We are in the midst of a great debate about the identity of Australia: about what it means to be Australian, and about the values and ethos of our country. Our democratic process – whether we like it or not – gives us all the opportunity and the responsibility to engage in the debate of who we are as a nation, and who we want to become. So over the last few weeks each of the political parties have been trying to convince us that their vision of Australia is the most authentic, and the most desirable, and in a few more weeks we will be given the opportunity to indicate the framework and direction which we would like to see followed by the next federal government. Some of us relish being able to be involved in this democratic decision-making, others of us find it bewildering.
There is always a debate at election time about what place religion should play in our voting. Some people both within and outside of the Church want to remind of the old adage that ‘religion and politics don’t mix.’ But it seems to me that anyone who argues for a complete separation of the two hasn’t ever read the Bible, which is full of values that should influence our political decision-making. The problem for us who genuinely want to engage politics without leaving our religious beliefs and understandings to one side, is that no matter what the candidates and parties have told us, there is no one party, out of the choices that are available to us, which we could all agree together will govern us on the basis of the principles that we find in the life of Jesus. Because when we come down to the details of policy and priorities, we find that within the life of the Church there is no consensus about a single best route for moving forward. Not even political parties that have the word ‘Christian’ in their name speak on every issue for those of us who are members of the Church.
A couple of evenings ago I went onto the ABC’s ‘votecompass’ website which has been set up to help people to decide how to vote. And after filling in the answers to a whole series of questions on my computer, I discovered to my surprise that the party that has the closest policies to my own priorities is not that party that I am a member of! It would be true to say that there is no one set of policies that are consistent with all of the many ways that those of us who are gathered here today understand our life in Jesus. So questions about our identity, and our values are complex for us in this time of preparing to make a decision about how we will cast our vote.
Those questions about identity are also at the heart of the encounter that we find in our Gospel reading today. Jesus is teaching in the synagogue, the religious place of prayer, and he sees before him a woman who has been crippled for eighteen years, bent over double and unable to stand up. It doesn’t take much imagining for us to be able to sense some of the pain that she must have felt, the agony that she lived with, the lack of movement which limited her every step. There would have been little doubt in her own mind, and in the minds of those around her, about why she found herself in such a position. Even in the text the Gospel writers determine that the cause is spiritual.
She is crippled by an evil spirit, her being bent double is the work of the devil, and it hasn’t happened by chance. In the society of Jesus’ day it would have been simply assumed that her condition had been caused either by her own wrong doing, or by the sins of her ancestors. So her being bent low, is not just a physical condition she is literally bent over, as a sign that she is an outcast. She doesn’t deserve to hold her head up, because of her sin, or because of the sins of others in her family. She would have lived a life of being condemned by others, shunned and judged by them every time she was out in a public place. This poor handicapped woman, who encounters Jesus in our Gospel reading, and who needs the most help from those around her, in fact receives the least help from the religious people of her day. Instead of supporting her in her infirmity, they damn and condemn her by placing upon her the sins of them all.
The now retired Archbishop of Southern Africa, Desmond Tutu, once said, “religion is like a knife: you can either use it to cut bread, or you can stick it in someone’s back.” The painful reality of this story as we hear it, is that the religious people of Jesus’ day did the latter rather than the former with this woman. I think that it would be true to say, that because we are religious people gathered here today, this story reminds us that we need to be especially careful to examine our own lives, to ensure that we are not doing the same thing to those who people who are marginalised in our society.
In this election season, we need also to be careful to examine the policies of the political parties that are before us, to ensure that we support a vision of Australia that values, rather than scape-goats, people like the woman in this encounter; because Jesus’ response in our Gospel reading is quite different, to the response of the religious people around him. He simply says to her, “woman, you are set free from your ailment.” And she is. Of course, this is this same Jesus, who has been remembered elsewhere in the Gospels as the one who challenges those without sin to cast the first stone, it’s the same Jesus who cured the lepers, the ones who were seen as the greatest outcasts, it’s the same Jesus who mixes with the most undesirable of groups in society — the Samaritans and the tax collectors.
Can you imagine that woman, bent over double for eighteen years, living with all of the pain and the shame, now standing up straight, being able to look at those around her directly in the eyes, and all because of the words of Jesus – the words of new life which the Son of God, speaks to her, and to us all. What would any decent person, who was in their right mind have done next, what would you have done? The only response to an event such as this enfolding before us, would have been to celebrate. To go to that woman and to share her joy, to give thanks to God for the miracle that has occurred. To be a part of it, to start the party that that woman has missed out on for so many years.
But we have come across the Pharisees enough in the Gospels to not be surprised that they respond in a very different way. In trying to keep the religious laws, they have lost sight of the human needs of the people around them. So when Jesus cures the woman, their response is not one of celebration, but of indignation. “How could he do this on the Sabbath, on the day of rest when no one is supposed to work?” they say. They put the religious law above the work of God, they are so busy trying to be holy that they are not watching out for God’s work in their midst. It is a trap that we can all fall into.
Many of you will know the name of William Wilberforce, he was the English Christian prophet whose campaign brought the end of slavery in the British Empire. Luisa and I have recently watched a film about his life some time ago, and I found it absolutely captivating. He argued that it was incompatible for those who followed Christ, and who sought to bring the reign of God to the world, to also be involved in the business of slavery. He is a champion of the Christian faith at a time when it was simply assumed that there was no problem with imprisoning people in a life of slavery. What is less well known, is that many prominent members of the Church of England at that time, fought against him and his ideas of slave emancipation. What is more they used scripture to back up their argument in order to try and keep slavery. In South Africa, apartheid was built on a Christian system of living, and was upheld by the Dutch Reformed Church’s interpretation of scripture.
The story of the woman healed by Jesus not only reminds us that Jesus has the power to reconcile and heal and make new. It also makes us more painfully aware of the Church’s inability (just like the Pharisees) throughout its history, to live up to the life of Christ in our own activities. We know that God is at work when people are being lifted up rather than being bent down, when stigma is being removed, and the marginalised are being welcomed into the centre of our society and our community.
As the Church, we are the hands and feet, and mouth of God at work in our world today. We can be used by God to bring his Kingdom in around us, or we can use our religious beliefs to cause immense harm to others, whilst making ourselves feel better. Elections provide the opportunity for us as a nation to decide what will define us for the future. In our Gospel reading today the religious people of Jesus’ day were defined by law and not by love, which had terrible consequences for that poor woman in the story. Jesus broke through that framework and offered another way.
Now none of this is easy, I had conceded that already, but as we engage in our political process as followers of the one who lived and died that all might have life in abundance – like the woman in this Gospel encounter today, the question that should be uppermost in our minds, is ‘which of the futures that are on offer to us at this election, offer the best possibility for all Australians to live life to the full?’ That is the basis on which each one of us needs to make a decision about how we will vote in a few weeks time.