Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. A woman was there who had been disabled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and couldn’t stand up straight. When he saw her, Jesus called her to him and said, “Woman, you are set free from your sickness.” He placed his hands on her and she straightened up at once and praised God.
The synagogue leader, incensed that Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, responded, “There are six days during which work is permitted. Come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath day.”
The Lord replied, “Hypocrites! Don’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from its stall and lead it out to get a drink? Then isn’t it necessary that this woman, a daughter of Abraham, bound by Satan for eighteen long years, be set free from her bondage on the Sabbath day?” When he said these things, all his opponents were put to shame, but all those in the crowd rejoiced at all the extraordinary things he was doing.
August 20-21, 2016
“Bent Out of Shape”
If you have watched any of the Olympics the past two weeks on T.V., at every commercial break and at the beginning and ending of the daily programming, you’ve seen the iconic statue of “Christ the Redeemer” looking over the city of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
The statue is located at the peak of a 2,300 foot mountain and is listed as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. It was created by a French sculptor and construction took nine years. The statue was completed in 1931 at the cost of a quarter of a million dollars in U.S. currency at the time. The monument is 98 feet tall with the arms of Christ stretching 92 feet wide. By comparison, it is almost two-thirds the height of the Statue of Liberty.
I was reading an article about the statue that talked about how the massive image of Christ overlooks the entire city including some of the poorest villages in Brazil, known as Favelas or slums. Still, the image of Christ offers many hope. One man being interviewed said that the poverty and violence in his village weighs heavy on the lives and spirits of the people who live there. But, he said, when people look up and see the image of Christ looming over their village, many stand taller with hope.
When asked about all the Olympic tourists making their way up the mountain to see the statue and take their pictures, the man simply said, “They have to go through us to get to him.”
In this week’s gospel, Jesus cares for a woman who has been in crippling bondage for 18 years. It may have been a back problem, or it may have been the crippling bondage of grief or guilt or shame, or just the burdens of life. All we know is that the Scripture says, “She was bent over and couldn’t stand up straight.”
After hearing the difficult and startling words credited to Jesus in Luke’s gospel last week, in which Jesus said he came to bring fire to the earth; and not peace but division; I welcome this story of Jesus returning to action as a healer.
The author of Luke is the only Gospel writer who records this event in the life of Christ.
In this story, the woman does not approach Jesus; no one in the crowd pointed her out to Jesus or called his attention to her condition. The woman makes no request for healing and reveals no faith in Jesus. She simply comes to worship and finds herself in Jesus’ presence and that leads to healing and restored life. Her response is to stand up straight and begin praising God.
In discussing this Gospel passage with a group of women in church, one pastor asked the question, “What could have kept this woman bent over like this for nearly two decades?”
In some of the more light-hearted responses, one woman said, “Her children. Eighteen years is the minimum requirement for accepting the responsibility of being a parent.” This woman reported that when her first child was born, she was 5 foot 8 inches tall and had coal black hair. By the time her daughter graduated from college she was 5 foot 3 and had gray hair. The stress of raising children can wear you down, she said.
But in all seriousness, can you imagine what it would be like to be bent over to the extent that you were staring at the ground. For 18 years this woman has strained to feel the sun, or see the sky, the stars, and even people’s faces. For 18 years she has been looking down at the dusty road, watching the rhythm of sandals shuffling by her. She might be able to look slightly ahead, but never upward without difficulty. For 18 years her world has been one of turning from side to side to see what those who stand upright can see with just a glance.
She would have been one of those people who would be easy to pass by or easy to stare at.
Compassion says we would welcome relief for this woman’s aliment. But, the leader of the synagogue becomes offended that Jesus would heal on the Sabbath and criticizes Jesus for breaking the religious law.
Yet, Jesus insists that the synagogue and the Sabbath are not the only things that are holy and sacred…so is this woman’s life. Jesus believed that this woman’s life had purpose and this sense of purpose would give her hope and healing.
Then in a moment that makes us want to cheer, Jesus turns to his critics and points out the glaring hypocrisy in the lives of those in charge. He says, “You hypocrites! Don’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or his donkey from its stall, and lead it out to get a drink? Then isn’t it necessary that this woman…be set free from her bondage on the Sabbath day?”
Jesus points out that the leaders and rulers of the synagogue allow a bound or tethered animal to be set free for watering on the Sabbath, but they forbid this woman, who has been bound by a crippling spirit for 18 years, from being set free on the Sabbath.
