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More Religious, or More Humane?

Jeremiah 8:18-22;   Luke 6:1-11


Like most nations on earth, Israel at times experienced very harsh days and suffering, and when that happened, the Biblical prophets blamed idolatry and unfaithfulness. We don’t talk much about idolatry and unfaithfulness, let alone explain national or global misfortunes.

But prophet Jeremiah does, and he does the moment he watches in horror how his nation is flirting with alien goods and perverting justice. So now God is ready to punish Israel, and Jeremiah laments that his own nation’s days are numbered.

He has been sent by God to warn his nation, and that’s what he does –he tells them that a powerful king from a neighboring empire will eventually invade Israel, destroy their cities, steal their cattle, and take everybody prisoner to a faraway land where they will have to live and work as slaves the way their ancestors did centuries earlier in Egypt.

For how long?  Jeremiah has no calendar in hand, yet he believes his people will be exiled until that day when God is convinced that they have atoned for their unfaithfulness and are spiritually fit to return – it could be a long, long wait indeed.

Jeremiah is the only prophet in the land who recognizes God’s hand in all that is happening – all the other prophets are fake, for they tell the people what the people want to hear. No surprise, then — Jeremiah must endure mockery, imprisonment, kidnapping, and death threats from the people he desperately tries to help.

As the spiral of doom revolves faster and faster, Jeremiah begins to suspect that God’s grace has spread so thin among his people. You can sense his anguish as he asks God one of the most dramatic questions anyone could ever ask from God – “Is there no more balm in Gilead?”


Literally speaking, a balm is any soothing, healing ointment, but the one Jeremiah has in mind was well-known lotion made from the gum of the balsam poplar, a tree abundant in the region of Gilead, or Galahad, east of the Jordan River.

Also known as myrrh in Biblical times, one of the gifts offered to babe Jesus by the three wise men – remember? Mixed with other medicinal plants, the balm of Gilead was used to cure many ailments.

It was so good, so soothing, it was often used as metaphor for God’s healing –everybody must have known what the prophet implied when he cried out to the Lord, “Lord, is there no more balm here in Gilead?” “Lord, no more divine healing and forgiveness around here? So mad are you at us?”

Jeremiah can’t believe the cope of God’s anger. God’s frustration and anger are so real, so intense, not even traces of divine healing will soon be seen anywhere around his land, yet nobody seems to care!


Many people across the world today may feel like Jeremiah — like they too have run out of luck and nothing is left to soothe, to remedy, to restore their wellbeing. Among them, this “pariah” in the Gospel of Luke, a man with a “withered” man.

Certainly poor, undervalued, underappreciated, a huge financial burden to his family and community, and on top of that, a “sinner,” for illness was usually considered evidence of a sinful heart. I’m sure this man felt like prophet Jeremiah — “Hey, no more balm around here? No forgiving and healing for me?”

Luke doesn’t tell us whether this man‘s hand was withered from birth, or by a later onset of paralysis, or by some tragic accident in his work. What he tells us is that the moment Jesus heals that cripple in the synagogue, both pharisees and scribes explode in anger – “How do you dare to heal on the Sabath, when everybody should rest?”

This man was doubly withered –physically and spiritually. Spiritually withered by his own religious leaders, the escribes and pharisees, so full of themselves, so arrogant and judgmental, they could not see the child of God in that cripple. For them, “to please” God was to be as religious as possible by mastering as many commandments, rules, and rituals as possible.

And if that pious discipline meant to wait until “the day after,” so to speak, so be it! So sad, they were missing the point!

For Jesus, instead, “to please God” is as simply as saying a prayer like this: “Dear God, there is in our midst a dear brother with a useless hand — bless him and do whatever you can do, now, right now; heal it if possible, but do something for him, right now, if possible! In the meantime, may we be with this our brother and help him meet his needs.”


There is something else in this incident that meets the eye. For scribes and pharisees, that cripple was only bait, a bait to try to catch, to trap Jesus. Would Jesus dare break the law and heal on the Sabbath day, a day when even doctors and healers should do no work? For them, healing was work.

And all kinds of work and healing were prohibited on the Sabbath, except for emergencies, yet this was no emergency. But Jesus sees things in such a different way — God will never wait till mañana!

So that same day, the Sabbath day, the crippled man walked away from the synagogue totally healed. I can imagine him walking away from the synagogue with a prayer like this one in his heart — “Thank God, now I believe that there’s still plenty of balm here in Gilead. I have seen it with my own eyes and felt it in my own heart!”


As you know, God’s balm – God’s grace — did not diminish or disappear from Jeremiah’s land even though that might have been Jeremiah’s first impression. Eventually the prophet would come to terms with the truth that even our most challenging crosses also happen to God, that grace never abates, certainly not when God is around.


Despite centuries of slavery in our own nation, worshiping slaves would always sing songs of hope like the one we will sing in a few moments –they are called “spirituals.” One of the best-known spirituals was inspired by Jeremiah’s metaphor of the “balm in Gilead.”

The song leader would sing softly: “Sometimes I feel discouraged, and think my work’s in vain. But you know, People of God? The Holy Spirit revives my soul again.” To which the congregation would respond in a louder voice: “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.”

The song leader would go on: “If you can’t preach like Peter, if you can’t preach like Paul.  But you know, people of God? Just tell the love of Jesus, and say he died for all.” To which the congregation would respond again: “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.”


Friends, our Lenten journey with Jesus will bring us so close to all that was, all that is wrong in life, like trying to please God by becoming more religious without becoming more humane. As we wonder why such as nonsense as the Cross had to happen to Jesus, remember this incident, and many others like this one.

Jesus’s ministry, like God’s amazing compassion, knew no boundaries, and that is something that can make many folks uncomfortable, to say the least, for that’s all that God really cares about –in Jesus’s time, also in our own time.


May I close with a story about a little girl? One day her mother sent her to a grocery store around the corner, but this time the little girl took much too long in coming back, so when she finally made it home her mother demanded an explanation. The little girl explained that on her way she had met a little friend who was crying because she had broken her doll.

“Oh,” said the mother, “then you stopped to help her fix her doll?”

“Oh, no,” replied the little girl, “I stopped to help her cry.”

Friends, may our Lenten journey help us re-discover who we are. We are children of God. We love the church, and we are the church. And we are disciples of the Risen Christ.

But Christ hasn’t died on the Cross of Calvary neither he has risen to make us more religious, only to make us more humane so that in Gilead or in Buckeystown our compassion for one another may be like the balm of Gilead to many others.