10Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. 11A woman who was there had been disabled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and couldn’t stand up straight. 12When he saw her, Jesus called her to him and said, “Woman, you are set free of your sickness.” 13He placed his hands on her and she straightened up at once and praised God.
14The 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.”
15The 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? 16Then 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?” 17When 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.
This is the Word of the Lord
Thanks be to God
In all the religious art I’ve seen displayed in churches and museums, I’ve not once seen a painting of Jesus getting ready in the morning. I’ve never seen him depicted brushing his teeth, or fixing a cup of coffee, or stubbornly hitting the snooze button on his alarm time after time. But along with being fully God, he is also fully human. I’m sure he woke up with morning breath, or a little sore from sleeping wrong. He went through a morning routine similar to what each of us did today. Every seventh day, wherever he was, his morning routine shifted slightly. Rather than preparing for his work of preaching, teaching, and healing, he went to the local synagogue: that’s what a Rabbi does on the Sabbath.
I don’t think Jesus went into the synagogue saying “I’m going to shake things up around here.” I don’t think Jesus woke up that Sabbath morning and thought “I’m going to change the way people think about the law today.” I think Jesus went through that Sabbath morning routine in much the same way he always did. When he got to the synagogue, he began to teach.
Then he saw a woman who was there.
This woman had been disabled by a spirit for eighteen years. During that time, everything about her life was colored by her disability. People looked at her differently, people treated her differently, the synagogue leader changed his behavior around her. She had to alter herself as well, as once simple tasks became increasingly impossible. Her morning routine now was less about preparing for her day and more about coping with the obstacles her disability brought to her. Though every action is difficult and painful work, she is still able to attend her synagogue on the sabbath. After eighteen years, I cannot imagine she went each week expecting that she would be healed. After almost a thousand sabbaths, she just went because that’s what one does.
Then an unfamiliar Rabbi named Jesus called her to him.
Scripture makes no mention of a cane, a crutch, or a walker. It doesn’t indicate if she’s elderly, or if she has any family to help her. Scripture says she was bent over, and couldn’t stand up straight. When he saw her, Jesus called her to him.
Jesus doesn’t walk over to her and lift her up. Neither does he just heal her from a distance. He sees her, and calls her forward. I wonder how far back in the congregation this woman who had been disabled by a spirit for eighteen years sat. I wonder how long it took her bent body to get up. I wonder how many steps it took her to come from her seat in the congregation to where Jesus was teaching. I wonder how much anxious shuffling, and uncomfortable coughing tried to mask the awkward silence as Jesus waited for this woman who had been disabled to come to him. I wonder if the woman felt afraid that this strange Rabbi would call her a sinner, and say that she deserved her disability, that is was a punishment for some hidden wrong.
The tension in the room builds with each painful step, until Jesus says “Woman, you are set free of your sickness.” Then he puts his hands on her and she straightened up at once and praised God.
The synagogue leader, attending to the behind-the-scenes details of worship leadership, probably didn’t notice what was happening at first. His morning routine had already been disrupted by this traveling holy man who was teaching in his synagogue. After all, when this Jesus character taught in the synagogue in Nazareth, they ran him out of town. The synagogue leader may have only known him by his reputation as one who regularly upended the social order. I wonder if he was lost in his own thoughts and worries about how to make the worship service go as smoothly as possible in the presence of this unknown variable of a Rabbi.
Nothing will get people’s attention as quickly as a sudden silence. Lost in his own thoughts, the synagogue leader is caught off guard by the long dramatic pause in the middle of the service, and looks up just in time to see Jesus touch a woman, and she straightened up at once and praised God.
Where the gospel writer saw a miracle, this well-meaning community leader saw the potential for swarms of sick and suffering people to clog the synagogue asking for healing that was beyond his power, and nobody in the community could come and worship the God of their ancestors, who released them from bondage in Egypt.
I wonder if his statement is meant to prevent that situation, to keep the sabbath holy, and not to be a stage for people to call attention to themselves. Either sick people who just want a quick-fix rather than real healing, or people who claim to have special healing powers can quickly take the focus of a worship service off of God and onto themselves. He makes an announcement to try and protect worship, promising to attend to the needs of the sick as best he can during the week, “There are six days on which work is permitted. Come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath day.”
Jesus, on the other hand, will not stand for it. Where the synagogue leader saw a legal snare, or a worship disruption, where the gospel writer sees a miracle, Jesus sees a woman who, after eighteen years, is finally set free from her sickness. So he directs the focus of the moment away from the law, and back to her. “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...be set free from her bondage on the Sabbath day?” This is not about legal loopholes or keeping your worship time in pristine order, this is about a woman, a daughter of Abraham, who has now been set free.
Brilliant scholars and biblical thinkers, when writing about this passage, tend to focus on either Sabbath law or on the culture of the synagogue. Concerning themselves with unpacking what could be discovered in the first sentence of the passage “Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath.” Jesus, on the other hand, seems to pay very little attention to the nuance of the law, and even less to the maintenance of dignified worship. Jesus pays attention to the woman. Christ refuses to look away from this beloved daughter of Abraham, he restores the image of God in her. What’s more, he shows her humanity to the community of faith. “Look!” He says, “This is what humanity looks like, full of praise for God in whose image we are all created! This is what God intends, not bent suffering, but glorifying God and enjoying him forever!”
Because his emphasis on humanity is part of Jesus. It’s easy to look straight to the cross, to see the substitution made on our behalf, or to look straight to the resurrection, and see sin and death defeated for all time. But Jesus also came to reestablish what it means to be human. A human is someone who is cherished by God. That is the root of our identity, not our successes or failures, but the truth that God loves us.
That’s why everything that Christ does in this story calls attention to a woman who is first in bondage, then set free. Jesus restores humanity to people, taking them from their sins and brokenness and completing them, that they may be called Children of the Living God.
This is one of many stories where Jesus points to God by directing focus to the people he meets, and refusing to let them be overlooked any longer. After eighteen years with her disability, I’m sure this daughter of Abraham felt invisible to the faith community. Sure, they may support her financially, but they treat her as a burden, not as a person.
A seminary professor was at the grocery store, and having a rough day. By the time he got to the check out counter, he was already running late to a faculty meeting. He was behind a woman whose payment card had been declined, and who was trying to decide which of her necessary items she would do without this week. He impatiently growled “I’ll pay for it.” And handed the cash to the clerk. As he began patting himself on the back for helping a needy person, he heard the woman say to the clerk with a hollow sound in her voice, “He didn’t even look at me.”
He treated her as a problem to be solved, rather than as a person to be loved. I wonder if that professor felt the same shame as Jesus’s opponents.
The synagogue leader and the seminary professor both focused on the problems with which they were presented. But in so doing, they missed out on the people God had placed in their lives. They stumbled over the obstacles in their morning routine, rather than loving the person they had stumbled across.
Jesus restores humanity to its noble image-of-God origins, rather than the sin-tainted state it had become. Just as he freed the woman in the synagogue from the bonds of her sickness, so he has freed us from the bonds of sin and death. With Christ as the model of what it means to be human, we can see the beauty in a varied and diverse humanity, that irrespective of the differences in our morning routines, we are all created in the image of a God who loves us and intervenes in our lives, even when we cannot see how.