The lectionary’s gospel text for the 21 Sunday after Pentecost is Luke 13:10-17, a story of Jesus healing a woman with what we modern people would probably recognize as severe arthritis, although perhaps her condition was something different. She is sometimes called “the bent woman,” because of the way her condition forces her to stand and walk. Once again, it takes place during Jesus’ final journey toward Jerusalem. In a sense, he’s “on tour,” because he keeps stopping and making personal appearances, doing and saying things, and this is an example of the kind of thing that he’s doing, with dramatic results.
Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.
When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.
But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.
But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! 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? 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?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.
I suffer from arthritis. People who’ve noticed me limping around on my sore hip have probably already figured this out. I’m not a scientist, so my limited understanding of arthritis is oversimplified, I’m sure, but as I understand it, it has something to do with movement, friction, and inflammation; joints move, and get sore and inflamed and become arthritic when they fail to repair themselves after the friction of that movement for a long time; the natural cartilage gets brittle and cracked and thinned and finally wears away under the pressure, and you get bone rubbing painfully against bone. All movement involves friction, and when there’s nothing to ease or reduce that friction, the movement gets even more inflammatory and painful. The whole body adapts to reduce that pain – muscles stop working, or constrict and won’t relax because the bones don’t want to move there. Eventually the body makes bone spurs in response to the pain of movement, which can can keep the problem joints from moving at all, producing a stabilization that’s basically rigid.
Since my body is evidently pretty good at doing this, I have some experience with physical therapy and pain medications – and their limits, and with orthopedic surgery. Orthopaedic surgeons get their name from the Greek word for “straight” – ortho – and the Greek work for child, paidos – because they originally treated developmental problems in children. So we could think of orthopedic surgeons as body straighteners, but it seems to me they are really more like flexibility restorers.
I have had a hip replacement, and a toe surgery, both of which were designed to make it possible for my joints to move more freely. I’ll never forget the moment when, still recuperating from hip surgery, I felt a muscle in my leg relax that I knew at that moment I hadn’t been able to move in so many years I’d forgotten I even had it. The relief was so intense, it brought tears to my eyes.
So I feel for the woman in this story, this deep healing story, because I can imagine what she had learned to live with for eighteen years, and because I know she didn’t have non-steroidal anti-inflammatories and acetaminophen and maybe not even aspirin, so I shudder to think what her physical suffering had to have been. If we remember that, it’s no surprise at all that her first reaction upon being able to stand up straight – and I assume without pain – is to begin praising God. That healing brought relief, ease, delight, ecstasy even. To say nothing of the freedom to go about a normal life after this, to do everything she would be able to do: to move, to work, to lift the baby, to play with the toddler, to throw her arms around the people she loves, anything. “The year of the Lord’s favor,” people might call it.
But then, this act of healing and freeing produces a heated exchange between Jesus and the leader of the synagogue. There’s a temptation to describe this as Jesus criticizing the legalism of the religious authority – who is insisting on following the rules of Sabbath observance. But we need to look deeper here, because Jesus calls the leaders “hypocrites” – this suggests they follow some rules and not others; and because Luke points out that after Jesus makes his response, “all his opponents were put to shame” – why? If we look into it, it turns out it’s because Jesus is a better legal expert, as well as a better healer. It turns out, Jesus is not calling the law into question here; what he’s doing is pointing out that his act of compassion is fully justified in the law, and in fact, is fully in keeping with the real observance of the Sabbath.
The key point is that Jesus identifies the woman as being “bound,” held in bondage, by Satan.
The rules concerning slavery and servitude in the Hebrew Bible are complicated, and could probably give rise to plenty of legal dispute, but … according to Deuteronomy 16:12, a poor member of the family of Israel was allowed to sell themselves into bondage, on the condition of being freed in the seventh year, the sabbatical year. So if this poor “daughter of Abraham” had done that, she would have been long overdue for her sabbatical, having been held for eighteen years. She’s already missed two sabbaticals, and is due for the third one. That’s assuming, just for the sake of argument, that Satan, whom Jesus names as the one keeping her in bondage, is a member of the community. That might not be the assumption we want to make! But then, if this Satan is a foreigner, then according to Leviticus 25:47-55, she can be redeemed by a kinsman any time, and in any event needs to go free in the jubilee year, the Sabbath of all sabbaths. Because remember, “the people of Israel are my servants whom I brought out from the land of Egypt” says God. That is, the reason for keeping the Sabbath is the very same reason for freeing this woman from her physical prison.
So, far from saying the leader of the synagogue is “too legalistic,” Jesus is in a real sense saying he’s not familiar enough with the relevant law – not observant enough of the way law is supposed to work to keep God’s people’s liberation secure. Jesus’ audience seems to understand this: he’s named the situation so as to direct people’s attention to the relevant cases, and has communicated, in essence: look, this is clearly a matter of being faithful. I’m not only not doing something wrong, I’m doing what’s most right, on principle, and for that matter, according to the provisions of the law, really. So, case dismissed.
Jesus’ flexibility here has something to do with seeing the entire picture, rather than just the tiny piece of it about which his critic was most concerned. The leader of the synagogue was so indignant about the problem of proper Sabbath observance, and maybe also about how these crowds following Jesus were disrupting the weekly routine, that he failed to notice the larger meaning of what was going on, and its liberating possibilities. Although the woman had “appeared” in his synagogue, there was a way in which this leader failed to see her for who she was – a suffering member of his own family – and so was unable to speak the word of freedom to her that he could have spoken, or to reach out to her for the purpose of redemption, of restored life. Jesus did all that.
Unfortunately, I’m afraid I get stuck in that same rigid mindset all too often. I get so wrapped up in this or that particular issue du jour that I overlook the hurting humans at their center. And while I don’t like to name names or point fingers, I’m afraid I’m in a numerous company. It’s possible to get so inflamed complaining about how “they” are doing something without permission or justification that we miss noticing that the permission has already been given, the way forward has already been cleared, the invitation to do it has appeared, and the year of the Lord’s favor is upon us. It’s possible to get so caught up in indignation that we don’t notice that the proper observance of Sabbath is to praise God for the relief of freedom, and its delight, even its ecstasy.
As Christians, we, too are called into Christ’s ministry of bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free, and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor. One of the prerequisites for being able to do that is recognizing, along with Jesus, the freedom that is deeply inscribed in God’s word to humanity, to move past our inclination to understand that word to be primarily about prohibition and restriction. When we find ourselves telling ourselves, or our friends, or the anonymous irritating figures who appear on television and in the newspaper from time to time, “hey, the rules are the rules, you are going to have to get used to” whatever pain, suffering, or immobility we or they are facing in order to conform to the proper behavior we have understood the rigidly proper deity requires, it’s time to ask ourselves: could this be one of those places where I need to look at the bigger picture, one of those places where more faithfulness, where fuller observance, where choosing life, lies on the side of movement, and flexibility, with its relief and its delight?