The old man and the cats…

“Set Free from Bondage”

A Sermon on Luke 13: 10-17,
Delivered at St. Bartholomew’s Church,
August 21, 2022

Lord Matthew Hale, whose Legacy Continues, courtesy of Sam Alito.

Today’s Gospel can be viewed as a purely theological document, or even another more reminder of the true purpose of the Sabbath day, and its importance in the Jewish tradition, and thus, in our own tradition as Christians.  And, although it could be read as a touching story of Jesus reaching out to a woman who would be deemed unclean or even cursed, that’s the narrative, and not the heart of where this story takes us.

So I can’t recommend those views of the Gospel, not in the context we are presently living in.  Because today’s Gospel echoes themes that we live with and among even now, and so it isn’t as just a story of two millennia ago.  Because that would be making it easy, and simple, and a reminder of times that we can look at as more primitive, less enlightened than our own.  That sermon would be a sweet slice of chocolate cake—tasty, filling, and with minimal nutritional value.  And I owe you better than that.

So Buckle up.

Just about two months ago, the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in Dobbs vs Jackson’s Women’s Health Organization overruling the Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v Wade and in Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

Well, actually, that’s only two of the cases that the Court overruled in Dobbs—the only two it acknowledged.  In fact, The Supreme Court had previously reaffirmed Roe, with some modifications, roughly twenty times from 1973 up until the 2016 decision in Whole Women’s Health v Hellerstadt.  In the Dobbs case, the decision written by Samuel Alito, relied on the writings of several English judges, Henry de Bracton, a medieval jurist, who died in 1268, Lord Matthew Hale, who lived from 1609 to 1676, and Sir William Blackstone, who lived from 1723 to 1780.  

Alito relied on Hale’s Histories of the Pleas of the Crown, published after his death in 1736, citing him eight times.  In that treatise, Hale wrote that marital rape could not be a crime because marriage itself constituted irrevocable consent to sex — but only for the wife. As Hale wrote, “For by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract,” he wrote, “the wife hath given herself up in this kind unto the husband which she cannot retract.”  

As Amanda Taub noted in The New York Times, a “central tenet of Hale’s legal philosophy was that giving women legally enforceable rights over their own bodies was a threat to men’s freedom.”

Taub gives the example of Hale’s famous description of rape as “an accusation easily to be made and hard to be proved and harder to be defended by the party accused, tho never so innocent.”  Hale’s dictum, she notes, “became the basis for centuries of jurisprudence and jury instructions that treated the moral character of rape victims as the paramount concern in rape cases, and often presumed that they were lying if they could not produce corroborating witnesses or other outside evidence for their claims.”[1]  

In addition, Hale presided over the trial for witchcraft of Amy Duny and Rose Cullender in 1664, at Bury St. Edmunds, finding both women guilty.  The story was preserved by William Renwick Riddell.  As he described the trial, the principal accuser refused to be confronted by the defendants, and there were concerns about the evidence, but Hale instructed the jury that he “did not in the least doubt but these were witches.”  Convicted on Thursday, March 13, 1665, they were executed on Monday, March 17, Sir Matthew Hale being so satisfied with the verdict, that he refused to grant a reprieve.”[2]

  An interesting choice of authorities on which to rely in voiding what the Roe Court had found to be a fundamental right of women.  

And in the less than two months—just the first few weeks since the abrogation of Roe—we have already seen Dr. Caitlin Bernard who provided an abortion to a 10-year-old rape victim in June, has been criticized across right-wing media, faced harassment and is the subject of an investigation by the Indiana attorney general. She has, as the New York Timesput it, landed at the center of a post-Roe clash that the medical community has been dreading —one in which doctors themselves are the focus of political and legal attacks.”[3]

Just yesterday, the British newspaper The Guardian reported a case of a Louisiana woman who was denied an abortion “even though the fetus was missing the top of its skull – a condition known as acrania, which kills babies within minutes or hours of birth.”  The hospital refused to act for the woman because acrania was not specifically included in the exemptions to Louisiana’s strict anti-abortion law, and the hospital was afraid of prosecution.[4]

In Jesus’s time, a constellation of rules limited the lives and autonomy of women, the Jewish women among whom Jesus grew up, and the Greek and many of the Roman women who lived among them.  Jewish women were to be kept off the street, inside the house, could not attend public events, had to attend worship at odd hours to not attract attention.[5]  More to the point, men acted as their legal guardians even in adulthood.  In “I, Claudius,” we can chuckle at Antonia’s irritation at having to ask Claudius, the son she writes off as an idiot, to allow her to spend money or transact routine household business, but for non-noble women, or unhappily married women, their lives were at the mercy of their husbands or sons.  

