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.
Imagine, if you will, that you are bent over much as the woman was in our scripture reading this morning. In fact, try it right now. Everyone who is able stand up, stretch, and now bend over. It’s not too bad at first, is it? After all, we’ve all bent over at various times to pick up something off the floor or talk to a small child. But now, stay bent over and try to look at me. It’s rather awkward, isn’t it? You have to use muscles in your neck that you aren’t used to using. And it may be difficult to see over the person in front of you. Now try to move around. Move down your pew, into the aisles. Try to find a seat somewhere else in the room. It gets tiring trying to hold your head up – you may find that you simply must let yourself look downward instead. Now you only have the feet and legs of others to guide you as you try to move around. Try to return to your own seat. Is it hard to find your way? Do you find yourself running into other people? Is your back tired yet? Are you ready to stand up straight? You may do so!
The bent over woman Luke tells us about, though, wasn’t able to stand up when her back grew tired. For eighteen years she had lived in a crippled body – bent over for a reason we are not given and unable to stand up. I imagine that she’s grown accustomed to it in some ways – finding her way by watching the feet of others, trying to avoid the dirty, dusty, sandaled feet that were everywhere. Speaking with the other women at the well without ever making eye contact. Sitting in the sanctity of her home only to find her seat offered little comfort to the crippled contours of her back.
She probably expected little more from her life that day in the synagogue. As always, she attended, observing the Sabbath as she had been taught. She had started to work her way to the back with the other women, hoping to hear at least some of what was spoken by the Rabbis in the front. She had grown use to the disdain that was clear from bodies that turned quickly away from her as she made her way to her seat. As a woman, she was already considered no more than property. And in her condition, she was simply damaged goods. It didn’t help that the teaching of the Law suggested that she was to blame for the awkward turns her body made. She knew as any good Jew of the time did, that God punishes those who sin. Therefore, since she was cripppled, she must have committed some terrible sin. But she couldn’t imagine what sin was so terrible to result in eighteen years of crippling pain. And eighteen years of fervent prayer had brought her no closer to an answer.
Until that day in the synagogue. She was on her way to a seat when the room grew strangely quiet and she was the only one moving. She strained to see what was going on and as she craned her neck to look she realized that all eyes were one her. She turned around where she was only to find that the man teaching in front – the man she had heard was Jesus – was looking directly at her. Looking at her! And there was none of the disdain in his eyes she had grown accustomed to among the Rabbis. Rather, he called to her and his eyes gently coaxed her forward until she found her bent-self standing directly in front of him. She couldn’t look up any longer. Her head dropped and she looked down at the floor, as was her custom. But that didn’t stop Jesus. “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” And before she had a chance to ask him what he meant – before anyone had a chance to ask him – he placed his hands on her.
He touched her! And she felt an incredible surge electrify her body and there she was – standing straight up! She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. She was standing straight up and looking directly into the eyes of this man. This man she had heard was sent by God. And before she could stop to think she danced and sang praises to her God, the God of Abraham and Sarah, the God who had sent Jesus to her.
Her zeal was not shared by the leader of the synagogue. After all, this was the sabbath and the Holy Scripture required that the sabbath be kept – that no work be done. “Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall be put to death.” (Exodus 31:15) And the Mishna was replete with rules about exactly what did and did not constitute work. Everyone knew, for example, that untying one’s livestock so it could get a drink of water was not work. Healing was work. End of story.
And so the synagogue leader tries to convince the crowd of this – a crowd that had already broken ranks and had begun to join this woman in praising God. “No, no, no. There are six days on which work ought to be done – come and be healed then – not on the sabbath day.” And you can almost see him trying to shoo the people back to their places – to restore order to the day. But before he can regain control, Jesus breaks in. “You hypocrites! You loose your ox on the sabbath day so it can go for water. And yet, when I loose the chains Satan has laid on this daughter of Abraham you complain that I am breaking the sabbath?
And when put in such a light, the leader could make no response.
But the crowds did. They rejoiced at all the wonderful things that Jesus was doing.
And we too can rejoice. Because this story isn’t just about a healing. And it isn’t simply about reclaiming the real meaning of the sabbath, although recognizing and attending to human need is a very important part of sabbath to Jesus. No, this story is about the radical way Jesus interacted with one of the most marginalized people of his day – a woman – and the freedom implied by his actions.
The story begins in the middle of Jesus teaching in the synagogue on the sabbath. Jesus sees the woman and calls her over to him. It sounds simple enough until we consider that in calling her over, Jesus has invited the woman into what would be the man’s area of the synagogue. The women were relegated to the back since it wasn’t considered important for them to learn of scripture or Torah. In inviting the woman forward, Jesus challenges this traditional belief that only men have access to God.
