The Sceptic and the Miracle
(A more carefully edited version of this sermon is found at Lectionary Sermon 21 August 2016 (Year C)on Luke 13:10-17)
I wonder if the word faith is often unintentionally used to substitute for passive acceptance of unjustified belief. As one trained in science it also seems to me that those concerned with religion might learn something from those who make breakthroughs in scientific research. The research scientist takes commonly accepted beliefs, tests them as if they are true but notes when they fall short. Faith, in that sense to the scientist, means believing in an idea to the extent that it is deemed worth testing in practice. If it turns out the faith fails to deliver, the tested belief needs to be adjusted. This does not mean nothing useful is learned. The results tell us more about our realities than we knew before. The original belief is then either adjusted to fit this reality or changed to a new hypothesis to be tested. The changed belief will then be retested and the process continues. This to a scientist is the equivalent of a tested faith. Having enough faith to bring a belief to test is very different from insisting that we simply accept the original belief as a passive and untouchable truth.
Surely it can be the same for religious belief. In Jesus’ day, one standard belief was that no work should be done on the Sabbath, including the work of healing. Jesus apparently challenged this belief by healing in the Sabbath. The results spoke for themselves and Jesus argued that good had come from his actions.
There are two parts to today’s gospel story that invite our thoughtful response.
The first is the dilemma we always have whenever we in the 21st century read of Jesus performing one of his jaw-dropping miracles in the first Century AD.
We live in a modern age where medical researchers bring us inexorably closer towards complete understanding of disease with each passing day, and as a consequence it is ever harder to believe in the miraculous as being outside nature. The philosophers like David Hume seem generally agreed that before we can agree that a miracle has occurred we should be certain there must be a violation of the laws of nature – yet such definitions can only remind us that we have no certainty that any specific miracle has happened. Even after all these years of discovery, the laws of nature are at best dimly and approximately understood, and to say that they have been violated presumes knowledge we may not have. Miracles reported by others are even harder to claim with certainty. Since observers’ records are usually how we get to hear about possible miracles we have to remain sceptical about whether or not such observers have objectively described what they later say happened.
What seems a miracle to one generation becomes nature at work when more facts come to light. For example, for several hundred years, monks in the Ural Mountains reported a sacred everlasting flame in the rock face. It is perhaps unfortunate that the monks expected payment from the pilgrims who came from afar to witness this sign from God. The sacred flame was later found to be a natural gas outlet that once lit had continued burning. We have no right to criticise the pilgrims or the monks for their naivety, particularly when it is remembered that Chemistry at that time was not sufficiently understood by the pilgrims to correctly interpret what they were seeing.
There was a day when even educated people had every excuse to believe that disease was often spiritual in its cause and assume that mysterious miracles may have been the only hope for alleviation of suffering. These days when we have enough data to know that the human can recover spontaneously from some conditions and particularly when we know even trained doctors can misdiagnose some medical conditions, we need to be particularly cautious before proclaiming a miracle.
In the case of the woman who was bent, while we should acknowledge the sincerity of those who reported the change in her condition after Jesus intervened, if we value honesty we should at least be careful before announcing this as a miracle, particularly when Luke himself makes no such claim. Curing cripples with a touch or a word is fine if they are not genuinely crippled in the first place. We might for example believe someone who is habitually bent over by habit may be persuaded – even dramatically – to good posture, although even here, without the advantages of modern diagnosis, we should be frank enough to say we have no way of knowing for sure that Luke is saying this is what is happening. Since we presume that Luke, a contemporary of Paul, never met Jesus this inevitably meant that the best Luke could do was to tell his stories of Jesus by using sources which were second hand. For example the gospel of Mark, considered the first of the gospels, had 661 verses and of these, 320 were reproduced in Luke.
In summary, since there is no way of using Luke description to be certain of the woman’s condition, nor the effectiveness and permanence of the subsequent cure, we simply don’t know how much of a miracle is being described. Nor should this particularly worry us. Regardless of how much of miracle worker Jesus was, our real task is to find how the stories speak to our situation today. Even if Jesus could perform miracles which challenge our understanding of nature, it does not follow that we too can perform those miracles. For most of us, these days at least, the serious medical condition is best met by state of the art best practice medicine. Common consensus of an educated majority would probably say cripples are best diagnosed by conventional systematic medical testing and ignoring the standard care available is unlikely to be in the sufferer’s best interest.
