The Rev’d Matthew David Larsen
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Proper 16, Year C
August 21st, 2016
“And, behold, there was a woman which had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years, and was burdened and bent double, and could in no wise lift up herself. And Jesus saw her ... ”
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Many years ago, when I was about fifteen, my grandmother need to go into the hospital for a treatment. We drove up there to see her, bring her some flowers. As we got to her floor, a nurse stopped us, told us everything had gone well, but that she was on some heavy medication and might be a little out of it. OK. Good news. No problem.
So we walked into her room, and said, “Hi Mimi, it’s your grandkids! How are you doing?” Then Mimi, who was laying down, slowly leaned her head forward, reached out her hand, and said, “I ... I ... I ... I can’t see!” We looked at each other, looked back at Mimi, and said, “Mimi, open your eyes!”
Today I want to talk with you about the power of seeing.
Our Gospel reading, at first glance, sounds a lot like every other healing story. Jesus is somewhere, maybe Capernaum, doing his teaching thing, and a sick person yells out, “Hey Yeshua BarJoseph, M.D. my hand; it’s ... withered. Can you fix it? My eyes don’t work, can you spit in them? My legs don’t work; please would you say the Aramaic incantation?”
But that’s not what happens here. In fact, the translation we are using this morning leads us astray. It says, “And just then there appeared a woman,” as if the woman was trying to quietly tiptoe in to see his lecture but just happened to get noticed by Jesus. But that’s not what it says. It really says, “And, lo, ... ” or “and, behold, there was a woman.” Want to learn a fun Greek word? It’s ἰδού. Say it with me: ἰδού. The KJV translates it as “Lo” and “behold.” It really means “look,” but you could also translate it as “check it out!” or “say what?” or “look, buddy” or maybe even “OMG,” “Dude,” or “Woah!” or “I ain’t playing around.”
So it’s not that this sick woman tries to sneak in quietly to hear Rabbi Jesus but fails to be discreet. It’s that there was already there a woman, who had been doubled over and couldn’t stand up straight—for eighteen years. Eighteen years! She was already right there in the synagogue.
Here is an oppressed woman, held down, for nearly two decades. She was invisible. She had become part of the furniture. She could in no wise lift up herself, and for that synagogue that had become normal. That’s just the way it was. No one saw her, saw her misfortune, her pain.
But Jesus, he sees her. I want to do a close reading. It doesn’t say he saw her condition, her sickness, her agony. It says he sees her. He sees through the invisible and perceives her as the person, the daughter of Abraham, the child of God, someone bearing God’s own image. God sees her, heals her, stands her up straight, and shows the world the dignity she has always had and deserved.
It’s hard for me not to hear the story of a woman held down, doubled over, limited and not think about the glass ceiling that women face in our context. This week I saw a newspaper clipping that said in big bold letters “Michael Phelps ties for silver in [whatever race]” and then underneath in much smaller script, maybe a fourth the size, “Katie Ledecky sets world record in woman’s 800 freestyle.” The statistics on the way a woman is paid significantly less for the same job as a man is repulsive.
But Jesus saw the woman. He saw what was invisible to others, what seemed normal, what seemed OK, and said, this is not OK, that is not the what it should be. She is a daughter of Abraham.
Just then, the head of the synagogue, who had seen Jesus heal the woman, begins explaining—mansplaining, really—to everyone within earshot the technicalities of what Jesus had done wrong. If you want to heal someone, fine, I like healing folks. But please do it within the correct timeframe. Not the Sabbath! OK?
I could not read this passage without thinking about MLK’s letter from Birmingham jail. The people that MLK said were his greatest opponents were not the Ku Klux Klanner, not the White Citizen’s Counciler, not the open racists. It’s the white moderates, who say “yes, racism is wrong, but please let’s make your liberation fit into my timetable. Don’t upset the applecart. Don’t raise a stink.”
That’s what this dude does in the Gospel story, “Oh right, I hadn’t noticed the woman held down for the last eighteen years, but now that I have, while I’m glad you helped her, but I’m ticked you did it at the wrong time. Please wait until tomorrow for all healing.” As MLK put it, this is the person who “paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another [person’s] freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro [or other oppressed peoples] to wait for a "more convenient season.” As St. Paul says, “Check it out, lo, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!”
So today’s Gospel is about having the courage to act. Being willing to lay down your privilege, your rights, your goods, even your own life, to fight for justice, peace, and righteousness. But not only that: the Gospel is about learning to see, to open your eyes to what has become invisible. To see what others miss.
Here’s a place to start: This week, when you walk into work, when you wake up, when you lay down at night, pray: “God, give me eyes to see what you see, ears to hear from you, and the courage to act, even when I feel tired or afraid.” I believe you might hear an answer to a prayer that like.
So look, but don’t just look. Open your eyes and see. See the young man, the elderly woman, the refugee, the homeless, the child. When you do, don’t be surprised if what you find you really see is Jesus. And when you see him, speak out, bind up his wounds, do something.