Winners and Losers

Sermon on Luke 13:10-17 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Despite my deep love of baseball, I have never been any good at it. Perhaps the best example of this is the fact that when I was a little leaguer, I had the ignominious distinction of striking out in T-Ball. Just to be clear, I had three opportunities to hit a stationary ball off a tee, and I missed every time. Needless to say, no one was particularly surprised when I abandoned the baseball diamond for the choir stall. Before hanging up my cleats, I attended our team’s end-of-season awards banquet at a local Italian restaurant. Even though I was objectively the worst player on the team, I received a trophy. In fact, everybody received a trophy at that banquet. Even if we rode the bench the entire season, missed every game, or struck out for every at bat, each of us would receive a gilded plastic baseball player mounted on a scrap of marble.

I couldn’t have known it at the time, but those trophies were part of a larger conversation about how we as a society encourage our children. As early as 1992, Newsweek ran an article lamenting the hypocrisy of what the author described as “trophy syndrome.” If anything, this conversation has become more contentious over the last decades. Advocates for rewarding participation claim that the practice encourages cooperation, builds self esteem, and fosters psychological health.Screen-Shot-2015-10-12-at-11.57.58-AM Meanwhile, opponents argue that the participation trophy discourages competition and fails to prepare people for the realities of the world. One recent article casually notes that “inflated self-esteem has been found in criminals, junkies, and bullies,” apparently implying that giving a child a participation trophy will lead her to a life of crime. Other commentators are more measured, but no less insistent: “We have to get over the notion that everyone has to be a winner,” writes one critic. “It just isn’t true.” Ultimately, this is what the critique of participation trophy syndrome boils down to: if there are to be winners, there must in turn be losers. To put it another way: if everyone is special, then no one is.

This morning’s gospel reading makes an important contribution to this conversation. Though this passage seems pretty simple at first, a closer look reveals that this moment in Luke’s gospel is anything but straightforward. In particular, the dispute between Jesus and the leader of the synagogue speaks to the very heart of our faith. The controversy begins when Jesus heals on the sabbath. As we know, the Jewish Law prohibits performing any kind of work on the seventh day of the week. Jesus violates this injunction when he heals a woman of her infirmity. The leader of the synagogue’s indignance is palpable: “There are six days on which work ought to be done,” he charges, “come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” While this might seem unnecessarily callous and finicky, his point is actually motivated by a combination of compassion and respect for tradition. The leader of the synagogue certainly wants this woman to be healed, but he also wants his people to remember the sabbath and keep it holy. The sabbath is one of the ways that the Jewish people know who they are; they are the people who stop every six days and recognize that they are not the masters of the universe. They are a people who have a healthy understanding of their place in creation. Jesus seems to be disregarding this beautiful tradition for the sake of a fleeting gesture.

Characteristically, Jesus’ response to his opponents is both unapologetic and somewhat unexpected. He refuses to concede that he has done anything wrong. But he also declines to make the case that the rules about sabbath are outmoded and irrelevant, as we might expect. Instead, Jesus notes that even the Law permits some work to be done on the sabbath: “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?” Even under the most stringent sabbath regulations, this was a perfectly acceptable thing to do, something this synagogue crowd would have understood. Jesus argues that the same logic applies to this “daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years.” Jesus insists that she shouldn’t have to suffer for even one more day. In some ways, this moment is merely an expression of one of Jesus’ more memorable aphorisms: the sabbath was made for people and not people for the sabbath.

Ultimately, however, this is not an argument about the finer points of sabbath observance. The leader of the synagogue is not primarily interested whether the healing of this woman qualifies as an exception to sabbath regulations; his primary concern is about dispensing with the commandments for the sake of just one person. healing_smJesus could have healed this woman any other day of the week; he could have remained in town another day or arrived early. Instead, Jesus heals this woman, this daughter of Abraham from this bondage on the sabbath. What made her so special? More to the point, what made Jesus so special that he could deliberately and provocatively undermine the fourth commandment? This moment in Luke’s gospel exposes one of the most challenging elements of the Christian faith, what some have called “scandal of particularity.” Throughout his ministry, Jesus makes the gospel known through particular people. He heals the sick, restores sight to the blind, and even raises the dead, but there plenty of sick, blind, and dead people who remain that way. Why does Jesus heal this person and not that person? Though some have attempted to offer explanations, there seems to be little rhyme or reason to the way Jesus chooses who will experience the healing power of God.

