The Steady Straightening

A crippled woman hobbled slowly into the back of the dusty synagogue. Bent over and afflicted by a spirit for 18 years, the woman had long carried the burden of pain. Immediately, she was noticed by the man who had been teaching at the front of the room, Jesus, the rabbi. After calling her to Himself, Jesus placed His hands on her, proclaiming her well. Immediately she stood up straight, finally relieved of her ache and struggle.

At this, the synagogue staff was furious. Jesus had just healed this woman on the Sabbath, a day traditionally reserved in Synagogue culture for rest. "There are six days for work," they said. "So come and be healed on those days, not the Sabbath." It seemed to them an outrage that Jesus had not played according to their rules, that in their meeting place He had violated their cultural preferences and religious leanings.

Quickly defending the woman and the healing, Jesus pointed out the hypocrisy inherent in his critics’ attitudes. Sabbath was a day reserved for rest, and if an infirm and pain-plagued woman had been made well, then that most certainly qualified. His opponents were humiliated. Jesus then immediately followed censure with a story that compared the work of God to both a mustard seed and a bit of yeast. Though seemingly disconnected at first glance, the relationship between healing and parable underscores God’s preferred mode of cultural redemption, of cultural change.

Jesus understood that, often, culture can become an impediment to love and charity. On the surface, culture seems benign enough as a shared set of preferences that develop over time. It begins as an affinity for similar taste: in foods, music, and language. It continues as traditions arise to celebrate and reinforce these similarities and to inculcate the culture into the young. Eventually the culture becomes a formational force that sets a course for generations to follow, a course that often takes precedent over most other paths.

As we see in the story about Jesus and the bent-over woman, even well-meaning religious culture can be dangerous. Once culture has calcified it becomes very resistant to change. When culture is challenged, it often becomes belligerent. The religious professionals were so wedded to their synagogue culture that, in defending the sanctity of the Sabbath, they were ready to deny the healed woman the kind of rest that the Sabbath represented.

Jesus knew this. He knew that his challenge to the dominant culture of his day would set him on a course for crucifixion. This was why He was much more concerned with the healing of the woman than with the rules of the temple. He knew that the only answer to calcified culture is the slow, steady movement of the culture of God, or as Jesus called it, the Kingdom of Heaven.

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When Jesus turned to the crowd and noted that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a bit of yeast (another kind of "culture") that eventually spreads its way through the whole dough, He was pointing out that the only way a strict, unforgiving culture could be changed was through the gradual action of God’s rule. Jesus was saying that the kingdom culture begins diminutively (think of the stable in Bethlehem), then grows steadily to become a mighty and benevolent force.

God’s mode of cultural redemption is the personal touch that straightens us up. His revolution is neither violent nor political, it is the slow, sure path of love; a love that reaches across cultural and religious lines in order to heal and to free.

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