Jesus heals a woman on the sabbath, offering her a new beginning for her life. When challenged by a narrow reading of the sabbath command, Jesus responds by expanding “sabbath work” to include setting people free from bondage.
10Now [Jesus] 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 text is an interruption. Jesus was teaching in the synagogues. A crowd had gathered around him. This was important work. Jesus had important lessons and preaching to do. And then Jesus notices a woman who was bent over. I think you can all picture this, we know men and women suffering from osteoporosis and arthritis, whose shoulders slowly slide, and not much is to be done. This is not a flashy illness, or something that stands out. It’s not a broken leg, or leprosy. Just the hunched shoulders of a woman who now struggles daily just to look people in the eyes.
And Jesus calls her over. She doesn’t come to him. He notices her. Notices what’s happening there. And interrupts himself and his work to pay attention to her needs. She is the marginalized and invisible, and she would have just shuffled right on through without Jesus’ work to notice her, attend to her, and free her. Notice he doesn’t say healed – Jesus declares, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”
This is directly in line with Jesus’ declaration of his mission, according to the Gospel of Luke, when he says, in the synagogue, in chapter 4, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor”.
This theme occurs again and again in Luke. Jesus offers and gives Freedom from what binds you, and keeps you from living the life God intended for you. And Luke links the celebration and tradition of a Sabbath day, not with God resting after 7 days of creation, but with the story of the Exodus – God liberating God’s people from slavery. The sabbath is most importantly about God’s liberating work for a people in bondage. It’s not just about taking a day off, but taking a day to remember God’s gift of freedom to the people. Slaves don’t get a day off.
This moment, this setting free, this one woman, in this one synagogue. – This is a glimpse of God’s reign breaking into the present world. And this episode does not really end with verse 17. Jesus continues to explain his actions: “He said therefore, ‘What is the kingdom of God like?” The kingdom of God is expansive, growing freedom.
It is like a tiny mustard seed that grows into a tree for sheltering birds, or like yeast that leavens bread for provision and fellowship (Luke 13:19-20). Notice the similarities to the bent-over woman: something seemingly small and insignificant becomes, with God’s loving and transforming power, a vessel to further God’s kingdom. “When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God”. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-21-3/commentary-on-luke-1310-17-4
She stands upright, able to look her community in the eye again, and gives glory to God. Her response to being unburdened is joy and the community could join in that but first there’s an indignant man. Jesus is accused of working on the sabbath, and thus violating the third commandment. But the accusing leader of the synagogue uses language like one would use to describe the work of a physician: accusing Jesus of curing the poor woman who is unable to stand up straight.
Jesus doesn’t use work language. He uses salvation language: He says that the woman has been “set free.” She is liberated from bondage on the sabbath day. In the original language, these are words about salvation and even resurrection, not about the mundane work that maybe provides a living, but not true life. This what sabbath is about: freedom from the bondage that keeps us from being the people God made us to be.
You would think this would cause the religious leaders to rejoice – to join in that praise – to gather around this woman and to lift her up. But the reaction is indignant resentment. How dare you Jesus. How dare you violate a law. You know the sabbath means no work, and you just went right on ahead with this display. It’s not that the crowd reacted like this – it was one guy. One voice, demanding respect for tradition, appropriate behavior decorum – in the synagogue on the sabbath.
IN fact, what Jesus does is places a socially expendable, physically disabled, spiritually vulnerable woman at the center of the tradition. Jesus allows the woman’s need to interrupt his own sermon and welcomes her praise song even though it upends the synagogue’s order of service.” (Debie Thomas). Jesus centers this woman and her situation.
The phrase de-center your self sounds woke and political to some today. But it is actually Biblical. To look at our neighbors needs first. To take Isaiah seriously. To take our neighbors’ experience seriously; especially if it is someone coming from the margins. Whose experience is different that our own – Whom society is not built for – Someone who may not have access, or ability to participate in what we are participating in – Someone who is hungry, thirsty, homeless, or broken.
Isaiah points the way for the people of God to de-center themselves, especially on the Sabbath: if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs. if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted – that is life-giving, freedom declaring work that God calls us too.
This is the position that will heal your community, this is the position that will rebuild your ancient ruins. It’s not every person for themselves. It is every person looking to the welfare and freedom of their neighbor. Why is this so hard for us? This is literally what the Bible is about. We want to turn it into some moralistic rule book of law – when it is in fact the stories of God’s people learning the same lessons over and over again. As Civil Rights and women’s rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer preached in the 1960’s:
“Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”
Is it so hard for us to be interrupted? Is it so hard to believe that our needs will be met if we look to our neighbors needs first? To be aware of God’s kingdom breaking into the world when we take God’s gift of sabbath and use it. Not to point fingers at the stores that are open, not to just go to our church and think holy thoughts, not even to relax and watch football – but to use our gift of time in a way that is life-giving and liberating and rejoicing at work God is doing.
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