Today, March 8th, is International Women’s Day, and I would like to take this time to celebrate women in the Church!
I realise that throughout Church history, we have had leaders who have said:
“What is the difference whether it is in a wife or a mother, it is still Eve the temptress that we must beware of in any woman… ”
– Saint Augustine of Hippo, Church Father, Bishop of Hippo Regius, 354 – 430
Or even Luther who stated:
“No gown worse becomes a woman than the desire to be wise.”
Throughout the history of the Church, we have found philosophers, scholars and debates about the role of women in society & the Church. The very idea that women might participate actively in the Church received support in the early years of the Church, but over time, this fell out of favor. We find the following decision issued by the Synod of Carthage (398 AD).
“A woman, however learned and holy, may not take upon herself to teach in an assembly of men.”
These types of attitudes lead Elizabeth Cady Stanton to comment:
“The Bible and the Church have been the greatest stumbling blocks in the way of women’s emancipation.”
Shirley Williams said:
But then there are also celebrations of women in the Church also.
“These people do not know that while Barak trembled, Deborah saved Israel, that Esther delivered from supreme peril the children of God … Is it not to women that our Lord appeared after His Resurrection? Yes, and the men could then blush for not having sought what the women had found.”
–Saint Jerome, (the 2nd most prolific writer after Augustine in ancient Latin Cristianity) after criticism for dedicating his books to women
Most recently, Pope Francis said
“We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of women within the church. The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions.”
We know that some of Jesus’ earliest followers were women – Mary Magdalene, Joanna, & Susanna. We find women at the foot of Jesus’ cross, and women were the first to see Jesus after his resurrection.
“When [the women] came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven… But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.”
We find the importance of women in Paul’s ministry: women were important members of the early christian church movement. Homes of believers were where groups of Christians met and held meetings. Those who could offer their homes for meetings were obviously considered to be important in this setting, and often went hand in hand with leadership roles. We find Lydia of Philippi (a wealthy dealer in purpose cloth). Acts mentions that “she and her household” were baptised. (Acts 16: 11-15).
Although we may consider that the 1st century woman’s role was in the home, turning her home into a public religious setting opened up for these women opportunities for religious leadership. These women were given leadership roles, dignity and status in return for their patronage, receiving a renewed dignity within Paul’s movement.
Even in Titus 2 we find:
3 Similarly, teach the older women to live in a way that honors God. They must not be malicious gossips… spending their time tearing others apart… Instead, they should teach others what is good.
The role of women was that of active teachers… But striving for unity, not division. There was no room in the early church for women who caused division.
Given that Paul is supposed to have said in 1st Corinthians things like:
Every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head–it is the same as having her head shaved
Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?
Women should be silent during the church meetings. It is not proper for them to speak. They should be submissive, just as the law says. Women should be silent during the church meetings. It is not proper for them to speak. They should be submissive, just as the law says.
But, funnily enough, he then finishes this paragraph with
So, my dear brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and don’t forbid speaking in tongues.
So… women were to be eager to prophesy, but were not supposed to speak?
Of course, the most quoted scripture regarding the role of women in the Church is probably 2 Timothy 2: 12:
“I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man.”
And yet this appears to conflict directly with so many of Paul’s letters and greetings, and the women that he mentions in his Epistles. I’m just going to list for you the women that Paul sends his special greetings to, and some of the circumstances in which he greets them:
Prisca (or Priscilla) and her husband Aquila, mentioned six times in the Bible, as missionary partners with the Apostle Paul (and in the craft of tent-making). The author of Acts states that they were refugees who came first to Corinth when the Emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from Rome. I’ve always noticed that when Paul referred to this couple, he always mentioned her first – so that some scholars suggest that she was the head of the family unit.
Mary and “the beloved Persis” are commended for their hard work.
There is then the greeting for Julia, who worked and travelled as a missionary with her husband. He also sends greetings to Tryphena, Tryphosa and to Rufs’ mother, who “labour for the Lord’s work”.
Phoebe, a leader from the church at Cenchreae, a port city near Corinth is commended for her hospitality. Paul attaches to her three titles: diakonos meaning a deacon (lit. “servant”), sister, and prostatis meaning “a woman in a supportive role, patron, benefactor”.There is no difference when the title of deacon is used for Phoebe and Timothy. Diakonos (Gk.) is grammatically a masculine word, the same word that Paul uses in regards to his own ministry. Phoebe is the only woman to be named “deacon”. In Romans Phoebe is seen as acting as Paul’s envoy. Phoebe is named as a Patron of Paul, meaning that she would have been financially contributing to Paul’s mission. Phoebe was especially influential in the early Church seen in Jerusalem from the 4th century inscription: “Here lies the slave and bride of Christ, Sophia, deacon, the second Phoebe, who fell asleep in Christ.”
