The writer to the Hebrew Christians had an unbelievably
difficult task to convince people steeped in religious
faith and ritual that they were free to live in a new
time, with a new set of priorities and a completely new
outlook on religion.
It’s far easier to convince secular folk with no
pretensions of holiness and no baggage from the past to
step into a faith dimension than to undo centuries of
religious legalism and generations of cultural
Of course, not all people immersed in Judaism were
prisoners of religiosity. Not all Hebrew children had lost
the joy of freedom and faith. But sadly, the writer to the
Hebrews seems to have had to address a particularly
He was immensely sympathetic to their situation. He knew
where they were coming from. He cherished the long
catalogue of Hebrew ‘saints’ whose lives had inspired the
Jewish nation from century to century. He wasn’t trying to
negate their much-loved past. But he was passionate about
releasing them from the miserable strangle-holds that some
of its laws and ordinances had laid upon the faithful.
He knew that Jesus had come to call the world to enter a
new age. Jesus’ very name linked him with Joshua and all
the saviours of the distant past.
Jesus had wept over Jerusalem. He deeply loved his people
and their cherished past. He was a Hebrew. And yet he
encountered prisoners wherever he went. People without
joy. People carrying huge burdens. People weighed down by
petty religious legalism. People in fear.
A great deal of this fear was rooted in their
understanding of the personality of God. They had been
taught that God was remote and untouchable. Holiness had
ceased to be a simple offering of respect to their God.
God had become like a raging fire you couldn’t dare to
approach. The God of the burning bush had developed into a
God of dread and wrath.
Jesus saw people who were wounded and weary. Sabbath
regulations, rules about diet and cleanliness, rituals for
washing and eating, had multiplied like cancer cells with
frightening consequences. The Rabbi from Nazareth was
steeped in compassion and his Galilean ministry would
proclaim a Kingdom of God which was radical and
refreshing. Luke was a doctor and he knew the pain people
suffered. He was determined that the Gospel that bears his
name would be Good News of great joy for all peoples.
Today our Gospel reading from that Good News book focused
on a dear but desperately sad woman crippled physically
and spiritually. She was bent over in pain and in anguish.
Her eyes hadn’t been raised to the heavens or to look into
any compassionate human eyes. Jesus’ words of healing and
hope had an immediate effect. She straightened up. Her
spine must have uncurled and her eyes must have seen a new
world to embrace. And then just as she was taking in the
wonder of this new experience, the grating voice of the
leader of the synagogue shattered the sunrise. It was the
Sabbath. No person was allowed to be resurrected on the
Sabbath! She had become the victim of an evil act.
Religious laws had to come before the freeing of sufferers
from their calamities. People imprisoned in winter
darkness were not allowed to see the light.
St Luke tells us that Jesus’ reaction was immediate and
strong. “You hypocrites!” Jesus thundered. “You treat
animals better than humans on your precious Sabbath. Get a
life!” Jesus had come to proclaim a new age, a new Kingdom
and a new understanding of God. God wasn’t to be thought
of as an unapproachable fire but as a warm and tender
shepherd. God cherished his children, especially when they
were caught up in suffering and fear.
So Luke’s prime purpose is to unfold the story of a God
who, in and through his chosen child Jesus, would “preach
good news to the poor, proclaim deliverance to captives,
and recovery of sight to the blind.”
A religion is no good whatsoever unless it brings a new
sense of freedom and deliverance. Jesus knew that. Luke
knew that. The person or persons who wrote the Epistle to
the Hebrew Christians knew that.
So it’s time to return to that very difficult reading from
Hebrews chapter 12. It starts off: “You have not come to
something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and
darkness, gloom and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet,
and a voice whose words make the hearers beg that not
another word be spoken to them.” In other words, “It’s
time to get rid of that dark and fearful idea of God which
makes you into a prisoner and guilt-ridden, bent-over
human being. The writer is saying: “It’s time to uncurl
your spine. It’s time to enter a new age. It’s time to be
a grateful, gracious, child of God again.”
That’s good news! The new city, the new Zion, is not a
place of gloom and dread. It’s a community of the new-born
children who are called into a Kingdom of festivity and
joy. The mediator of the new covenant, Jesus himself, has
prepared the way for this new beginning. What’s needed is
the courage to step across the threshold and enter this
new community of love, of shalom, and of joy.
In today’s Gospel reading, Luke says that the crowd had a
glimpse of this new vision after the healing of the
crippled woman and the fearless words Jesus threw at the
religious elite. They “rejoiced at the wonderful things he
was doing”. The Kingdom, which Jesus came to display and
which later writers affirmed, wouldn’t be weak and
wishy-washy, because it was based upon compassion. The
author to the Hebrews says it would be unshakable.
“Therefore, since we are receiving a Kingdom that cannot
be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an
acceptable worship with reverence and awe...” Then
he adds a final touch: “for indeed our God is a consuming
Well, well. We’ve come full circle. God’s compassionate
and loving presence still leaves much which needs
transforming, renewing, resurrecting. There are still
backs to straighten. There are still eyes to look into.
There is still a Kingdom work to engage our lives and
Nothing, however, can stop the joy, and no one can dampen
the festive songs.