Jedidiah Garcia is a graduating student in Bachelor of Arts in Christian Education
Theme Sentence: Legalism of the church might be a hindrance to God’s grace
Last, last year, I turned 18. I celebrated with my whole clan and the church members. We had a small celebration. The UMM, Male UMYFs and the male members of our clan comprised my 18 daisies. Each lay organization gave cakes and other food found in birthday parties. It was very touching and I enjoyed myself. It was quite a blast. Eighteenth birthdays are, after all, very significant, especially for us girls.
Around two thousand years ago, an eighteenth year anniversary also became remarkable for a woman whose name we do not know. In the eighteenth year of her being sick, she was set free.
Problem in the Word
It was on a Sabbath that a miracle happened. Jesus was teaching in a synagogue when he saw a woman who had been crippled by an evil spirit for 18 years. She was completely bent over and could not straighten up. I find that hard to imagine. Was she a hunched back? Or is her head nearly touching the ground because of her disability? Well, I do not know exactly how she looked. All we know is that she was not ‘normal.’
It was also said that this woman was crippled by an evil spirit. Meaning, her disability was caused by a demon. One commentary stated that this is a case of demon oppression rather than a demon possession. We can never be sure but I guess it did not matter to the woman. All she was aware of was that she was not well until Jesus healed her.
In Biblical times, people who had disabilities were believed to be unclean people not just because their condition might be contagious but because they were regarded as sinful people. Jews believed that every tragedy is a punishment from God because of sin and sinful people are unclean. They saw the woman as unclean and sinful.
Remember the instance when Jesus healed a blind man using mud? His disciples asked him whose sin it was that made the man blind. When you are disabled, that means you are punished for someone’s sins.
I do not know what kind of life this woman had. She had been crippled for 18 years. That is nearly my whole life on earth. That is almost two decades. She lived through that. I cannot imagine how she eats, baths and dresses herself being ‘completely bent over.’ Well, I guess that situation will be settled over time and she got used to it. What I wonder about is her ability to live everyday with all the scorn of the people around her.
I bet she was laughed at and scorned for being bent over. She looks different from the ‘normal’ people. I am certain that she was scorned by the elders and synagogue officials or even her neighbors thinking that someone must have committed an unforgivable sin to receive that degree of punishment. That went on for 18 years. Uncleanness, we all know, is a big deal for Jews.
It was possible that everytime she walks by their streets or everytime people see her, they mutter, “That’s what you deserve, sinner.” She was judged because she was bent over. She was judged because she was bound by an evil spirit. I wonder if she asked the same questions Job asked. I wonder if she was a devout Jew who sacrifices regularly, honest with her tithes and follows the Law as much as she can. If she were, then she must have felt what Job felt.
However, if we look closely, the woman was not the only one who was bound. The thing that bound the woman was evil but this time it is something good that enslaved another man. I am referring to the Head or President of the synagogue. Perhaps he was a Pharisee.
If we read on, we will see that the leader of the synagogue was not at all pleased with what Jesus did. However, he did not address his complaints directly to Jesus. He scolded the people. He said, “You have six days in a week to get healed. Go and get healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.” What loyalty to the Law! It was simply amazing to discover such a man who follows the Law strictly.
In Philip Yancey’s book, ‘The Jesus I Never Knew,’ which is a great book I might add, he narrated his interviews with some Jews. Through research and interviews, he knew about a certain group of Pharisees who were very strict in following the Law. When they walk on the streets, they never look up. They walk with their heads bent downward. They do this because they do not want to look at women and commit sins. They earned the nickname ‘bloody Pharisees’ because they are often found with bloody injuries caused by collisions with unforeseen walls and posts.
That is how loyal these religious leaders are to their Law. They are the perfect examples of obedience. They follow their Law word for word. And then there comes this Jesus, son of a carpenter, who seems to be breaking every Law they treasure and take note, in front of everybody. It was as if he was very proud of what he was doing. He was making a scene!
