Luke 13:10-17

Before we even begin to talk about our story for today, I want to provide some context because there are anti-Semitic land mines in this text.  I asked Andrew Ramer to comment, and here are his eloquent words:

The first thing to bear in mind when hearing these verses is that all of the characters in them, every single one of them, are people who today are labeled Jews. These verses explore an internal conversation between two groups of Jews in one community, who disagree about how to observe the Sabbath.

If you are a Christian, stop and repeat to yourself, “Luke 13:10-17 as it was originally written has absolutely nothing to do with me. This is not an ‘Us vs.Them’ (meaning Christians vs. Jews) story, as it has been read for two millennia by many of our people. This is entirely a ‘Them vs. Them’ story.”

Sadly, these verses, which ought to be meaningful in one context — that of seeking to understand the Torah’s instructions on keeping the Sabbath — have long been read to prove that those people who are commonly called Jews are observing it wrong, while the followers of Yeshua (that ancient teacher commonly known today in English as Jesus) are observing it right.

The principle that Yeshua is relating is one called in Hebrew “kal va’homer” which means that what applies in a less important case will certainly apply in a more important one. So, if it’s OK to untie an ox to give it water on the Sabbath, then how much better is it to heal a woman who is a daughter of Abraham? The community rejoices in Yeshua’s explanation of what’s appropriate on the Sabbath, in opposition to the leader of the synagogue, who references a different principal of justification.   

The word Yeshua calls the head of the synagogue and his followers, “hypocrites,” has long been directed by some Christians against Jews, with dire and disastrous consequences, which continue to this day, appearing for example in the innuendos of the president of the United States in the news earlier this week.

Here is an example of when something good — a flexible interpretation of the Torah and a celebration of the capacity for healing — becomes a foundational text in the oppression, exclusion, and elimination of Jews by followers of Yeshua, who seem to have had very different idea about the right use of power than the Yeshua they claim to follow.


I want to thank brother Andrew for being so clear in this framing. It’s especially important in this time, when vile and violent things are being said about Jews, that we don’t unknowingly perpetuate anti-Semitism. And in this divisive time, these tropes are so easily extended to others as well, in ways that are sometimes grounded in our most sacred texts, Christian and Hebrew scriptures equally, where “they” are vilified, with tragic consequences.

When we realize this text isn’t a conflict between Christians and Jews, I think we can see more clearly the conflict that is present — a conflict that happens with all religions (and within our political life). Start with two people, both deeply committed to their faith (or their politics)— in this case, Jesus and the synagogue leader. Both adhere to Jewish Law. Though, in the Gospels, Jesus is sometimes accused of not taking the Law seriously, that’s clearly not the case. A few chapters later in Luke, Jesus says “It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for the stroke of a letter of the Law to be dropped” (16:17). And, in fact, Jesus sometimes makes observance of the Law more stringent. While Torah forbids murder, Jesus forbids anger in Matthew. 

But these two faithful, law-abiding people seem to be talking very much past each other in this story as they defend their two very different interpretations about how to live faithfully. Luke portrays Jesus as winning this argument — he drops the mic, so to speak — and the crowd is clearly with him. But I’m quite sure the synagogue leader and his follower were hardly won over by the argument.

Both Jesus and the synagogue leader use different reasoning from within their own tradition to support their interpretation and both claim to be the correct interpreter of their own scripture. Sound familiar? We’ve just come through more than three decades of endless debate over “Issue A” —Dan Flickinger’s code name for homosexuality — as both conservative and progressive Christians appeal to reasonable arguments from Scripture to make their case. To be honest, I was never interested in having these kinds of arguments because I always sensed that they were beside the point. There was a more fundamental disagreement or conflict going on; my sense was that conservative and progressive Christians had different approaches to thinking through moral questions, which resulted in different approaches to thinking about God and Scripture. Trading Bible verses back and forth wasn’t going to get to that more fundamental difference.

Turns out, I was right! Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt wrote a bestselling book several years ago called The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt and his fellow researchers sought to understand why morality varies so much across cultures and yet still shows so many similarities and recurrent themes. After years of cross-cultural research across, they established something called moral foundations theory. Haidt says that moral judgments  — like healing on the Sabbath or marriage equality— arise not from logical reason, but from gut feelings, from moral intuitions. Conservatives and liberals or progressives have different gut feelings or intuitions about right and wrong because they prioritize different values. The researchers ended up grouping these values into five different moral foundation buckets or worldviews. They base each of these moral foundations in our long evolution as mammals, as we had to adapt to the challenges of survival. We have been evolutionary programmed, they argue, to see morality in these different ways. I’m quoting directly from a chapter in The Righteous Mind that talks about these five moral foundations or worldviews — a chapter you can download for free online at the website:

