I’ve been doing some reflecting on how hard it is to accept new ideas, new understandings. How much that threatens us. Because our own conceptions, our own moral code, our own traditions and ways of doing things – in a world where nothing is predictable or even dependable, our own understandings and opinions almost feel like home. They feel sacred. And we become fearful of that which is new, closing our hearts and minds to everything that doesn’t jive with our own sense of home. We all do this. Yes, some of us struggle with change more than others, but all of us do this. We can’t seem to help ourselves. And then along comes the Bible, this ages old book that’s anything but dry and dusty. These words, if we let God wedge His foot in the door of our heart, these words shake us up, turn us inside out, and leave us dangling by faith, grasping onto God, praying for our very lives. And isn’t that kind of the point? Proverbs 3:5 – “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understandings.” Here’s a story based on this Luke story. One I hope helps us open to the newness of the Spirit always at work among us and within us.
He leaned forward and rubbed his hands together with anticipation. Eager to see and hear for himself the young prophet who had the Jerusalem rabbis worked up into such a frenzy. His grin matured into a full-throated chuckle as he recalled Rabbi Levi’s look of bewildered indignation when he told Levi, just yesterday, that he had invited Jesus to read scripture in that morning’s Shabbat service. It wasn’t that Rabbi Judah liked to seek out trouble, but he didn’t mind tweaking its nose every now and then either, especially to make a point. His point that particular Sabbath morning being that his brother Pharisees were getting carried away with spurious judgments and perhaps needed to listen a little more and talk a little less to and about this upstart, Jesus. Of course, this was just Judah’s opinion, but his opinion carried great weight in his community. Not only was his knowledge of the law unsurpassed, so too was his passion for this law as his peoples’ tenuous but sure connection to the Almighty God. He loved the law and treated it always with tender priority. In another person, this passion and love for Torah might have manifested itself in an unforgiving and harsh character. Yet Judah commanded only respect, not only because of his knowledge and passion for the law, but for the way in which he also balanced his passion and love with an equal measure of passion and love for his people. This tricky balance was maintained with a robust sense of humor and his ready and loud laughter endeared him to all. Which was fortunate as it seemed the Creator had chosen to endow only his character with extreme good will and had entirely overlooked the physical. His body was as tiny and slight as his character was large and boisterous. His stature had earned him the affectionate nickname
“Latria Nanus,” or, “Dear puny one”. An ironic title for one of the leaders of the Bethany synagogue. As he sat, listening to and joining in the litany of traditional prayer, a familiar hitch-drag rhythm crept up on him and, stopped short. Craning his head to glance behind, he sighed with a mingling of surprise and sorrow. Young Daniel had carefully positioned his lame leg to the greatest effect and now propped himself up on his crutch, searching the crowd eagerly for their guest, the great healer, Jesus. Judah got up and went to speak with Daniel and gently reminded him that the Shabbat service was not a time for healing. According to the sacred law, healing could be done on any of the other six days, but not on the Sabbath. He embraced Daniel and assured him that the very next day, he would be happy to spend time with the young boy in prayer, petitioning God for healing. Who, but God knew, when or how this fervent and relentless prayer might be answered in the way both Judah and Daniel longed for.
Daniel’s chastising eyes pierced Judah’s heart with the tang of guilt as the boy turned and with the help of his crutch, dragged his useless leg from the synagogue. Despite his excitement at hearing Jesus speak, Daniel’s plight remained uppermost in Judah’s mind, casting a pall over his natural good humor. In an effort to settle the matter in his mind, he questioned whether it couldn’t hurt to talk with Jesus about Daniel and see how he might respond, after nightfall, of course. Pleased with himself, he looked up with a broad smile as Jesus made his way to the front and stopped at the Leviticus scroll, opened to that day’s appointed scripture. When Jesus began unrolling the scroll in search of the scripture that suited him, Judah’s smile faltered as he began assuring himself that while Jesus’ actions were a little unusual, they were not unheard of. He gave a nod of approval, signaling to his brother Pharisees that they should also sit tight and listen. “If anyone injures his neighbor, whatever he has done must be done to him:”, Jesus began and then continued reading, “fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. As he has injured the other, so he is to be injured. Whoever kills an animal must make restitution, but whoever kills a man must be put to death. You are to have the same law for the alien and the native-born. I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 24:19-22).’”
Jesus was silent for a moment before beginning his commentary. “You have heard it said, here in Leviticus, in Exodus, in Deuteronomy, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. If someone strikes you on the cheek, offer them the other cheek as well. If someone demands from you your coat, give them your shirt too. Confound your enemy. Yes. Confuse your enemy. Certainly. Hurt your enemy. No. I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you (Lev. 24:19-23) (Ex. 21; Deut. 19) (Matthew 5).” Judah shifted uncomfortably on his bench. While many people seated in the synagogue that day heard these edgy words for the first time, they were not new to Judah’s ears and in fact, he found himself charitable to this view. They resonated deep within and even aligned in their own way with the law as well. But he was not yet open with his increasingly sympathetic perspective. For these views were not popular among the Pharisees who seized upon this teaching of Jesus as a clear example of the way in which the so called “prophet” was working to subvert the law of Moses among the common people where his messages were often welcomed and even embraced. He shot a sidelong glance at his colleagues and noted with uneasiness their grim and angry faces and began to question his wisdom in inviting Jesus to speak. So lost was he in his troubled thoughts, he didn’t notice the stir when Lydia, painfully stooped, rose to her feet towards the back of the assembly and remained standing.
