Bad Religion (A Sermon on Luke 13:10-17)

I can’t read this passage without being reminded of my recent experience in Jodidi – a little village on the road to Damascus (in Syria). 

Jodidi is, quite literally, ‘on the road to Damascus’, and is supposed to be the actual place where Saint Paul (then ‘Saul’) fell off his horse and met Jesus! There’s a huge statue of horse and fallen-rider in the middle of the village commemorating this, and a lovely church building a short walk away where regular worship takes place, as well as special services, focused more on that great event, and it was on account of one of these special services that we were there – invited as special guests. 

Having said that, when we turned up at the gate, we didn’t see any church officials waiting for us. There apparently was a church service going on somewhere but the only people there to greet us was a group of young boys wearing boxing gloves! 

The scene reminded me very much of the time I visited an orphanage near Mashad (in Iran) and was greeted again by a group of young boys wearing boxing gloves. On that occasion I responded by walking up to the smallest boy and holding up my two hands, with palms open in front of me – that being the universal signal amongst boxers that I’m inviting you to throw some punches into my open hands. In the case of that young boxer though, his response was to punch me straight in the groin! 

Foolishly, perhaps, I did exactly the same thing in Jodidi – offering my two open palms to the first boy in the group. Happily though, this time the young man responded according to protocol and targeted my hands. 

What took place there over the next hour struck me at the time as being a lot like a scene out of the New Testament. There was indeed a service going on somewhere in the background, but where we were, surrounded by local young people, there was only good-hearted merriment and lots of punches being thrown. And then parents started bringing their children to me, asking me to pray for them, which, of course, I did, and then I heard someone say “bring out the blind girl. Let him pray for her”, and at that point I started wondering whether I was in over my head! 

A lovely-looking girl, about 10-years old, was then led out. Apparently, she had been blind since birth. She was about the same age as my youngest, of course, and I prayed for her very sincerely. The parents then asked me if she could be healed, and I had no idea. I then remembered though that Dr Lou Lewis was a part of our group and I called Lou over. Lou looked closely at the girl, took a picture of her eyes with his phone-camera, and then announced that the girl had glaucoma and that she could be healed. Lou then found himself being swamped, just as I continued to be swamped, with me doing the prayers and him giving the medical advice – a scene that was only interrupted when a fresh group of young men ran up and asked me if I would referee their boxing match, to which I readily agreed. 

It was as I went to do that – to referee the group of young boys – that I received a tap on the shoulder. I turned around and saw a young priest, fully decked out in ecclesiastical garb.

I was delighted to see him, at least until he opened his mouth and asked, “what are you doing?”, to which I replied that I was about to referee a boxing match. He said, “you cannot do that!”. I said, “why not?” He said, “because you are Abouna (ie. a priest) and because the service is still going”. He then turned and walked away. I stopped and reflected, and then went on and refereed the boxing matches.

I look back now and am glad I made that decision. At the time though I had a lot of conflicting thoughts going through my head.

  • Am I offending our hosts?
  • Could I be giving a bad name to our team and maybe even to our country?
  • What would Jesus do in this situation?

It was reflecting on that last question though that clinched it for me. I was pretty sure Jesus would have refereed the boxing matches, and it was this Gospel reading (and any number of others like it) that immediately came to mind.

Yes, this scene from the life of Jesus did help me make a decision as to what to do that day in Jodidi. Conversely though, that experience in Jodidi, I feel, gave me greater insight into this scene in the Gospels, as it reminded me that the people Jesus was normally in conflict with were his hosts, and exactly the sort of people who should have been His colleagues.

We tend to overlook this, I think. We think of those religious leaders – the priests, the scribes, the Pharisees and the Levites – as a sort of gang of hoodlums, roaming around, trying to bring down Jesus.  On the contrary, these people are us, or rather, they are the best of us. These people represent the religious community. Indeed, they are those we have elevated to positions of leadership in our spiritual community because they are capable and because we trust them, and they are Jesus’ enemies!

We can’t enter into the mind of Jesus, of course, but I wonder now when I read stories like this whether Jesus wrestled at all with how to respond. Did He question himself along the lines of ‘well … these guys are my hosts. Perhaps I should respect them and their traditions even if they’ve got the Scriptures back-to-front?’ Did Jesus question Himself like that or did He just think ‘these guys are idiots!’

Interestingly, you don’t have this problem in the Qur’an, so far as I can see. In the Qur’an, the enemies of Prophet Mohammad were not his fellow believers. The enemies of the prophet were the unbelievers and the idolaters. Mohamad’s fellow monotheists were his colleagues. In the Gospel stories though, time and time again, the enemy is us! We are the problem!

Think how many Gospel stories work like that – Jesus is saying something or helping someone or healing someone, and then some religious nut walks in and starts causing trouble. It’s never a sex-worker or a tax-collector or a soldier that causes the trouble. It’s always one of us religious people!

I think we’re approaching much the same climate in Australian society today. Religious persons are becoming increasingly suspect! The dismissal of the appeal of Bishop George Pell this week didn’t help matters of course. I still don’t know what to think about that tragic situation, but I do know that it’s helping to turn the church into an institution that people fear rather than trust.

I was walking down Seaview Street in my collar the other day as the kids were coming out of school and one of the boys points and me and makes a sign of the cross at me – not the pious sign of the cross that you make on your chest, but the crossed fingers used to keep vampires at bay – and he yells out ‘stranger danger’!

