Omar Bradley said, Freedom—no word ever spoken has held out greater hope, demanded greater sacrifices, needed more to be nurtured, blessed more the giver, or came to being God’s will on earth.
My message today is about the importance of our freedom in Christ. Paul said, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” Our gift of freedom is not for ourselves alone. We are called to advance the cause of freedom for others, not someday, but today.
A gift I received on my 10th birthday was a “Paint By Numbers” set. It included 10 small containers, each one full of a different colored acrylic paint. It came with two different size brushes, one for broad strokes, the other for detail work. The center piece of the set was a 14”x14” pressed board canvas, stamped with the outlines of the “masterpiece” I was going to paint. It looked like a drawing of a 100 piece jigsaw puzzle, with a number in each little space. I could make out the general outline of the picture. It was the face of a cowboy wearing a big smile and a hat. He was cheek to cheek with a horse. It was Gene Autry and Champion against a southwest desert setting. The key to the success of this whole project came in a little instruction booklet. Every color had a number. I had to carefully fill in every jigsaw shaped piece with the color that matched its number. I was enthusiastic, and went to work right away. It was fun. Then it was tedious. Then it was tiring. Finally it was boring. I don’t remember how long it took. By the time I finished it didn’t look like the masterpiece I envisioned. Somewhere along the way I lost interest. But I learned an important life lesson from this experience. Painting by numbers is easy. If you follow the directions you can paint a decent picture—but it isn’t art. Art comes from the heart and soul. Painting by numbers is conformity to someone else’s rules to achieve someone else’s outcome. Art invites creativity and freedom of expression. Paint by numbers has no room for freedom or creativity.
This contrast between letter and spirit informs my reading of the story of Jesus, the Stooped Over Woman and the Religious Leader. It’s a story about bondage and freedom. It illustrates the difference between a religion lived by the numbers, and the living religion of one’s heart and soul.
This is a story about a conflict initiated by Jesus. He initiated a conflict on a holy day, in a sacred place where he was a guest, over an issue he cared deeply about. He was a visiting teacher at a synagogue expounding on scripture. Isaiah 58 may have been his text because there are several points of contact between that text and this story. It’s a prophetic judgment that says, If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil…and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.
As Jesus spoke, a woman with a severe curvature of the spine shuffled in hardly noticed. She walked as though an invisible yoke lay heavy across her neck. Over the course of 18 years her neighbors had become accustomed to her stooped posture. But, her appearance broke Jesus’ heart. He stopped in mid-sentence. He saw her need to be set free from her physical condition as more important than the protocols of tradition or liturgy. So, he called her to him, and said, “Woman, you are set free!” And she stood up straight. I can almost hear a collective gasp from the audience, and the woman’s joyous cry of relief and joy. Then they heard the authoritative voice of the presiding elder. It was stern and tinged with anger. He chided the crowd, “There are six work days when you can come here seeking to be cured. Today is not one of them. Sabbath is for rest and worship. Something wonderful just happened and his response was to characterize a good deed as something evil, and to point the finger of blame at Jesus.
Jesus replied, “It is a common practice among us to untie our donkeys and oxen on the sabbath so we can lead them to water. How can we deny a similar act of grace to this woman?” Healing her is not trampling on the sabbath. By placing her need for relief over our personal religious traditions we are making the sabbath a day of delight, Isaiah 58:13-14.
But the religious leader refused to be drawn into the compassion and joy of that special moment. He felt nothing but anger toward Jesus for breaking the fourth commandment. He was painting by numbers. The best he could say was, “come back tomorrow if you want to be healed.”
But Jesus believed that today is the day of salvation and healing. No good deed that we can do for someone today should have to wait until tomorrow. Because, like that bent over woman, all of us are weighed down by the trials and challenges of life. All of us need help and healing. All of us need to be set free.