Paradoxically, this is good news. The religious authorities wanted to know what made this woman so special that she should be healed on the sabbath. By freeing her from her bondage, Jesus provides a stunning and resounding answer: nothing. There is nothing that made her worthy of being healed on the sabbath. It was God’s grace, made known through Jesus Christ, that freed her from bondage. The religious authorities saw the healing of this woman in terms of winning and losing. If she was a winner, did that make them losers? By healing this unworthy, un-special woman, Jesus makes an astonishing claim: we are all losers. We are all unworthy. There is nothing that makes us special. All of us have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God. And here’s the extraordinary thing: since none of us is special, since there is nothing we can do or have done to merit God’s grace, all of us are equally deserving of God’s grace. The critic who suggested we have to get over the notion that everyone has to be a winner had it exactly right, because none of us is winner. There can be no losers in the kingdom of God because we are all losers.

Our culture tends to make success a measure of our worth. Those who win, those who come in first, those who prove themselves to be special are accorded a superhuman status. Our fascination with elite Olympic athletes is proof enough of this phenomenon. But those who win are equally susceptible to failure. They are plagued by flaws and inadequacies, and a day will come when they will lose. The gospel refuses to equate success and worthiness. In fact, the gospel dispenses with the very concepts of success and worthiness. None of us is worthy of redemption; we are all equally dependent on the grace and mercy of God. In the end, all of the trophies we receive are meaningless; the only thing that truly matters is the extraordinary gift of God’s grace.

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If you were to do Gospel of John Mad Libs, you might end up with the passage we read in church this morning.  John 9 has a little bit of everything: the healing of a blind man, disputes with the Pharisees, controversies around the Sabbath, and the inability of two groups of people to understand what the other is saying.  The chapter is essentially a list of John the Evangelist’s greatest hits.  In spite of this implicit richness, there are many who are inclined to read this as a simple story of a miraculous healing: Jesus makes mud, spreads it on some guy’s eyes, and he is able to see, even though he was born blind.  This is understandable in some ways.  After all, the man’s story about what happened to him is pretty simple: “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.”  He repeats a version of this several times throughout the passage, always with the same dry rehearsal of the facts.

imgresI think the reason for the man’s repetition, however, is not that this is a simple story, but because the dry rehearsal of the facts exposes the tension between Jesus and the religious authorities.  Notice that at the beginning of this passage, the disciples wonder aloud who was responsible for the man’s blindness.  John includes this detail in part to illustrate how the religious authorities of the day viewed the world.  For them, physical capacity was automatically associated with how sinful or righteous you were.  If you were strong and healthy, the likelihood was that you were righteous.  If you were physically infirm, the likelihood was that you or someone close to you was sinful.  This distinction led the religious authorities to make determinations about who was “in” or “out” based on their understanding of people’s relative righteousness or sinfulness.  John also argues that this led the religious authorities to look at everyone in terms of these categories of “righteous” or “sinful,” in terms of whether they were “in” or “out.”

This is ultimately the source of the misunderstanding between the man born blind and the Pharisees.  The Pharisees looked at a man who had been blind from birth, a man firmly in the “sinful” category, and saw that he was no longer blind, that he could no longer easily be considered “sinful.”  Instead of reevaluating their categories, the Pharisees try to prove that there’s no way the man could have actually been healed from his blindness.  It’s almost hilarious: they assume that the guy is impersonating the real blind beggar, they ask his parents to explain what’s going on, they repeatedly tell the man that he was born in sin.  In the meantime, the man repeats over and over, “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”  The Pharisees refuse to recognize that the man has been healed, because in their worldview, people born in sin do not change, and are certainly not changed by people who don’t observe the Sabbath.  The Pharisees refuse to change the way they look at the world.  They refuse to see beyond their limited categories of “sinful” and “righteous,” and so they fail to recognize the truth when it stares them directly in the face.

While the Pharisees are clearly in the wrong in this passage, I suspect that more than a few of us have shared a worldview with the religious authorities of John’s gospel at some point in our lives.  We like to put things in categories, to keep things organized.  When we are organizing our closets, this is not a bad thing.  But this is a dangerous habit to indulge when we are talking about other human beings.  When we look at a person and make a determination about who he is based on how he looks, we are falling into the same trap as the Pharisees.  When we think we know a person just because we know where she’s from, we are failing to recognize the truth.  God calls us to look beyond our limited worldviews and appreciate the people of this world for who they are and who they can be, instead of who we think they ought to be.