Paul in his letter to Timothy discusses the criteria for Deacons in the early Church which is explicitly directed to both male and females. Women flourished in the deaconate between the 2nd and 6th centuries. The position required pastoral care to women, instructing female candidates and anoint them at Baptism. They were also required to be present whenever a female would address a bishop.
And in Romans 16: 7 we find “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews, who were in prison with me. They are highly respected among the apostles and became followers of Christ before I did.” Junia was in prison with Paul – and possibly the only female apostle we will find mentioned in the New Testament. Junia may have been an evangelist and church-planter, just like Paul. Some translations made her name into “Junias” – i.e. a man. But it appears that this has since been corrected into the feminine version. I can only ask, How inspiring and wise must this woman have been to have been deemed by Paul worthy of the title “apostle”?
We also find
Chloe, a prominent woman of Corinth.
Euodia & Syntyche, Paul’s fellow workers in the gospel (mentioned in Philippians).
I find it difficult to relate these instances of respect and high esteem to the concept of a Paul that hated women and put them down. These messages of thanks were to women (and men) who had played a vital role in Paul’s ministry.
But what do we do if two thoughts or passages seem to conflict? This is where the heart of the gender debate begins… On one hand, we have those who say, “well if the Bible says to do it, then we ought to do it.”
Well, Leviticus 19 says that “You shall not put on a garment made of two kinds of materials.” If you’re wearing a cotton polyester blend or any other blend for that matter, you’re disobeying Biblical command this morning. Well, you may be saying that’s an obscure Old Testament command. And you’d be right.
But five times, Paul and Peter tell Christians to “Greet one another with holy kisses.” Done any kissing in church lately?
Oh! That verse is historical & cultural…
So what if in Timothy Paul wasn’t talking about women generally, but some particular & specific women that Timothy was having problems with? We may never fully know or understand the circumstances of this particular verse in Timothy.
I think it’s a fair conclusion that the testimony found in the bulk of Scripture, including the Pauline texts, speak plainly for women to be able to fulfill any ministry or position that the Spirit of God places upon them, whether it be teacher, prophet, pastor, evangelists or apostle.
When we look at the church, more times than not, there will be more women than men in church. Often times this is seen as a failure on the part of the church. In reality it may be the success of women being in MORE tuned with the Spirit of God. If there is to be a great awakening in the church, it will take place because we, the women in the church will see begin to see ourselves as God sees us. Women may hold the key to unleashing the power available in the church.
As we read in this morning’s Epistle, God is wiser than the wisest of human plans, and God’s weakness is stronger than the greatest of human strength. We may not fully understand the power of Jesus’ sacrifice, but we should whole-heartedly believe and cling to it.
Let us pray:
We give you thanks for the ministries that you have given to each one of us. We give you thanks not only for those women who have served you over the centuries, but also for those who serve you in whatever capacity today.
Today we specifically ask for your protection and peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where over six million people have died in the conflict so far. We pray for the 40,000 women & children each day that are raped and tortured… asking for your healing hand over their lives. We pray for justice for them – that even thought their country may not have anything of economic interest to the West, that you enlighten our leaders to see the needs of these people and intervene.
Today we ask that the lines of gender, race, wealth, and status completely disappear as we are transformed by your Spirit to be the “new creatures” in Christ we are called to be. May your church truly become the place where there is “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female” for we are indeed all one in the grace and mercy of Christ Jesus our Lord.
We’ve all heard: “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world”, usually used in reference to mothers. But we all know that this same woman has a powerful, persuasive influence on her life partner, on her sisters and cousins, her neighbours and friends.
You may have also heard:
“Behind every successful man stands a proud, although sometimes quite surprised, woman”.
Today I want to talk to you about that woman who is not surprised by the success of those she loves and supports. She’s not even surprised by her own success and achievements, because she’s planned, executed, cried, suffered sweat and tears, and when things go right for her, she says a little prayer to thank her Creator God for the helping hand.
A couple of years ago, as a member of a professional women’s club, I was asked “who was my role model?”
My answer then, as it still would be today, is the Proverbs 31 “super-woman”.
