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When a rule is not a rule

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Theme: When a rule is not a rule

Let us pray.

Most holy, Lord God, your son told people about how the law should be interpreted: help us to see that your law can only be applied taking in account the human condition and that literal interpretation can be just mean, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Last Tuesday, an Indiana man was arrested after cops spotted him with his pants “pulled down to his knees” and his boxer shorts exposed.

Demetrius Russ, 21, was sitting on top of an electrical box talking on his phone when approached by cop Daniel Green. According to an Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department report, after Russ ignored Green’s repeated requests to provide ID, he announced, “You can’t ask me for (expletive).” Green reported telling Russ that he was “sitting on private property with his pants pulled down on top of an electrical box.”

[Russ’s perch can be seen in this Google Street View photo.]

When Green asked why his pants were so droopy, Russ noted that he “was just swagging.” The officer replied that, “swagging did not involve exposing your (private area) through your boxers because your pants were pulled down all the way.” The term “swagging” generally refers to getting your drink on.

During his interaction with Green, a “belligerent” Russ allegedly cursed frequently and called the cop “(names that cannot be repeated here) on several occasions.” While police contended that Russ appeared drunk, he claimed to have only consumed “one 40 ounce.”

Russ was charged with public intoxication and disorderly conduct, since Indiana’s criminal codes apparently have yet to codify the offense of having one’s pants on the ground.

It’s hard to say if any of the charges will stick. It seems that Green was just upset that Russ’ pants we inappropriately low. (And I thought that that fad was over – wishful thinking.) There are times that when a cop wants to arrest you, they will. It may be a coincidence that Russ is black.

Cops have a great deal of discretion in how they enforce the laws. They can be strict and they can give you a pass. Obviously, being accused of a serious crime won’t give anyone a pass. I am assuming that fallen pants don’t rise to the level of a serious crime. It didn’t help that Russ was belligerent and Green didn’t just simply ask Russ to pull his pants up.

How people, in various positions of authority, enforce laws and rules has been a human issue since before history began. Jesus was confronted with the issue often.

On the Sabbath, Jesus went where he consistently goes, to the synagogue for worship. Jesus was often allowed to teach as he was at this particular time. This gives Jesus the opportunity to continue his teaching about the kingdom of God.

We are told that a crippled woman shows up. In general, women were not allowed to be in the synagogue with men. Her mere presence meant trouble for her and everybody present. She had a disabling spirit that caused her to be bent over. In a sense, her disability caused her to look obedient because she was unable to lift her head. She must have been very uncomfortable. She suffered with this affliction for 18 years.

When Jesus saw her, he did not rebuke her for her impropriety. Instead, he called her over and told her that she is free from her disability. Jesus gives her welcome in a male dominated bastion. When Jesus touched her, she stood straight up. She praised God, being free from her affliction.

Synagogues, typically, had a president. It was the president’s job to make sure the scripture was read and that any teaching was consistent with the law and the prophets. He bore the responsibility of making sure the rules are followed. This is true of anyone in a leadership position. In every group, someone must be the cop. Someone has to care about the rules.

And there are people who want to bend the rules – and some to even bend them to the breaking point. And sometimes exceptions are made. Everyone notices the exceptions and thinks to himself or herself, “Why do I have to follow the rules?” The leader walks a fine line between enforcing the rules and making reasonable exceptions. The safe path for the leader is to strictly enforce the rules – no exception! Being safe is not leadership. What do you think the odds are of getting a DMV clerk to bend the rules for you?

In the president’s mind, healing the woman on the Sabbath was unlawful. By healing the woman, Jesus was working, which is forbidden on the Sabbath. The purity of the synagogue was at stake and Jesus was the offender. It is interesting that Jesus becomes the object of rebuke, instead of the woman who was not allowed in the building.

Now the synagogue president has a point. Jesus could have healed her the day before. She could have presented herself to Jesus earlier. Both of them could also have waited one more day. After all, after 18 years, she could have waited one more day for Jesus to heal her. The president didn’t object to the healing – just the timing of the healing. The president isn’t just talking to the woman, he is telling anyone else who desires healing that they can wait one more day, especially if they procrastinated this long.

Jesus disagreed. He pointed out the hypocrisy of their self-righteousness. If one of them had a donkey or an ox that needed a drink on the Sabbath, they would make sure that the animal got some water!

Jesus offers a contrast between the woman and the animal. The woman is a daughter of Abraham. So Jesus asks why would it not be proper to heal her of her spiritual affliction on the Sabbath. On a day where people gather to worship God, why wouldn’t it be proper for God to heal the woman?

When his critics heard this, they were ashamed. Jesus’ enemies looked foolish. Meanwhile, the congregation rejoiced over this marvelous healing.

Jewish law still says that one may not heal someone on the Sabbath, unless the person’s life is in danger. The sanctity of life trumps the Sabbath. It was easy for the synagogue president to counsel patience. But this woman probably saw hope. Hope for the first time in many years for her to healed. Sabbath or no Sabbath, she will be healed!

I wonder if the president would have felt differently about enforcing the rules if this woman were his sister, wife, or mother. What do we do if we see the injustice or unintentional cruelty in the enforcement of a rule or law? Do we see this in any church rules? (If you need time to think of an example you can have it.)

Christians have observed the Sabbath in an on-again and off-again fashion for a long time. Though the Sabbath is technically on Saturday, we typically observe the Sabbath on Sunday. How do you keep the Sabbath? Do you shop? Do you cook? Do you do housework? Do you preach?

Do we consider the following or the breaking of a rule by using Jesus’ example of how he deals with the crippled woman? Do we break a rule or law if human need is wanting?

This is a story about Jesus’ identity and about how God is revealed. Jesus doesn’t pray for the woman. He just says that she is free from her condition. Her healing does not directly depend on her faith or anyone else’s.

We didn’t hear what Jesus says in the next verse. He asks the congregation, “What is the kingdom of God like?” If they were paying attention, their answer would be, it would be like healing a crippled woman. Where Jesus is, the kingdom is. Where Jesus is, we see glimpses of what it is like to be in the kingdom of God. Jesus is preparing us for our future.

We now pray: Gracious God and giver of all good gifts, give us the gift of empathy: by which, we may treat others with respect, especially if we have any power over them, bending the rules, if need be, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

[The Smoking Gun contributed to this sermon.]

Text: Luke 13:10–17 (NRSV)

Jesus Heals a Crippled Woman

10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” 15 But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” 17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

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