Malankara World

Sermons Based on the Lectionary of the Syrian Orthodox Church

Fifth Sunday in Great Lent (Kfiphtho / Crippled Woman)

Sermon / Homily on Luke 13:10-17

Freedom From Religious Rules, Regulations and Rituals

by Pastor Edward F. Markquart, Seattle, WA

Gospel: St. Luke 13:10-17

Jesus means freedom. Jesus means freedom, not only from sin and guilt, but from rules, regulations and rituals. These rules, regulations and rituals seem to originate in the Bible but are merely cultural impositions on us. Jesus means freedom from these particular religious rules, regulations and rituals.

This morning I would like to begin by telling you a fable. This is a very famous fable from childhood, and I would like to take this fable and slightly alter it to meet the needs of our day.

This fable happened long ago, some one hundred and fifty years ago, when there was a ship sailing from England to the United States. When you sailed from England to the United States some one hundred and fifty years ago, it was usually a safe journey but also had the potential of being a frightening trip on one of those old large windjammers. It could be unnerving crisscrossing the ocean on a windjammer.

As this old man sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, his vessel was hit by a violent storm that started to shatter all the sails. The masts toppled over and slowly the ship was disintegrating. The old man threw his body into a life raft and before anyone could get into that life raft with him, that raft burst away from the main vessel. The raft set out to sea with only this little old man. He was alone in the life raft.

For two nights and days, the storm beat against this small raft and finally one day, the raft washed up onto an island shore. The man was alone on that deserted island. As he washed up onto that island, the man did not know what to expect. He didn’t know whether or not there were renegade pirates on that island. He didn’t know if there were going to be savages there. He didn’t know if this was an English penal colony where they had gotten rid of the undesirables from old England. There were none of these.

Instead, there were millions upon millions of Lilliputans, little people, about that tall, about one inch tall. There were millions upon millions of these Lilliputans, and Gulliver was dumbfounded. The Lilliputans thought that Gulliver was a giant, a huge giant, cruel and mean. So the Lilliputans began to wage war against Gulliver and they pulled out their canons and they began to shoot at him. Their little wads of mud bounced off of Gulliver’s body, as did the arrows from their bows. The arrows were merely toothpicks which bounced off of Gulliver’s gigantic body.

So, one moon lit night, when Gulliver was asleep on a hill, the legions of Lilluputans crept up silently with string and thread, and very quietly tied strings around each of his fingers. Hundreds of strings to each of his fingers and also to his wrists, elbows and arms. They put strings and threads around his chest, around his knees, around his toes. Every hair on his head had a string. The Lilluputans tied Gulliver firmly down, and when Gulliver awoke the next morning, he couldn’t move. He had been tied down by thousands upon thousands upon thousands of silver thin threads.

Gulliver was sure to die because he couldn’t feed himself. Gulliver was sure to die because he couldn’t give himself water. Thus ends of version of Gulliver’s Travels. Did Gulliver live? Did Gulliver die? You complete the last epoch of the story.

One thing was sure: Gulliver needed to be set free from the thousands upon thousands of little ties and knots, strings and threads, that were holding him down and killing him and his freedom.

The meaning of this fable is obvious. It is the nature of human institutions, whether they be government, schools, churches, social conventions; it is the nature of all human institutions to put thousands upon thousands upon thousands of little regulations on people in order to hold them down, tie them down and control them.

For example, I think you know what it means to work with the Federal Government. If you apply for welfare or food stamps, or whatever you apply for to the government, you know that there are miles of red tape, a myriad of rules and regulations. A visit to the Federal office to apply for food stamps is dreaded.

I could give you hundreds of examples of this tendency. Merely talk with Dr. Charles Salzer of our parish, who is Chief of Staff at a local hospital, and he despairs at all the paper work required by the government for Medicare or any other program. Dr. Salzer throws up his hands, not knowing where to begin with all the paperwork that is now required by the government for each hospital. So many rules and regulations. Thousands of them.

