August 25, 2013
I anticipate pain. That sounds odd, I know, but I do. I anticipate pain. The way that anticipation manifests itself is that I keep some form of pain relief nearby at all times. At home I have aspirin, non-aspirin, extra strength, nighttime, 12 hour relief, 6 hour relief. I have both pills and an effervescent pain med – the kind you put in a glass of water and drink very, very quickly because it tastes very, very bad. I keep some kind of pain med in my nightstand, in my desk at work, in my purse; and the other day when I was going through my car, I found a sample of Ibuprofen in the glove compartment. Like I said, I anticipate pain.
That’s because the pain I deal with the most is headache pain. I get migraine headaches. My migraines feel like there’s a knife stabbing you repeatedly over one eye. Adding to the pain in my head is pain in my neck and shoulders. Declaring it’s not fun is an understatement. On rare occasions I’ve experienced the aura that comes with a migraine but no pain. But most of the time a migraine for me means relentless pain for about three days. Three days that while I’m in the midst of them, feel like an eternity.
If three days of a migraine feels like an eternity, I can’t begin to imagine how 18 years must have felt. That’s how long the woman in this passage from Luke’s gospel had been bent over, unable to stand up straight. The scripture doesn’t tell us specifically that the woman was in pain, but surely staying stooped over, crippled, unable to straighten, must have been painful. Whatever the physical illness may have been that bound this woman; we learn only that a spirit has kept her bent over for close to two decades. 18 years of pain.
There’s also nothing in the text to indicate that she came to the synagogue looking for healing on that day. She does not seek Jesus out. She does not beg him to heal her. There are no concerned friends or family members who intercede with Jesus on her behalf. Perhaps she had heard of him and the healings he had been performing, but if we go strictly by the text we only read that Jesus sees her. Jesus is teaching when he sees this woman, so stooped I suspect it hurt just to look at her. Jesus calls her over and proclaims that she is set free from her ailment. He lays his hands on her and immediately she stands up straight. Her back, crooked and bent for 18 years, is now straight.
This is what we know. She came to the synagogue and Jesus noticed her. He saw her in great need of healing. Jesus reached out to her. He called out to her. He healed her. But the leader of the synagogue is outraged. The text tells us that he is indignant that Jesus has cured this woman on the Sabbath. The Law was clear – healing on the Sabbath could only happen in critical, emergency situations. What was critical about this woman’s situation? She was bent over for 18 years! What difference would one more day make? Even though the leader is furious with Jesus, he doesn’t confront him directly. Instead he turns to the worshippers and chastises them.
“There are six other days of the week. Come to be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.”
You didn’t mess with the Sabbath. The Law was clear, specific as to what could happen on the Sabbath and what could not. A non-urgent healing that could have happened on any other day did not qualify. There’s no doubt that Jesus would have known this. Yet Jesus chose to help the woman.
When the Synagogue leader expresses his disapproval to the crowds over what has just happened, Jesus does not hesitate in his reply. His argument moves from the lesser to the greater.
“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 who Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?”
If you’re willing to unbind your animals on the Sabbath, then why not set this woman free as well? Isn’t this the right response to her suffering, whether it happens on the Sabbath or any other day of the week?
As so often happened, at Jesus’ words all of his opponents, his naysayers were put to shame. The entire crowd gathered there rejoiced at what Jesus was doing. This was not the first time Jesus butted heads with the religious professionals over what should and shouldn’t happen on the Sabbath. He hadn’t hesitated to heal on the Sabbath in other instances. His disciples had been seen gathering food on the Sabbath. I know that some exegetes of this will try to make the case that Jesus didn’t care too much about the Law. Jesus stated that with his coming, the Law had been fulfilled. Yet I’m not convinced that this is about Jesus not caring about the Law. I think Jesus did care about the Law. He cared about its intent, just as he cared about the intent of Sabbath.
When I was growing up the Sabbath was a day when a lot of things were not supposed to happen. I’m old enough to remember Blue Laws – civic laws that restricted stores and other places of business from being open on Sundays. My parents lived under much stricter restrictions about Sabbath than I did. The rule their parents had for the Sabbath were even stricter. And so it went for each generation. I remember reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s description of the Sabbath when she was a little girl and thinking, “Boy! Am I glad I don’t have it so hard!” Our understanding of the Sabbath was much like this Synagogue leader’s. There were strict rules about what could and could not be done. But what was the intent of the Sabbath? It was a day to rest. When the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt, they were slaves. If the master expected them to work seven days a week, 24 hours a day, they did. There was no such thing as downtime, weekends, leisure, or rest and relaxation. When God gave them the Sabbath it was a gift. It was a gift of time. It was a gift of rest. The restrictions about what could and could not be done were not meant as punishment, but about keeping away the distractions that kept that rest from happening. The Sabbath was a day given by God to enjoy God and all of the good things of and from God.
Jesus understood that intent. He also knew that the religious leaders and the people they led no longer did. Just as he modeled what it meant to be in relationship with God and one another on every other day of the week, he also modeled that relationship, that community on the Sabbath. God intended the Sabbath day for rest, for renewal, for relationship. But how can it be a day of rest for a woman who has suffered for so long? How can their relationship with God and with one another be well and whole when one of them is so obviously broken?
When Jesus healed the woman, he didn’t set aside the Law. Instead he saw past the codification of the Law that had blinded the people to what God really wanted. He saw the woman with compassion, and with justice. Wasn’t this woman a captive? Wasn’t she bound by a spirit that held her down, literally, for 18 years? When Jesus healed her, he set her free. He released her just as he promised he would release all those held captive. It seems to me that not only did he straighten her back Jesus gave her new sight as well.
If you were to constantly live in a stooped position, what would be in your line of vision? The hard ground. The feet of other people. Looking up at the world around you would have been nearly impossible. When Jesus straightened her back, he also gave her new sight. She could now see the world in a way that had been closed off to her for 18 years. No wonder she praised God. Not only was she set free, she was also able to see all of God’s creation once more. Jesus set her free. He gave her new eyes.
I think he gave the crowd new eyes as well. I wonder if that’s the crux of this passage. It’s not just about what should or shouldn’t be done on the Sabbath day. It’s about being set free to see God and the Sabbath and one another with new eyes.
Jesus did not set the people free from God’s Law. He set them free from a skewed belief that compassion was restricted to only certain days of the week. He set them free from restrictions that hindered their relationship with God and one another. He set them free from the idea that the Sabbath was just a day of do’s and don’ts, rather than a gift from God. Jesus set them free and gave them new vision to see that God’s love was more than just a nice idea, but a reality that he came to live fully and lead them in living it as well. On that Sabbath day he set them free.
How do we need to be set free? Is our time together in this place a means of liberation, or is it another way to keep our eyes closed? Certainly I hope it’s the former rather than the latter. But what Jesus exemplified that day was that showing compassion, unbinding the captive, opening the eyes of the blind could and should happen whenever the need arises. And just as he called the disciples and any others who would follow, he calls us to be a part of that work. Not only are we set free, we are called to liberate others. May we lead that work of liberation. May we be set free, so that we may do the same for all of God’s children. Let those same children say, “Amen.”