This super-woman is one of the reasons that I am a member of Balboa Union Church: I recall mentioning, many years ago, that I my goal was to become “The Virtuous Woman” of Proverbs 31, to which I received the reply that this reference in the Bible was not to be read literally, but figuratively – it didn’t really refer to women, it referred to the Church as the Bride of Christ.
That comment taught me an important lesson – don’t be quick to jump up and point out to someone else which Scriptures they should read literally or figuratively. Who am I to decide what others should read literally versus figuratively in the Bible? Did I get that special Bible where the footnotes clearly state what God intended to be literal and what was supposed to only be read figuratively? I’m not saying that this shouldn’t be read as a model for the Church – of course it should – but I also think it has many lessons to teach us about how to love and respect the women around us.
I accept that many women today, in and out of Churches, are taught that their only true role and fulfilment will come from being a wife and mother. While others are taught that their happiness will only come from their career and personal success. We have so many “issues” when it comes to self-fulfilment.
How come men don’t have these issues? Have you ever heard a man wondering whether he should focus on his life as husband and father or on his career? Should he give more time to the Church or his charity or will that interfere with his relationship with his kids?
I wonder, does this go hand-in-hand with the prayer in Old Testament times?
“I thank you God that I am not a slave, a gentile or a woman.”
I’d like to save, for another day, any reference to Paul’s teachings on the role of women, and focus our attention this morning on the beautiful and poetic passage in Proverbs 31. But I will clarify that when we look at Paul’s letters (all his letters, not just one passage or one verse standing alone), we get a much different picture of the Godly women than that provided in traditional Christian teaching. But that’s another discussion for another day.
Proverbs 31 introduces us to a woman that is fit to be a queen. Even if she had the bad fortune, like Kate, to be caught sunbathing topless, in the company of her husband, in a private home in France, with her photos spread over the front of the French press, she would still be able to hold her head high and rise above it. Her character cannot be called into question.
The introduction to Proverbs 31 tells us that these are the words that King Lemuel’s mother taught him, when she cautions him:
“Give not your strength to women; or your ways to those who destroy kings.”
And yet, in verses 10 to 31 of Proverbs 31, his mother literally gives him the A to Z (of the Hebrew alphabet) of what to look for in his queen.
10. A virtuous woman, who can find? For her price is far above rubies.
The entire book of Proverbs is about wisdom and wise living. And throughout it, wisdom is referred to as “she”. In Proverbs 3 we read:
Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding; For the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold. She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honour.
And She was with God from the beginning:
The Lord by Wisdom founded the earth; by understanding He established the heavens; by His knowledge the deeps broke open, and the clouds drop down the dew.
I would venture as far as saying that the Proverbs 31 woman is the one that has all of the words of Proverbs chapters 1 to 30 engraved on her heart and lives them out each day. She can be contrasted with those women mentioned in:
Proverbs 21:9 & 19
Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife.
Better to live in a desert than with a quarrelsome and ill-tempered wife.
And Proverbs 11:22
As a jewel of gold in a swine’s snout, so is a fair woman without discretion.
Proverbs is full of warnings about those with a loose tongue, who don’t know how to hold their temper and the dangers of speaking more than you listen.
The Proverbs 31 lady is gracious, retaining honour for herself and her family. She builds her home; her wise words are a tree of life.
So, who is the Proverbs 31 woman?
She is an elegant and wise woman;
She’s a wife;
She’s a mother;
She’s a home-maker;
She’s a business owner and investor;
She’s a volunteer, helping the poor, sick and needy; and
She’s a woman of God.
I want us to look at each one of these facets of the Virtuous Woman, starting with:
What does it mean to be “virtuous”, elegant & wise?
The definitions provided go a little like this:
Characterised by or possessing virtue or moral excellence;
Admirable, exemplary, praise-worthy, honest;
a person of strength of character
Apparently, even in the era in which King Lemuel lived, this was rare!
Of course, Proverbs 20, verse 6 reminds us:
Most men will proclaim to others their own kindness: but a faithful man, who can find?
So, for every virtuous woman that is hard to find, it’s equally hard to find a man that is faithful, honourable, loyal and true. That man that is described throughout Proverbs is just as rare a gem as she is.
Proverbs 31: 22 tells us that she is dressed in fine linen and purple. Linen in those times came from Egypt and the most valuable of all, purple garments, were brought from Tyre and Sidon – today she would be wearing Alexander McQueen, Dolce & Gabbana, Chanel, Prada, Christian Dior, Givenchy.