This leader did the most sensible thing to do when our rules are disobeyed. He reacted, not in a most friendly or polite way, mind you. He stood up and spoke. Now let us look at what Jesus said. “You hypocrites!” he said. Perhaps he shouted that or maybe he was in a very calm mood that we often see in movies when he said that. Hypocrites, now that’s a strong word. Why did Jesus say that to people who were just obeying the Law? Isn’t he the one who gave those Law? What’s the matter now? Is Jesus inconsistent and somehow imbalanced?
Let us look at the setting where Jesus said those words. They were in a synagogue or in our present time, the church. They were worshipping God and studying his words. Now there was a crippled woman among their midst; degraded because she was a woman and because she was disabled.
Jesus called her, touched her and made her well. The woman praised God, an action that is very appropriate in a synagogue, I must say. This scenario was what made the leader of the synagogue very angry. The text says that the leader got angry because Jesus healed on the Sabbath. However, it may also be possible that he got mad because Jesus paid attention and healed an outcast.
The woman was bound by an evil spirit and the religious leader was bound by legalism. What is legalism? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, legalism is “strict, literal or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code.” Again, legalism is strict, literal or excessive. As we Filipinos say, “Lahat ng sobra, nakakasama.”
The leader of the synagogue’s mind was so focused on continuing tradition that he resisted any changes; especially if it were triggered by a mere bent-over-probably-sinful woman and the son of a carpenter who claims to be more than that.
Problem in the World
Like the people and situation in our text, there are also two kinds of enslavement in our time today. The first one is like that of the woman. It may have been caused by demon oppression. People are bound by their sins. They suddenly realize that they have put themselves in a point of no return.
People addicted to drugs, prostitutes, women who decided to kill the babies growing inside them are just some of the people out there who are just like the woman. They are bound. Philip Yancey, in his book I previously mentioned told about the experience of his friend.
A prostitute went to his friend in tears. She had nothing to feed her daughter. After some time, the woman confessed that she was offering her two-year-old daughter to men (binubugaw) to support her drug addiction.
At a loss for words, Yancey’s friend asked the woman if she already considered going to church for help. The woman was so shocked at the suggestion. “Church!” she cried. “Why would I go there? They’d just make me feel even worse than I do!”
Now what have we done that a woman in dire need of help refused to go to church? What have we done to make people like that woman feel so unwelcome? When we see a “first-timer” enter the church dressed as if going to a party or to the market, what do we initially say or think? Do we feel happy about his or her visit or do we forget that it is a church and not a fashion show and become more concerned with the person’s fashion statement? Are we also bound by legalism like that synagogue leader that we cannot help sin-bound people out there?
How do we react when we learn that a regular churchgoer committed a heinous crime or deed? Do we feel compassion or revulsion? When a person in dire need of God’s grace enter our churches, do we act like that religious leader or like Jesus who chose to heal the woman even if it meant doing it on a Sabbath?
Grace in the Word
The woman suffered for 18 years. She was condemned and ridiculed during those times. However, on that fateful day, she found Jesus and she was made well. Jesus saw her and touched her. When Jesus touched her, she was made well.
When I learned that my topic was justification, I raised my eyebrows. What exactly is justification? As always, when I do not know something, I ask my father. I texted him, “Pa, ano po yung justification?” Almost immediately, he replied. “Justification means just as though we have not sinned.
Kinilig ako nung nabasa ko. Sin is binding, remember? Sin binds people. It may be physically, like going to jail. It may be emotionally and psychologically because of the guilt. And it may be spiritually binding as well. Sin binds us and separates us from God. When God justifies us, he wipes our bad records clean. I found it sweet that God would inflict himself with some kind of selective amnesia for me.
That is what happened with the woman. When Jesus touched her, he also touched her life. When Jesus touched her, he healed her not only of her physical deformity but she was also liberated. When Jesus touched her, it was as though she has never been bound by wrong perceptions, condemnation and suffering. It was as though she was never enslaved.