  • The Care/harm foundation evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of caring for vulnerable children. It makes us sensitive to signs of suffering and need; it makes us despise cruelty and want to care for those who are suffering, more vulnerable. It may not surprise you to hear that political and religious progressives rely heavily on this set of values for their moral intuitions — but so do conservatives, with a slight difference. (Do bumper sticker exercise.) Progressive caring can include animals or people that we don’t know — Haidt cites a car with a bumper sticker that says “Stop the genocide in Darfur” even though the car owners most like doesn’t know anybody from Sudan. Conservative caring is aimed more locally, with people you already know or identify with, or with those who’ve sacrificed for the group — like veterans. 
  • The Fairness/cheating foundation evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of reaping the rewards of cooperation without getting exploited. It makes us sensitive to indications that another person is likely to be a good (or bad) partner for collaboration and reciprocal altruism. It makes us want to shun or punish cheaters. Liberals and progressives also rely heavily on this set of values. Concerns about social justice and equality are based on this; Occupy Wall Street — with its anger at greedy corporations and an unfair capitalist system — is based on this. Conservatives also operate out of a fairness/cheating foundation but are more likely to believe in proportionate fairness — that people should be rewarded in proportion to what they contribute, even if that results in unequal outcomes.  Progressives are more interested in equality of outcomes. 
  • The Loyalty/betrayal foundation evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of forming and maintaining coalitions. It makes us sensitive to signs that another person is (or is not) a team player. It makes us trust and reward such people, and it makes us want to hurt, ostracize, or even kill those who betray us or our group. Many groups throughout history have hated traitors —- those who betray them — even wore than their enemies and reserved the worst punishments for them. Conservatives tend to rely more on this loyalty/betrayal foundation than progressives, emphasizing allegiance and loyalty to the country or to the church. I was thinking that Anabaptism relies quite a bit on this loyalty foundation, but here the loyalty is to the realm of God rather than loyalty to the kingdoms of the world.
  • The Authority/subversion foundation evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of forging relationships that will benefit us within social hierarchies. It makes us sensitive to signs of rank or status, and to signs that other people are (or are not) behaving properly, given their position. I think it’s obvious that conservatives use the authority foundation much more than progressives. There’s a deference to authority within conservatism, while progressivism defines itself as being in opposition to hierarchy, inequality and power. This foundation, I believe, makes it really easy for religious conservatives and progressives to talk past each other. 
  • The Sanctity/degradation foundation evolved initially in response to the adaptive challenge of living in a world where eating foods that are necessary to survival may also kill you — given that the food can be toxic, infected with microbes or riddled with parasitic worms. (And if you’re starting to feel disgusted right about now, that is the classic emotion associated with this moral foundation.) And it’s not just food that poses a threat — when early humans came into contact with new groups of humans, it greatly increased their risk of infection from each other and from each other’s waste products. This original adaptive challenge of avoiding foods or peoples that could make you sick has morphed into avoiding ideas or theologies that might contaminate us.  This “sanctity” foundation is most often used by the religious right — think chastity pledges or opposition to stem cell research, which these folks feel may use the body in a degrading or unsacred way. However, the spiritual left also uses this sanctity/degradation foundation. You can see it in New Age grocery stores, where you will find a variety of products that promise to cleanse you of toxins. Many environmentalists revile industrialism, capitalism and autos not just for the physical pollution they create but also for a more symbolic kind of pollutions — a degradation of nature and of humanity’s original nature, before it was corrupted by industrial capitalism.

I think this theory can help illuminate conflict both in our present time and in Jesus’ time. Jesus is obviously operating out of a care/harm moral foundation in this story. Why should this woman wait one more day to be freed from this condition that caused her to suffer? In fact, isn’t the very purpose of the Sabbath this kind of release from suffering?

The synagogue leader may have been operating more from the foundation of fairness and cheating. Why does Jesus “cheat” by healing on the Sabbath while others are refraining from any kind of work? Why couldn’t he have waited one more day to heal this woman in order to abide by the rule that everyone else is abiding by? She wasn’t going to die of thirst, like the ox.

Or maybe the synagogue leader was operating from the foundation of authority and subversion. Andrew said it well, when I asked him to comment on the synagogue leader and his motivations (and this was without him knowing anything about this moral foundation business I was going to talk about): Maybe the synagogue leader, he said, was thinking “Just who the heck is this crazy long-haired hippie dude who’s getting everyone’s attention (and subverting my rightful authority as leader of this synagogue)?” Or: “Dude. This is how we do things. This is how our people do things. It is written in the Torah, clear and simple. What’s your problem?”

The part of me that is a care/harm foundation progressive loves that Jesus drops the mic in this story and that the crowds cheer him on. But another part of me would like to rewrite this Bible story.Instead of trading shots at each other, speaking past each other, what if Jesus and the synagogue leader had sat down and really listened to each other — listened for what was important to the other person — listened for what they value — tried to listen for the moral worldview this person inhabited — and then tried to talk to each other in way the other person could understand better — all while practicing active listening and using I statements, of course? (Smile.)

In this divisive time, where vilification and violence abound, may we extend our care to all people — including those people we think of as “the problem” — and to this beleaguered planet; may we advocate for a more fair society for all; may we pledge our deepest loyalty to the realm of God, where sinner and saint break bread together; may we place ourselves under the authority of the God who asks us to love our neighbor as ourself; may we see each person — no matter how intolerant or duped we think they are — as possessing an inherent sanctity, for they — like we — are made in the image of God. Amen.