Exegetical Exercise Luke 13 10-17

Image - illustration of Luke 13:10-17
Jesus heals a crippled woman on the Sabbath
Matthias Gerung [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Here are a few exegetical notes from a first few readings of Luke 13:10-17 – sometimes referred to as the episode of “the bent woman.” I feel particularly close to “the bent woman” because her ailment sounds a lot like some kind of arthritis, with which I am personally familiar, so I imagine her pain, especially in the age before non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, and the idea of being “set free” from that physical condition really appeals to me.

The context is still (vis-à-vis the Luke readings we’ve already looked at this summer) the travel narrative in Luke; Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, preaching and teaching and healing people as he travels. This started back in chapter 9, and goes on to chapter 19. It’s also sometimes called “Luke’s special section,” because it contains some stories that don’t appear in any of the other gospels. This story of the bent woman is one of those.

The story of the bent woman might be a “double” of the healing of the man with dropsy, which occurs at the beginning of chapter 14. It’s another characteristic feature of the gospel of Luke to have stories and episodes that feature both men and women. These two stories, which bookend some teaching on the kingdom of God and Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem both feature healing on the Sabbath, and Jesus’ justification of that in the face of complaints from religious authorities with reference to children, animals and water, which appears as a source of life, but also a danger – you need to drink, but you could drown in too much of it.

The Sabbath is clearly important in the story of the bent woman; the word “Sabbath” gets repeated 5 times in 8 verses. The substance of the story and the repetition of the verb “to loose” (the paradigmatic verb of Greek grammar study) emphasizes the core symbolism of the Sabbath as freedom, liberation from bondage. The woman has been “bound” (by Satan, no less, according to Jesus) for 18 years … 3 x 6? Missing her sabbaticals? … and is freed from this bondage on the Sabbath, echoing the justification for the Sabbath in Deuteronomy 5:12-15 (Jesus’ favorite scripture) – “remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt” – and Jesus’ pointed reference to untying your ox or donkey on the Sabbath and leading it to water seems to echo the commandment in Deuteronomy, similarly the reference to the woman as a “daughter of Abraham.” The text in Deuteronomy lists everyone who’s not supposed to do any work on the Sabbath – your son or daughter, your male or female slave, your ox or donkey. [“your wife” is missing from the list, so either the “you” masc. pl. includes fathers and mothers/husbands and wives, or “a woman’s work is never done.” I think, but would have to check, that the rabbis thought the former.]

In v 11 the woman “appears” and has a “spirit” that NRSV translates “that had crippled her,” Nestle-Aland translates “of infirmity” or “of weakness” ; the “spirit” strikes us as peculiar; Jesus isn’t going to “cast out” this spirit; it’s more like a “bent” or an “attitude” in this woman’s case, a habitual (unwelcome, involuntary …) orientation … I’m just curious about why the spirit language, because I think there are other ways to describe the woman’s condition, so this is presumably language that is more intentional than automatic or required by the circumstances.

Vv 12-13 a sequence of verbs and actions; she appears and Jesus sees her; Jesus calls to her and announces that she is free; Jesus touches her, at which she immediately demonstrates this freedom; her response is to praise God.

V 14, the leader or president of the synagogue may have been complaining during this performance, is at least complaining after it, and focuses on the inappropriateness of … the healing taking place on the Sabbath, but from the wording – he’s addressing a “crowd,” we now learn, and he is talking about “coming to be cured” on a different day – he might be objecting to something more than the violation of the Sabbath taboo, but also to what seems to be an unexpected situation of lots of people showing up for Sabbath … maybe something that doesn’t normally happen, maybe people he’s less than overjoyed to see in the first place … although now I’m just projecting from what could happen at a church. Sad, but true, as much as people at my little rural church talk about wanting the church to grow, I am confident that if a crowd of a certain kind of people showed up on a Sunday morning, there would be members who would complain about it, or at least wish they could. And to be fair, it would be disruptive, especially if it were on a communion Sunday, in which case people might worry that the bread and grape juice wouldn’t hold out, but on any other Sunday, we would run out of bulletins and whoever was in charge of fellowship time would feel they’d not provided enough and there would definitely not be enough coffee and that’s to say nothing of the general sense of “not at all what I was expecting,” or the specific challenges posed by needing to be Christianly loving for an hour to the certain kind of people, depending on the kind of people. To be entirely fair, I can imagine myself being one of those people, depending. So I don’t like to be too quick to condemn the president of the synagogue.

On the other hand … the woman praises God, and the crowd rejoices; and Jesus is traveling, this is the travel narrative, so the chances of being able to come on any of the other six days to be healed are, basically, just a fiction and the president must know that, too. If I were the bent woman, I would know that this might be my only chance in my lifetime to get some relief … which is maybe another meaning of the Sabbath. This is a deeper something Jesus seems to see (the forest?), that the religious authority fails to see, maybe for focusing on the procedural and doctrinal proprieties (the trees?)

The whole point of the Torah/instruction is to cultivate in people the habit of seeing and behaving towards one another the way God would if God were there. So if people have gotten into the habit of making the Torah/instruction an excuse for refusing to behave that way, it’s a misuse of that instruction. (Sort of bent … hmmm.)

My point is that this seems to me a story about the “spirit of the laws” vs. the “letter of observance.” There’s always a danger for Christian interpreters to turn that structure into a twisted and false lesson, something like “bad old Jewish religion” vs. “good Jesus/Christianity religion.” I think we may do that because we don’t like to notice that the problem of missing the point is as much a Christian problem as it is anyone’s, since if we were to get the point, we would feel like we need to step up our game.

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