There was a woman on the radio the other day talking about how woman over a certain age become invisible in society. She said that she had gone into a department store in Leeds wanting to buy make up, but when she went to the counter, the women assistants just ignored her. They weren’t serving anyone else, they weren’t doing essential paperwork, but they were passing the time of day with each other, and they just didn’t see the customer waiting for attention. So she left and went to another store, Boots. The same thing happened there. She went to cosmetic departments all the way down the high street, and no one paid her the slightest attention.
I have noticed this myself as I’ve got older. People don’t look at older woman, they don’t notice them. Useful if you want to slip under the radar, but not much good if you’re wanting advice on which cosmetics to choose.
There are people we don’t notice. Have a look around you this week when you’re going around. Who are the people you don’t pay attention to? And don’t tell me you notice everyone and give them equal amounts of your time.
There was this woman in the synagogue. She would be at the edge, in the margins, keeping out of the way. Synagogues were for men, men who reasonably secure in life, of good standing and in good health. It was the Sabbath day, the day for putting aside all work, so that everyone could concentrate on enjoying God’s good gifts without the having to labour and toil. The purpose of the Sabbath law was to free people from the burden of another day’s grind. This one day was for God, a joy and a blessing.
As for the woman, everyone ignored her. She was crippled, all bent over with disease. We might say it was spondylosis. We don’t have an actual diagnosis. To be disabled in Jesus’ day was shameful. Ailments were regarded as a punishment from God, so she must have done something really bad to be so badly affected. She couldn’t even stand up properly. It was like she was carrying an invisible burden on her back, something that weighed her down. There was probably no family life for, and no way of earning a living. In the street, people who saw her turned away. There was no eye contact, no smile, no sympathy. That was another burden. So she stood in the corner, out of the way.
Jesus saw her. He noticed. He called her over and stood her there in the middle of the synagogue, in front of all the men, all of them watching her, centre of attention. He touched her, laid hands on her – and that in itself was a taboo, men didn’t touch women. All those men in the synagogue would have found it so shocking!
You are set free, Jesus told her, free from your burden, free from the pain, free from the discrimination, free from shame. Let go! Be free! Live fully! Live wholly! Live holy!
And the woman said Yes in her heart, and her back uncurled and she stood up straight. There was no aching, no pain. She felt alive again. And she praised God, because she knew where her healing had come from. And she didn’t care that they were all looking at her. And she ignored them, their faces turning puce with outrage.
Because they were angry, all those guys. It was after all, the Sabbath, the day of liberation, the day when you didn’t do any work so that you could praise God. That was the rule! No work! The Sabbath is holy! The Sabbath is for God! If you were God’s people, you followed the rules, you didn’t violate the Sabbath.
They had got it so wrong! Following God isn’t about obeying a set of rules, keeping within the dotted lines. God doesn’t love you when you follow his programme! God loves you because you are you. God loves you because he made you. God delights in you and wants you to thrive and flourish. God has set you free from the burden of merely keeping the rules.
Jesus turns on them, these holy people. “Hypocrites!” he calls them. You put rules before people. You think you are the righteous, the sons of Abraham, but this woman, whom you never even noticed, she is a daughter of Abraham and she has been set free from bondage.
So the shame turns from the woman and falls into the laps of those who moaned and complained about the Son of God bringing healing to a woman on the margins. But the ordinary people rejoiced, because authority was being challenged at last, because the people who lorded over them in arrogance had been down, because the lowly disabled woman had been raised and healed and restored.
And what Jesus was showing them, and what Jesus is showing us, is that you have to look beyond the rules you think you are following to look at the heart of Jesus. And when you look at Jesus you see his love for the little people, the people nobody else notices. And you see his passion to free them from the things that bind them – other peoples’ ways and other peoples’ rules. Every time you are feeling cross because you think someone has done things in a wrong way, then listen to what Jesus is saying to you. Just as William Wilberforce and his colleagues looked beyond the rules to the heart of Jesus to campaign for the end of slavery.
And when you are the one who is under pressure, disabled by rules that bind you, then listen to Jesus telling you: You are set free. Stand beside those who are struggling. In this community, it is the people who are sanctioned because the government has imposed new rules which sanction their benefits. Or it is the people who are abused because they have come from far away.
And when you are the crowd and Jesus is doing amazing things in your midst, rejoice and be glad, because a new age has come.