And it’s not just Bishop George who has brought us to this point, and it’s not just the latest round of child sexual-abuse scandals that have so damaged our reputation. We have 200+ years of tainted testimony behind us – a history that regularly has the guys in the pub in Dulwich Hill introduce me to their friends as a boxer rather than as a priest as they don’t want me to make a bad first impression.

The enemy is us! It’s true, and that’s one reason why I’ve never been able to buy into any of the Islamophobia that certain sections of our community peddle – urging us to beware of the Muslim community and their secret ill-intent!

It’s true, of course, that any number of horrible crimes around the world have been committed by people who claim to be Muslims, but when I think of my own history, how many Muslims have attacked and injured me or anyone that I really care about?

No! When I think of all the people who have damaged me in my life – from those who crucified my mum when I was little, to those who made life so difficult for my dad (in both cases on account of their marriage breakdown), to everybody I have struggled with since – they have all been good, church-going, Christian people, every last one of them. Where did we go wrong? How did we, God’s chosen representatives, tasked with the work of proclaiming the forgiving and empowering love of Christ to the world, end up with such a record of moralism, judgmentalism and abuse?

Tradition! That’s the common Protestant/Evangelical response. The problem is that we miss the commandment of God by clinging to the precepts of men. Certainly, clinging to outdated traditions can be a problem, but was that the problem Jesus was dealing with in our Gospel scene? Personally, I’ve got a lot of time for tradition.

I picked Fran up from school on Wednesday in the car, to drive her to her piano lesson, and she immediately asked, ‘Can we go to 7-11 on the way?’ I said, ‘the problem with going to 7-11 is that we’ll lose fifteen minutes and end up getting to piano lesson late’, to which she replied, ‘but it’s tradition!’ I replied, ‘you can’t argue with tradition’ and we went to 7-11, and ended up getting to piano lesson late.

I appreciate that going to 7-11 whenever I pick Fran up from school by car is a very different sort of tradition from that we’re dealing with in the Gospel today, or whatever tradition I was battling when the guy in Jodidi told me that it was inappropriate for a priest to referee a boxing match. Even so, traditions have their place, and I’m tempted to think that our society could do with a few more traditions, even some along the lines of those instituted by the religious leaders of Jesus’ day!

“the synagogue leader said to the people, “There are six days for work. So, come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.”” (Luke 13:14)

He had a point, didn’t he? The Sabbath was supposed to be a quiet day of worship and reflection, and I imagine Jesus’ healing of the bent-over woman would have created an enormous ruckus!

I imagine the now-upright woman would have been leaping around and dancing, and the synagogue congregation would have been in an uproar as well – applauding and cheering and dancing along! We’re told that the woman had been crippled for eighteen years. How much difference would one more day have made?

I spent some days with an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi in Iran last year. We were both speaking at the same conference on the same day. Indeed, he spoke right after me, and it was a Saturday – a Sabbath. It was a big meeting with a lot of people, but when the Rabbi got up, he switched off the microphone because it was the Sabbath, and it wasn’t appropriate to use a microphone on the Sabbath. Thankfully, he had a booming voice, and thankfully, I (with my bad hearing) was sitting quite close anyway

We spoke together to a University faculty after that too, and I spent a bit of time talking to him about life in his community. You can imagine what it’s like there, especially on the Sabbath. You won’t find kids playing with their mobile phones on the Sabbath. You won’t have to tell anybody to stop playing computer games so that they can come for lunch. I can see a lot of benefits to Sabbath traditions like that.

When it comes to ‘what would Jesus do?’, I don’t think Jesus would have any issue with forbidding mobile phone use on the Sabbath or any of those traditions, but what is significant is that when it comes to this woman – a woman who has been suffering for eighteen years from her paralysis – Jesus was not willing to let her continue on in that way any longer. Jesus does not say ‘she’s put up with this for eighteen years already. What difference is one more day going to make?’ No! From the perspective of Jesus, her healing cannot wait one more day or one more hour or one more minute! The time for healing is now!

““Woman”, He says (not even taking time to find out her name), “you are set free from your infirmity.” 13 Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.” (Luke 13:12-13)

The issue here is not tradition. It’s compassion. There’s nothing wrong with tradition but it gets trumped by compassion every time. Forbid the use of mobile phones on the Sabbath by all means, but if someone goes into cardiac arrest and you need to call an ambulance, you turn your mobile phone back on. And by all means keep your synagogue nice and quiet, but if there’s the opportunity to give life back to a crippled woman then we all join in the dancing. And while it may look bad to have a priest refereeing a boxing match, if it means bringing a little joy to kids who’ve been living in a warzone for the last seven years then you get over it!

“You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? 16 Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?” (Luke 13:15-16)

This was the problem in the synagogue that day, and it’s the same problem for us religious people today. It’s not that we have too much tradition or too many rules or too much of anything in particular. It’s simply that we show too little compassion. Somehow, we lost the fundamental connection between religion and compassion, and I don’t think it matters much how strong our structures are or how intelligent our social analysis is or how well-coordinated and well-financed our outreach programs are. If we lack compassion, we fail.

They say that the most important thing is to make sure that the most important thing is always treated as the most important thing – that the number one priority is to see that the number one priority remains the number one priority. Whether in Judea or Syria or in Dulwich Hill or anywhere else, the number one priority for Jesus is always compassion. Morality, judgement, law and tradition all have their place but … the greatest of these is love.

First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity on Sunday the 25th of August, 2019.

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.