The doctors had diagnosed my friend Earl with pancreatic cancer. They gave him just a few months, maybe just a few weeks, to live. So I drove from St. Louis to Alabama to spend some time with him and to say a final goodbye. We sat around talking for most of a day. Finally, it was time for me to begin the trek back home.
I looked over my shoulder as I walked from his back door to my car. He stood on the stoop, holding the door ajar, smiled and waved. Our eyes met. In that look we silently acknowledged that we would not see each other again on this earth.
Had my friend received a miraculous cure, I would have been delighted for him and happy for me. I loved that man. I still do. Given how many people ask me to pray for a loved one’s healing or for recovery from addiction or for relief from chronic pain, my sense is that my joyful reaction to somebody getting a break is pretty common.
So I’m taken aback by the story of Jesus and the bent-over woman. (Luke 13:10-17) Jesus is teaching in the synagogue. He noticed a woman suffering from a condition that prevented her from standing up straight. So, being all Jesus-y and everything, he calls her over and heals her.
That’s when things started to go downhill. She was happy as a clam. The leaders of that congregation, not so much. They bitterly criticized Jesus for healing on the Sabbath.
Some readers will interpret their reaction as an example of callous legalism. From this perspective, those leaders are more concerned with following the rules—the rabbinic amplifications of the Sabbath commandment—than they are with promoting the wholeness and well-being of another human being.
This line of interpretation can lead to fruitful discussion. But Jesus’s own words and the woman’s actions are leading me in a different direction. After healing the woman, Jesus says, “Woman, you are set free.” Then, the woman stood up straight and began praising God.
In other words, Jesus’s healing was an act of liberation. And that woman claimed her own freedom. She was in the synagogue and could worship God just like everybody else.
Apparently, claiming your freedom will threaten and enrage some people.
Survivors of abusive relationships can tell you this. Their abusers used the threat of verbal and physical violence to coerce submissiveness. It takes courage for survivors to draw boundaries. To claim their own dignity and worth. To exercise the freedom that makes a human being a human being.
And that is what Jesus came to do. To fully restore our humanity. To set the captive free. He described freedom in his most famous moral formula. The Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In other words, recognize in other people the same humanity—the same freedom to choose—that you claim for yourself.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant put it this way. Treat every human being—including yourself—as an end in themselves and never as a means only. Nobody is just a tool for you to use. An object to be consumed and then discarded. Every human being has inherent, infinite worth.
The problem is that the world doesn’t operate this way. Face it, Jesus would never have to give us the Golden Rule if everybody already followed it. Instead, some people accumulate privilege, wealth, and power at the expense of the freedom and dignity others.
When bent-over women—or any economically, socially, or politically disadvantaged persons—draw their own boundaries, those who have been profiting from their diminished status will be threatened and grow enraged.
For instance, chattel slavery ended in the United States in 1865 with the defeat of the Confederacy. In that same year the KKK was established by former Confederate army officers. By 1867, chapters of the Klan could be found throughout the Deep South.
Their purpose was to maintain the subordination of now-liberated blacks. Lacking the institution of slavery as a means, they employed terror and violence. Contemporary white supremacists are heirs of this dehumanizing tradition.
When he emerged from prison, Nelson Mandela committed himself to a mind-boggling, holy goal. He realized that each of us will be truly free only when everyone is free. So, he set out to liberate not only the oppressed, but also the oppressor. To liberate them from their blindness to the humanity of others.
You see, our humanity is bound up not only with our ability to set our own boundaries and to make our own choices. Our humanity is fully actualized only when we recognize that same freedom, that same dignity, in everyone else.
In order to claim our own freedom, we must insist upon freedom for everyone.
I appreciate your words, as usual. It made me think of this –
Compassion is sometimes the fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.
Anytime my words bring Buechner to mind I feel pretty good! Thank you!
This piece reminded me of my own lack of freedom and how my friend Jim was freer when he was facing cancer (and death) than I can be when facing judgment. Being “healed” (from illness or bigotry or fear or…) is what I believe Jesus offers us. Very thought-provoking piece. Thanks.
I have a long way to go on freedom road. Every step comes with grace.
Thank you, Bishop +Jake! The reign of God is God’s creation healed, everyone freed through the lens of Love.
I’d forgotten about the bent over lady. I vividly relate to this as I knew of a bent-over lady long ago. I can imagine the joy of release. Totally agree with your take. The peace/healing experience a short while ago – that felt like an “act of liberation” and now I’m claiming my freedom, on unsteady legs ’tis true, but you’ve put words to something I couldn’t describe. An Exit/Entrance experience for me, to refer back to one of your older lessons. On the bigger issue you discuss here, it’s hard to comprehend the “enraged” attitude from those who already have so much – but sadly it’s very real.
I can see how that story speaks to your experience. You’ve undergone a remarkable liberation. I’m grateful that you’ve shared that with me. As I read your comment I thought that Spring must be drawing near for you. I hope it’s a lovely one
The very first blossom has arrived now which is very cheering! You might like to see this post I’ve just done, it’s very bright – and also thought provoking: https://exploringcolour.wordpress.com/2019/08/25/questions-few-answers/
How lovely! Can’t believe I missed it. I’m heading to the airport now. Leading a retreat in Wyoming for clergy and their spouses
No worries.. it was brilliant red crab apples lighting up an otherwise bare winter scene. You saw a photo where they were in the distance, this post shows them close-up. Anyway, all the best for the retreat!
The KKK is present and active in our rural part of southwest Louisiana. It frightens me…and I’m white. About a year ago an African American family built a house and moved about a half a mile from us. I visit with them when I happen to see them and check in on them as much as I can. I pray for them often. The parents both have jobs in Lake Charles which is about 40 miles from here. They continue to send their two daughters to school down there. They seem to be doing well, but I am still frightened for them. At 3 p.m. today, in about half an hour, I’ll ring my wind chimes. Maybe no one will hear them but the cows.
Thanks for ringing those chimes. Eventually love wins
Love heard your windchimes, for sure. A significant anniversary of a still-heartbreaking journey.
Great meditation, thank you bishop.
I just finished reading 4 books about human trafficking, am astonished how near slavery still is to us all. 740 cases of Human trafficking in Louisiana last year. It is rampant in Europe from the former States of the Soviet Union. Seems we must work to make penalties more severe as billions are being made by many in a business that is under prosecuted.
Thank you, Bishop, for this insightful blog. The remnants of slavery has left many of our fellow citizens feel very much like that bent over woman. It is shameful to watch whenever someone tries to help them, there is a backlash. We still have much work to do regarding seeing everyone as a child of God. Blessings.