Can we imagine seeing the world through the eyes of the bent-over woman in our gospel lesson for today? Can we imagine a disease that morphs our skeletal structure until we are “bent over” and “quite unable to stand up straight?” Can we imagine living this way for 18 years. 18 years! That’s an eternity!
That’s an eternity when your face is pointed toward the ground, and you go through life looking at shoes and feet, pavement and grass. That’s an eternity..when you have to crick your neck upward to catch a glimpse of the faces of those you love. That’s an eternity when you live with chronic pain, and have to rely on others to help you with the simplest of tasks. Can we imagine seeing the world through the eyes of the bent-over woman in our gospel lesson for today?
I think we can. But there is a risk in sympathizing with this woman and her plight. t’s easier to pass by her on the sidewalk, and pretend she doesn’t exist. It’s easier to ignore her outstretched beggar’s cup and the desperation in her eyes. To sympathize with the bent-over woman is to feel our own pain; to remember the ways in which we have walked in her shoes.
Perhaps, we’re literally bent-over with pain, struggling with illness and disease. Perhaps we’re doubled over emotionally, as depression or abusive words destroy our ability to feel joy and happiness. Perhaps we’re crippled spiritually because we have been told by others we are less than God’s beloved child. Perhaps we are incapacitated by debt as we struggle to pay the bills and provide for our families.
Truth be told, we have all walked in the bent-over woman’s shoes. We have felt the burdens of life oppress and deform us. Her story IS our story. Her pain IS our pain. Therefore, we sit in solidarity with her this morning as she enters the one place many of us go to find hope and healing: the synagogue, the church, God’s house.
She is talking a big risk, because the synagogue is not always a welcoming place. The synagogue can be just as oppressive as the physical deformity she carries in her body. The synagogue is the place where, in Jesus’ time, it was believed that physical ailments came from either demonic possession or from God as a punishment for sins we committed.
In today’s gospel lesson it is clear that those who gathered around her believed her deformity was demonic; which is something that leaves modern believers scratching their heads. What the bent-over woman believed about her infirmity is not clear.
Luke says she was possessed by “a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years.” But he doesn’t say what the bent-over woman believed about her infirmity. What is clear is that she took a risk. She got up the nerve to enter the doors of this holy place is search of hope and healing. I picture her taking a seat on the floor in the back of the synagogue. I’m sure she was told this was her place; barely seen and definitely not heard.
Fortunately, this is not the end of the story. It is only the beginning! Jesus is also present in the synagogue and this changes everything. Luke doesn’t tell us why he is there. He may have been preaching, debating with the rabbis, or simply worshipping. The synagogue can be a busy and noisy place. His eyes could have focused on a hundred different things. But, Jesus only saw one person who had his full attention. Turning to the back corner of the synagogue, Jesus spoke: “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”
He walked over to where she was sitting, laid his hands on her, and immediately the bent-over woman stood up straight and began praising God. The bones in her spinal column were healed and aligned. The pain she had carried for 18 years was completely obliterated. She was free! And she began to sway back and forth, standing straight and tall with her arms raised toward heaven. And she began to sing! Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam…Blessed are You, Lord, our God, Creator of the universe, who bestows good things on the unworthy, and has bestowed on me every goodness.” [Trad. Jewish Prayer]
It was a miracle! God’s kingdom had invaded our sometimes hostile and cruel world and filled it with new life and vitality. All we can say in response is “Thanks be to God!” Every time the bent-over woman or the bent-over man is healed, all we can say is “Thanks be to God!” Every time the bent-over you and the bent-over me is healed, all we can say is “Thanks be to God!” Sometimes, God’s kingdom shakes things up in our world.
Jesus speaks those words “Child of God, you are set free from your ailment” and it actually happens! Pain and disease are cured! Crippling emotions are replaced with joy and happiness! Spiritual wounds are healed and we embrace our identity as beloved children of God! Financial problems are made better by a new job or an unexpected check in the mail! Like the bent-over woman, we are able to stand up straight and praise God for new life, new beginnings, restoration to health, and so much more! I have seen it happen in your lives as Christ has helped you to stand up straight after life had crippled your body, mind and spirit. I have seen it happen in my life as well as Christ brought me from a place of deep despair to a place of unquenchable joy and peace. Every time this happens, we stand up straight with the bent-over woman in our gospel story. We sing and we dance and we say “Thanks be to God!”