Let me give you a second example of this tendency. Let’s say you are going to sell your house and an FHA loan is being considered. The FHA comes out to inspect your house, and they have the thickest rulebook you have ever seen. Or, have you applied for a building permit at the city recently?

It is the nature of all human institutions, whether they are churches, schools or governments, to start to make a shift. A subtle shift is made, where the original purpose of the institution was to serve people, and instead, the people start to serve the institution. It happens again and again and again. The legal needs of the institution become greater than the real needs of the people. A shift occurs and the needs and regulations of the institution become greater than the needs of the people.

It is precisely that attitude of Gulliver being strapped down with thousands upon thousands of little regulations that the Gospel lesson speaks about today. In the Judaism of that time in history, their religion had become a religion of a thousand rules and regulations. The original purpose of the Old Testament religion was to help people meet their spiritual and emotional needs. That is the purpose of the Old Testament religion: to help people praise God and compassionately serve one another. But instead, there were thousands of little traditions that people could or could not do, and those regulations became the preoccupation of the Old Testament synagogue.

Believe it or not, a Jewish regulation in Jesus’ day was that a person could not be healed on the Sabbath day of rest. Can you imagine such thoughts today? All hospitals will care for patients six days a week but not care for them on Sunday? Such thoughts would not “sell” in our society today.

The gospel story for today fits perfectly well with similar stories told elsewhere in the Gospel of Luke. In Luke, chapter six, we hear similar stories where religious rules and regulations for the Sabbath had become more important than God’s commandment for love and compassion.

In the gospel stories for today, Jesus is the liberator. Jesus is the liberator who sets people free. Jesus sets people free, not from sin, and not from guilt. Jesus sets people free from the thousands of rules and regulations that started to tie people down, whereby religious regulations became more important than compassion.

Let me tell you three gospel stories from the Gospel of Luke. These gospel stories belong together. Each of the incidents happened on the Sabbath day and was a violation of the Sabbath rules and regulations.

The first story is from Luke 6. Jesus and his disciples were walking along through the grain fields on the Sabbath, and the Jews, like the government, had hundreds of little rules and regulations, including laws for the Sabbath. They had regulations such as: You couldn’t cook. You couldn’t bake. You couldn’t’ pick up water. If your donkey fell in a hole, you couldn’t pull it out. They had rules and regulations that defined the word, “work.” You couldn’t work on the Sabbath, and any actions such as baking, cooking, picking up water, or pulling your donkey from a hole were defined by Jewish law as being work.

Jesus and his disciples were talking through a grain field. I can’t imagine walking through grain fields and picking grain to eat, so in my imagination, I have them walking through a pea patch and picking peas. The disciples were walking through a field of peas and they were hungry, so the disciples and Jesus picked some peas as they walked along. They picked the peas, opened the pods, and popped peas into their mouths. The Pharisees saw this and shouted at him, “Jesus, you can’t do that. That violates our tradition. For one thing, it is work to pick peas and secondly, it is work to open the shell. You can neither pick food or open the shell. It is against our laws. You can’t do work on the Sabbath. You’re not being religious enough.”

Jesus said to them, “You misunderstand. Human beings weren’t made to obey the Sabbath rules and regulations. The Sabbath day of rest was made for human beings. The Sabbath Day was given to us to worship God, relax, rest, and recuperate. The Sabbath is to free us from all the work we have been doing this past week. The Sabbath wasn’t made in order so human beings had a bunch of rules and regulations to follow. The Sabbath was made for us people, so we could rest and rehabilitate.” To which the Pharisees said, “You can’t do that on the Sabbath. It violates our rules and regulations. You can’t do any work on the Sabbath, including picking grain to eat.”