In a different way, the end of Roe is creating a constellation of restrictions for women, limiting where and how and when women whose health and even lives are at risk are able to obtain possibly life saving care.  Women’s rights have fundamentally changed in the twinkling of an eye.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus encounters a woman with a “spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years,” Luke tells us.  She is bent over, unable to stand up straight at all.  The pain must be horrific.  Jesus sees her, in pain, calls her over to him, and sets her free from her ailment.  He cures her, takes away her pain.  The leader of the synagogue is furious, he repeatedly bellows that “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” 

Jesus rebukes the leader as a hypocrite, and reminds him that he gives his own ox or donkey food and leads it to water on the sabbath day.   And then he asks the rhetorical question, “And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”

The law sinks into irrelevance here—Jesus sees the crippled woman as valuable, worthy of honor, a daughter of Abraham, who deserves a full life.  She isn’t just a drudge, or someone else’s chattel, she’s a daughter of Abraham, and worthy of being loved.  In past weeks, as we have followed Luke’s Gospel, we have seen the love he bore for both Mary and Martha, two sisters with different callings, both of whom he affirmed and cherished.  We have seen Jesus refuse to employ the law in a family dispute.

         I think it’s because law has limitations that are hard on the soul.  As Nadia Bolz-Weber said in a Reformation Day sermon: 

The Law is always conditional and never anything anyone can do perfectly. When we treat Law as if it will save us- as if it is Gospel there can never be flourishing.  Under the Law there are only 2 options: pride and despair.  When fulfilling the “shoulds” is the only thing that determines our worthiness we are either prideful about our ability to follow the rules compared to others or we despair at our inability to perfectly do anything.[6]

         But love? Love is mysterious, a free gift, as our Lutheran friends, such as Pastor Nadia, would tell us.  Love is being accepted, in all our humanity, flaws and all, and being cherished. Love is being cared for in the best possible way.  

Jesus sees the crippled woman, really sees her, and is not willing that she should bear her suffering for even a single moment more, let alone a whole day.  He cares for her as she is, and wants her free of the bondage to the pain that has bent her almost in half.  

         No rule was going to slow Jesus down in curing her, let alone stop him.  This daughter of Abraham was going to be restored on the spot, and so she is.  Imagine a world in which we cared for women as much as we expect women to care about men.  Imagine that, loving women as important in their own individual right, for themselves, as being worth our concern, our care, and honor.  

         How much better than the crabbed rule book wielded against women by Matthew Hale, and his disciple Samuel Alito, in which women and their lives are barely acknowledged, let alone cherished. 

         We are followers of a God of love. Of Jesus, who valued women in a world that didn’t, and was prepared to flout the rules to serve one woman he didn’t know, because he knew one thing about her: she was worth it.


[1] Amanda Taub, “The 17th Century Judge at the Heart of Today’s Women’s Rights Rulings,” New York Times, May 19, 2022, archived at:   https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/19/world/asia/abortion-lord-matthew-hale.html

[2] William Renwick Riddell, “Sir Matthew Hale and Witchcraft,” 17 Am. Inst. Crim. L. & Criminology 5 (1926-1927) .

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/07/28/us/politics/abortion-doctor-caitlin-bernard-ohio.html

[4] Ramon Antonio Vargas, “Louisiana Woman Faces ‘horrifically cruel’ abortion choice over fetus missing skull, The Guardian, Aug. 20, 2022, archived at:  https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/aug/20/louisiana-abortion-woman-nancy-davis-benjamin-crump

[5] Erwin R. Goodenough, The Jurisprudence of The Jewish Courts In Egypt, (Yale, 1929); see also Pieter JJ Botha, “Submission and violence: exploring gender relations in the first-century world,” Neotestamentica, Vol. 34, No. 1 (2000), pp. 1-38.

[6] Nadia Bolz-Weber, “Sin Boldly, a Reformation Day Sermon, Nov. 1, 2021, archived at https://thecorners.substack.com/p/sin-boldly

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