When Linda and I were living in Kansas, about once a month our weekly, local paper – The Prairie Star – would list all the traffic violations in Elk and Chautauqua Counties for the past month. I’m happy to report that I was never on that list – not because I’m particularly compliant – but because of the grace extended by a couple of sheriff’s deputies. This remembrance has been on my mind of late as I am settling into Toledo with its own particular interpretation of traffic rules. I won’t elaborate but to say they are new to me.
With respect to interpretation of rules, there are those of us who are conscientious rule followers, and there is no doubt that their names will not appear on any roll of violators. But there are others of us – myself included – that fall into another group. It may not be that this latter group doesn’t deserve tickets, but that we aren’t caught, or that we have learned how far we can stretch the limits without getting stopped. Many of us have figured this out over time and we use these windows of tolerance to our advantage. Nonetheless there are limits, and when we push them too far, there are consequences.
Other examples that come to mind are classes cut at school, unpaid credit card bills, deferred maintenance on the house or car, or neglected relationships. These things have consequences for us too, but for whatever reason the consequences may not seem real enough, pressing enough, or bad enough to discourage our neglect of them.
The bottom line is sometimes we test the limits of rules or prudent behavior when it suits our purpose. But what about when it suits the purpose of another person as seen from their perspective; are we so tolerant? If this is the case, we may be inclined to draw a clear line in the sand and say no further or no faster, especially if we are the one facing the consequences.
This is the setting confronting Jesus today in Luke’s account of his healing of a crippled woman in the synagogue. In this story Jesus stretches or tests the limits of three prohibited behaviors.
First, during a service of worship in a public space that is segregated by gender, Jesus invites a woman to cross the boundary that signifies she, and all that she represents, is not entitled to equal treatment as a human being. Second, Jesus lays hands on this woman who is not a family member – he is putting his hands where they do not belong. And third, he does all of this on the Sabbath – a day on which work is not permitted. How dare he?
The synagogue leader is infuriated by these violations of the rules, which are intended to preserve the morality and propriety of his worship community. As a privileged member of the religious establishment, I understand the synagogue leader’s indignation over the flaunting of these social norms. But then Jesus’ reply of “You hypocrites” brings me up short. Am I really a hypocrite? Well – if I’m honest – yeah, sometimes I am.
While pondering the soreness of this realization, I realize that there is also grace in Jesus’ reply. It is the implicit reminder, “There but for the grace of God go you; because you didn’t choose the circumstance of your birth. But remember that you choose to bend the rules to your own advantage, even as you hold others to a different standard.”
What is our own modern-day way of stretching the limits of moral behavior? Is it speeding, is it neglecting the common good, is it exploiting our circumstance for our advantage alone? We may rationalize our behavior saying, well everyone does it or it’s a victimless offense. And perhaps if we have enough resources, e.g., money, influence, or a good lawyer, we know we can beat the charge. But this is to be blind to the unintended consequences of our behavior, the consequences borne by others. Remember, “There but for the grace of God go we.”
As Christians, we live in a world of double standards. If we knowingly choose to exploit these double standards someone somewhere – a neighbor – bears the consequence. But many of these situations that are less than obvious, and we are often blissfully unaware of them. Jesus is speaking to these less obvious situations today – the social systems or structures that we are so accustomed to that we fail to see the offense; particularly if it does not directly affect the course of our daily lives. In our comfort we can become blind or oblivious to the reality that these systems hopelessly bind others, who have neither the resources nor the privilege we take for granted.
If our circumstance has become one of blind comfort, Jesus is calling us hypocrites – not to insult us – but to get our attention – to draw our attention to those seemingly benign institutions or systems that perpetuate injustices such as, trapping people in circumstances that deny them the same liberties and dignity we take for granted.
If Jesus were to publish the list of hypocrites in Lucas County we would be appalled by the names on the list. Thank goodness it is not a matter of public record. Nonetheless, we know well enough that we are all on that list from time to time. But we also know that we have access to forgiveness. This is the reason we gather as a community every week. Individually we are incomplete – we are imperfect. But through this weekly immersion in prayer, sacrament, and the Body of Christ, we are – bit by bit – made a little more whole. Through the grace shown us by sheriff’s deputies and the grace of the cloud of witnesses we recall today, we become a little more like the One we bless, praise, and offer thanks to.
In this becoming and in gratitude for this grace, we will become better about liberating other children of Abraham, who like the crippled woman, are bound by systems that we are complicit in or blind to. May we too be set free from our ailments so that we remember, there, but for the grace of God, go we.