Law and Action

Thursday 12th August 2004
Year C, The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity
St. George's, Hurstpierpoint
Luke 13:10-17

There you are, in the train, protectively hidden behind your newspaper, when the man opposite slumps to one side, eyes glazed, jaw slack. Just before you pretend you haven't seen a thing, you notice that somebody else has taken it all in at a glance and withdrawn. You wonder whether this is a serious situation but you are much more worried that somebody else knows you've noticed than you are by the apparently sick person opposite. That woman who noticed, what will she think if I call the emergency service on my mobile; and what will she think if I don't? Mobiles are such a nuisance; if I didn't have it there would be no debate about whether to use it. She's just sneaked another look at me; no matter that she's doing nothing; she knows I know and she thinks it's my decision; I'm nearest, after all. He could just be sleeping after a tiring night, he might be on drugs, he might be just a bit unwell but am I supposed to go through all the carriages asking if there's a doctor on the train, or am I supposed to find the guard? And what if I find the guard or a doctor and, in front of the whole carriage, the man is woken up and he swears violently or, even worse, says politely that he's quite all right and we needn't have bothered. Then you wonder what will happen if you do nothing and the delay means that he dies. In novels they always say that these sort of problems go through your mind in a split second but on this train it feels like forever, with the whole carriage watching you.

Let's leave that tense scene on the train for a while and turn to our Gospel Reading from St. Luke. Let's start by listing all the things Jesus does in this eight verse passage, not with a psychological analysis of what it might have been like or what went through his mind or what his motives were; let's just remind ourselves of the actions of Jesus by referring to the text:

  1. He breaks off teaching in the Synagogue
  2. He pays attention to a woman
  3. He publicly says she is cured
  4. He publicly touches her
  5. He breaks the Sabbath rule
  6. He disagrees with a Rabbi and then goes on to accuse him of being a hypocrite
  7. He makes everybody else feel uncomfortable by reminding them of what they would do if their property was in danger on the Sabbath
  8. He claims the cure has been effected by expelling the power of the devil
  9. He makes a lot of people feel ashamed.

In this very short episode, then,  Jesus says or does nine things which range from the unconventional to the downright scandalous and blasphemous. Having looked at these factors chronologically, let's look at them in ascending order of seriousness:

  1. He insults his congregation
  2. He accuses the Rabbi of being a hypocrite
  3. He notices and touches a woman in a place where the women and men sit separately
  4. He claims power over the Devil
  5. He breaks the rule of the Sabbath
  6. He attacks the Law.

Notice, here that the actual healing is not controversial; healers were highly valued in an age without doctors and medicine; it isn't what Jesus does that is controversial but the context in which he does it. On other occasions Jesus says that his actions arise from his special relationship with His Father; he has special powers.

But because each of us is a fragment of Jesus, broken for us on the Cross, and broken again for us in the Eucharist, we have special powers, too. We cannot cure seriously ill people by saying a word but we can ease their pain with a kind word or a caring deed. We cannot completely conquer the devil but, with God's Grace, we can keep him at bay and occasionally set him back for a while. We cannot make our own law but within the context of an affirming, teaching and learning Church, we can exercise our consciences and pay more attention to the spirit than the letter of the law.

Jesus was a Jew; he had immense respect for the Law - just remember what he did to preserve the sanctity of the temple when he caused economic chaos by expelling traders from the inner temple courtyard - but the law was made by God on Mount Sinai and given, through Moses, to men; it was not made by men and offered to God. Jesus saw that His Father's law had been overtaken by human law and in this case in the synagogue this stifled proper, God given, human compassion.

Which brings us back to the incident on the train. Here we are, in a train, opposite a man who appears to be ill and in need of help. It's all too obvious, isn't it? We should touch the man gently so as not to alarm him or rouse him too abruptly and ask whether he is all right or whether he needs some help. If he says he needs help because he is physically sick then we know what to do. We may not know all his symptoms but a short dialogue should establish the best thing to do. He might be physically well enough but in distress. Again, we can't see inside people and most of us are not trained to be professional counsellors but a kind word never goes amiss.

It's obvious; but what paralyses us? The answer, of course, is that we are mostly petrified by what other people will think. On the train, we calculate, there's a one in a thousand chance this man really needs help but there is, consequently a 999 chance that we will make ourselves look foolish. The problem with this way of looking at things is that we are in an even worse position than the Rabbi in our Gospel Reading; he was hanging on to a written law, honed to fine detail over the Centuries after Moses. We are dealing with an unwritten law where we have to guess what other people will think and calculate how many of them will think it. It's bad enough on a train but it's even worse in the office where what people think might affect our chances of popularity or promotion.

But as fragments of the Crucified Jesus, what have we to fear? We may be slightly embarrassed if the man opposite is just dozing; we might be slightly outraged if he begins to swear; we might be in a temporary state of panic if he proves to be ill; be we are doing the right thing. This world has not gone so badly wrong because of the evil actors in it; it has gone wrong and stayed wrong because of the good people who sit by and do nothing. Jesus did not plough on with his sermon as if nothing had happened, he didn't check with the Rabbi, he didn't worry about what other people would think; he saw what needed doing and did it.

Now there is a presumption in our society against what Jesus did. After all, we have always got "Them" who make rules about what we can do; we have become trapped in rules, written and unwritten.  We have lost the sense of our own conscience, operating in a direct line to the will of God our Father. We have blocked off our channel to the Holy Spirit, clogging it with all kinds of legalistic and conventional trivia; and we have forgotten who we are and the special powers we have.

It is not foolish to encourage with a smile or a word; it is not foolish to listen to a tale of confusion or sadness; it is not foolish to be firm when people around us behave badly; because such foolishness is foolishness for Jesus Christ our Lord, broken on the Cross for us so that we might each be a tiny fragment of Him.