August 25, 2019
Here is an earlier version of this sermon, told in first person narrative style.
Hearing just a few verses of the gospel each week, it’s easy to lose track of the bigger story. It seems like ages ago that Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem. And for the past three weeks, he’s been in the same spot, even thought Luke doesn’t tell us exactly where that spot is.
Now we’ve moved into the next phase of the journey. Jesus is still teaching outside the Pharisee’s house where he had dinner back in chapter 11. And he’s telling parables again. He has just told the story of the barren fig tree (13:6-9). In that parable, the landowner gives the gardener one more year to work the soil around the tree so that it can bear fruit. If that doesn’t do any good, the tree will be cut down.
In the verses that follow today’s reading, Jesus will give two analogies for the kingdom of God: the mustard seed growing into a great bush where many birds will roost, and the leaven growing in the lump of dough (13:13:18-21).
But here, sandwiched in between these stories about things that grow and things that don’t, is a real-life encounter with Jesus. It wasn’t expected. It wasn’t planned. But this encounter introduces us to two people who could easily have been represented by the parables surrounding their story. Notice which one seems more like a mustard seed growing into a tall plant, and which one resembles a fig tree that won’t grow any fruit.
Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And 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. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But 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.” But 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? And 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?” When 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. (Luke 13:10-17)
Luke never gives us the woman’s name. And we don’t know much of her story. We know she didn’t come to Jesus asking to be healed. For all we know, she didn’t even know Jesus was going to be teaching at the synagogue that day.
But we do know she came in after he had already begun to speak. She had waited until all the others were in their usual places before she slipped in at the back. Coming in late was the easiest way to avoid the glares. People assumed she had sinned in some terrible way, to have suffered for as long as she had.
Eighteen years. Her back had been bent for eighteen long, painful years. At first, it might have just looked like poor posture. But over the years, it had grown worse, until she was completely bent over, completely crippled. She couldn’t straighten her back, no matter how hard she tried.
Oh, she could walk with a stick to lean on. But she could never stand up straight. She couldn’t look you in the eye, or see the sky. She had learned to stick to pathways she knew well, stay out of the way, and get by as best she could. She had resigned herself to being bent.
When Jesus saw the woman, he could have left her in peace. He could have simply counted her as one of the crowd and let her go on living the way she’d come to consider as normal. At least, it was normal for her. She wasn’t asking for anything. She wasn’t even hoping for anything, as far as we know.
Jesus could have asked her if she even wanted to be healed. He could have asked if she had faith to be healed. But he didn’t do any of those things. He called her over – and keep in mind this would have been difficult for her on at least two counts.
Women did not enter the part of the synagogue where the men listened to teaching. So she would not only have had to make the effort to find her way over unfamiliar ground without being able to look up to see where she was going, she also would have been walking into an area previously forbidden to her. She would be breaking some well-established rules.
Yet, Jesus calls her over to where he is sitting, and says, “You are set free from your ailment.”
Not ‘forgiven of your sins’ or ‘healed of your infirmity,’ but “set free.”
Satan binds us with rules and meaningless rituals, but Jesus releases us into new life. Jesus overcomes our crippling bondage to sin by releasing us into God’s grace. Whether or not we can look up and see beyond the ground at our feet, Jesus sees us, calls to us, and proclaims freedom from whatever is binding our spirits and bending us into brokenness.
When Jesus spoke to the woman, she immediately felt the pain go away. She felt her back loosen up. Then he reached out and put his healing hands on her. Her back straightened for the first time in eighteen years, and she stood straight up! There was nothing else she could do but stand straight and tall, and praise God.
She didn’t ask him to do it. She wasn’t even hoping for healing. But he called to her, right where she was, and put his hands on her, and she stood up straight. He touched her – something no one had done for a very long time. They were all afraid that physical contact with her would make them unclean, so – for eighteen years – people had been careful to stay away from this woman. No one wanted to risk uncleanness.