But, perhaps more importantly, she is clothed in strength and dignity; with preparation and providence, so that she can laugh at the days to come. She is not concerned with what the future holds, as she knows that she has prepared for this.
This is the woman that you can count on as a friend for advice: she not only has the experience and discretion to not gossip, but more than anything she is judicious and knowledgeable.
She speaks with wisdom and faithful instruction is on her tongue.
Even when she is giving instructions, she is kind.
The virtuous woman: as a wife
Verse 11 tells us that her husband’s heart trusts in her, and she greatly enriches his life. She intentionally goes out of her way to do him good, not harm, all the days of her life.
Not just the days that she feels like it.
Not just those days when he’s sweet and attentive.
Not just the days when she had a good day in the office and the kids are behaving themselves.
Every day she makes an effort to make his life better.
Because of her, rather than in spite of her, her husband is respected as an elder of the city, a man who plays an important role in the planning and decision making in the community in which they live. This man has been able to entrust to her the management of the home. He is confident that she has his back.
She has given her husband reason to praise her, saying:
Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.
This woman is not surprised by her husband’s success – when things go well for him, she knows that he deserves it and that she has stood there with him all the way.
The virtuous woman: as a mother
Her family has the choicest goods that they can afford, because she is like the merchant ships, bringing her food from afar. Many woman think that it’s impossible to live up to the standard set by Proverbs 31, without even realising – they are already doing it.
How often, ladies, do you find yourself going to more than one shop, just to pick up that special bottle or brand of food that you can’t get where you ordinarily shop? Yes, I can buy 90% of what I need at Riba Smith, but there are things in Organica or Deli Gourmet that are part of the stock of my pantry – those special items that my husband loves to find for a mid-night snack. The corvina from the fish market to make ceviche, even if it means a special trip just for that. As mother’s, you are all making those extra sacrifices to get the best things for your children or grandchildren.
The virtuous woman: as a home-maker
This woman is disciplined and organised: when she has to, she gets up while it’s still dark to make sure she has enough time to plan the day, providing food for her family and organising the chores. She is energetic when it comes to things that need to be done: she sets about it vigorously, with strength for the task at hand. We are also told that she watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness.
You may say – I don’t have maids and a “household” to watch over – but I am sure that all women (and possibly most men) can relate to the saying: “A man may work from dawn to dusk, but a woman’s work is never done”. There is a huge difference between resting or taking a break and being idle. Idleness refers to avoiding work, being lazy, moving without purpose.
Proverbs 18: 9 says that Idleness is akin to extravagance and wastefulness:
He that is slothful in his work is brother to him that is a great waster.
and Proverbs 19:15 warns that slothfulness casts into a deep sleep, and an idle person will suffer hunger. And so, the virtuous woman is always making sure that her house is always getting proper maintenance, so that she is not wasting resources, having to throw something away for lack of proper care.
In fact, if they fall on hard times, she’s not concerned, because she has planned for this. Proverbs 31: 21 tells us:
When it snows, she has no fear for her household; for all of them are clothed in scarlet.
They are not just clothed for the weather, but they are richly clothed.
The virtuous woman: career woman, business owner, investor and financial wizard
How many of us can really say that we work joyfully? Proverbs 31: 13 tells us that she works with “eager hands”, having selected the finest wool and flax to work with.
This woman leads by example – whether it be weaving, working at a check-out counter, being a teacher, or working in an office at a computer –this woman brings all of her energy to her work and even if she’s not a leader in a managerial sense, she is a leader by the example she sets to other in her work ethic and the effort she makes to fulfil the tasks at hand.
This woman is industrious: she makes linen garments and sells them, and supplies the merchants with sashes. When we look at the economy that they lived in, the merchants referred to the exporters – she was supplying Colon Free Trade Zone with merchandise for export. We can only imagine the quality of the workmanship to be acceptable for export.
Proverbs 31 also tells us that this wonder-woman is enterprising and prudent with money: she considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard. Perhaps you’re thinking she should have asked her husband before she spent the money – but let me refer you back to verse 11:
Her husband’s heart trusts in her and he lacks nothing of value.
As women of virtue, we need to know how to save and set money aside for special projects: whether that be the fund for family Christmas presents each year, the money set aside for that special surprise for a child’s graduation, or that special get-away as a couple. It’s not frivolous spending on the credit-card, or any cause for concern by her spouse or children – the virtuous woman has learned to do wonders with the purse-strings, making sure that she even has enough for those special projects and future plans.