Jesus then tells the woman that she is free from her infirmity. He doesn’t tell the woman she is “healed.” Rather, Jesus tells her she is “set free.” One has the sense, as Jesus describes later, that the bonds that have held her back no longer have the power to do so. But Jesus doesn’t stop with words; Jesus touches her. For a man to speak or touch a woman to whom he is not related was simply taboo in that society. So in saying she is set free and in touching her, Jesus not only frees her from her broken body, but from the societal bondage attendant to being female.
And then when the synagogue ruler begins to pick on this woman’s healing, Jesus advocates not only for his actions, but for the woman as well. He calls her a “Daughter of Abraham,” a name unique to this story. This name had power. While men were sometimes referred to as a “Son of Abraham,” women were not identified by their relationship to their ancestor Abraham. When Jesus named her in this manner, he changed her status. The name “Daughter of Abraham” not only recognized the woman as a human being rather than property, but was a child of God as well.
Jesus also challenged the belief system that charges this woman was ill because of some sin she committed. He referred to her illness not as a sickness, but as something “Satan” has bound her with. Her illness is unrelated to anything she has done. She is set free from the burden of feeling guilt for her crippled state.
This is good news! And the crowd recognized it as such, for unlike many situations Jesus found himself in, we are told that “the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things he was doing.”
Many of you know that there is a Ken Medema song called “Eye to Eye” which depicts this story in song and for me, helps communicate this good news. In this song, after Jesus puts the synagogue leaders in their place, Medema describes the scene that follows in one mighty crescendo.
Then the amens came, they came from all around.
And the angry red-faced rulers of the synagogue were put down.
And the blind and the lame who had lost all hope;
And the women and the children who had lost all hope;
Rose like a mighty army to cheer,
For God had given hope
God had given hope
God had given hope that Sabbath day.
It took me over 10 years before I could sing along with Medema in this section without crying. Maybe it was because I, too, had lost all hope. I was bent over by the weight of being sexually and emotionally abused as a child. I had been made to believe that I had somehow sinned. I felt ashamed and guilt-ridden and worthless. But in singing this story, I could almost believe that I, too, could be set free from my bondage.
And I have been set free – through therapy, friends, and a God that can make the crooked straight. Oh, there are still a few links of chain that clank about my ankles from time to time, reminding me of what has been broken that still needs to be shaken off. But through the story of this woman who was healed after being bent over for 18 years, through Jesus the Christ who has come to heal each of us, I am no longer bound by the abuse that once strangled me.
But so many women around the world are still bound up and bent over by violent forces in this world. Just this week in the news I was reminded that raping women was being used as a tool of war in Darfur. Nothing new in that – we can read about women being offered up for rape in the Hebrew scriptures. What is troubling is that is still going on today. Another news story was of 18 women brutally murdered in a small town in Israel over the last seven years. They were not murdered by an unknown serial killer. Rather, these women were killed by family members, so-called “honor killing” to protect the family name from such heinous “crimes” as being the victim of rape, marrying outside the clan or wearing revealing clothing.
As Amnesty International put it when it launched a 2004 global campaign to stop violence against women, “From the battlefield to the bedroom women are at risk.”
But violence is not the only force bending women down. Cultural forces are at work daily. There is the beauty industry with cosmetic surgery, fashion clothing, obsessive dieting – all trying to bend women to a form that may not be their own. Economic forces are at work, with women still making less than three-quarters of what their male counterparts make in similar jobs.
But there is hope. Because we cling to the radical hope given by God through Jesus on that Sabbath day. For the woman who was set free from her crippling pain. For the people who had been beaten down by crushing sabbath rules. For the women who were not told that they were children of Abraham – children of God. For the infirm and disabled who no longer had to bear the burden of shame for their illness. For the children who even the disciples thought were too unimportant for a man like Jesus.
In recalling the radical actions of Jesus on that Sabbath day, God has given us hope. For all of us who are bent over by burdens that seem too great to bear. For all of us who claim to follow Christ, who are being called to break the forces that seek to oppress women and others marginalized by society or made to feel worthless before God. Persons living with mental illness or living in poverty. Persons living with a disability or an addiction. Persons who are gay or lesbian.
How will we allow God to touch us in a way that sets us free from that which binds us? How will we allow God to work through us in a way that breaks down the systemic evil inherent in our world. For we worship a God who destroys the power of evil – the very power of death. Our God has the power to make the crooked straight! Come! Be set free from your infirmity!