When I was visiting my brother and sister-in-law in London earlier in the year, my sister-in-law Sam gave me a book of wisdom stories. In the book there is a wonderful story from the Sufi tradition that is entitled “True Holiness”. It goes as follows:
A holy man was walking by the river considering the nature of true holiness. He was a precise man, who liked to keep the letter of the holy law, and considered it his holy duty to help others do the same, quickly identifying the failings of others and offering them a corrective word. He studied and prayed very hard so that he would become as perfect as possible.
One day as he walked by the river reciting his prayers, he heard floating across the river from afar the holiest of prayers of his order. The prayer - as was the custom - was repeated over and over again, in order to induce a holy trance in the reciter.
But on this occasion, the prayer disturbed the holy man. Whoever was saying this prayer had failed to learn it correctly. The syllables of the first words of the prayers were in the wrong order. Clearly, the getting wrong of an important prayer such as this, was going to be a hindrance to the pilgrim across the river in his quest to achieve paradise.
At this opportunity to do “good work” by correcting this misguided worshiper, the holy man found a rowing boat and set out across the river to find the man who was mangling such holy and beautiful words.
As he was paddling across the lapping waves of the river, his mind began to wander as he considered the possibility that one day he himself might achieve such a high level of saintliness that in the future, he might be able to cross such a river by simply walking over the water rather than having to cross it by boat... and maybe this act of correcting the misguided worshiper across the river might help to bring him closer towards that goal of supreme holiness.
As he continued to row, the mangled prayer broke through once again into his consciousness, disturbing his thoughts and his holy ambitions. The sound was coming from an island in the river. He drew up to the small island, moored the boat, and walked up a short gravel path where he found a small simple cave. Inside he was much surprised to find another holy man, from his own order, praying.
“Brother” said the now perspiring rower, “I have taken the trouble to row all the way across this river to draw your attention to the fact that you are mis-saying your prayers. You are saying “Yee Moo Yen Zaa” when you ought to be saying “Yen Moo Zaa Yee”.
“Thank you” said the hermit as he welcomed his unexpected visitor bowing respectfully towards him. “I feared that might be the case and I am most grateful to you for the trouble to which you have put yourself. Would you care to repeat the correct form of the prayer once again so that I may follow a more enlightened path?”
The holy man with a bit of irritation in his voice, offered once again the correct version of the prayer, and then returned to his boat. As he paddled across the river he reflected on the nature of good works and the duty of those with superior understanding to restore and to help those less advanced souls in the world. Acts of saintliness such as this were the signs that one was indeed on the true path towards holiness and perfection.
While still lost in these thoughts of his own superior holiness, he was surprised to be disturbed by a voice calling out to him.
“Wait a moment please good sir!” came the voice across the waves.
Looking up, the holy man saw the hermit walking rapidly towards him across the waves, “I’m terribly sorry to bother you again,” came the voice, “But im afraid my memory is short and I am not the quickest of learners. Did you say it was “Yen Zaa Moo Yee” or “Yen Moo Yee Zaa”?
“Yen moo zaa yee” echoed the holy man numbly, this time a little less confidently than before.
“Thank you so much. May your good deed be richly rewarded.”
And so saying, the hermit turned, and walked lightly back across the water.
As this little story invites us to think more deeply on the nature of true holiness, who in this story is the real holy man, So our passage from Luke’s Gospel today raises a similar question and as it does so, it reveals the conflict of two religious perspectives:
The story takes place on the Sabbath, the weekly Jewish Holy Day of Rest, commanded by God in the 10 commandments. On this particular Sabbath Day, we find Jesus teaching in a synagogue where he is met by a woman who for eighteen years had been bent over, unable to stand up straight. Seeing the woman, we read that Jesus calls her over to himself, he puts his hands on her and immediately she straightens up and praises God.
In response to the healing, we read that the Synagogue Leader, the resident minister one could say, is indignant. According to the Synagogue leader, Jesus has profaned the Holy Sabbath. Six days God has given for work, but the seventh day, the Sabbath, is meant to be holy.
For the synagogue leader, his concern for observing the letter of law, over-rides his compassion. For him the priority is the 4th commandment “you shall do no work on the Sabbath” which over rides his concern for the woman. For him, compassion is secondary. The law is primary.
But for Jesus, his priorities are the other way around. Jesus’s concern for compassion over-rides his concern for observing the strict letter of the law relating to the Sabbath. His compassion for the woman who was crippled over-rides his concern for the Sabbath law. It is not that the Sabbath would have been unimportant to Jesus, (he was after-all in the synagogue), but when faced with real human need, his priority was compassion over law.
The religious and spiritual revolution that Jesus brought to the world of his day was one that placed love as the supreme value in life. For Jesus, the whole point of religion is that it should point us in the direction of love.
For Jesus, true holiness was to be found supremely in love.
Jesus’ supreme emphasis on love, led St Augustine, about 300 years later to make the following controversial statement: “Love, and do what you like”. In King James English “Love and do what thou wilt”.
It sounds a bit dangerous. Wouldn’t a statement like that lead to anarchy.
But that wasn't his point. The point that St Augustine was making is that when you truly act out of a spirit of love, out of a deep respect, care and concern, not just for one’s own well-being, but also for the deep well-being of others, you wont be able to engage in outrageous and unruly and undisciplined and destructive behaviour, because all your actions will be constrained and guided by love.
St Augustine was in his own way restating the point that the Apostle Paul made in his letter to the Romans: :
“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
Our passage today presents a clash between two religious perspectives on holiness:
“When Jesus saw the woman, he called her forward... he put his hands on her and immediately she straightened up and praised God.
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 the Sabbath.”
During the week I saw a meme on Facebook that went something like this:
“If your religion makes you hate, then it is time to find a new religion.” I think in light of this story of Jesus, it could also be rephrased: “If your religion does not help you to grow in love, then it is time to find a new religion.”