However if we really want to struggle though to find a meaning we also relate to, rather than getting too tied up with the woman’s physical condition it might also be argued it is probably better not to restrict ourselves to think of the crippling only in a physical sense. After all being held back by infirmity is not unique to physical cripples. The infirmity could be any of a variety of very common afflictions. Have we not all met those who cannot quite bring themselves to straighten up under their load of riches or feelings of inadequacy. Perhaps even self reflection might be in order. And if not others’ need for ever more possessions, perhaps it is our own need – if we cannot see such people around us perhaps we might even look in the mirror. Have we met those afraid to stand up to express an opinion lest if might disturb the collective conscience of those we are desperate not to offend? Can we ourselves straighten up to that extent? Perhaps we are sometimes simply crippled by a loss of confidence – perhaps a lack confidence to make serious decisions, a lack of confidence to do anything much beyond give assent to the opinions of the powerful.
When Jesus talked of the woman as a daughter of Abraham he was inviting her to recognise her own worth as an inheritor of the central faith. Just maybe we too need reminding we should see ourselves children of those who were our ancestors in faith.
The second part of the story of this story may be even more relevant in our day-to-day encounters with those in need.
When Jesus is challenged as to why he offered help on the Sabbath he responded by saying in effect that offering assistance on the Sabbath is a common-sense response such that even offering water to a tethered animal is expected and offered without question. He then draws a parallel with the woman who in effect is bound, not with a rope – but by her condition. And we read that his critics were silenced in shame and the crowd were pleased with Jesus’ response.
Since we are most unlikely to be faced with an identical dilemma, again we should look beyond the immediate situation to the underlying principle. Jesus is addressing a particular religious convention whereby scripture directs that no work should be done on the Sabbath. While it is true that few Christians today observe such a principle, each faith community has its own expected religious code of rules and conventions. For example we have a host of expected conventions related to worship.
One of these sets of religious conventions relates to typical practice for administering Communion, and what happens in a Roman Catholic setting does not necessarily conform to Anglican (or Episcopalian), Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist or Pentecostal styles of offering the wine and bread. However the issue Jesus places before us with his healing on the Sabbath is that sometimes convention must give way in the face of genuine need. The cripple who cannot manage walking to the front to receive Communion should not be denied communion and I suspect (although I know some clergy would disagree) that choosing not to offer Communion to someone who has a different faith background is not true to the spirit of the Christian gospel. Similarly, regardless of the expected conventions,
I would imagine, that should for example an elderly person collapse during worship, first aid then takes precedence over ritual.
But prejudice sometimes requires a more direct intervention. It is all too easy to withhold aid to anyone we see as being outside our own circle. Again we are reminded that Jesus called the woman whose body was bent a “Daughter of Abraham”. By calling her a daughter of Abraham he was extending to her a tribute which was unlikely to be echoed by a good number of those present. While it is not explained in this particular passage, there was a popular assumption in Jesus’ day that victims of illness or infirmity were at least partly suffering as a result of their own or their family’s failings. By Jesus calling her a daughter of Abraham who has been under Satan’s influence he shifts the blame for her condition away from the woman, and in effect underlines her value to the others in the Synagogue.
Perhaps we need reminding that a blindness to noticing the ones crippled with needs as sons or daughters of Abraham is shorthand for not recognising value in the one who is different.
I said earlier that we can never be sure if a person has permanently recovered as a consequence of a miracle. If, in today’s story, the woman is viewed in a new light by those around her as a person of worth, it may be that this is a form of healing even more important than that which addresses physical infirmity. It is also significant that the permanence of this dimension of healing depends on the on-going choices of the woman’s faith community.
For we who are also members of faith communities, it maybe that we need to see ourselves as part of the miracles for which we hope. Finding and conveying a sense of worth in the ones who come to our community in the hope of help may not be complete miracle in the conventional sense of the word yet it may be miracle enough to takes us forward in our search for relevant faith in a modern world.