“Healing From The Outside In”
10Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11And 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. 12When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14But 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.” 15But 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? 16And 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?” 17When 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.
This is a very strange time of year, isn’t it? Summer is not quite over, the leaves on the trees are still deep green, the temperatures still hover in the mid 80’s, yet the calendar is relentlessly beckoning us toward September.
For those of us still ruled by the rhythm of the school year, this is the season in which we launch our children back into the classroom. I drove Rachel back to Ohio last week before classes began so she could receive training as a teaching assistant for one of the freshman history classes. I can’t believe she is a senior this year and has supposedly learned enough to be a source of wisdom for new kids entering her college.
David enters sixth grade, which is even more mind-blowing to me. And, I admit, his return to school is weighing heavily on me this year. Because my beloved son is about to enter that swirling whirlwind of toxic hormones otherwise known as middle school. When I was 12, we called it junior high, but from what I’ve observed with Rachel and my nieces, the particularly miserable rite of passage otherwise known as adolescence hasn’t changed much in 40 years. Because David is autistic, his ability to navigate social situations is challenging even on a good day. So I’m not sure how well David will cope in the wild world of middle school where the social hierarchy and terms of engagement can change on a daily, if not hourly basis.
We’ve done our best over the past few years to prepare David for his larger world. David goes to therapy and has access to all kinds of help at school. David is one of the lucky ones; he is a very bright kid and he has parents who love him beyond belief and will do whatever it takes to support him. But no matter his intelligence or how much we support him and love him, David will never, ever be entirely “normal” by conventional standards. We cherish him exactly as he is, but he will never be able to navigate social situations as well as other kids. David will very likely never be healed of his autism. It just is what it is. Worst of all, perhaps, he knows it and sometimes I can see that knowledge weighing him down like a Sponge Bob backpack filled with bricks.
Our story in Luke today is about a woman who is also weighed down by a heavy and burdensome spirit. She is given no name in the text – history has already named her, judged her and labeled her by her appearance. She is the “bent over woman,” identified only by what is wrong with her. As she is introduced to us in the gospel, we get the sense that she too has become accustomed to living life as it is, bent over with her eyes focused on the ground, cut off from the larger community around her. No clue is given in this text about why she is the way she is. We do not know if her physical condition is caused by illness, injury or disease. But she had clearly been hobbled by something or someone somewhere along the line.
Luke tells us it is Sabbath and the people have gathered in the synagogue. Jesus is teaching, the men are gathered in the front of the room, and the women are in the back – a standard practice in 1st century Judaism. And we can imagine the bent over woman quietly making her way to her seat, perhaps coming in a little late so she will not be noticed.
It must have been so difficult for the bent over woman to come to the synagogue. I wonder why she keeps showing up. She must have great faith because synagogue could not have been the most hospitable environment for someone like her. She cannot see Jesus speaking. And with her eyes continually cast down toward her feet, she cannot see the pity-filled faces of the women around her. Or perhaps she has been that way for so long that the other women no longer pity her. Maybe they do not even notice her at all. Perhaps the bent over woman has become invisible to them. After 18 years…well, it just is what it is.
But, for some reason, Jesus notices her. Jesus sees a small female figure way, way back in the synagogue and calls her over to him. He lays hands on her and she is able to stand up straight for the first time in 18 years. And her response is to praise God.
This is no metaphorical healing. It is a healing real enough to get the attention of the people, particularly the ones in charge. This is not the first time Jesus has stepped over the line and pushed the boundaries of Jewish law. Jesus has touched and healed “unclean” people before – lepers, bleeding women, dead people. And Jesus healed on the Sabbath before – the man with the withered hand and man possessed by a demon.
What happens next is what usually happens when Jesus is around. And the reaction of this leader of this synagogue is pretty much the same kind of reaction Jesus has encountered before. The leader is ticked off because Jesus has broken the RULES. There are rules, Jesus. This woman has been crippled for 18 years! You couldn’t wait another day to heal her?
It’s a good question, isn’t it? Why does Jesus keeping breaking perfectly clear rules? And why does he keep breaking rules so publicly? Why does Jesus deliberately walk into situations and do things that will only get him in trouble?
Jesus has been drifting in and out of synagogues throughout much of Luke. In fact, he began his ministry in his hometown synagogue where things also didn’t go so well. But it doesn’t seem as if he’s going into synagogues to find people to heal. He doesn’t need to go to the synagogue to find sick, blind and crippled people. Those people manage to find Jesus just fine on their own everywhere he goes.