But there’s another voice in the story and we’ve heard this voice before: “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” Bless his heart!
Did we hear that correctly? “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” God performed a miracle and this man is unimpressed. Jesus healed the bent-over woman but he made the fatal mistake of healing her on the Sabbath day. He could have done this healing any other day of the week EXCEPT for this day.
“Why can’t you follow the rules, Jesus!” The leader of the synagogue grumbles. “Without rules, there is no order! Without rules, everything falls apart!”
It appears that the bent-over woman is not the only crippled person in the synagogue today! There is another, the leader of the synagogue, the head honcho, the big kahuna. He is just as incapacitated as the bent-over woman who sat in the back of the sanctuary. The Jewish Law, the Torah, hangs heavy on his shoulders. It was supposed to bring him joy. It was supposed to be a way he could thank God for all the blessings he had received in life. Instead, the Law became so heavy, it made him unable to move, unable to experience wonder and miracle.
Friends in Christ, sometimes this happens to us. Sometimes it happens to our loved ones and friends in church. When following the rules limits the Spirit’s ability to heal and transform our lives, we have a problem. When the mantra “we’ve never done it that way before” becomes the spiritual quicksand that threatens the life and vitality of the church, we have a problem. When the letter of the law has a stranglehold on the spirit of the law, we have a problem.
This bent-over man was not a mean man. He was simply short-sighted. He was afraid of change and liked things to be done “decently and in good order.” There is a place and a time or this, in our lives, in our church, and in the world. “But not today!” Jesus says. “Today I’m birthing something new. Let’s set side the rules and be happy that God is working wonders in our midst!”
In order to cure this man of his “bent-over-ness” Jesus utters a single word: HYPOCRITE! Ouch! That’s harsh! This is no “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” This is a backhand slap. It’s meant to wake someone up. I looked up the Greek word used here: HUPOKRITES. It means “one who pretends to be other than what he is.” In other words, “An actor playing a part in a play.” He’s not being the true rabbi he’s called to be who should recognize a “God-moment” when he sees it. Jesus is trying to tell him there are times when rules are meant to be bent. There are times when rules are meant to be broken. This was one of those times. The rabbi should be able to discern this.
After calling him a hypocrite, Jesus provides a teaching moment through which the bent-over rabbi is able to stand up straight. “Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?” In others words, this is technically working on the Sabbath, but common sense tells us we need to take care of our animals EVEN on the Sabbath day.
Jesus continued, 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?” To clarify the clever Greek used here, I’d like to offer my own paraphrase of these verses: “You UNBIND your ox on the Sabbath in order to give it a drink. So why wouldn’t you UNBIND this woman on the Sabbath since she has been BOUND by her illness for eighteen years?” Notice the parallel phrasing in this text. To simplify it even further Jesus is trying to tell the bent-over rabbi “It’s a no brainer! Even your ox or donkey could figure this out!”
In response to Jesus’ simple observation, our gospel lesson says “All his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.” The Greek word “shame” means “to be humiliated, or to disgrace,” but it also means “to put to the blush.”
If we interpret this word in the kindest sense possible, I don’t believe Jesus’ intent was to disrespect and embarrass the rabbi. His intent was to help him stand up straight and be healed of his need to rigidly follow the letter of the law. Therefore, there are two healings which occur in our gospel lesson: The bent-over woman and the bent-over rabbi.This is most certainly good news! We rejoice with the gathered crowd that the kingdom of God has drawn near.
Friends in Christ, our gospel lesson is a wonderful story. It’s a story that reminds us that when life makes us feel like the bent-over woman or the bent-over rabbi there is hope. Jesus is in the room with us and this is a game changer! Let us rejoice and give thanks for the One who heals us of our infirmities and helps us to stand up straight! Amen.
Copyright ©2016 by David Taliesin, http://www.sabbatsandsabbaths.com