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13th Sunday after Trinity

18 August 2016

Proper 16: Isaiah 58.9b-end; Psalm 103.1-8; Hebrews 12.18-end; Luke 13.10-17

Unbending: the woman with a bent back, from a fourth-century sarcophagus in the Vatican

Unbending: the woman with a bent back, from a fourth-century sarcophagus in the Vatican

Proper 16: Isaiah 58.9b-end; Psalm 103.1-8; Hebrews 12.18-end; Luke 13.10-17

Almighty God, who called your Church to bear witness that you were in Christ reconciling the world to yourself: help us to proclaim the good news of your love, that all who hear it may be drawn to you; through him who was lifted up on the cross, and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


THE third part of the prophecy of Isaiah (chapters 56-66) finds returning exiles learning again how to live under the Law. This will be a stern education, especially for those who have come home with a heightened consciousness of what it means to be a member of a nation with a divinely ordained right to the land that it inhabits.

Chapters 56 and 57 make an unequivocal statement about what it is that God wants from his people. The foundation of the renewed relationship will be obedience to the Law, expressed in keeping the sabbath and in living out the principles of justice enshrined in the covenant.

The terms will not, however, be identical to those established by Moses (Deuteronomy 20-26). Jewish ethnicity and physical perfection will not be qualifying conditions for inclusion in the future that God offers. The eunuch and the foreigner, excluded from the chosen community under the inherited legal code (Deuteronomy 23.1-3), may now claim their place in a new and welcoming order (Isaiah 56.3-7).

Sunday’s Old Testament reading is the second half of a poem in which God rebukes a community who have continued to worship idols, and whose practice of fasting and worship has been attention-seeking and insincere — the trappings of piety without prayerful intention (see Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66, Westminster John Knox, 1998).

God is not interested in elaborate self-mortification, wonderfully caricatured as “bowing one’s head like a bulrush”, and making one’s bed of sackcloth and ashes (Isaiah 58.5). That is not a real fast, because it is not accompanied by the authenticating actions of freeing the oppressed, and feeding and clothing the poor and hungry (Isaiah 58.6-7).

Now God spells out the conditions of the renewed covenant between a faithful people and their Lord. Brueggemann emphasises the repetition of “if” (Isaiah 58.9b, 10, 13), introducing the items of the agreement: no more oppressive gossip and slander; generosity to the hungry and afflicted; unselfish and devoted observance of the sabbath.

Once the people have learned to live like this, they will be ready to inhabit a truly godly world, their own virtue as beautiful as the inheritance that they will share with all faithful adherents to this covenant (Isaiah 58.11-12, 14). In future, the only outsiders will be those who choose a different path.

Jesus has already recalled Isaiah’s vision of renewal in the very public circumstances of synagogue worship in Nazareth. It is the first public act of his ministry (Luke 4.16-22; Isaiah 61.1-2). The same vision informs his actions in another synagogue on the way to Jerusalem, as he heals a woman afflicted for 18 years by severe spinal curvature.

Such extreme distortion of posture can be humiliating as well as uncomfortable. The sufferer must look at the ground all the time, and endure the unintentionally patronising behaviour of others. The effects are prematurely ageing. Jesus frees the woman not just from physical disability, but from loss of dignity and exclusion from proper social engagement. He restores to her the dignity of “a daughter of Abraham” (Luke 13.16).

How ungenerous the response of the leader of the synagogue is, as he pompously invokes the distinction between sabbath observance and work (Luke 13.14). Jesus is quick to expose the hypocrisy of this utterance, pointing out that some forms of work have to be done, no matter what day of the week it is (Luke 13.15). God does not deal at the level of the absurd. But his real concern is something more significant: healing is not work. It is the living evidence of the promised life of God, unmarred by limitation or imperfection.

Seen in that light, the healing of the woman is consistent with the teaching that precedes it. Trust in God, who faithfully provides all the essentials of life, goes hand in hand with the need for vigilance, and for living as if the Kingdom were coming at any minute. Glory and terror have equal parts in this expectation.

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews depicts the Christian community as already citizens of the new Jerusalem, “the city of the living God” (Hebrews 12.22). They are members of the “firstborn”, who share in the “new covenant” mediated by Jesus, “the great high priest” (Hebrews 4.14).

The rules for remaining within that covenant are very like the rules laid down for the reconstituted nation addressed in Isaiah’s prophecy: obedience to the God who speaks, and worship that responds to holiness that even dramatic metaphors can only begin to describe: “for indeed our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12.29).

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