The woman walked painfully toward the synagogue, her back grotesquely bent over, her eyes focussed on the ground. Whenever she needed to speak with someone, she had to turn her head sideways and look up at them out of the corner of her eye. For eighteen painful years it had been this way. A crowd had gathered at the synagogue to hear the words of the young rabbi from Galilee. The preacher looked out and saw her, and, instead of quickly turning away from her — the response she usually got — he called to the woman and invited her to come close. Then he reached out and laid his hands on her disfigured spine. He assured her, not that she was healed, (which she surely was), but that she was set free, free from the spirit that had pressed down on her for so very long. She was free, now, to stand tall and praise God. And everyone was amazed and full of joy.
Well, not everyone. A cry of protest went up. It was the voice of the synagogue steward. What Jesus had just done was an offense to God, he reminded the crowd, over and over again. Jews were privileged not to have to work every day of their lives as they once were forced to do when they lived as slaves in Egypt. But Jesus was acting, he argued, as if we are no longer free, no longer Jews, no longer God’s beloved people.
So, in fact, there were two crippled spirits at the synagogue that day: one, a woman who had been set free from her oppressive infirmity by God’s power active in the moment; the other, the synagogue leader who was good at abiding by the rules but neglected the pressing need of his own congregant.
Religion can do that to us. Instead of serving as a pathway to the Holy, it can blind us to God’s power to change our lives. The synagogue steward believed with all his heart that prohibiting work on the sabbath was to proclaim Israel’s freedom. But he would not listen to Jesus’ deeper insight that this most Jewish of wounded women, this “daughter of Abraham” as he referred to her, had been “set free” by God’s power, which was what honoring the sabbath was all about!
Without religion, it is difficult to know God deeply. But when religion is strictly and stridently practiced, it can lose touch with the Holy. It can become no longer a channel of grace, but a crippling impediment that alienates us from God and burdens us with heavy obligations. The word, ‘religion’ itself, retains a sense of this. Its root stems from the Latin word religare, which means ‘to bind.’ Religion can either attach us to God or tie us up, strap us down and bind our spirits. Religion is meant to free us for God, not to enslave our souls. God must always trump religion. But, once people get to thinking a certain way, it’s often very difficult for them to break free. Liberation didn’t happen for the leader of the synagogue: Jesus corrected him but did not convert him to understanding the sabbath as, above all else, a time for God to set our spirits free.
I think of my father, who once fervently opposed my ordination as a Lutheran pastor. He was the product of a strong religious upbringing, and when I became a Lutheran, he was deeply disappointed in — even ashamed of me. Spiritually speaking, dad seemed as bent over and weighed down at the prospect of my becoming an ordained pastor as the woman who came to hear Jesus at the synagogue. And his views of what was right and what was wrong for me seemed as firmly fixed as the views of that synagogue steward in the gospel story. For years, dad was beset and burdened by what he believed were the binding obligations of his religion.
Then, one evening during a family reunion, my father took me aside and apologized to me for his part in the estrangement between us. He told me that for too long, he thought he had to oppose my ministry because he believed that nothing less than the salvation of my eternal soul was at stake. But recently, he said, he had poured out his heart to a priest/retreat master. After listening to the painful story of the continuing impasse between us, the priest simply asked my dad whether it might be possible that the Lord was, in fact, pleased with the work that I was doing in His name. That was all it took, a single, healing question, and my father — and I — were set free.
What is the binding ‘religion’ to which we subscribe that keeps us from the freeing power of God in our lives? I’m not only talking about ‘organized religion’ here. I’m referring to our own sort of personally-constructed religion, to those duties, commitments and obligations that we accumulate in life, almost without thinking, which keep our spirits bent and turn our lives into a joy-less round of just one pressured thing after another. We all need to watch out for one’s own ‘religion,’ our own binding ways that keep us far from the freeing, healing power of God in our lives. I offer my particular self-constructed way of living as one unfortunate example of these “ties that bind.”
I’ve suffered for a long time with a chronic condition: it’s called overcommitment. My calendar is full, I’m constantly on the go, I’m involved with a lot of things. And part of me loves it all; I look for more and find it hard to say ‘no.’ But my life, as a friend has termed it, is far “too full of good things.” Why am I driven to live in overdrive? The constant activity, I guess, fuels my taste for adventure. Perhaps it makes me feel important, and gives me a transitory sense of accomplishment. But do I really need to do be doing all these things? Am I so personally insecure that I feel that I still haven’t seen enough, done enough, accomplished enough in life? Perhaps the more telling questions to ask are: What am I running away from? In my drivenness, what am I trying to avoid? In my addiction to a pressured, over-charged life, what am I neglecting to attend to?
The answer, of course, is that in my obsession to do so many things, I am neglecting life’s most important things. I lose touch with what should be fundamental for me. I read everything I can online about the frantic politics of our nation, but I find that I don’t have any time left to pray. I show up at many meetings, but I can’t find a quiet moment to write and reflect. I’ve got to be in many different places but have lost touch with what it means for me to be truly at home. I have trouble saying no to so many distractions, and that pretty much keeps me from attending to the essential things in life. The ‘religion’ of my life, all those ‘oughts’ and ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’ and obligations that drive me ever onward, rob me of the joy and freedom of a centered, well-balanced life.
What personal ‘religion’ is constricting you and keeping you from the healing freedom that God wants for you? Perhaps it’s all the do’s and don’ts, the will’s and won’t’s that stem from your unresolved anger, or your addictive tendencies, or your deep insecurities, or your simmering jealousies, or your bitter self-isolation. Have you made a ‘personal religion’ out of something like this? Any of these binding, burdensome things can bend our backs and cripple our spirits.
The cure for me, and, perhaps, for you as well, begins with the biblical conviction embedded in the story of that woman who finally stood straight after so long a time: God wants us to be free of our crippling infirmities. We need to put our confidence in that, to hang our lives on that! Healing from such binding maladies takes spiritual courage; it means trusting in the power of God to go deeper in life and connect with the essential things that truly set our spirits free. The bound and burdened synagogue leader had much to learn from the bent-back woman, and so do I; so, perhaps, do we all!
© Edward R. Dufresne, 2016