On Being Able to Stand up Straight Again
This month is my tenth anniversary. It is exactly ten years ago since I started one of the most fulfilling teaching experiences of my life—a Sunday School class for senior adults. As I began in August, 2000, the age of most class-members was between 75 and 85. That alone tells you a little about some the activities which have characterized our last ten years: lots of funerals. Today, our oldest class-member, my dear friend Elbert, is 92; several others are 90 or very close to it.
Most of the people in my class are life-long evangelicals who have never thought much about whether God created through an evolutionary process or not. Indeed, except for my first set of three guest lessons on creation ten years ago—after which they asked me to be their teacher—the subject of evolution has virtually never come up again. They know I believe that God created through an evolutionary process, and many in the class wouldn’t see creation the same way I do, but it has made no difference. We have many other things to talk about. They have been too busy being the Church. They have been too busy caring for each other. They have been too busy manifesting the fruits of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control—to worry about whether their teacher has the details of creation right. As for me, I have been too busy reassuring them that the principles on which they’ve built their lives for the past 75 to 85 years still hold true: Despite the loneliness of departed spouses and friends, God is faithful. Despite the personal disruption and physical pain associated with the health problems of growing old, the Christian life is still packed with meaning and significance. In short, we have been too busy being the Church to think much about whether Genesis 1 through 3 is figurative or literal. It just hasn’t mattered to them or to me. What has mattered to all of us, however, is mining the richness of Scripture. We’ve spent hundreds of hours together doing this. We have been assured over and over again that the Word of God speaks to us in a manner that is more alive today than it has ever been. Their 70 to 92 years of living has not dimmed its message.
This week the scriptural passage is germane not just to members of my Sunday School class but, for different reasons, it also has an important message to our Science and the Sacred community—to all who are interested in mending the gulf between evangelical Christianity and the world of mainline science. Perhaps it is especially important though to another group as well—those who excavate the gulf and only want to see it grow even wider. I hope they will seriously consider this Scripture also. It is found in Luke 13:10-17 (see side bar). You likely will remember the story. Jesus was teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath when he turned to a woman who was bent over as though she was carrying a heavy load. She had not been able to stand up straight for 18 years. Jesus laid hands on her and suddenly she was well. It was as though an overwhelmingly heavy burden had been lifted from her shoulders. Finally, she was free and she began praising God in celebration of her new life.
"On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, "Woman, you are set free from your infirmity." Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God. Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue ruler said to the people, "There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath."
In the meantime the ruler of the synagogue was not happy. The healing had taken place on the Sabbath. Jesus was in trouble. In the eyes of the Jewish leaders, it was irrelevant that a woman had been made well, that a miracle had taken place, and that she and all the people were praising God. It was irrelevant to the Jewish leaders that a person carrying a heavy burden for most of her life was now able to return to normality. The jots and tittles of the law had not been followed to precision. The ruler of the synagogue was clearly upset.
Before Luke tells this story of the healing of the woman who had been hunched over for 18 years, he relates a parable Jesus had told his disciples. It was the parable of the fig tree that had born no fruit for three years and was about to be cut down for lack of fruit-bearing. The gardener asked the owner to give the tree one last chance, and with that the parable ends. From there we go to the woman struggling with the pain and stigma of a humped over posture, and a synagogue ruler so fixed on dotting all the “i’s” and crossing all the “t’s” that he loses sight of the purpose of the laws to begin with. The laws are there to help the people be the people of God—to care for each other’s needs—that’s what God’s people do. The fig tree story comes back to mind: the synagogue rulers have one last chance to be the people of God—to yield the fruit expected of the people of God. As the story ends, they are not doing well.
The Lord answered him, "You hypocrites! Doesn't each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?" When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing."
The story of Jesus’ experience in the synagogue is not only about a woman stooped over in pain for 18 years and bound up longing to be free. Luke wants us to notice that it is also the story of God’s people unnecessarily carrying the heavy load of legalism. They were buckling under its load. That weight was preventing them from being the people of God. No fruit on the fig tree. No grapes on the vines. The people of God were not able to be who they were called out to be.
So who are the “synagogue rulers” in today’s church? Who demands that all the “i’s” are dotted in a particular way, while blinded to the fact that the demand for a specific dotted “i” is causing young science students and others who are academically inclined to lose their faith once they see how overwhelming the data is to support an old earth and creation-through-evolution. The rulers ask questions, like “why does the earth look so old, when it really isn’t?” They have no idea why it looks so old; the answer, they say, is known only to the “Ancient of Days.” The fact is, they have barely studied the science. They have little idea of how strong the evidence is and by ignoring it they are like the synagogue ruler who cared for his own donkey on the Sabbath while turning his back on the woman who had lived her life in agony. “Dot the ‘i’ my way”, they say, “if you don’t Christian theology will fall.” The young people, like the hunched over woman, are asked to carry a load under which many are surely buckling.
It doesn’t have to be that way. The “rulers” need to stop insisting that we all dot the “i’s their way. We don’t have to all think the same way. Young people must see that there are options, that there are sincere followers of Jesus who believe that God created through an evolutionary process. It is select church leaders that are forcing this load on the backs of our young people. Jesus wants the Church to get on with the task of bearing fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Here is my plea to the church leaders who are forcing young people to choose: please don’t load them down with the back-breaking burden that they have no choice but to dot the “i’s” your way. Tell them how you think and tell them why you think that way, but in the end let them know that there are other followers of Jesus whose lives have also been transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit, who dot those “i’s” in a different way. Let them know that those followers are praising God for creation too. Let them know that Jesus is in their midst too. Stop being the "rulers in the synagogue" who are so set that it has to be your way--that our precious young people conclude they have no choice but to buckle under the weight which you have placed upon their shoulders.
So my Sunday School class knows how I feel about all this. Many have read my book. They know how I dot my “i’s,” and they don’t care. For ten years, we have talked about Scripture and what it means to be the people of God. Not once has it mattered how I dot my “i’s.” I’ve been able to be their spiritual encourager, but most important to me, personally, is that they have been my mentors. If they had closed the door to me after my first three lessons on creation-through-evolution, I would have missed out on ten years worth of mentoring. No “rulers of the synagogue,” are they. They have been like Jesus, removing my load, holding me up, and helping to keep me standing straight. They have showed me love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. And ten years later because of that, because the love of Jesus has spilled over from their lives into mine, I am whole.
Let’s accept the various ways that Christians dot “i’s.” Then, having done that, let’s move on to more important things.
“Then He put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up, and praised God.”
Darrel Falk is former president of The BioLogos Foundation. He transitioned into Christian higher education 25 years ago and has given numerous talks about the relationship between science and faith at many universities and seminaries. He is the author of Coming to Peace with Science.