when the rules are broken
August 25, 2013 The 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
Roy W. Howard
Think about it. This woman.
She has been in this condition for 18 years. Bent over. Resigned to a life in which she will always be referred to with pity as that poor “handicapped woman.” Eighteen years is a long time to be looking down at the dirt, straining awkwardly to look ahead or around the person coming toward you. Bent over, never quite able to stand up straight.
Can you imagine? It’s hard for me.
Last month I walked all over the Rocky Mountains of Colorado – 80 miles – up and down and over gorgeous landscapes; gazing upon bright blue skies nearly every day and glittering starlit skies at night. I looked at the trail beneath my feat whenever I wanted and never because I was forced to. I looked around in every direction, swiveling my head with ease to see Moose and Elk gazing in meadows, big horn sheep leaping over rocks, waterfalls cascading from glacier lakes at 11,000 feet, I even walked up one of one, climbed right over it to arrive at a place called Sky Pond. And stood there, spine straight, gazing up, tingling with wonder. In a word: blessed to be alive.
I’m trying to imagine what it would be like to be this woman bent over for 18 years, never able to stand up straight. Was it osteoperosis? Perhaps. Whatever it is, it’s the status quo. Apparently this is the life she is resigned to live forever. She doesn’t ask for help in the synagogue that day when Jesus was teaching. “It is what it is.”
“It is what it is.” Really? Which, of course, prompts the question: it is what it is, but is it the way things are supposed to be? Jesus appears to wonder about that the moment he sees her. It is what is, is not something he accepts simply. Without asking permission of anyone, including her bent over before his eyes, Jesus transforms “it is what it is” into “it shall be what it should be.” The bent over one now stands straight up – praising God with all her strength. I would love to hear that song of praise that surely erupted from the deep well of her spirit. Such a cry of joy!
Can you imagine? Seriously. Try it. 18 years bent over, now your spine is straight.
And guess what: the leader of the synagogue is furious. Seriously?
Well yes, that seems crazy and perhaps in the end it is, but here is where we need to proceed slowly. It’s the easy route to gang up on the leader and offer our collective indignation at his insistence on following the rules. Let’s go a little deeper, since after all, many of us know the burden of keeping organizational rules. There is always someone asking for an exception. If the Sabbath is to be taken seriously with all its spiritual discipline to shape a holy life, what good is it to make exceptions at every turn? The Orthodox practice of upholding Sabbath may allow for healing rituals under certain life threatening circumstances. This is not one of them. As my colleague, Ron Byars, has pointed out: this woman has been afflicted for 18 years without recourse and without saying a word, could Jesus not wait one more day? She is not dying. What makes her the exception to the rule? Rules are rules, goes the answer. No exceptions; if we make an exception for you, why not the next person? How many of us have heard that, or even said it?
I stood at the airline counter pleading my very reasonable case for why I should be allowed to get on the plane even though I was late for no reason of my own. The door is closed, came the answer, we can’t open it. That’s the rule. No exceptions. But this is different, I pleaded. No exceptions. Nothing.
But let’s go back to the bent over woman and the furious religious leader.
Isn’t it interesting, Byars asks, that rules mean one thing to the enforcer and quite another to the one upon whom the rule lands? The leader of the synagogue enforces the rules rightly; we get that (sort of). What about the bent over woman, upon whom the rule falls? She is the one who gets Jesus’ attention. Isn’t that our cue, too?
What about the Church and its rules? Upon whom does the burden fall the hardest when someone appeals for an exception? The gay couple quietly asks for a marriage ceremony to seal their love before God and their families. Rules are rules, and they fall differently upon the enforced and the enforcer.
Let’s be honest: it’s too facile to cheerily chant the hip bumper sticker: “rules are meant to be broken.” Say that to the Benedictine monks who have been following the rule of St. Benedict since the sixth century. It is has stood quite nicely. There is some deeper discernment required to hear the gospel.
Rules, including Sabbath rules, are meant to enhance life in some way. When they don’t something is wrong.
It may be helpful to ask honestly where are you in this story? If closer to the religious leader, what is the deeper purpose for following the rules that you have vowed to uphold? What satisfaction comes to your heart by way you have chosen? Is there anything within you that brings joy before God knowing that you made “no exceptions” stick again? Are you closer to your neighbor? Is there any thought that the satisfaction that comes from sticking to the rules might be overcome by the shame you experience at the end of the day?
If you find yourself closer to the bent over woman, what keeps you from asking now for your own healing of all that has bent you over for so many years? Is there any disabling condition to which you have resigned your soul with the patronizing reply, “it is what it is”? What if “it is” is not what it could be or what you silently wish might be in God? Is there, perhaps, a bent over condition that you have accepted? The change that God may be calling you to is more frightening than thrilling? What might happen if you took a lesson from Rosa Parks who refused to accept any longer the rule placed upon her?
Jesus is the One who leans always toward the bent over, the broken-hearted and afflicted. In his presence, the lame walk, the blind see, the bent over rise up on praise to God. He is the presence of God and in his ministry we see a glimpse of what God intends for all of us. There are no rules sufficient to undermine the healing that Jesus intends for each of us.
Then there are those of us who are in the crowd gazing upon Jesus doing the unimaginable, breaking the rules and setting the prisoners free. What in our hearts is singing when we witness the presence of Christ bringing joy to the sorrowful and healing to hopeless? Do we dare allow our hearts to burst into praise and gratitude? Do we dare to take our cues for ministry from this Jesus who breaks the rules so that all may rejoice in God? That is the possibility – the calling – that is always before us. “You are set free” said Jesus. And the crowd rejoiced at the wonderful things he was doing!