by Lynn Domina
I have been thinking about Jesus the teacher. He instructs many people, friends and enemies, the naïve and the sly, those hoping for grace and those hoping to outwit him. But as a good teacher once described a classroom, “There’s more teaching than learning going on here.”
We hear Jesus when he unrolls the scroll in the synagogue and reads from Isaiah, proclaiming good news. When he is finished, he rolls the scroll up, sits down, and says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” His immediate listeners are first amazed and then angry—Jesus is nothing if not scandalous. We hear him telling stories, parables that seldom quite make sense. His immediate listeners (who are often his disciples) frequently misunderstand, interpreting his words literally rather than figuratively. They’re hearing the words, it seems, but they’re not comprehending the meaning.
So how do we understand Jesus? We hear his words and we observe his actions as they are described for us in scripture, but when Jesus repeatedly urges, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” he’s not talking simply about our physical capacity, though ears and eyes and hands and feet make for good metaphors throughout the gospel. Whether our physical senses are acute or dulled, understanding requires so much more than just perking up when sound waves strike our eardrums.
Understanding takes a lifetime of meditation with an open heart, thinking about what the stories in scripture might have meant then and what they might mean now, discerning how the lessons we each need to learn are revealed in our own lives. I’ve been thinking for years now about the story of the woman bent over in Luke 13: 10-17. When the story opens, Jesus is teaching on the sabbath. He sees the woman, interrupts his lesson, and heals her. Immediately, he’s criticized for performing work on the sabbath. His response is sensible—in emergencies, we’re permitted to work on the sabbath.
I have known women bent over, and we’ve probably all seen one or two. I have seen women bent at the waist, walking with canes, faces toward the ground, and I’ve tried to imagine what that feels like. I imagine the discomfort of looking up, the strain on your neck as you try to have a normal conversation with just about anyone. How uncomfortable it would be to try look toward the vast sky, the clouds, the moon, the stars. How painful it would feel when a child on a high swing calls, “Look at me, Grandma!”
I wonder whether there’s more to Luke’s story of Jesus. Isn’t healing the work of God just as much as praying is? I wonder whether healing isn’t a necessary component of Jesus’ sabbath teaching, different from the drudgery of much human work—scrubbing pots, tilling fields, counting up the cash of a day’s receipts. There’s the work of God, and there’s employment, the work we do to keep ourselves out of destitution, yes, but also to maintain our status, to acquire so many things that have so little to do with God. If we are each made in God’s image—the woman bent over, the disciples, the Pharisees—how does our work resemble God’s work?
The word “liturgy” is frequently defined as “the work of the people,” in the sense that the people participate rather than simply observe, but from what I’ve read recently, it might more accurately be translated as “work for the people,” work that benefits others. So curing the woman bent over is as liturgical as reading from scripture. It’s as liturgical as singing “Be Thou My Vision” or consecrating bread and wine or turning to one’s neighbor and saying, “Peace be with you.” It makes sense, then, that Jesus would stop preaching in order to heal. Both acts are works of and for the people.
Hearing Jesus, hearing deeply, with our entire beings, we understand that God’s work is our work, that permitting ourselves to heal and to be healed are acts of worship.