One of my favorite gospel stories is Jesus’ cure of the bent woman on the Sabbath. It is found in Luke 13:10-17. The story is brief, but it speaks volumes about freedom and compassion and how we partner with God in the plan of salvation.
The story begins with this sentence: Jesus was teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath. I guess you could say that Jesus is a “guest speaker.” He’s pretty popular right now so he’s probably drawn a sizable crowd. The synagogue leader would be pleased by the turnout. After all, the size of a congregation reflects well on the leader of the synagogue, church, or mosque, right?
Then Luke tells us a woman was there. For eighteen years she had been crippled by a spirit. She was bent over, completely incapable of standing erect. We don’t know the woman’s name. I wonder, did the other people know her name? Was she Elizabeth or Rachel to them? Or did they know her simply as the “bent woman” or “the cripple.” Don’t we sometimes reduce people to a label: the widow, the homeless man, the wild teenager, the flaming liberal, the old fogy, the drunk, the pervert? What was the nature of her infirmity? Osteoarthritis? Tuberculosis of the spine? An injury due to some devastating trauma? The phrase “crippled by a spirit” doesn’t necessarily imply some sort of demonic possession. All kinds of “spirits” can cripple us. We might ask: what bends me over? My job, worries, the loss of a loved one, fears for the future, loneliness, ill health, the aging process?
Jesus sees the woman. He notices her. Now remember, in the synagogue in those days, the men were in the front and the women were in the back. Complete segregation. Yet, Jesus looks past all the men and focuses on this woman among all the other women. I suspect one or more of those women must have tended to her. How else would she have been able to get to the synagogue in the first place?
And what does Jesus do? He calls to her. Did he know her name? How did she know he was calling her and not someone else? She was so bent over she couldn’t even see Jesus. In fact, she didn’t see anyone anymore. All she saw were peoples’ feet! Yet, somehow she knew he was calling her. And she went to him. This means she had to shuffle through all those men to get to Jesus. What courage this took! What humility too—for all eyes were now upon her! And when you are self-conscious because of your looks, the last thing you want is to be the center of attention.
Then Jesus lays his hands upon her and says, Woman, you are set free of your infirmity. He touches her despite the cultural restrictions of his day that would frown upon this action. His words and touch give her not power or prestige, but freedom! And dignity! She slowly begins to stand up straight. For the first time in years she is looking someone in the face. And the face is Jesus’. And what is the first thing she does with her new-found freedom? She gives glory to God! Despite her years of suffering, she knows how to give thanks to God!
We know what happens next. The people are amazed at what they have just witnessed. But the leader of the synagogue is indignant that Jesus had cured on the Sabbath. But he doesn’t confront Jesus directly. Instead he scolds the woman and his congregation: “There are six days when work should be done. Come on those days to be cured, not on the Sabbath day.” In other words, when faced with a mystery he cannot explain, he resorts to enforcing the rules—which he knows so well: “You picked the wrong day… Come back during regular office hours!” We might ask ourselves, do we ever let the inexplicable restrict our compassion?
Jesus gets angry. He yells: Hypocrites! And he reveals the inanity of the leader’s remark. Common sense says you untie your ox or ass on the Sabbath and lead it to water. This daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound for eighteen years now, ought she not to have been set free on the Sabbath day from this bondage? This woman is a Daughter of Abraham. She is one of us. She is a valuable member of the faith community. She has a role to play in God’s plan of salvation.
Jesus restores the woman’s dignity. He sets her free. He pronounces her beautiful. Here is a song by MercyMe entitled “Beautiful.” May we hear Jesus say these words to us today. And may we repeat them to someone who needs to hear them today.
What touches you about this gospel story?
Who or what bends you over? Who or what raises you up?
PS: My sister, Mary Ann Hartman, age 77, passed away last Saturday. She was the mother of five, a widow, a lover of nature, and an exceptionally kind and gentle woman of faith. She learned on the day before Thanksgiving that she had cancer. She had surgery but decided to discontinue any treatment. “It’s all in God’s hands,” she said. “And I’m ready to die.” She died a few days later with her family at her bedside. Someday I’ll write a blog about Mary Ann, my only sister and my best friend. Please keep her and our family in your prayers. Thank you!