When Religious Leadership Gets It Wrong

 In the Gospel according to St. Luke (13:10-17) our Lord Jesus, while in a synagogue, shows mercy to a woman who had been afflicted with a disease for 18 years.  A leader of the synagogue, failing to see the hand of God in the miracle, passive-aggressively criticizes the congregation for the Sabbath day miracle.  No doubt he felt he couldn’t criticize Jesus directly, after all, Jesus had just performed a miracle!  The congregation apparently at first must have sided with Jesus’ adversaries, or were unsure how to react to such a sign in the synagogue.  For they only rejoice after Jesus points out the hypocrisy of the leadership.  And the adversaries of Christ feel no shame about their opposition to Jesus when they see the miracle.  They only feel shame when Jesus points out to them that they show more compassion to their beasts of burden than to a fellow human being.   Their hypocrisy is obvious: they show mercy on the Sabbath to animals and know this is in their power and right to do.   Jesus reveals He has power to show mercy as well, and that is why it is right for Him to do an act of mercy on the Sabbath, and for the people to seek such an act of mercy when they come to the synagogue.

Now He was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath.  And behold, there was a woman who had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years, and was bent over and could in no way raise herself up.  But when Jesus saw her, He called her to Him and said to her, “Woman, you are loosed from your infirmity.”  And He laid His hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and glorified God. But the ruler of the synagogue answered with indignation, because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath; and he said to the crowd, “There are six days on which men ought to work; therefore come and be healed on them, and not on the Sabbath day.”  The Lord then answered him and said, “Hypocrite! Does not each one of you on the Sabbath loose his ox or donkey from the stall, and lead it away to water it?  So ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound-think of it-for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath? And when He said these things, all His adversaries were put to shame; and all the multitude rejoiced for all the glorious things that were done by Him.

St. Nikolai Velimirovic commenting on the Gospel lesson, himself indignant at the story, points out that it is almost as if a demon entered into the synagogue leader to cause him to react so caustically to Christ’s miracle.

 “And the ruler of the synagogue answered with indignation, because that Jesus had healed on the Sabbath Day, and said unto the people: ‘There are six days in which men ought to work; in them therefore come and be healed, and not on the Sabbath Day.’

These are the words of a wicked son of darkness. It is as though Satan, leaving the twisted woman, had entered into him. Thus speaks self-love accompanied by its inseparable companions: envy and anger. Christ healed, but the ruler of the synagogue resorted to vilification. Christ delivered a human life from its satanic prison, and this other reviled. Christ drove the evil spirit out of the sick woman, and this other was furious that He had driven the evil spirit out through one door and not another! Christ opened heaven to men and revealed the living God, and this other was angry at Christ’s opening heaven in the morning and not in the evening! Christ went with a lamp into the prison to the captives, and this other rebuked Him for not having left doing this till another day! See the frightful and vicious touchiness of self-love!

This self-centered ruler did not dare to rebuke Christ, and so he rebuked the people, although his tongue framed it the other way round. How were the people guilty in this? If anyone was at fault for this good work, this straightened woman was. But how was this poor woman guilty? She did not run after Christ and beg Him to heal her. On the contrary, Christ called her to Him and gave her perfect healing, far beyond any hope or expectation she had in the synagogue. It is, then, clear that if anyone was guilty of all this, that person was Christ. The rule of the synagogue did not, though, dare to look Christ in the eye and say: ‘You are guilty’, but turned his barbs on the people and rebuked them. Is there any hypocrisy more evident and more vile? And the Lord calls him a hypocrite:

The Lord then answered him, and said: ‘Thou hypocrite, doth not each one of you on the Sabbath loose his ox or his ass from the stall, and lead him away to watering? And ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan hath bound, lo, these eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath Day?’

The Lord knows the hearts of men, and He knew that the ruler of the synagogue meant the reprimand for Him, even though his tongue directed it at the people.” (Homilies, p 281)

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