10Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. 11And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.” 15But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” 17When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing. (Luke 13.10-17 NRSV)
I continue to follow the Hong Kong protests while writing my Chinese commentary on Luke. What I’m hearing and seeing are series of articles coming out of HK from Christian authors and pastors that probes the question, “Is Occupy HK biblical?” Both sides are trying to outdo each other in claiming biblical orthodoxy. Some denominational heads and seminary principals all come out on this issue, trying to make a case for this or that. One even said outright in the papers that Jesus would NOT occupy HK if he’s here by appealing the cliche WWJD. Let’s look at what Jesus ACTUALLY did instead of proof texting or speculating on what Jesus would or wouldn’t do, shall we? Luke 13.10-17 provides a surprising parallel in biblical principles if we read the story closely.
The author recorded one of Jesus’ grave violations of the Sabbath, leading to greater hostility by some religious leaders. It is important to say right away that Jesus and the Jewish leaders weren’t always enemies towards one another in Luke (cf. Luke 7.3-6). In this instance however, the leader of the synagogue was displeased with Jesus’ healing. In fact, Luke used the word “indignant” to describe the ruler’s feeling. The word is not often used in the NT. It denotes the anger someone feels when rules were perceived to be violated. Jesus the teacher cited Jewish practices that dealt with animals. Even though Jews in his day kept the Sabbath the best they could, they realized that certain stipulations had to be made to make allowances for just living a normal life. No one wanted to suffer loss for the animals. Aren’t humans more important than animals?
When studying the background of this passage, we must note that even in praxis, there are MANY different interpretations of the law in Judaism (Shab. 5.1-4; 7.2; 15.1-2). This is very much the starting point also with the way we live our Christian faith as well. The variation does create a problem for those of us who insist that we’re right all of the time. The fact is, we aren’t right all of the time and the opposing voice is not wrong all of the time. So which interpretation is better? The following four implications will give the answer.
First, the story was more about power than about mere violation of a ritual. Jesus represents the opposing voice here. Just because there’s an opposing voice, it doesn’t automatically allow the more powerful of us to persecute that voice. The persecutor here in the story was the powerful synagogue ruler. Jesus who had supernatural power was not as powerful socially as the synagogue ruler. In comparison to everyone, the woman who had been ill for 18 years was completely powerless. In this case, the powerless voice was the important (and, in fact, correct) one. In Luke, when the less powerful did the right thing and threatened the powerful, persecution always happened (cf. Luke 9.1-9; 13.31). At the same time, in Luke, the interpretation that favors the weak whose dignity had been robbed by whatever ailment is the best way forward. Jesus had shown the way.
Second, Jesus was more concerned about the human lives than a single RIGHT way of practicing one’s faith. Contrary to the popular (and somewhat antisemitic) interpretation of this passage, Jesus never argued against keeping of Sabbath. Rather, Jesus’ concern was for the woman’s dignity. He was not concerned with how those who were in powerful position interpreted certain praxis. The statement of that synagogue ruler in Luke 13.14, ““There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day” seems legitimate. Couldn’t Jesus delay his work until Monday? Sure, he could, but by healing her immediately, Jesus showed that recovery for human life and dignity wasn’t something he wanted to delay. One more day of undignified living is one more day too many.
Third, legality is NOT morality! One can be totally legal but absolutely immoral. To the synagogue leader, Jesus’ healing was a matter of legality. To Jesus, his work was a matter of a greater morality, the law of the kingdom ethics, and the principle of human dignity. Jesus didn’t argue his case via legality at all, unlike many HK Christian leaders who are so keen to speak for the “relatively just” government. There was no exegetical twist and turn in Jesus’ reply because no human interpretation of God’s stipulations could or should trump human dignity. Morality comes out of the granting of human dignity and not legality.
Fourth, geography is religiously contestable. Sometimes the contesting of a place leads to broader and more intense conflicts. Notice that Jesus’ healing here occurred specifically and intentionally at the synagogue on a Sabbath. That’s about as controversial as it gets. Jesus never argued about how legal this action was. He merely used the space to demonstrate truth. When a space becomes a place of injustice rather than justice, Jesus turned it into a place of justice. Jesus’ action was the very demonstration of truth, but this truth was not abstract. This truth occurred in a contested religious space. This was was meant for keeping Sabbath. Jesus broke the Sabbath because of human dignity.
Theophilus, Luke’s reader, was a government official who probably had to deal with such ethical issues both in his work and his faith community. He stood in a powerful position. Luke’s writing was there to remind those in powerful positions and those who wanted to side with them what kingdom priorities are. The real priority here is human dignity.
When we ask “Is Occupy HK biblical?”, we focus on the method. It is as silly as saying whether wearing leather shoes or tying a silk tie is biblical. The problem is not method. So many methods are neutral. The problem is the principle behind the method. Is the principle ethical and biblical? Sometimes, asking the legalistic “Is X biblical?” is wrong, especially when human rights or dignity is at stake. Anyone who speaks for a government that uses thugs to clear a protest is espousing anti-Christian value that insults human dignity.