Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’ When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.’ But the Lord answered him and said, ‘You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?’ When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.
This is the second week in a row where Jesus has called someone a hypocrite, so it might be interesting to know a bit about where that term came from. These days, we can pretty generally describe a hypocrite as someone who says one thing but does, thinks, or acts a different way. We might call a politician a hypocrite, for example, if they speak out against government corruption while secretly taking kickbacks from various lobbying organizations in order to make their cause a high priority. At the time of Jesus, however, a hypocrite was something different. A hypocrite was actually an actor. In the Greek theater tradition, often actors did not wear makeup or face paint in order to dress the part of their character, but rather wore masks. These mask wearing actors were called hypocrites. They could show, say, a sad face to the audience while smiling underneath as they delivered their lines.
This idea of wearing a mask is followed through in a short story written in 1897 called “The Happy Hypocrite: A Fairy Tale for Tired Men” by Max Beerbohm (don’t you just love that title?). In it, we meet a certain man named George Hell (of course, the name is a little cheeky) who leads a rather dishonest life and is rather proud to claim it. But, while attending a play, he is struck with Cupid’s arrow and falls in love with the lead actress, Jenny Mere. He professes his love immediately, but she says that she could never marry a man who doesn’t have a loving face. So, he goes to a mask maker and has him make a new face, a mask that he shall wear the rest of his life (it’s a fairy tale, after all, so this isn’t so outside the realm of possibility). While wearing this mask, the mask of a saint, and taking on the name George Heaven (and with a little unprompted help from Cupid) marries his beloved Jenny. However, despite hiding his true face from his wife, his past is not so quick to forget him and eventually one of his old, shall we say, colleagues, finds him.
Pause! I will finish, I promise but, before we finish this short version of a short story, let’s take a look at what prompted Jesus to use the word hypocrite in the first place. In our gospel for the day, Jesus does something, actually a few things, really audacious – first, as the religious elite so eagerly point out, he healed on the Sabbath. That’s a big no-no. They had very strict laws and regulations about what you could or could not do on the Sabbath. They even had rules about how far you could walk. This is all rooted in God’s Sabbath after forming creation. It was made as a time to refresh the earth and let people refresh themselves. And that’s good! That Sabbath is a good thing – God understands that we need to find rest, that we need a time to re-energize, reflect, and enjoy the world that we labor in during the week. Sabbath is a good thing! But what the religious elite had turned it into seems to be a power struggle, a power play, where they had almost complete control over the lives of others. According to Deuteronomy, the only people who could work on the Sabbath were women. Maybe that’s why she was bent over.
The second thing he did, aside from breaking the Sabbath, is violate purity laws (another mainstay in the power of the religious elite). He touches a woman (also rather scandalous) who had been ritually unclean, diseased, and isolated for 18 years. 18 years! Can you imagine it? During this time, she would be unable to live with her family, touch others, worship with others, or even be a part of her community, because this would make others unclean. The kosher laws of the Jewish elite were so strict that if she were to reach across that chasm of unclean to someone who is clean, she would have almost certainly been met with disdain. And yet, without asking, Jesus heals her and touches her. Without her even asking, he confronts her and heals here. He restores her humanity and, by doing so, restores the community and her family. She has been made clean, but by doing so, Jesus has been made unclean.
This is such a beautiful moment and foreshadowing of what Jesus does for all of us. Jesus took on your sin and carried it to the cross, becoming unclean in order to make us clean. Jesus takes on our payment, our debt, in order to free us from the chains and trials that would certainly find us guilty. And he doesn’t ask anything for it, and he doesn’t even wait for us to ask, but instead he comes to us. God became human in order to take our place. One of the names for Jesus is Immanuel, which means “God with us”. And in our place, Immanuel reached across the divide and restored us to life, healing our wound of sin, cleansing us and taking it upon himself.
And what can we do with that? What do we do? You have been given new life and you have been brought back from the dead by the grace and love and power of God. Why? Because Jesus is more concerned with relationships than with regulations. Because Jesus is more concerned with justice than with judgement. Because Jesus is more concerned with making the sick well than maintaining the status quo. Jesus is more concerned about helping the unclean than making sure that he stays clean.
As his disciples, we are now free to do that same. The path our savior trod is now the path that we march along together. We may not be able to heal a disease with a touch, but with your touch you can show someone the love of God and support them as they grieve. You may not be able to drive out demons with a single word, but with your words, you can speak the promises of God out to the world around you. You may not be able to take away sin, but you can show people that sin is not the end of the story – that life has overtaken death, that light has entered the darkness, that healing can come in the midst of disease, and that the change that you have experienced through the love and grace of God is for all. You are not perfect, but you don’t have to be.
So, do you remember our Happy Hypocrite, George Heaven (formerly, George Hell). Well, this former friend of his bursts in on his happy life and lets loose his secret. She tells his wife that the face of the saintly man she has married is a mask that hides something. Of course, poor Jenny is heartbroken and insists that he take off the mask. He is ready to flee once he removes the mask, he is so ashamed of his trickery. Yet, when he removes that mask, his wife does not find the same old George Hell whom she refused to marry right away, but instead that he has become like the mask, only greater. Love took the man from being George Hell to George Heaven – his love for her and her love for him. This is a fairy tale, after all, so they live happily ever after.
But I’m not telling this story to offer it as an alternative to our readings today, but, instead, to illustrate their points. That love changes us and that by practicing love, we are changed. The love of Jesus took an unclean, scorned woman and reunited her with her family and community. The love of Jesus exposed the hearts of the religious elite who were so interested in maintaining the rule and order that they have forgotten that the Sabbath was formed in love. The love of Jesus reaches out, past the social constructs, past the rules, and out to you. So, before we leave today, practicing the love that you have been given, listen to what Jesus says to you, today and everyday – “you are set free.” Amen.