We are witnesses to the way that the ruler of the synagogue practiced his religion, his Jewish faith. He was like many of the Jews of his day. Perhaps he had started his life with a pure love for God but somewhere along the way, it was overtaken and obscured and replaced with love for rules and laws. In truth rules and laws are easier. They don’t require us to have open hearts. They don’t require us to leave our comfort zone. They don’t require us to be vulnerable. Don’t misunderstand what I am saying. Laws and rules are very important. They bring order to our lives and when applied correctly, they reflect the presence of God. But when the laws are divorced from God, they become weapons of destruction.
One of the traps that can often ensnare people as they try to grow in faith is the idea that perfect adherence to rules is what will make us worthy before God. According to the gospel of Jesus Christ, nothing makes you worthy of God’s love. God in His mercy, pours out this love upon all of us. We are here in a season of fasting. We do our best with the rules of the fast but we should remember that our strict adherence to the fast does not, in and of itself, make us holy, good or worthy in the Lord’s eyes. St. John Chrysostom says that people can abstain from eating meat and yet they devour one another with their gossip and lack of charity. The fasting that is pleasing to God has nothing to do with what goes into the mouth. It has everything to do with what comes out of our hearts. Those are not my words, but the words of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Does it mean that we shouldn’t fast? No. Does it mean that we should be slack in the way that we practice our faith? No. It means that we should be ready to do everything that is required of us with cheerfulness and by putting Christ at the front of our minds. God is the one who brings it all together and allows it to be done correctly, with love. The ruler of the synagogue was alive towards the rules of the law, but he was dead towards his neighbor’s needs. And if he was dead towards his neighbor’s needs, he was in truth, dead towards God. Our Lord Jesus Christ opens his eyes and exposes his darkness. He says “You hypocrite! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his ass from the manger and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?”
All that the ruler of the synagogue could see was a law being broken, but in his blind zeal, he forgot that he also broke this law every Sabbath when he took care of his own animals. But it was even worse. Not only did he forget his own works on the Sabbath, he forgot to care for the needs of the woman who was suffering for eighteen years! He forgot to fulfill the second commandment of our Lord, to love thy neighbor as thyself. In neglecting to love his neighbor, he neglected to love his God. This is the definition of a dead faith. We are told that all of the Lord’s adversaries were put to shame at that moment. It is crucial that our practice of faith doesn’t bring us shame but joy and liberty through Jesus Christ.
How can we ensure that we are not like this man who had misplaced zeal and who used his religion as a weapon against others? We have to recognize that we are also infirm like the woman who was sick for those many years. We have to genuinely believe that we are in need of the healing touch of Jesus Christ. Not once or twice in our lives, but daily. When we feel our need for God, when we feel our shortcomings and our fallenness we won’t have the strength to focus on what others are doing or to compare our practices to others. We will feel truly at the mercy of the Lord and that is precisely when the Lord does His best work. My prayer should not be “Lord, thank you for making me better than other people” or “Thank you for making me good.” My prayer should be “Lord, reveal to me the depth of my sins, and the depth of my sickness and have mercy on me, the one who is not worthy of your mercy or your love.”
Our Lord Jesus helped the woman because He could see her need. He also sees our hearts. He knows if we genuinely seek Him. He knows if we, deep in our hearts, actually hunger and thirst for Him. He knows if we feel self-sufficient. He knows if we have deeply seated pride. He knows if we love Him and if we love our neighbor, and upon these two laws, hang all the law and the prophets. May our Lord search our hearts and find our religion to be pure, genuine and full of love. Glory be to God forever AMEN.