This woman is a good steward, she makes sure that her trading and activity is profitable, even if it means that her lamp doesn’t go out at night. This verse 18 reminds me of two people:
1- My mum – who I would often find up at 3.00 a.m., working on a patchwork quilt or some other project that she had underway, because even if she didn’t have enough money to go out and buy gifts, she could always make them; and
2- A lawyer friend – who often is awake at 2.00 a.m., answering emails to clients, because she, like me, has her own firm and it’s up to her to make sure that things get done.
There are many women in this modern world that are doing “their stuff” at 2.00 a.m., so that during the day they have time to dedicate to their children or their family’s needs. These are the modern-day superwomen of Proverbs 31!
The virtuous woman: helping the needy
Somehow, she still finds the time, in the midst of all of this, to open her arms to the poor and extend her hands to the needy. The surplus, the planning, and profit, while they may go first to her make sure her family and household was well looked after, there was enough to share with those in need. And she is welcoming and gracious to the needy. Not seeing this as a burden.
The virtuous woman: woman of God
Proverbs 31 ends by reminding us:
Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
It would not be possible to do and be all these things, unless this woman of strength had inner peace and Spirit to guide her. How else do you find the strength to face the challenges of each day and to speak words of wisdom with kindness?
Of course, we all realise, by the time we get to the end of Proverbs 31 that her children have already grown up and had children of their own: they’re back to the stage where “Mum knows everything”. Obviously, if they call her “blessed” they are no longer teenagers or in their early twenties! Yes, this is the woman that we aspire to be, but we are all diamonds in the rough – and the years are the polishers that God uses to cut away the rough edges to make us shine brilliantly.
I invite you all to look around and congratulate the virtuous women of this congregation: the little ones, with all their lives ahead of them; the teenagers – with their struggles of fitting in; the single ones and married ones; the mothers and mothers-in-waiting; and, most importantly, the grand-mothers. Every one of the women here today fulfils at least one of the verses that I have spoken of, even if she finds the group of them together, the balance to be given between the different hats that she wears every day, sometimes overwhelming. Each of these women is working, one day at a time, towards that goal of being the noblest of them all.
As I stand up here this morning, I am reminded about why Jeremiah said to God “I don’t know how to speak; I am only a child”. Well, maybe not a child, but Mum & Dad are sitting in the congregation listening, and I feel like a child. Are they going to like what I said? What are they going to say in the car on the way home?
Like Jeremiah, I feel that there is something important to share this morning, for the strengthening, encouragement and comfort of each one of you. So, with some fear and trembling, I dare to ask “Does your religion forget God?”
When I read Luke 13: 10-17, titled: A Crippled Woman Healed on the Sabbath, I wonder whether I am the crippled woman or the Synagogue ruler.
For a moment, I want to consider the crippled woman. Luke tells us:
She was crippled by a spirit (other translations mentions that it was a spirit of illness or infirmity). This doesn’t mean demon possession: it’s more like the torment that Job endured when Satan afflicted his body.
For 18 years she’s been suffering!
She’s bent over, unable to straighten up – Now, If you get Ankylosing Spondylitis (a chronic progressive form of arthritis distinguished by inflammation and stiffness) today’s medicine can relieve the pain, but not actually cure the condition.
She was in the synagogue on the Sabbath
Finally, she was standing somewhere at the back, because Jesus had to call her forward.
I wonder how this spirit of illness attached itself to her: did it start attacking her slowly, surreptitiously, taking over her health a little at a time, so that she didn’t notice it at first? Or did it crash in and knock her over and out, that she was overpowered and unable to fight back? For 18 years, she lived with this condition, probably in reluctant acceptance… something uncomfortable, but irreversible.
Sighing: “Oh well, this is my lot in life, I’ll just have to live with it”.
“It’s been this way for so long, I’ve learnt to live with it. In fact, I’m almost beginning to notice the benefits of this condition: SEE – I have a really good view of the floor for sweeping and mopping, it’s easy to do the laundry and the washing, I can pick up the kids clothes and toys easily, I don’t bump my head much on the low-handing doors or cupboards, preparing the food over the wood fire is effortless, and all the rest of the household chores are easily handled from here. I know I shouldn’t complain: there are a lot of others that are much worse off than me. Overall, I’d say I’m doing pretty well: But, sometimes I wonder what the blue sky looks like, and I miss seeing rainbows.”