Take note, Jesus justified the woman because she let him heal her and Jesus healed her because she let him touch her. The woman and the religious leader were both bound but only one was freed. Why? Simply because the religious leader did not let Jesus touch him – literally or symbolically. His anger at Jesus for violating the Law prevented him from coming to Jesus and letting him to touch his life. Legalism hindered the grace that should have flowed to him too.
God’s love, grace and forgiveness are never coercive. God does not force himself to people. He lets people decide if they would accept him and what he has to offer or not. It is up to people if they will let him touch them or not. Justification only comes to those who are willing to be justified.
Grace in the World
Jesus saw the woman and felt compassion for her. Jesus loved her even if she was bent over or even if she was an outcast. As my father said in one of his sermons, “Mahal ka ng Diyos maging sino ka man pero hindi nya hahayaang manatili kang ganyan.” God loves people in any state they are in but he also justifies. Jesus righted what was wrong with the woman. He freed her.
That is still true today. God’s justification frees people who are willing to accept his grace, repent and venture on a journey towards change. No matter how bad you have been, you still have a chance with God. His arms are always open for his children.
However, there always seems to be hindrances in approaching God. It may be shame, guilt, reluctance, mistrust or worst the church. All over our church’s history, there have been records that show that Jesus’ followers turned down people who are in search of God.
There was Bartimeus who was prevented by people from coming to Jesus. The Canaanite woman who pleaded Jesus to heal her child is also one of them. Jesus’ disciples were the first ones to ask Jesus to stop her and they wanted to ‘send her away.’ There was also the woman who went to Jesus while he was at Simon’s house and anointed him with perfume. Simon judged both Jesus and the woman.
The sad part is, as time goes by, there are more and more cases of these misfortunes. If I would enumerate them, I would be stealing your lunchtime so I would just use the prostitute I told you earlier as an example. Face it. We push people out.
What happened to Jesus’ ministry here on Earth? Do his followers lock themselves in the confines and safety of their churches and lock other people out? Have we become too holy that we are not allowed to be touched by these unclean people? If we will not reach out to them, who will? If we will not concern ourselves with their situation, who will? Are we swallowed up by our church’s legalism just like that religious leader? Does our legalism hinder God’s grace to people?
I finished reading Karla Faye Tucker Set Free and I was moved by it. A cold-blooded murderer who pick-axed two people to death turned into an evangelist who touched numerous lives all over the world. Only God can do that. And God did that by using his children. Karla found God in a fellowship and worship conducted by Christians who were visiting the prison. The change happened through the help of church people. They were able to become God’s instruments in saving a soul.
We are now Christ’s hands, feet, mouths, eyes, ears and body in this world, as one song goes. We are the church. We are the ambassadors of God in this planet. We represent him. Now what do we show the people outside? Are we being so religious leader-ish? We who proudly say, “I am a Christian.” We who proudly say that Jesus lives in our hearts. We who love to serve the Lord. What kind of God do we introduce to this world that God loves so much?
Do we let ourselves become channels of blessings and God’s grace to those people who desperately needs him? Do we show a merciful and forgiving God or do we portray him as a tyrant? Do we live up to our goal of being Christ-like? Remember, Christ-likeness includes having open arms. We bring hope from God to this world. We are the ones whom God entrusted his work with. Are we being good servants?
Before we judge other people for being unclean and doing non-Christian things, let us not forget that we are no better. The only difference between them and us is Jesus. Why not help them come to Him?
Philip Yancey mentioned this in his book. “A society that welcomes people of all races and social classes, that is characterized by love and not polarization, that cares most for its weakest members, that stands for justice and righteousness in a world enamored with selfishness and decadence, a society in which members compete for the privilege of serving one another – this is what Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God.”
And now people of God, do we, somehow, destroy that Kingdom?
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.