LUKE 13: 10-17
Rev. Eric Posa, UU Church of Brazos Valley
Scripture: Luke 13:10-17
13:10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath.
13:11 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.
13:12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, "Woman, you are set free from your ailment."
13:13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.
13:14 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."
13:15 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?
13:16 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?"
13:17 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.
“Comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.” This admonition as been attributed to many people over the years: First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, journalist and social critic H.L. Mencken, even Mother Jones, the great labor activist. It actually originates with the author and humorist Finley Peter Dunne, writing in the 1890s, who accused newspapers of taking on this dual power to comfort and afflict. He meant it not as wise counsel, but as a criticism of newspapers, arguing they over-reached their role when they claimed this authority for themselves. Today, instead of treating it as a warning, these words are usually spoken as advice, and sometimes as a definition, for many vocations: journalism, social & political activism, and, of course, ministry. But is this truly wise counsel for those of us – ordained clergy and laypeople alike – in our ministries to one another and the larger world?
Jesus seems to suggest so – for this slogan is an excellent description of the ministry he offers in the synagogue on the Sabbath, as told to us in Luke 13. The woman who could not stand straight was certainly afflicted – we could easily imagine verse 11 reading, “… there appeared a woman afflicted with a spirit....” Jesus responds by offering her the comfort of his healing ministry, setting her free from the ailment which had bent her back for 18 years. The one who preached the beatitude, “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted” – this is one who clearly manifests the first part of the century-old quote in word and deed, despite predating it by almost 19 centuries.
But what about “afflicting the comfortable” – does this come through in Jesus’ ministry? Consider the leader of the synagogue. Here is a man (and indeed, it would have been a man in that era) who seemed quite comfortable in his position of power over the religious institution of his place and time. He also seems all-too-comfortable in his categorical religious requirements regarding work and sabbath. When it came to the ministry of healing, this synagogue leader was a managed-care provider – a one-man HMO. He restricted human care tightly within the bounds of doctrinal injunctions regarding the sabbath. Here is someone so comfortable in has apparently smug convictions, that he almost begs to be afflicted in his comfort.
Jesus does not disappoint us in this regard. He immediately shifts gears to the prophetic ministry of challenge and confrontation. By naming the hypocrisy before him, reminding the congregation how the woman deserves this healing far more than the animals – whose needs are always tended to, as much on the sabbath as on any other day. Jesus makes plain the need for the comfort he provided...and afflicts that comfortable religious authority with that very need to offer healing on the sabbath.
Today, of course, our world is complex and nuanced. It is easy for us to want to afflict the powerful hypocrites in our day and time who would deny the full humanity of those in their world. Our bigger challenge is to recognize when it is appropriate for some to offer appropriate comfort for these misguided souls. I think of those congressmen – and clergy – who advocate publicly for homophobic policies and religious perspectives, only to be caught up in sex scandals with people of the same sex. Such people absolutely deserve to be held accountable for their hypocrisy, and for their oppressive attempts to oppose full protection under the law, to deny equal human worth and dignity, to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, to our bisexual and transgender friends and loved ones. Nevertheless, such people also deserve to have their inherent worth and dignity affirmed and promoted, just as our first Unitarian Universalist principle states. Someone – maybe not you, or me, but someone who will be heard and listened to by those who seek to make their closets more comfortable by tormenting those who would live out and proud – need to hear the good news that God’s love and grace is not conditional on sexual orientation or gender identity. When the distorted teachings of homophobic leaders is challenged, that challenge is most effective when it is paired with the healing ministry of preaching God’s ever-present, undeniable love. These comfortable people are best afflicted, when they are simultaneously comforted in the afflictions which led them to such self-hating behavior in the first place.
On the other hand, it is natural for many of us to seek to comfort those among our friends, families, and congregations, whose lives have been afflicted by medical, financial, emotional, and spiritual challenges. Far trickier with such people close to us, is to know when (and how) to afflict these people, challenge them when their misplaced comfort leads them to act counter to their deep needs, and the deep needs of others. When a relative says hurtful things to another family member, a friend refuses to return our phone calls, or a fellow church member acts inappropriately during the fellowship hour following worship, calling them on their bad behavior is often uncomfortable. Many of us find such accountability, with people with whom we are in relationship, to be so uncomfortable, we would have to afflict ourselves in order to afflict them. Some of us even go so far as to soothe the ruffled feathers of the people acting out, to placate them with a surface comfort that feels good in the short term, but in the long term only serves to enable future acting out. The challenge for ourselves, is to find ways to speak truth in love to our brothers and sisters who sin against us, who sin against our shared values and ideals. We would not afflict an uncle, a former roommate, or another member of our church in the same way we would afflict a congressional representative or evangelical pastor who we do not know personally. But even as we offer healing and deep comfort to friends, family, and congregants, we also must call out behavior that is out of bounds, even as we continue to affirm them as people we love.
The ministry of healing and confrontation which Jesus engaged, a ministry to which we Christians are called, as not an easy ministry. It requires the serenity for acceptance, the courage for change, and the wisdom for discernment, to know when serenity, or courage – or both – are called for. Yet when we live out this ministry, with clarity, with conviction, and especially with love – we bring the world around us ever closer to living into the Kingdom of God: already present, yet to be realized, but offering the promise of justice, peace, and joy.
Holy God of justice and peace, we are blessed with your unending presence in our lives, with the abiding love you share with us all. So often we avoid the challenging work of living into your Kingdom. Still we give thanks for the gracious promise of your glorious Kingdom, the beloved community that is already-but-not-yet manifest in our lives. We, your children, humbly seek that serenity, courage, and wisdom that will guide us to the dual ministry of comforting and afflicting, in the spirit of your son Jesus. Amen