Is that why she wasn’t rushing to ask Jesus to heal her? Had she lost hope, over the 18 years? Maybe she’d prayed about it, when she was first afflicted by the pain and the spirit of illness, but there was no answer, and she decided that God was much too busy with other people and other problems and hers was just a little problem.
While there is the possibility that she relished her infirmity and felt that she was better than others, or she enjoyed feeling sorry for herself, I don’t think this was her view. Given her reaction to the healing, “she straightened up and praised God”, I think she’d given up hope, but there was just that tiny, small, almost unspoken wish, that MAYBE, just maybe, Jesus will notice me and say or do something. Maybe she was too scared or nervous or ashamed to ask for healing or speak to Jesus.
What we know is that she had the courage to step up and come forward. When Jesus called her, not knowing whether he would call her to bless her, to question her, to rebuke her, or to speak with her, she came forward. What do I do when Jesus asks me to step forward? Do I cower in the background, hoping he’s talking to someone else? Do I hide behind another? Or do I walk forward to receive his Word and his healing touch? What do you do when Jesus speaks to you? Do you even realise that it is Jesus speaking? Or think, “oh, he’s talking to someone else”?
Or maybe you’re so overcome by the problem, the weight on your shoulders, your human condition that you can’t drag yourself into Church. And you say to yourself, I went to Church last week, and he wasn’t there and he didn’t talk to me, so why’s it going to be any different this week? Are you busy looking at the earth? Stooped over? Looking down, instead of looking up? Are your eyes fixed on God or on your own condition and its results?
Let’s have a look at the Synagogue ruler:
We know that he was INDIGNANT about Jesus healing on the Sabbath. I remember reading somewhere that righteous indignation is usually 1% righteous and 99% indignation. He’s so indignant, in fact, that he doesn’t even address Jesus and directs his speech to those present: “There are 6 days for work: so come and be healed on THOSE days, not on the Sabbath.” Was the synagogue ruler right? We know that the rules about the Sabbath are repeated or clarified 12 times throughout Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
Exodus 20 “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work…” Exodus 23 “ … so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and the slave born in your household… may be refreshed.” Chapter 34: “… you shall rest; even during the ploughing season and harvest you must rest.” And Exodus 35: “Do not light a fire in any of your dwellings on the Sabbath day.” In Leviticus 23: “a Sabbath of rest, a day of sacred assembly. You are not to do any work; wherever you live…” In Numbers we read of a man found collecting fire wood on the Sabbath, who Moses had stoned outside the camp, “as the Lord commanded Moses”. This was SERIOUS! The Sabbath was to be kept holy, set apart for God.
But the real nitty gritty rules, how to put it into practice, were rules made by man (yes, probably the lawyers)… These clarified that “rest” meant you couldn’t walk more than about 1.5 km from your home, but if you left food for 2 meals at the 1.5 km mark, you could walk another 1.5 km on from that point, since it was now your “dwelling”.
And yet we also find in the Bible, exceptions to this rule:
Leviticus 24:5-9 – the Levites were to present to God fresh bread EACH day, including on the Sabbath, for which they were to light fires and cook, even on the Sabbath.
In John 7, verses 22 and 23 we find that it was acceptable for a baby boy to be circumcised on the Sabbath
And in Matthew 12 we read that if a sheep falls into a pit, any owner would pull it out.
The Mischnic tractate “Sabbath” has precise definitions for the purpose of determining what was allowable and not allowable on the Sabbath. And I’m sure that the synagogue ruler had memorised them all! We all know his kind: they’ve been in and around churches for decades. He doesn’t see this healing as an “act of God”, but rather a natural act of healing (that somehow must therefore be work). How much criticism, condemnation is there in churches, excluding the possibility that it is God working the miracle, healing, restoration or freedom from bondage?
So, we have the crippled woman and the synagogue leader; now let’s have a look at Jesus:
I find it curious that the woman was not up the front, looking to get healed. Jesus singled her out of the crowd, and called her forward. He must have known that this was going to get a rise and reaction out the Pharisees, scribes or other synagogue leaders. I believe he was taking the opportunity not just to heal her, but to bring restoration as well by confronting a problem.
The synagogue leader plays right into his hands and overreacts. Just when the woman is praising God (not Jesus, but God), the synagogue leader steps up and tells everyone that the healing services in this church will only be held from Sunday through Fridays. “There won’t be any healing services held on the Sabbath. It’s NOT God’s will that anyone be healed on the Sabbath.”
