Some years ago, I was asked to offer some support to a fellow – I will call him Tom. Tom was probably in his 50’s and extremely intelligent. He has a PhD, the name of which I couldn’t pronounce, let alone understand. He was also limited by psychological issues that caused him some degree of paranoia and obsessive behaviour. Tom wasn’t able to work at a level that his training suggested he should be capable due to his psychological disability and his need to provide care for ageing parents.
Within the poorer part of the neighbourhood where he lived, he was taunted and made fun of, threatened and felt unsafe. Young blokes would drive close to him as he walked home from the station – he walked everywhere. They yelled out insults and so Tom became disengaged and paranoid about those around him. Tom was caught up in an incident where he was wrongly accused of doing something against the law – neighbours were behind this. The evidence pointed towards him being involved, even though he was completely innocent, and he was ultimately charged.
Tom’s intelligence and education took him into a variety of areas of study, including the law and he strenuously refuted the allegations and charges. A photographic memory ensured that he could recount every detail of every event and conversation, including times and places. Tom suffered through this drawn out process, confused and feeling like a criminal. He was angry, indignant and fearful. He felt powerless and without a voice. Tom’s life was difficult with the bullying and intimidation within the neighbourhood and the difficult allegations and charges against him. He didn’t know how to deal with it. He wasn’t sure who to turn to or what he could do. He also felt that he was being pushed to the fringes of communal life, excluded from society through the bullying and the fear he felt. Tom had little money and lived a very simple life on limited resources. He struggled to find the support he needed and a place where he could belong. Tom really was a marginalised person.
A combination of legal processes that were applied legalistically and Tom’s mental health issues meant that the court process was difficult and unacceptable to him. Whilst he was essentially cleared by the court not recording any convictions against him, he was ordered to pay some legal costs and perhaps a fine. Tom was indignant, feeling that he had done no wrong and could not see why he had to pay costs and be treated as having done the wrong thing. He protested and felt the weight of the world against him.
In a real sense, Tom was bent over, weighed down and crushed by life and its inherent injustices that seem to oppress the poorer and more vulnerable people. Tom needed the support of people who would take him seriously and whom he could trust. He also needed a community where he could belong and one that would accept his unique personal traits and vulnerabilities. Tom couldn’t always express himself well and he was uncomfortable and even clumsy in groups of people. It took time and focussed effort to engage with him and it took time to build up trust and listen to his story.
He was welcomed into our local congregation and a few of us were able to walk with him through some hard and difficult times. It was a difficult journey as we engaged health issues, vulnerability, fear, the legal processes and the multitude of emotions and angst he felt. I found myself feeling very helpless before the heavy legal processes as I was drawn into the court hearings. I was out of my depth and others provided further, more expert support. It was very clear that the law had a fixed agenda and was not open to listening to the person, hearing their story, understanding the underlying pain, fear and reactions in order to ascertain a truth deeper than pure law. I felt very much frustrated and angry that this vulnerable person needed protection, support and care rather than being treated as a criminal and made to feel an outcast. Tom was bent over.
I was reminded of Tom as I read the Gospel story this week (Luke 13:10-17). It is the story of a woman who had been physically bent over for many years – 18 in all. She could not look up and walked with a severe leaning, looking only down at the floor. Such a person was vulnerable and quite helpless in her society, as she might well be today. This woman could not work and was pushed to the margins. She was oppressed by her physical deformity and lived a difficult life, seeking some relief, peace and hope. She needed to be released from her oppression and this was the healing and salvation she needed and yearned for.
One morning in the synagogue on the Sabbath Day, this unnamed woman ventured in. We do not know whether she was regular or was seeking something out of her desperation. On this day she encountered Jesus. He came to the Synagogue this morning and saw the woman. Others probably looked at her and past her, never really noticing her as a person – only a deformed individual who was hard to engage because her focus was always downward. Jesus noticed the woman and engaged her. She didn’t ask him for help, she probably only saw his feet. Jesus offered her relief from the oppression and weight of life. She needed release, relief and to be embraced back fully into the community of God’s people. As a deformed woman she was outside the real life of people and her community. Jesus saw her and responded with grace, lifting her burden from her, easing the weight and oppressive forces from her and restoring her to right life and back into fellowship with other people. This was salvation and life!!
Meanwhile, the leader of the synagogue took umbrage at Jesus’ restoration of this woman on the Sabbath Day. He was within his rights to complain. The law explicitly forbade work and the various interpretations indicated that healing was not permissible on the Sabbath Day! There are 6 other days in the week when this could happen and no need for healing on the Sabbath! He was right – well at least within the literal framework of the law. Within the spirit of law and grace, he was out of step. Jesus responded by commenting on how you would release an animal from its night shelter to drink on a Sabbath animal, giving it freedom – how much more significant is it that a person finds life in the embrace of God’s grace. This, whether Sabbath or any day! This woman had been physically suffering, excluded and struggling for 18 years – perhaps she could have waited one more day but that is not grace! It is outrageous legalism and abusive control. Jesus saw the woman, engaged the woman and released the woman out of love and kindness, mercy and compassion, justice and peace. He reacted without hesitation because she needed help and love – now! That is the way if God, whose desire is for love and grace! There are many who need peace and restoration in life, many who struggle, and the literal ‘law’ keeps them trapped. Love is the response that brings release and life! Love is the way of Jesus, the way of God and the deepest need in our world today! Love!