Hierodeacon Rafael Misiaoulis, Theologian
Jesus taught in the synagogues on the Sabbath. The reason behind His choice of day was that the Sabbath was a day without work, dedicated to the worship of God. All tasks were completely forbidden. Even the distance you could walk was strictly regulated. So all the people gathered on those days in the synagogue in order to hear the word of God. One Sabbath, in one of the synagogues, a woman stood out from the crowd. Her body was badly bent over, so that she couldn’t stand up straight: ‘she could not straighten up at all’ (Luke 13, 11). For 18 years she hadn’t been able to look at people properly because of the problem. It was heart-breaking. Her life was one of constant suffering. But her hope was in God. Christian hope is a gift from God and is sure and irrefutable. We would recall Saint Paul, who divides people into those who have hope and those who don’t.
Human science, with all the means of human wisdom, was unable to cure her. Her ailment was due to a wicked spirit which had entered her body. The woman was devout and had inner joy, as well as trust in the will of God. This is why the Lord called to her to approach Him, though she herself hadn’t asked for anything. The Lord shared her pain. His heart broke and He wanted to bring her sufferings to an end. ‘Woman, you’re set free from your infirmity’, He told her (13, 12). He placed His humane hands on her head and cured her. She felt a foreign force enter her body.
When she was seen to be well, everyone glorified God for His wonderful works. Unfortunately, however, one person was unable to endure this situation. This was the leader of the synagogue, one of those who were considered to be the most God-fearing of people. He was unable to hide the envy which had consumed him and began to protest: ‘Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath”’ (13, 14). He was so blinded by the passion of envy that he considered this action on the part of Jesus to be ‘work’.
The Fathers commented on and referred to the passion of envy at great length. People who are envious can’t abide any good in their neighbors. They overlook any admirable traits these neighbors might have and try to find a flaw, which they then magnify in the eyes of other people.
The Lord was faced with the hypocrisy and cunning of the fanatical supporters of Jewish traditions, who imposed a total ban on work on the Sabbath day. The leader of the synagogue didn’t dare rebuke Jesus directly for what He’d done in the synagogue, but he did rebuke those he thought weren’t observing the Sabbath holiday. Within himself he was burning with envy of Christ. He pretended to be pious, but was actually looking for a reason to attack the Lord. Jesus replied: ‘You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water?’ He went on to demand: ‘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?’
Because he was overcome with the passions of hypocrisy and envy the leader of the synagogue had no understanding. These are terrible passions. Hypocrisy is a state that makes people two-faced. Envy is the sorrow we feel at someone else’s happiness or the joy we experience at their distress. Strange as it may sound, envious people are distraught at the prosperity of others and rejoice at their unhappiness. Envy is a distortion of love. It’s impossible for those who are envious to love other people. They live in hell. The hell that gleefully anticipates the misfortune of others. Saint Isaac the Syrian says that those who have envy in their heart have also the devil there, as well.
Alas, both these passions are flourishing today. There are people who are fighting for piety, justice and holiness while in their private life they’re impious, unjust and callous. Even though they’re attractive in their behaviour, hypocrites repel us. The envious simply disgust us.
Today, there are plenty of people who are like the leader of the synagogue. They cast doubt on the miracles worked by the saints of the Church, they mock the things which our faith holds to be holy and sacred, they question the work of the Church, with the result that the mob rules. And, like the leader of the synagogue, they daren’t declare their opposition to the miracle directly to Christ. So all of those who think that they’re going to control the work of the Church and believe that they’re going to ‘rectify’ it, are laboring in vain. Saint Isaac the Syrian says that, if you want to correct the work of the Church, first correct yourself.
My beloved brothers and sisters, the example of the crippled woman should be a lesson to us. When a woman who couldn’t even hold herself up straight didn’t neglect her duty towards God in what was no more than an ordinary synagogue, which had but a faint echo of the truth, what responsibility do the healthy have when they don’t attend the Church of God, where there is the whole truth and reality? They find a variety of excuses to justify their absence. Supposedly they want to relax on a day when they’re not at work; they’ve got an outing planned; the children have extra school. Saint Gregory Palamas replies to them: ‘Let no-one absent themselves from the holy assemblies on Sundays, either from idleness or obstinate concern with earthly affairs, lest they be abandoned by God and suffer the fate of the Apostle Thomas, who did not arrive in time’.
So let us abandon the cares of this life and instead take part every Sunday in the sacrament of the Divine Eucharist, where we breathe the grace of the Thrice-Holy God. At the Divine Eucharist we experience the presence of God. Our soul finds respite from the problems of our everyday life and draws strength from God to continue the struggle. Worship of God is worth a king’s ransom. When we participate, we demonstrate our faith in God and our anchorage in Him.