August 25, 2019
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C
Donna G. Joy
Each of us is born with a deeply rooted need to be loved. Raymond Carver in his short poem: ‘Late Fragment’, makes this point. In this poem, in response to the question of what was desired from this life he writes: “… To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.”
Carver here is emphasizing that being loved and calling oneself loved is the most important thing in life. We live in a culture where it is perceived that what we need most is money, fame, popularity, or power. But at the very core of our being what we truly need is unconditional love. Paul McCartney and John Lennon made this point when they wrote and recorded, “All you need is love.” To call oneself beloved is like a proclamation of love and belonging.
This, I believe in large part, is what’s communicated in today’s Gospel: the story of a women, having spent 18 years bent over and unable to stand straight, discovering that she is beloved; after all those years she discovers a sense of love and belonging. I suggest it is this realization that sets her free.
Jesus, teaching on the Sabbath (for Jesus, compassion takes precedence over rules); Jesus recognizes this women, and calls out to her. After 18 years of being bent over and unable to stand straight, marginalized because of her gender as well as her disability - Jesus recognizes this woman as beloved, and heals her of her condition. Her immediate response is to praise God – to be thankful. Rulers of the Synagogue becomes indignant because this healing takes place on the Sabbath. Jesus responds: So, you’re willing to untie your ox or donkey on the Sabbath in order to give them water, but this woman, a daughter of Abraham, cannot be released?
So, this is a story which makes the point that for Jesus, concrete expressions of love, and the freedom that is found within that love, are more important that any of the rules we may construct.
For this woman, her condition would have been a source of terrible shame. She would have been robbed of all human dignity. Once again, she would have been seen as a terrible sinner because what else would have disabled her in such a way.
Women were far less respected than men, single women in particular, and disabled single women even more so. So the fact that Jesus recognized her and released her from her burdens and broke the Sabbath rules in order to set her free makes the point very clearly that she was seen as beloved and setting her free from her burdens was more important than following the rules.
Jesus made it possible for her to stand straight. Jesus restores her dignity as a woman, as a daughter of Abraham, as a child of God.
So, today we ask ourselves, what are the burdens we carry that prevent us from seeing ourselves as beloved, that prevent us from standing straight. Perhaps we have difficulty seeing ourselves as forgiven. Perhaps we have difficulty forgiving others as we ourselves are forgiven. Perhaps we carry the burden of guilt, either ‘true guilt’ or ‘false’.
Paul Tournier, best known for his work in pastoral counseling, distinguishes between these two forms of guilt. True guilt is that genuine feeling that we experience when we know we have done something to offend God or others. It is the kind of guilt experienced by the psalmists. As long as they held on to their sin and guilt, we often read in the psalms, their bodies wasted away. Only after acknowledging and confessing their sin did they feel that their sense of guilt was removed (Psalm 32). False guilt, on the other hand, as Dr. Tournier points out, is unfounded guilt that we impose on ourselves or that we let others impose on us. In either event, guilt is a burden we don’t need to carry with us forever. It is a burden that God longs to remove from us.
In that great Christian classic Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan tells the story of a man who has a great burden on his back. Perhaps it was guilt, perhaps it was something else, but it is a burden that threatens to sink him lower than the grave. The man sets off on a journey in search of a way to rid himself of the great burden that weighs him down. Christian, as the man’s name becomes after he encounters Evangelist, in the course of his journey comes upon a cross on a hill. Only after Christian runs up the hill with the burden on his back and sees One hanging on a tree does the burden fall from his back and roll down the hill into an empty tomb, where it is seen no more.
This story is a profound reminder that Jesus is the One who came to give life and set people free. He is the great liberator who extends God’s grace to all, especially to the weak, oppressed, and marginalized. Through Jesus, the love and grace of God have been made manifest as in no other who has ever walked upon the earth. It is God’s will that we have life and that we have it abundantly. This life – this liberating freedom – has been revealed in Jesus Christ. So through Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf he sees each of us, each of the burdens we bear, and sets us free.
It is also important to recognize the woman’s response to this gift. Immediately she stands straight and praises God. We too are called to accept this gift, recognize it, and give thanks and praise to God. And one of the significant ways in which we give thanks is to share it with others.
Often throughout the course of my life, I have seen faithful people recognize the burdens that others bear, and so often over the years I have seen unconditional expressions of love set people free. To see the pain and burdens of others, to respond in love, is to carry on the work of Christ. Indeed, we are expected to know that we are sons and daughters of Abraham and beloved children of God, just as the woman in this morning’s story. And inasmuch as relieving burdens was the ministry Jesus felt called to perform, it should also be the ministry of the Church and each of us who seek to follow him. Just as we receive this liberating gift from him, we are called to be channels through which this gift is made known to others.
The poet identifies the most important thing in life is: “To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.” In and through Jesus, we have received this extraordinary gift, and we are called to be channels through which this ‘belovedness’ is made known to others.