Inclusion vs Diversity
“Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath.” (Luke 13:10-17) In Luke’s gospel this is where we often find him. Synagogues were houses of study. Although we think of teaching and learning as work, and Sabbath, or Shabbat, is that one day of seven we are commanded not to work, the “teaching” that goes on in a synagogue is meant more as a way to enter into a deeper relationship with our Creator who, we read, also observed a day of rest after six days of work. Shabbat is a time, a sacred time, a realm of time, a cathedral of time really. Abraham Joshua Heschel in his tiny little book, The Sabbath (Shambhala, Boston:1951,1979), introduces us to this other realm of time: “There is a Realm of Time where the goal is not to have, but to be; not to own, but to give; not to control, but to share; not to subdue but to be in accord.”
Most of the ancient synagogues that have been excavated in Israel are really quite small – not at all like a large assembly hall or church or cathedral – but a rather intimate space in which to have holy conversation about Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, and the commandments. The longest and most detailed of the first Ten Commandments is the command to observe a Sabbath day. Jesus is engaged in keeping the third commandment.
Just then a woman with a “spirit of weakness” appears. This spirit has crippled her so she has been bent over for 18 long years, roughly half her life expectancy. Despite her condition she is determined to enter into this realm of time called Shabbat; to learn more about and enter into a deeper relationship with the God of her people. She has no agenda beyond being with her people doing what her people do this one day of the week. Jesus calls her over. Jesus initiates the action. Jesus creates a moment in which he declares, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”
Liberated like her ancestors were from slavery in Egypt, like her ancestors who were set free from Exile by God’s anointed messiah, Cyrus of Persia, she immediately stands up straight and praises God – not Jesus. For eighteen years she has been unable to see another person face-to-face. For eighteen long years her world consisted of the ground immediately around her feet, or at best able to view the world on a slant. She is set free and like Miriam, sister of Aaron and Moses, she begins to praise God for releasing her back into the life of the community as a whole person now to be fully included in the ritual observances of Shabbat! Note: no “faith” was required, she did not ask for help, no recognition or confession of Jesus is made. She is simply fully included among all those gathered to learn and to study Torah and the Commandments – all 613 of them! Three hundred and sixty-five thou shalt nots, and two hundred and forty-eight thou shalls!
As can be expected, there are those who are not happy with all this. The leader of the synagogue launches into a pious and self-aggrandizing speech saying there is no place for such activity on the Sabbath. “There are six days on which you can come and be cured – not today, not Shabbat!” Let me re-garble that. There is no place for people like you here today. There is no place for this kind of work here today. Neither you, Jesus, nor you, old woman, are fit to stand among us today. Come back when you are willing to abide by the rules. You just are not fit to be included among us. We are familiar with such rhetoric – we hear it every day.
Jesus, as always, has a response to this arbiter of the status quo. For the commandments regarding Shabbat allow for you to untie and animal and lead it to water. The commandments allow for you to rescue people in danger of their lives. “Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from bondage on the Sabbath day?” Check and mate. The leader and his cronies are silenced. The rest of the crowd rejoices. The crowd’s assent marks the appropriateness of such activity as a way of making the Sabbath day holy.
Note that this is the only time the words “daughter of Abraham” appear in the four gospels. “Sons of Abraham” often is used to identify God’s people. Yet, from the outset of Luke John the Baptizer has warned people not to presume such identity confers privilege, and Zaccheus the tax collector, ostracized from the community for his collaboration with the Roman oppressors, receives the blessing of being restored, like this woman, to being a “Son of Abraham” once again, also like this woman, included with a seat at the table of God’s people.
It's about inclusion. A small, relatively unnoticed conversation took place this week with Oprah Winfrey and Ava Du Vernay on the importance of the word “inclusion,” or “included.” The two are working together on a television series about black people, similar to their work together on the movie, Selma.
"I will say that I stand corrected. I used to use the word 'diversity' all the time. 'We want more diverse stories, more diverse characters,'" Oprah told The Hollywood Reporter. "Now I really eliminated it from my vocabulary because I've learned from her that the word that most articulates what we're looking for is what we want to be: included. It's to have a seat at the table where the decisions are being made." [Hollywood Reporter-Aug 17, 2016]
This is what lies at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement. This is what lies at the heart of the populist crowds that have thronged around Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. This is what has fueled movements like civil rights, immigration reform and feminism. It is not about the protests; it is not about the slogans; it is not about diversity. It’s about a deep human desire to be included. It is about being able to sit face-to-face at the same table, swim in the same pools, compete in the same athletic events, be citizens of the same country, worship the same Creator, go to the same schools, read the same books – and participate in making decisions.
When I taught at St. Timothy’s School for Girls, with girls from 24 different countries, I did not see my role as imparting knowledge, but rather helping young women to shape world views to equip them to sit at the table of the future where the world's decisions will be made; to be included, to be valued as persons who have something to contribute. [Ibid]
This is what the Jesus movement has always been about: to set us all free from whatever restricts our view of the world and others. We are all, at one time or another, the woman crippled by weakness, bent over staring at our own toes unable, or unwilling, to stand up and see, really see the world about us and rejoice at “all the wonderful things God is doing!” (Luke 13:17) God has given us the choice, the power really, to include all people at the table. We will look more like God’s community, Sons and Daughters of Abraham, when we do.