And so Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath, that same Lord that has already said previously in another synagogue and to another group of Pharisees that the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath, confronts him with: “You hypocrites!”
I don’t know about you, but I might be a little embarrassed, maybe even a little offended! I’m standing in MY synagogue, in front of MY friends and cronies, I’m the big fish in this little pond, and this guy (that I probably hadn’t even invited to come and teach) steps up to the microphone, takes over the teaching, and on top of that calls this woman forward from the back, who is OBVIOUSLY a sinner, (in case you hadn’t heard, she’s crippled by a SPIRIT), and he heals her, ON THE SABBATH.
To make matters even worse, Jesus insinuates that this woman has as MUCH right as I do to salvation and freedom? He categorically states that she is a daughter of Abraham! As if she was somehow at the same level as the sons of Abraham.
Without mincing his words, Jesus asks if this woman, whom SATAN (not herself through her sin) has kept bound for 18 long years, doesn’t have the right to be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her? (I’m sure the synagogue ruler wanted to say: “Well, maybe, but Not in MY church!”).
So, I come back to the question that I started with: Does your religion forget God?
The 10 Commandments, they start with “You shall have no other gods before me” and “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything…”. I’m certain that the synagogue leader firmly believed that he had no idols or any other gods. He knew the laws and followed them religiously. And I imagine that in the crippled woman’s house, we would have found no idols or other images.
And yet, in a way, each of them had something that held their attention, that defined them:
The woman was burdened, weighed down under the circumstances of her life. She was living in defeat, possibly sapped on strength and vitality. I imagine she felt like an outcast, maybe a hunchback, and probably in pain. Probably the vertebrae of her spine were fused together. And so, she’s come to accept this bondage – she accepts her condition. She forgets that God is over and above all, even though she still somehow clings to that slender thread of belief that somehow, in the synagogue, she will still find the answers. But she has given-in; she’s no longer asking God to be bigger than the problem. The problem is obviously bigger than God.
The synagogue leader, on the other hand, has a god or idol that is much easier to identify (at whom we can point the finger): his ego, his knowledge of the scriptures, ME, ME, ME. I AM. I KNOW, I OBEY, I FOLLOW. He wants to keep control of the synagogue: he wants everyone to obey and follow the law the way he does. His way.
And just because we don’t assist religious temples dedicated to nonexistent deities, we think we are free from idolatry as well. Our biggest idol, in secular society today, is what encourages us to worship ourselves: greed, jealousy, self-indulgence, selfishness, pleasure, pride, arrogance, injustice, self-pity, hate, anger, and such like. We work for money, for pleasure, for power, for importance, for a sense of self-worth or self-importance. Our lives are centred and revolve around ME, MY FAMILY, MY JOB, MY CAREER, MY FEELINGS, MY SALARY, MY RAISE, MY REPUTATION, MY IMPORTANCE, MY EFFORTS, MY HOUSE, MY DECISIONS, MY WAY… and even go so far as to be about MY GOOD WORKS, MY MISSIONS EFFORTS, MY CONTRIBUTIONS, MY INTERPRETATION OF THE BIBLE, MY WALK OF FAITH, MY SUFFERING, and so on.
How far is my religion from actually loving and serving the Almighty God? What do I need to be freed from, like this woman, to be like Jeremiah and accept that before God formed me in the womb, He KNEW me and set me apart for a special purpose even before I was born? Am I living in the freedom that I have through the salvation of Christ Jesus? Or am I still focused on the idols or bondage and burdens of my life? Am I fulfilling my calling in Colossians 3: 12-15: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience; forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord as forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.”
From personal experience I can tell you that when I started to examine my life, and identify those IDOLS that I put ahead and are more important than God, it startled me. There were the obvious idols: my ego and pride, my career as a lawyer, my intellect, my achievements, my relationships… Susy (my Chihuahua) – on a pedestal of love. My finances and my business – because we all know, my professional life and my relationship with God are mutually exclusive, right? God is for Sundays and devotional time each morning or evening, and then from 8 to 5 I work and am a professional. There’s no reason for the two to overlap or meet! I tithe my money to the Church, and what I do with the rest of it is mine to decide, right? What does Christ mean he wants to be Lord of ALL?
On the one hand, I know that Jesus came to bring liberty to the captives and healing to the sick, as well as to save each man from sin. He wants us to be His followers. But, for some reason, we overlook that this means a radical life-changing experience. Galatians 3:3 warns all Christians not to be foolish “… After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” The Holy Spirit was sent to help us, so that we wouldn’t rely on our human effort alone, becoming self-centred.
