Hardness of Hearts: Luke 13:10-17

He was teaching in one of the synagogues – every  Sabbath. Look, a woman – a breath she has –  a breath of weakness for eighteen years.  She was bent together.  She was not able to stand erect at all.

He saw her,  Joshua [Jesus] did.  He called to her – he said to her: Woman: You stand released from your weakness. He placed on her his hand suddenly she was straightened. She glorified Elohim [the God of justice].

He answered – the leader of the synagogue did  – he was angry  because  in the Sabbath  Joshua cured.          

He [the leader] kept saying to the crowd:  Six days there are  in which it is binding to work.  In these  therefore  you come and be cured and not in the day of the Sabbath.

He answered him – haShem [the Lord] did, he said:  Poser!                   
Each of you,  in the Sabbath, don’t you untie your ox,  or your donkey, from the stall  and lead it out  and water it? This is a daughter of Abraham whom the satan bound;  look, eighteen years. Is it not binding that she be untied from this bondage in the day of the Sabbath?

Luke 13 translation by Richard Swanson

Swanson’s translation of Luke’s Greek conveys an idiomatic immediacy which the NRSV smoothes out into a more flowing, less choppy, English, at the expense of losing the breathy tension in this scene of confrontation between Jesus and the Synagogue leader.

I blogged on this text in August 2013:

The weightier part of this woman’s burden is not her physical deformity, but the burden of being morally and ritually unclean. …. It is from this moral burden that Jesus releases her and claims in doing so he is fulfilling God’s Sabbath command to keep this day holy. In his question Jesus couches the woman’s condition in terms of satanic binding.

Looking back it appears to me that my statement above underestimated the importance of the woman’s physical predicament in favor of emphasizing the spiritual element. Both are inextricably connected and the connections flow like this: disease is a punishment for moral sin – moral impurity is a spiritual problem – enter the Satan – in Hebrew meaning the judicial accuser, as an explanatory cause of the problem.

These days many of us regard the Satan not as a celestial rival roaming the universe in opposition to God, but as the symbol for the presence of evil rooted in the human heart. Satan exists, because we exist!

Satan is a projection of the evil opposing God that lurks in the human heart. Evil as hardness of the human heart becomes magnified by social and political forces – so as to take on an almost universal or cosmic dimension.

Time and again in the Gospels Jesus stands in powerful opposition to the way that religious traditions easily fall captive to the hardness of the human heart. History shows that if unchecked even the best religious traditions and social systems inevitably degrade into legalism becoming instruments of oppression and discrimination.

History shows that if unchecked even the best religious traditions and social systems inevitably degrade into instruments of oppression and discrimination.

Jesus is not simply performing a good work of healing with disregard for the Sabbath, he is deliberately choosing the Sabbath as the opportunity to declare God’s opposition to the way human traditions straight jacket our spirits and force our bodies to double over under the weight of such traditions. Doubling over is as much a powerful metaphor for the spiritual condition as a description of the woman’s physical condition.

In the NRSV, the woman is described as having a spirit that crippled her – bending her over so that she was unable to stand up straight. Swanson translates her as having a breath of weakness – the result of being bent double.

Stand up and bend over as far as you can go and see what happens to your breath and more importantly to your ability to speak out. Weak breath, weak voice. When religious and social traditions become degraded instruments of oppression, bending us double under their weight, the first consequence is that our voice is silenced.

Evil is embodied when institutions and traditions privilege hardness; the hardness of fear, and the greed that lurks in the depths of the human heart. As instruments of oppression, they silence not only victims but also all who become caught up by fear or greed in distracted allegiances. So numerous are the examples of this in our current social, political, and religious life that I refer simply to all the ‘isms’ that double us over, weakening our breath, and silencing our voices – from racism (1619). through sexism (#me too) to global capitalism (G-Seven and Jackson Hole).

Go: Cross borders, listen deeply, and live like Jesus is a phrase taken from the Presiding Bishop’s program Way of Love . I offer it as the sound bite to guide us into a new program year. I am particularly moved by the words live like Jesus because I am curious about how we will discover together what these word might come to mean for us individually and as a community.

What I do know at the outset is that we can do no better than to follow the example Jesus gives us in Luke 13; to live courageously in the place of tension between the traditions we receive and the challenges and opportunities through which God invites us to confront oppression and injustice and grasp:

the lives we came here for and waste out time on fear no more.

John O’Donoghue

In our hands, the Tradition we receive becomes an instrument for liberation from hardness of heart on the long march of the Children of God.

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