Jesus Heals a Crippled Woman on the Sabbath.” Telling a woman “who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years” to stand up and be healed, Jesus earned the synagogue leaders wrath and judgement. But, Scripture assures us, “the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing” (verse 17 NIV).
That Sunday, while the white male preacher droned endlessly about moral rectitude, I re-read the lectionary and realized something: Jesus was already teaching in the synagogue when this challenge began. An observant Jew in sufficiently good standing to honor ancient rituals, there was no way Jesus couldn’t anticipate the leaders’ negative reaction to his sabbath-breaking. This left only two options. Either Jesus didn’t care how those old linen-clad fudds responded… or he deliberately provoked them.
This moment of shocking revelation recurred recently during the protests over professional athletes, mostly African-American, kneeling in protest during the National Anthem. I’ve repeatedly posted links and comments praising this action, on both moral and First Amendment grounds, on social media. Though I wonder whether I’d join this nonviolent protest (some days yes, some days…), I support these athletes’ willingness to kneel on principle. This inevitably attracts similar responses from my more conservative-leaning friends online.
Their response usually goes something like this: “Protesting is easy. Anybody can do that. It takes real initiative to teach children, pray with the hungry, use your privilege to inspire children.” It’s often much wordier (one ran over two paragraphs of tiny smartphone type), but that’s the heart, that rather than protesting publicly, athletes should spend their influence doing small acts of private righteousness. And my friends aren’t wrong. Those are worthy ways to act.
In other words, can we privilege the rituals of righteousness above doing right? Violence against Black Americans, much performed under color of state authority, probably isn’t on the rise currently. However, it has become considerably more visible recently. This visibility gives us an opportunity to correct systematic injustices in American society, but it also encourages people comfortable with the status quo to dig in. Under these conditions, can we require anybody to enact civic rituals?
In Jesus’ time, synagogue meetings were probably the only time the entire agrarian community gathered in one place. By enacting the rituals of Judaism, they reinforced their shared ethnic identity under conditions of military occupation. The community certainly knew this woman’s health conditions. Jesus probably knew them before attending services. He chose the synagogue as the place to heal her within her assembled community, an act more righteous in that moment than observing Levitical law.
Sporting events serve that function today. Where I live, Nebraska Cornhusker games bring communities together, waving the same flag and singing the same tunes, across religious, political, and ethnic lines. People gather in homes and watering holes to rejoice together, singing songs and chanting favorite lines, the closest most Nebraskans ever come to a synagogue meeting or pre-Reformation village church service. Even Nebraskans living out-of-state participate in Husker rituals—witness my friends in New Mexico:
they manage to piss off officials just as Jesus angered the Pharisees. And though the Evangelist only mentions the synagogue leaders’ anger, we can imagine other Jews probably resented having their sacred rituals disturbed. We can imagine people saying: “Jesus, protesting is easy.”
But Luke insists “the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing.” Maybe this means his healing the sick. But it probably also means his direct challenges to authority, especially religious authority that counseled not challenging the unjust state. These football players aren’t messianic, but they’re arguably prophetic, refusing to countenance injustice. And they’re doing it in our society’s most sacred confines. I believe these athletes’ prophetic message has only just begun.