discover that we receive deliverance through the justice of God. As Cassiodorus tells us,
…for it is the role of divine justice to spare the suppliant, since it has pleased his fairness to pardon the person known to condemn his own actions. He says, “Deliver me form looming dangers, rescue me from the power of the devil”; this is so that he may not be condemned with the devil for eternity. When he says “incline” he proclaims that he is lowly and prostrate. Unless God’s grace inclines to deliver us, we cannot attain by our own merits the mercy which we long. No person’s merit touches the Lord unless in his mercy, he bends low to reach sinners.4
Finally, in our epistle reading, we learn about the communion of the called. This is Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, the Church. We have all the saints from time past, like the prophet Jeremiah, who were included through the old covenant to all the present believers in the church today.
God’s purpose from the beginning was to bring all people into his fold. He began this with the first great shaking i.e. the old covenant. There was a trumpet and voice that shook the ground, a blazing fire, gloomy darkness, storm etc. There were all these visible physical signs, but like the rest of the first testament they are but shadows of what God would reveal in the new covenant.
In that covenant at Mount Sinai, the people heard God speak but asked that Moses be the one to speak God’s words to them that they would not hear his voice again. Now in the incarnation, God has come to us in the flesh and speaks to us directly. The day of a mediator has gone. The reality is here.
Formerly, it was just the people of Israel, now in the heavenly city there are innumerable angels, saints of old and the saints of the new covenant. This city like any earthly city is a community that is administered by law. However, it is a heavenly law and as such it is not our place to know the ins and outs of how it is administered. This is part of what no eye has seen, or heart conceived what God has prepared for those who love him. We must be content to know that there is a heavenly community governed by a heavenly law prepared for us.
The Fathers tell us Zion speaks of both the heavenly city and also the soul of every holy and godly person who have set their eyes on the things above. This focus lifts them above this life as they focus on uprooting and destroying the passions in their life and learning the virtues. Eusebius of Caesarea tells us Zion means “watchtower”. In this way we are lifted in the watchtower so that we can see the vision of the heavenly Jerusalem.
We have come from the first shaking or transformation, this was from idols to law, to the second shaking from law to gospel. The reality that was promised in the shadow, we have now. We have a new way of life based on compassion and mercy.
However, despite this great change there is still an element common to both. To be part of either covenant was a voluntary choice. God does not force himself upon anyone but leaves us with the option to choose. God desires to persuade us and not to force us. St. Gregory of Nazianzus tells us that a choice made from force won’t last while one made of our own volition will. He concludes by saying,
It belongs to a despotic power to use force; it is a mark of God’s reasonableness that the issue should be ours.5
As God is merciful in giving us a choice, he also calls us to mercy. St. John Chrysostom has said,
Nothing is so characteristic of a Christian as mercy.6
He further tells us that mercy is always standing before God pleading for those who have offended and sinned.
It breaks the chains, disperses the darkness, quenches the fire, kills the worm, drives away the gnashing of teeth. The gates of heaven open to it with great security.7
As our Lord and God is merciful so we are called on by Christ to be merciful as well.
Be merciful, as your Father is merciful
We have seen then Christ’s mercy to the woman bound by a spirit, and we understand that it is the nature of God to be merciful. That being said what are we to do?
In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,
~ Fr. Matthew
3 Thomas C. Oden and Dean O. Wenthe, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture Old Testament XII (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 6
4 Thomas C. Oden and Quentin F. Wesselschmidt, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture Old Testament VIII (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 90
5 Thomas C. Oden, Erik M. Heen and Philip D. W. Krey, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament X (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 227
6 Thomas C. Oden, Erik M. Heen and Philip D. W. Krey, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament X (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 226
7 Thomas C. Oden, Erik M. Heen and Philip D. W. Krey, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament X (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 225
Tissot, James, 1836-1902. Woman with an Infirmity of Eighteen Years, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57031 [retrieved August 26, 2019]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HealWomanSabbath.jpg.
God Touches Jeremiah’s Mouth, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55596 [retrieved August 26, 2019]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:WinchesterBibleJeremiah(cover).GIF.