The second incident is also from Luke 6. It was on the Sabbath day again. Jesus and his disciples had come to the synagogue to worship. There was an old man right outside of the synagogue who had a withered hand. According to the Gospel of Hebrews, one of the apocryphal gospels of that time, the old man was a stonemason. The stonemason couldn’t work because he had withered hands. Jesus came to heal him and the Pharisees said, “You can’t do that. You can’t heal a man on the Sabbath. That violates our rules and regulations. According to our law, you can help people if they are getting worse, but you can’t help a person get better when they are sick on the Sabbath. That violates our law because our law dictates that you can’t do any religious work such as making a man better or healing a person.” Jesus shook his head and said, “That is absolute nonsense.” Jesus then healed the man.

The third incident is today’s gospel lesson from Luke 13. It was the Sabbath again. Jesus was again teaching on the Sabbath. There was a woman in the synagogue who had serious back problems for eighteen years. She was crippled up, bent over and could not stand up straight. Back problems. Yes, many of us have serious back problems and this lady’s back problems were serious. Jesus healed her. Bingo. She was healed. He laid his hands on her and she was healed instantly. BUT. There is always a “but” in the story. The story continues: BUT, there was a ruler of the synagogue who was indignant towards Jesus because Jesus had healed the woman on the Sabbath of all days. That self-righteous legalist said, “God worked six days a week and rested on the Sabbath. You should have healed the woman on the six days dedicated to work and not on the seventh day designated for Sabbath rest.” Jesus answered the man, “You hypocrite, you phony. Don’t all of you untie your ox or ass on the Sabbath and lead it to water. It is work to untie your ox or ass. If you can untie your ox or ass on the Sabbath, doesn’t it make sense that a sick person can be healed on the Sabbath?” When Jesus said this, his adversaries were ashamed because Jesus made them look like fools. The common people were glad that Jesus healed the sick lady even if it was the Sabbath. They were also secretly pleased that Jesus had put down those religious, self righteous Pharisees who loved their religious laws more than being compassionate to those in need.

In all three of these stories, Jesus means freedom. From other sermons and Bible lessons, we know that Jesus means freedom. He frees us from the sinfulness of our lives. Jesus also frees us from the guilt that binds us. But in today’s stories, Jesus means freedom and he frees us from the rules, regulations and rituals…from those customs that we have become convinced are the will and purpose of God. In order for us to be religious or spiritual, we are to follow our religious customs, our rules, regulations and rituals. But Jesus frees us from all customs that interfere with helping people praise God and be compassionate to one another.

In each of these three stories, the rules, regulations and rituals for the Sabbath had become more important than doing the compassionate will of God.

As we all know, far too often, the primary purpose of the church is to preserve its religious customs, its rules, regulations and rituals. The primary purpose for many Lutheran churches is to retain our Lutheran heritage. For Presbyterian churches to preserve their Presbyterian heritage. For Baptist churches, to preserve their Baptist heritage. We have our rules and regulations here at our congregation and we quietly impose them on people who belong. Sometimes, it begins to feel like the purpose of the church is to preserve our religious customs, rules, regulations and rituals, more so than doing the compassion of God. The rules, regulations and rituals take on a life of their own, and preserving the rules, regulations and rituals becomes more important than doing and being the compassion of God.

I would like to give you a series of illustrations today where Jesus means freedom. Jesus means freedom from our religious customs that we think are somehow God-given but are not. I would like to give you several examples of this from my own personal history, that are part of my real world experience with rules, regulations and rituals that feel like the will of God.

First example. Years ago, but this happens even today, I called on a person at the hospital when I was a young assistant pastor. I listened to the person, prayed for that person, gave Holy Communion to that person, and the person asked me as I left the door, “And when will the pastor be calling on me?” I wasn’t the real pastor. Pastor So and So was the “real pastor,” and when “real pastor” called, the angels of God finally came into the hospital room.

