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Bound or Free?


Fiona Hill is a diplomat and a former US intelligence officer who focused on Russia and Ukraine. She’s been on a lot of news shows since the war began, and she’s told a story of attending a fancy state dinner, quite a regal event, with people from many nations, and she was seated next to Vladimir Putin. A captivating detail that she observed was that Putin went the entire evening without eating or drinking anything. Plates were set before him, and 20 minutes later taken away, untouched. Several courses. He never even took a sip of water.

Her conclusion was that he’s afraid of being poisoned. Security measures at this event were already extreme, and of course, world leaders always have to take precautions to stay safe. But Putin takes things to a different level. Of course, he himself has ordered the assassinations of many journalists, political rivals, and others who might be critical of his rule. If he’s afraid of being poisoned, he’s afraid of someone doing to him what he has done to so many.

When a dictator uses brutal tactics to achieve his goals, he probably sees violence as a solution to a problem. Hurting or killing an opponent is a way that he can remain free to do what he wants to do, right? But Putin has created a situation in which he feels unable to take even a sip of water in the presence of other people, for fear that his own tactics will be used against him.

Sometimes, the things we believe will free us, actually imprison us.

I think of addiction stories, vary a lot from person to person, but a certain theme shows up in many people’s experience. There is some terrible thing that a person is trying to escape. It could be grief, it could be trauma. It could be physical pain from some injury. It could be social anxiety or self-loathing, but a person has something going on, that feels too difficult, too painful for them to deal with. And so the person drinks or uses, as a way to escape from this scary, painful thing. Again this is not everyone’s addiction story, but it’s common.

And something people in this situation often discover is that alcohol or drugs, despite being used as a method of escape, actually become a prison. A person trying to get free of their pain gets locked up, in a chemical dependency which creates all kinds of new pain.

Sometimes, the things we believe will free us, actually imprison us.

Money can function this way, too. Money can improve a person’s life and happiness dramatically, if you go from not having enough to eat and stay warm, to having enough food on the table. But above a certain modest income, more doesn’t make people happier, and in some cases people have more stress when they get more money, because they start to consume more things and they have more bills and there is more pressure to pay for everything. It’s strange to think that people could look back and say they had less money trouble when they had less money, but that does happen.

Sometimes, the things we believe will free us, actually imprison us.



 

Luke 13:10-17

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.


 


In today’s scripture, Jesus performs a miracle for a person he sees while he is teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath. It’s a healing miracle – the woman has some kind of back problem, and she hasn’t been able to stand up straight for 18 years. Although he does heal her, Jesus doesn’t use the language of healing in this story. He doesn’t call it healing. Instead, he talks about being set free.

This woman had been bound, imprisoned by her affliction, and Jesus’ gift was to release her. She was not going to be held captive, anymore.

The language of bondage and freedom rings true. When your body is not well, over a long period of time, you don’t just feel sick, you don’t just feel injured, although you do feel those things. You feel caught, trapped, chained. You want to be free of this thing. When I think of the woman in this story, I wonder, what must she have tried, or what would she have been willing to try, in order to get free of her affliction? If she were living in our time, would her story have become part of the opioid epidemic? During those long 18 years, was she in danger of becoming imprisoned by something else, as she sought freedom from her ailment?

When Jesus touched her, she was finally freed. Finally, at long last. The fact is, so many of the people Jesus healed in the gospels had been suffering for years, or even their entire lives. The miracle creates a new beginning for them, but they have not been spared hardship. No, life has been very difficult.

And sometimes, the healing never comes. Most famously in the bible, the Apostle Paul had some kind of physical affliction that he asked the Lord to free him from, and it didn’t happen. But he did still believe that God was freeing him, and giving him the strength in the midst of hardship, to live by grace, with courage.

That reliance on grace is necessary for anybody who is waiting on miracle. Because you don’t know if a miracle is coming, or what form it might take. Imagine talking to the woman in the story after she’d been suffering for ten years, and trying to encourage her to believe that one day her back would be healed. She’d been suffering ten years. So we know she must’ve found a way to accept what was happening with her physically, to live with it even if she wasn’t at peace with it, and to carry on. People with disabilities are often the strongest people you will meet, because of the challenges they live with.

And part of how she lived with her condition was her faith. She practiced her faith, she went to synagogue on the Sabbath, prayed the prayers, listened to the scriptures, heard the ancient stories of God’s covenant with God’s people.

That’s why she was there the day Jesus saw her in the crowd. It was the Lord’s day, and she was a church lady. And this is where the story becomes supremely ironic, because when she is healed, amidst a congregation of people who are gathered to express their faith, the faith leaders get mad.

It’s the Sabbath day, and a healing miracle is work. You’re not supposed to do work on the Sabbath. The leader even says - there’s six days for working; healings should happen on those days, not this day.

Jesus is pretty frustrated by this reaction, and he calls the guy a hypocrite on the spot. But the hypocrisy is not about the rules, and the Sabbath is not really about work. It’s about freedom.

So Jesus doesn’t say, ‘you hypocrites! You know you work on the Sabbath, too sometimes!’ No, he says, if you have an animal that tied up, bound, you untie your donkey or your ox on the Sabbath, you release it, you set it free, so that it can get a drink. Of course you do, it needs water.

If a person needs to be freed, the Sabbath is the best time for it, because the Sabbath is the Lord’s day, and the Lord sets people free. God set our Hebrew ancestors free from bondage in Egypt; Jesus spoke the words of the Prophet Isaiah, saying he was anointed to let the captives go free and set at liberty those who were oppressed. The Sabbath day itself frees people from back-breaking toil at the end of the week, every week. Rest, sacred rest, divinely ordained rest, is freedom.

The Sabbath is meant for freedom, but the religious leader in this story, has allowed to become a prison. Faith is meant to liberate. But very often, religion doesn’t feel like freedom. Feels more like bondage.

The leader of the synagogue would rather this woman not be healed than have her healed on the wrong day. Some religious leaders would rather people not get married than marry the wrong gender, or reject science if it doesn’t align with a literal reading of the bible.

So often religious conversations focus on what we can’t think, or are not supposed to do, rather than helping us see everything that God is making possible. Because God is doing beautiful, transformative work, all the time. Setting people free, from violence, from greed, from sickness, from fear. It’s God’s gift of freedom, not God’s power to control, that makes God worthy of praise.

And as we see it, as we see Jesus setting people free, to live, to love, to serve, to thrive, let’s not try to lock them back up.



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