Attention slowly shifted and like a wave, heads turned to catch a glimpse of Lydia before reversing the tide, turning again towards the front, curious to see how Jesus would respond. Judah groaned audibly. What was going on? Certainly, he felt for those in his community who suffered and wanted more than anything to seek healing. But they knew as well as he that Sabbath law did not permit the work of healing on the Sabbath day. Why not seek Jesus out tomorrow? What were they thinking? He nodded at Jesus to continue with his sermon, but Jesus’ eyes were locked onto the hunched woman in the back, defiantly remaining on her feet. And then he spoke, “Woman, come here.” Judah felt paralyzed, knowing exactly what Jesus intended and yet suddenly powerless to do anything about it. Lydia made her way haltingly to the front before an audience of enthralled worshippers turned spectators. When Lydia reached Jesus’ side, he stretched out his hands to touch her and said, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” Immediately, straightening her back she stood up tall and began to praise God. Pandemonium descended. People on their feet. Angry shouting. Laughter. Singing. Judah, paralysis suddenly broken, also got to his feet and bellowed, “No, this must not be!”, his voice ringing across the synagogue. As he spoke, his eyes caught Levi’s smirk and he realized in a rush what, or rather who, had brought Daniel and Lydia along with their hopes for healing, to the Shabbat service that day. Jesus, along with Judah, in his own synagogue had been set up. The knowledge made his fury burn brighter. Rarely seeing their little Latria Nanus in such a state, the people quieted and returned to their seats. “No!” Judah repeated, “There are six days in which healing is permitted. Jesus, you know this. Lydia, you know this.” Not on the Sabbath day.” Jesus’ response was immediate. “You hypocrites, all of you”, he indicated the Pharisees present with an accusing finger before letting his gaze fall squarely on Judah. “Do not each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or your donkey from its manger and lead it away to give it water? Therefore, ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound for 18 long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” There was a momentary hush as Jesus’ words settled into minds and hearts. Tears flowed and the hush grew slowly into a persistent buzz that soon gave way to wild rejoicing. Amidst the jubilation Judah stood, purposefully blocking out the flood of emotion that threatened to engulf him and focused instead on a single question with no clear answer in mind – how could Jesus have known that Lydia, a complete stranger, had been crippled for 18 years?
The days that followed were a torment for Judah. From dawn to dusk each day a battle raged within – the law of Moses or Jesus? The law was his comfort, his rock, his life, his love. And yet, he could no longer ignore the insistent voice of Jesus which haunted his waking hours with a truth he was unable to deny. Out of respect, his community, even his fellow Pharisees, gave him a wide berth, though they missed his insight, his counsel, his loud humor. One day, on a morning walk, he came across Lydia, bearing a water jug on her shoulder and was taken aback by the expression of discomfort on her face. “Lydia, are you alright?” he asked easing the jug from her arms and settling it onto the dried grass. “I am fine Latria Nanus”, Lydia assured him. “How have things been for you?” Judah asked before his question trailed off into a wrenching reluctance to talk about the Sabbath morning a week or so previous. Lydia paused, looking out over the early morning horizon. “Ten full water jugs fell off my back as I stood straight that Sabbath morning”, she said with a nod to her own water jug resting on the ground beside her. “I can tell you in detail what these water paths look like, where the roads dip just slightly, where the ants crawl in the streets of Bethany, where the cracks are in the synagogue floor. For eighteen years I’ve been looking down, Rabbi Judah.
Now I look up and I see trees, the moon, stars. I see people’s faces as they walk by. I’m no longer a nuisance for my family. I can contribute again. I am of worth. All this is so great it makes the other seem so small.” “The other…” Judah prompted. “The pain, Rabbi, the pain. I hurt in many new places. I suppose my body has to learn again how to be tall. But this small hurt, Latria Nanus…it’s a wonderful pain. One I will gladly bear.” Lydia smiled at him warmly, forgiveness extended in her eyes, then carefully picked up her water jug and resumed her journey home. Judah turned and continued toward the river from which Lydia had just come, with emotion raw in his heart and throat. With a sense of rising urgency, he began to jog, until reaching the riverside he collapsed in breathless prostration before God and began to pray, and to entreat and to plead and to surrender. And God spoke to his broken and tender heart starting with words of love – “Latria mu Nanus, my dear puny one…” Judah listened and raising teary eyes to the rising sun sometime later, he felt a well loved and cherished weight roll off his weary shoulders.