Second example. I grew up on Norwegian legalism back in Jackson, Minnesota. In this Norwegian legalism, I learned that I was not supposed to dance, drink, or smoke. I was not supposed to go to the bowling alley because it was next door to the pool hall, and the pool hall was a very sinful place. I think this was because o+

f the smoke hanging in the air above those green tables, and of course, because of the bar at the far end of the pool hall. We could play the card game, Rook, but not bridge. We could drink wine but not beer or vodka. There were all kinds of things that we permissible and not permissible. I grew up on Norwegian legalism in my childhood. … In young adulthood, I remember pastor who loved to drink beer, but he was always careful not to leave beer bottles in his trashcan but boxed them up and returned them to the store in the next larger town where he bought the beer. This young pastor wanted to protect his privacy of enjoying beer, so his parishioners would not know.

A third example of rules, regulations and rituals that we thought were the will of God. It was deemed true that certain people were more religious than others, by the degree of their association with the church. The more Christian people were especially those who loved their Norwegian heritage and came to worship more often; those who didn’t weren’t quite as religious. Someone could be a skunk, but if he or she came to church sufficiently, he or she was a forgiven skunk.

A fourth example. Don’t date or marry Roman Catholics. My sister married a devout Catholic and it was clear to me that this was a violation of God’s will for our lives. We were to date and marry Lutherans, not Catholics.

A fifth example. The years passed, but the same principle applied. I remember here at Grace that a divorced person was asked to be on the church council, and this upset certain members of our congregation. They said, “Divorced people can’t serve on the church council because they won’t be good role models for our children.”

A sixth example. It was more than twenty-five years ago that a black man and white woman got married and almost everybody in the local congregation had a snit over that. The pastor, the family members, the parents, the children. This was heresy, for a black and white woman to get married. It violated all the rules of God’s law.

A seventh example. You can’t be a male, wear long hair and be a Christian. The “long hairs,” as they were called then, were tolerated but not fully accepted into the church. This situation was complicated by the fact that a favorite picture of Jesus showed him wearing long hair, and of course, looking very Nordic, and white and thin faced with a well-proportioned nose. Even having a portrait of the actual Jesus wearing long hair, “long hairs” violated our customs, the ways we did things.

An eighth example. You can’t be too poor and come to worship. It violates our rules, regulations and rituals not to be clean, well pressed and come to worship. In the old days, you actually had to wear a suit and tie if you were an adult male for that was the customary dress. Rules, regulations, rituals.

Ninth example, we can’t use contemporary music. God created the organ for worship and we are to be lead with this magnificent instrument. The guitar, drums and bass guitar are not quite instruments of the devil but coming close.

Tenth example, the kids of unchurched families are too noisy, misbehaved and irreverent during our worship services. These kids need to be taught reverence the way we know and define reverence from our childhood.

Eleventh example from my life. Only men can be Lutheran pastors and only men can serve on the church council. Women can teach Sunday School and serve socials but not be preachers or leaders in the church. We will not accept women pastors because men pastor are more effective than women pastors. We will not accept women as youth directors because men are more authoritative than women as youth directors. Besides, women can get pregnant, have children, and they won’t be as effective as men who won’t be so tied down with the children. By the way, let’s put change tables for babies only in the women’s bathrooms since the men rarely use them.

All of these traditions are traditional interpretations of the Bible and ever so subtly, those religious interpretations and traditions become more important than living out the compassion of Christ.

Jesus means freedom, not only from sin and guilt. Jesus also means freedom from our interpretations and customs at what we think Christianity should be. In the Biblical stories for today, Jesus is forever freeing us to worship and compassionately serve our fellow human beings, in this time, this place and this culture. Amen.

See Also:

Bent and Broken: Sermon on Luke 13:10-17
by Rev. Dr. Luke Bouman, Valparaiso University

Shame on You!
by John Jewell

Devotional Thoughts for the Fifth Sunday of the Lent/Crippled Woman
by Rev. Fr. Solomon OIC

Devotional Thoughts for the 5th Sunday of the Great Lent (Bent Woman's Sunday)
by Jose Kurian Puliyeril

Sermons, Bible Commentaries and Bible Analyses for 5th Sunday in Great Lent Kfiphtho / Crippled Woman)

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