Our Gospel story demonstrates that something was deeply wrong in the world and the culture in which Jesus lived. Laws were being misused or misinterpreted, and keeping the most vulnerable, in this case a woman, in misery. So, this is a powerful story about the tension between law and grace…between rules and healing.
And of course we can turn to laws of our own time and see a similar predicament. As complicated and convoluted as many laws and policies are at the present time, Jesus’ response in this Gospel story is powerful in its simplicity. For Jesus this was no abstract law or policy issue. Here was a real woman in real need. Jesus stopped what he was doing and acted. For Jesus, the rule book was secondary to compassion and good sense.
Then, he reminds his accusers that what is at stake is a real human being among them…a child of God…a person of worth…someone with a life, and a story. Jesus showed that the issue at hand cannot be put off by requiring that those in need or those who are different than the majority, should know the rules and come back during office hours.
The leader of the synagogue got hung up on the rules. He seems to be more bent out of shape than the bent and crippled woman. He and the religious institution are bent out of shape under the weight of their own rules. Jesus was the one who modeled the transforming presence of God in real life and that put him at odds with the authorities and religious gatekeepers of his day.
In writing about this Scripture in his book, “Engaging the Powers,” Walter Wink suggests that Jesus’ action represented a revolution happening in eight short verses.
In the midst of a highly patriarchal culture, Jesus breaks at least five strict cultural and religious rules in our Gospel story today:
First, Jesus speaks to the woman in the synagogue. In Jewish society, men did not speak to women in public.
Second, Jesus touches the woman by laying his hands on her, which violates the holiness code.
Third, Jesus calls the woman a “daughter of Abraham.” This is counter-cultural because it was believed that women were saved only through the men in their life. To call her a daughter of Abraham is to give her equal standing before God.
Fourth, Jesus heals on the Sabbath. On this holy day, Jesus undertakes a holy work. In doing this he demonstrates God’s compassion for people over rules. This also reclaims the Sabbath as a day to celebrate God’s goodness and grace.
And finally, Jesus challenges the ancient belief that the woman’s ailment is a direct punishment from God for sin. Jesus acknowledges that she has an ailment, but not because it was God’s will, but because there is difficulty, and heartache in the world.
And perhaps most amazing…Jesus did all this with a few words and a simple touch of compassion.
In today’s world, many people live with a crippled or broken spirit because of any number of physical, emotional or spiritual reasons.
What are the things that cripple or break your spirit?
Sometimes a spirit of unworthiness bogs us down and cripples us. We become burdened with “If only” statements. We say things like, “If only I was…”; or “If only I could…” Then you fill in the blank.
Sometimes we are broken with the “Why me?” syndrome when it seems that difficult or tragic things just keep happening to us.
Sometimes fear is the spirit that bends us out of shape. We don’t want to fail or look foolish or inadequate.
Sometimes it is unresolved or outright anger that cripples us.
Sometimes it is a spirit of un-forgiveness that is the reason for our bondage. Perhaps something has happened in our lives where we just can’t bring ourselves to forgive because it is still too fresh, or too painful, or just not what we can do.
Sometimes it is the weight of prejudice, or judgment, or disapproval that holds us in bondage and cripples us.
Sometimes it is physical illness, mental illness, worry, unfaithfulness, addiction, poverty, or hopelessness that keeps our hearts, minds, spirits and bodies crippled and bent by the suffering.
What crippling spirit are we so used to having that we do not even seek healing and those around us assume that it is just part of who we are?
The freedom and healing can often begin to come when we can ask ourselves, how the limitations we experience in life turn us to the power and grace of God? Or simply, where do we see or feel God’s presence in our daily lives?
One of the primary teachings during our Vacation Bible School was having our children name their ‘God sightings’…the places they had seen or felt God’s presence.
It can also be the simple question we ask ourselves at the end of the day…even at the end of a challenging or crippling day…where did I see God today?
Our Gospel story shows us the continual, expanding reach of God’s healing grace. Our Gospel story shows us the power of being in God’s presence and gives us a living picture of what the character and grace of God looks like as revealed in the life and ministry of Jesus.
I invite us to look for God in our daily lives and at the end of the day ask ourselves, “Where did I see God today?” Then as we begin to unbend from that which has bent us out of shape, may our response be praise and thanksgiving to God.
By the grace of God; may it be so for each of us!
Thanks be to God.