Jeremiah 1:4-10; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17
Bent double. For 18 years. Unable to stand up straight. Relegated to looking down at the ground, at others’ feet. Eye contact denied. The dignity of seeing another face to face impossible.
This woman who entered the synagogue that day and discovered, or was discovered by, Jesus, sits in worship throughout the ages. The elderly woman dismissed due to her age and creeping memory loss. The homeless person who entered the service late, sat in the back row, and left before the benediction. The young mother nodding off in the third pew, exhausted from working two minimum wage jobs while raising her children. The long-time member with bruises hidden by fine clothes, feeling trapped and afraid in an abusive relationship. The many with #MeToo stories too painful to voice. Every week in virtually all of our sanctuaries, there are those bent in half by the burdens they bring to worship; outside the church doors, we can find countless more like them in our communities and in our troubled world.
The miracle of this Luke text is multivalent. Yes, the physical cure, the healing defines the bodily transformation. But before Jesus proclaims, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment,” the first miracle of being seen takes place. Jesus saw her. Jesus saw her and called her over. I suspect she’d been coming to that synagogue for years and years, perhaps before she was crippled by that spirit of infirmity of body, mind or soul. I imagine those around her grew oblivious to her painful posture. I would bet, most of the time, she went unnoticed, like so many others folded in half by the weight they bear in this world.
The miracle of this story is not only physical healing, it is communal seeing. Jesus sees the woman, calls her, frees her of her heavy burdens and, lo and behold, then the leader of that faith community noticed her then too. The leader of the synagogue, incensed at Jesus’ action on the Sabbath, calls to the crowd, repeatedly, “There are six days on which work ought be done; come on those days to be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.” Is that leader chiding Jesus or the woman or both? Regardless, now all of those gathered see the woman previously disregarded and destined to her stooped-over status. She can no longer be ignored.
The miracle of being regarded continues as Jesus teaches the leader and all the other worshippers, too. This woman, this one unable to stand tall, is valued by and valuable to none other than God. This woman, this one who’s been told over and over to come another day, to pay attention to the hours the social services office is open, to follow the rules and fill out the forms and go through all the hoops put in place by those who’ve never needed SNAP benefits or help with an electric bill, this woman Jesus says is not only beloved by God, but is a member of the very family that tells her she shouldn’t show up so needy on such a sacred day as the Sabbath.
Jesus sees the woman. Calls her over. Lifts the heavy burdens that bend her in half. Declares she is not just a child of God, but a daughter of Abraham. Then he takes to task her congregational family members who have too long ignored her need and failed to acknowledge her humanity.
Jesus teaches those gathered, the leader included, that those who are stooped over, weighed down, bent double, should be seen, sought out, unencumbered and welcomed into the family. Jesus teaches all of us that enabling healing and wholeness of people is of far greater importance that getting the ox out of the ditch so that business can continue unthwarted. Jesus reveals God’s will that no one is to be relegated to a subservient stature or status in the household of God.
Two key words in this passage are worth noting. First,sunkuptō,to bend, to be bent over, to be bowed together, occurs only here in the New Testament. This woman suffers because she is bent double under a burden. Earlier, in verse 11, Luke writes that she has had a disabling spirit for 18 years. Her suffering stems from not only a debilitated body but from a broken spirit as well. Perhaps this woman in Luke felt like the mother who spoke on “Morning Edition” this morning. Describing her fear that changes in the so-called “public charge” immigration policy will impact Medicaid for her disabled child, the mother said, “To be honest, I feel terrible. I feel powerless.” The woman in the synagogue that day needed more than a cure, she needed relief from despair, hope that her circumstances and those of her children could, and would, change.
This is further evidenced by a second word, anakuptō,to straighten up to look up, to be cheered. She could not look up; she could not be cheered. Jesus lays hands on her and immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. This word is found in Luke only one other time and that is when Jesus is speaking about the coming of the Son of Man, Luke 21:28, “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” This miracle is about healing, communal regard and divine redemption. All those bent double have cause to stand tall in eager and hopeful anticipation, because the Son of Man brings good news, release, freedom and God’s favor to those so burdened and broken and disregarded that they don’t dare look others in the eye.
This brief story in Luke is a miracle story: a miracle of healing, communal seeing, divine redemption, but also a story of rebuke and correction to all those gathered in the synagogue that day and in sanctuaries this week. Religious rules and rituals, no matter how sacred, are secondary to addressing human suffering in our midst. No matter how long our prayers, how eloquent our preaching, how large our offerings, if we fail to notice those bent double in our congregations, communities and world, if we neglect to ease all that weighs them down, if we forget that Jesus came to bring redemption not just in heaven, but on earth, then we, like that leader, are hypocrites who ultimately will be put to shame.
- Who are those bent double and crippled by forces within and without? Do we notice them? How might we ease their burdens?
- Take a look at other stories of Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath. What similarities or differences do you notice?
- What religious rituals or rules do we put before caring for people?
- Have you ever felt bent in half and unable to stand tall? What helped unburden you?
- Read John 8:2-10. Do you see any relationship between this story in John and the one for this Sunday from Luke?
- How can we observe the Sabbath commandment in ways that are pleasing to God?
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