God asks us to put HIM first, Lord of ALL… we are each faced with a decision: Do I trust God enough to hand over my business? Do I really trust Him? Who is God that I should trust Him? What does it really mean to hand over my life, my finances and business to God?
This life-changing decision is now about asking God for His opinion and His permission, and there is no longer any sphere or area of life which is exclusively MINE, where God doesn’t have a part! It means that before I go to work each day, I put the day before Him in prayer and ask Him for His strength and guidance, rather than depending on my own wisdom. I must have the courage to do things differently: look at problems, issues and people from His perspective, not mine.
When we decide to put God first in our lives, as Jesus would have us do, we realise that it’s no longer MY synagogue, or MY burdens and bondage, but that we are to live under HIS freedom. We are to show His love to every man, woman or child, not just those that we believe deserve it or are entitled to it. He is an equal opportunity freedom fighter.
Jesus knows that it’s not ONLY our possessions that may get in the way of our relationship with God, but also our self-pity, our sense of self-worth, our hopelessness, our piousness, our knowledge and human intellect.
At the end of the day, Jesus is looking for all of us to accept His deliverance, to have a new identity, and to give the praise to whom it is really due: to God, as the crippled woman did and those that saw her healing. Having a personal relationship with Jesus, being His follower, means living in freedom from bondage and trusting in Him, so that it is no longer I (or me) but Christ working through me. He would have us all say, as we did in our prayer of confession at the beginning of the service, with the security that we trust Him in every area of our lives:
In you, O Lord, I have taken refuge; let me never be put to shame. Rescue me and deliver me in your righteousness; turn your ear to me and save me. Be my rock of refuge, to which I can always go; give the command to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress. For you have been my hope, O Sovereign Lord, my confidence since my youth. From birth I have relied on you; you brought me forth from my mother’s womb. I will ever praise you. (Psalms 71: 1-6)
There’s nothing like having high expectations of yourself and raising the bar. And one of the areas in my life that I have started to refocus on is spiritual growth.
Admittedly, it all started in 2008 when Dr. Taylor challenged me to become a “Virtuous Woman”, according to Proverbs 31. Now THAT is a woman I am very happy to imitate. Following on from that, she challenged me to become “wise”, so I started reading a chapter of Proverbs each day, to increase in wisdom. I was reading a lot of John Maxwell, on leadership, and each of the other books I read seemed to take me back to the Bible. (Why is it that the good authors on leadership are all from churches?).
Eventually, that lead me to reading other books of the Bible and then to start reading Bible study books. I got hooked, somewhere along the line, on Elizabeth George and her book “A Woman after God’s own heart”, referring to David being a man after God’s own heart.
In her book, which I finished some time last year, she challenges each woman to choose 5 topics and over the next decade become “an expert” in those 5 areas.
So, I’ve chosen 5 topics that caught my attention, principally because of Proverbs and also in part because they are areas that I simply feel I don’t understand.
The fear of the Lord (which is the beginning of wisdom, according to Proverbs). Who is God? What does it mean (in this day & age) to fear him? What is “fear”?
An intimate relationship with God: which is really 2 topics – Prayer and speaking to God; and being filled with the Holy Spirit.
The tongue – blessings and curses, the control of the tongue, the power of the tongue for good and for bad. What we build up and what we tear down.
Women – how do I reconcile the Virtuous Woman in Proverbs 31 with what Paul says about women in 1 Timothy 1: 11-12. Throughout most of what is written by Paul, he makes mention over and over to the fact that women “caused” the fall of man and were lead astray, and lead man astray. (Unfortunately, Eve wasn’t the only woman to do this – Sara did so with Abraham, giving him Hagar to have a child, as well as other examples in the Bible). But, how do I reconcile this model to follow in Proverbs with other parts of the Bible. What about Deborah?
Anyway, by 2020 I want to be an expert in these 5 areas of the Bible. So, when reading my Chronological Bible I am paying special attention to everything about these topics, and I am accumulating a library of books that study these topics. And trying to get a little further ahead each week in reading and studying about them and how they fit into daily life.
One of the other things I’ve learned about is tithing, and since for me “time is money”, I am tithing not only my money, but also my time to study. So, setting aside about 2 1/2 hours each day for prayer (practicing prayer) and study. And all sorts of different study aids and guides to keep me motivated and moving.