But when Jesus touched her, he welcomed her back into life. He made it okay for others to touch her, too. He made her clean again, after eighteen years. Like a mustard plant stretching toward the sun, she lifted up her hands and her voice to praise God. Luke doesn’t tell us her exact words, but her gratitude and praise were contagious. The crowds started rejoicing and praising God with her.
Meanwhile, the ruler of the synagogue wasn’t too happy. He started yelling at the crowd, “There are six days in the week for work, come get healed on those days!” He almost makes it sound like the miracle of healing isn’t such a miracle after all – it’s just a normal workday occurrence.
And notice that the synagogue leader didn’t yell at Jesus – even though it was Jesus who had initiated contact with the woman, and had done the work of healing. But Jesus knew his heart.
Even though the rabbi would not talk directly to Jesus, Jesus spoke directly to him. “You hypocrite!” he said. “Don’t you untie your donkey and lead it to water on the sabbath? Isn’t this woman worth more than a donkey? Shouldn’t this daughter of Abraham, whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”
The root of the word we translate as ‘hypocrite’ also means “actor.” The rabbi was busy acting the part of a devout Jew. He was concerned about sticking to the letter of the law, but he really wasn’t concerned with fulfilling the spirit of the law.
God provided the Sabbath to give us rest and refreshment, to renew life after a hard week of work. Healing a poor old woman’s bent back certainly does that. But the religious leader was bound up in his own idea of religious rules. He was crippled by his own interpretation of the Law’s restrictions.
Like a fig tree that won’t bear figs, this religious leader has all the appearances of righteousness, but none of the fruit. And Jesus calls him out on it. You untie
a donkey and lead it to water on the Sabbath, don’t you? Shouldn’t this daughter of Abraham be released from bondage on the Sabbath, then? Isn’t the Sabbath the very best day to heal and restore to wholeness?
We don’t know this woman’s name, but Jesus makes sure we know her identity. He calls this woman, whose back is now perfectly straight after 18 years, a daughter of Abraham. He names her as a child of God, a valid member of the community of faith, not a cripple, not unclean, but daughter of Abraham. Daughter of faith.
And here she stands, as living proof that her back is now straight, giving thanks to God in a posture of praise. She has been freed from looking at the ground, freed from pain, freed from whatever caused her suffering in the first place.
Luke tells us that Jesus’ opponents were put to shame, but the crowds rejoiced with her, and we might think that this is where the tension lies. But in reality, the tension that is growing as we get closer and closer to Jerusalem is between being tied down by religious rules and being released into a posture of praise.
There are so many things we let cripple us. So many ways we bend to fit into some self-created box of what we think is normal, what we think we should do, what we think we must do, until we can’t see straight ahead anymore. We can’t look each other in the eye, or lift our eyes to the hills to see our help coming toward us. (Ps 121:1)
What cripples you, and keeps you stuck? How have you resigned yourself to suffering, not expecting anything to change?
What miracle have you given up asking God to work in your life? Maybe you’ve been asking so long and it seems like God has been ignoring you, so you think this must be what God wants for you: this suffering, this pain, this crippling posture that forces you to always look at the ground and never see the sky.
No matter what is binding you, trapping your soul in a box of ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’, Jesus came to release you from that prison. Jesus is calling you to himself, so he can put his hands on you and raise you up to new life in him. Let your life be filled with gratitude and praise, and offer others the same release from bondage that Christ has given to you.
What is Jesus calling out to you to do? How is Jesus calling you to stand up straight, to be released from your bound up spirit? And what is your response to such grace?
Jesus invites you into his presence, and into his grace. Jesus is reaching out to touch each one here, to heal you and to include you in his love, to release you from whatever is crippling your spirit.
How will you respond? Will you keep acting out your traditions and rules, like the synagogue leader? Or will you stand up and join the woman in heartfelt praise? Are you ready to live a life that makes others say, ‘That one is a child of God’?
Jesus is calling you, reaching out to touch you, ready to heal you of your brokenness, to restore you to wholeness, to claim you as his own. It’s time to stand up.