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.
For the Greater Good? Luke 13: 10-17
"Immediately she stood up straight and began praising God." She unfurled, a flower grown in 18 years of pain, finally blooming with praise for the one who offered her release. Her life changed in the instant that he saw her. Or, maybe in changed the instant she chose to go to worship at the synagogue. It is unclear from her story if she knew that the teacher and healer would be teaching at her local synagogue that day. While many others seemed to have traveled there specifically to see him and to be healed, her motives for walking in the door that day are never described. Without any other motivation made explicit, it is simplest to assume that she was just going to worship, as was her practice most weeks, if she had the energy. Chronic pain can be exhausting. Imagine if the pain had been too bad that day. Imagine what she would have missed had she been unable to make the walk to worship.
He had been traveling and teaching. Along the way he had picked up 12 disciples, 70 disciples, and possibly thousands of other followers, people who hung on his every word, crowding around him, often making it hard to breathe. He would sometimes go away to a quiet place and pray to recharge. He would often go to Synagogue on the Sabbath, read Torah, and offer up insight with the other men. Today was another one of those days. So many people had showed up: some seeking healing, some just to listen, some to argue. He seemed to butt heads with the Pharisees a lot. They took God's law just as seriously as he did. But, man, did they disagree on how to follow it. He was in the midst of one of these disagreements when he saw the woman. She seemed at home here. It was probably where she attended each week. Neighbors greeted her with affection as she stooped through the door. She was doubled over nearly in half and shuffled stiffly to her seat. He knew that he could help her. He had to do something to help her.
The Torah had been given to God's people to help them. It was a gift... a way to help organize their whole lives in service to God and neighbor. It also helped them form a common cultural identity, something necessary when you are small country surrounded by large, warring empires. Because it was such a foundational part of the lives, and because they wanted to be attentive to what God asked of them, there was a constant conversation (and sometimes argument) about how to live out all aspects of ones lives guided by Torah. We have some record of these ancient conversations, like the snippets of arguments in Gospel of Luke and in a collection of Jewish interpretations called the Mishnah. In fact, that conversation is still going on in Jewish communities. Just in the last 100 years, observant Jewish leaders have had serious conversations about whether Jello is acceptable to eat (it was until the late 1940's... it isn't now), whether or not turning on an electric light is akin to lighting a fire (which is forbidden on the Sabbath), and whether or not Coke is acceptable to drink (it has been since 1935 when Coke changed it's recipe to get rid of a non-kosher ingredient). Conversations about Torah observance have been woven throughout Jewish life for literally thousands of years. We should not be surprised to see Jesus involved in them. He wasn't the only one trying to figure this stuff out.
The woman might have been surprised to find herself in the middle of that argument. Sabbath services in local synagogues had become the primary way that people held communal worship after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonian empire. Though the temple had been rebuilt, the informal services of prayer, scripture-reading, commentary, and almsgiving continued to be important. As one scholar put it, there was only one temple: A synagogue could develop anywhere where there were ten adult men who wanted to make one. The same neighbors, friends, and families who lived near one another likely also worshiped together. This woman walked into synagogue that day, at the very least, prepared to be with people who had known her a long time and to worship God together. She might have expected that an argument about the Torah could happen, especially with the fiery-eyed new teacher in town. I don't think she could have imagine that her health would become the hinge on which the argument turned.
Scholars I read this week noticed something very interesting about this particular encounter. In a gospel full of people speaking to Jesus in hopes of being healed, this woman, who is described has bearing a spirit that has kept her stooped over for 18 years, does not appear to be showing up to ask for healing. She makes no move towards Jesus. She says nothing to or about him. She simply appears in the room with a body contorted in long-felt pain. Jesus notices her, not the other way around. He speaks to her. He calls her over. She doesn't have to do one thing to receive this healing except for to walk his way when he calls. He heals her. Immediately, she stands up straight and begins praising God. Her response likely makes sense to us. It is easy to imagine ourselves doing something similar if, suddenly, the thing that had warped and twisted us for decades was suddenly gone. I imagine that many of think we, too, would stand up straight and praise God. However, there is another response in this story that might make a little less sense to us, the response of the leader. Why is he so mad that Jesus did this amazing thing.
As you may know, certain behaviors are forbidden on the Sabbath. The Sabbath is intended to be a time apart, a time away from many activities of daily life, in order to reconnect with God. Sabbath resets the human-divine relationship. As such, many things considered to be "work," were not permitted to be done on the Sabbath. They could be done on any of the other six days of the week. Just not on this one day, a day set aside for spiritual recalibration. Healing wasn't just an act of mercy. It required work, both on the part of the healing and on the part of the one being healed. Most of the week was dedicated to work. The leader of the synagogue would have likely argued that the prohibitions against work on the Sabbath gave all parties some rest and reconnection time. When you have so much time for work, like, literally 85% of your time is time for work, why would you need to take away time this short time we have for the Sabbath? If this wandering teacher would have just had enough respect to wait for one day, he could have healed the woman tomorrow. But, no, he had to go against our practice and heal her today. Has he no respect for God?
The roving teacher knows Torah well, and probably expected the leader of the synagogue to he annoyed when he ignored standard healing protocol. The teacher was prepared to respond the leader's critique. He did so out of deep respect for their shared religious tradition. He pointed out that one kind of work is readily accepted on Sabbath: works of mercy. He named a work of mercy that any of these farmers and small town folks would recognize. On Sabbath days, any of them who owned an ox or a donkey would make sure that it had food or water. Any of them would have unbound an animal and let it drink and eat. Why on earth, then, would they object to unbinding this woman from the Spirit that has twisted her up for 18 years? In their quest to honor God, Jesus said that they emphasized the wrong thing. Yes, some time is set aside for work and some time for Sabbath, but as Dr. King said, "The time is always right to do right." God is always honored in acts of mercy. God is always honored in liberation. God is always honored when those who have been bound up are finally set free, even if the unbinding upsets our understanding of what right religion is.
The woman walked into the synagogue bound to her community, bound to God, and bound up by a spirit that was breaking her. She would walk out of the synagogue, upright, a visible testament to Jesus' insistence that mercy is God's primary concern and so should it be ours. I think the question with which we will walk out of here today is how are we making sure mercy is our primary concern, too? How are we making sure that the religious life we construct for ourselves and with one another leaves room for us to witness grace in unexpected places? Are we ready for Jesus to walk in and upset all the notions that we have about what it means to be faithful? Because, that's kind of what Jesus does.... surprise us with grace and mercy and ask us to go and do the same. I bet some of you have felt that. I bet some of you know what it means to stand up straight after years of being bound up. I know that you know what it means to praise God. Let's work together to make sure that more people have to opportunity to have that feeling.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources while writing this sermon:
David Schnasa Jacobsen: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2956
Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=4699
Fred Craddock, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).
Gastropod Podcast, "Keeping Kosher: When Jewish Law Met Processed Food": https://gastropod.com/keeping-kosher/
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.