When Jesus goes into a synagogue, he seems to have a different sort of healing in mind. Jesus seems to be trying to heal the synagogue itself by calling out its institutional addiction to ritual and religiosity. Especially when that addiction to following rules comes at the expense of vulnerable people way back there in the back row, hiding in the shadows. And if following Sabbath law means ignoring the human condition that comes hobbling into the midst of the community, not only does Jesus want no part of it, he also will call out the leadership clinging to those laws for they are. Hypocrites.
Yup. That’s what Jesus calls them and it certainly seems appropriate. After all, Jesus says, don’t you treat your animals well on the Sabbath? Don’t you untie your ox or your donkey and give it water on this holy day? What better day than the Sabbath to set free this woman, this daughter of Abraham, who has been suffering for eighteen long years, right here in your community, right under your noses?
Now I know what you’re thinking. The leader of the synagogue is a jerk, right? At the very least, he is certainly a poster boy for insensitive church leaders. He certainly doesn’t care about the healing of this daughter of Abraham, does he?
Yet many of us in the church have a similar stake in keeping disorder out of our orderly sanctuaries. Whether we mean to do it or not, we feel the need to keep things safe and tidy and predictable.
Because, after all, once you start making exceptions for this reason or that reason, pretty soon nobody is keeping Sabbath and it’s lost all its meaning. And it’s not just the Sabbath, is it? If you keep making exceptions, doesn’t the 10 commandments become something more like the 10 suggestions?
But notice what Jesus doesn’t do when he is in these holy places of worship. He does not compliment the synagogue leaders for running a tight ship. He does not compliment them on their excellent music or beautiful flowers or flawless preaching. What Jesus does is seek out what is most broken in the community because that is the only way to reveal the brokenness that was so well hidden. The only way to heal that brokenness is to reach out to the margins and pull the hurting, the lonely, the least and the lost back into the center where they can no longer be hidden or ignored. With that single move, Jesus deflates the status quo, but t a fresh new wind begins to blow through the community. Those who were burdened are released. The broken are healed. Community is restored.
This is the way it always seems to go with Jesus. Jesus heals from the outside in, when he stands with the unclean, the undesirables, people at the very edge – to shame everyone else who has a stake in pretending everything is ok as long as they keep the rules. Jesus is not a Sabbath breaker, but he is the One who demonstrates what Sabbath means, who God really is and God’s deepest concerns.
When Jesus does that, the leaders are terrified because suddenly everything they stood for is pulled out from under them. The leaders are terrified because Jesus shows they might be wrong about what matters most in their faith. And worst of all, for this particular synagogue leader, he is shamed in front of his whole congregation. Nobody likes to be shamed in front of other people. That is a very big ouch. Who does this itinerate rabbi think he is?
It is so easy for us to hammer the poor synagogue leader, and all of other pompous, arrogant, and smug guys who react to Jesus with fear and anger. But then again, are we really so different?
It is not that we do not see the one still bent over – the poor, the stranger, the widow and orphan. And it’s not so much about whether or not the healing of the bent over woman can wait until tomorrow.
The question is if we can recognize Jesus right in front of us today, offering us freedom from everything that weighs us down. Freedom from how the world wants to define us. Freedom to live into identities as children of God – all of us, sons and daughters of Abraham.
Do you remember the law about the Sabbath? There are two versions of the ten commandments, remember – and in the version given in Deuteronomy 5 we hear the instructions given to the people regarding Sabbath:
12 Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. 13For six days you shall labour and do all your work. 14But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. 15Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.
Remember you were a slave. Remember that the Lord your God has freed you. Remember that God has given you this day as freedom from the bondage and oppression under which you once lived. Remember that this gift is for everyone. The Sabbath is not about what is restricted. Sabbath is a gift of freedom.
We need rules, we need order, we need a time for this and a time for that. But if rules blind us to the grace of God we are lost. We won’t see how Jesus is working on behalf of those who do not ask for anything anymore because, well, it’s been that way for so long and it is what it is. But when we are on the outside looking in, perhaps even when we are trying our best not to be noticed by anyone at all, we will be called out by Jesus and all at once, there will a word for us that we did not ask for. (1) And that word is not law, but grace pure and simple.
The law is important, but it must always bow to mercy. The law helps us live better, but grace is the source of life itself. Law helps order our world, but grace is what holds the world together. Law keeps us in a safe space within the line, but grace beckons us to push against the margins to see just how far the Word can travel. (2)
For above and beyond all the laws ever received or conceived, the only absolute law that we dare not break is love. That’s what Jesus said. Love God. Love neighbor. Love God by loving your neighbor. That’s all there is. For me. For you. For middle school kids with autism and little old ladies with arthritis. Love is all there is. If we let it, love will heal us. And love is always enough.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
1. Tom Steagald, “Preaching Journal”, Lectionary Homiletics, August 22, 20132. David Lose, “The Law of Love,” Working Preacher, August 18, 2013