This is a shortened version of a sermon we gave today at our local church. It is based on Luke 13:10-17, today’s lectionary gospel reading. I have decided to place it here on the blog as it is a timely reminder when we are debating the rights of asylum seekers that Jesus welcomed those on the outside of society, and encouraged others to do the same. The first half is a narrative given by Rachel, an attendee at the synagogue. The second half is a brief commentary, followed by a poem about the bent over woman. The illustration is Jesus heals a crippled woman by Cortney L. Haley
I am sitting in my normal seat in the synagogue, as I always did in the Sabbath. I like watching the people come in. Then that woman came into worship in the Synagogue as she had every Sabbath for the last few years. Others had told me she had been coming like this for 18 years. She came as she always did, bent over, with a back that was twisted.
Her face looked like she was always in pain. I wondered what she could actually see. It seemed to me she must have spent most of her time looking at the ground beneath her feet. It was impossible for her to look anyone straight in the face. If she tried to do so, surely her neck would have hurt her. Just walking seemed to hurt her, and there seemed to be nothing she could do to ease the pain.
People tended to avoid her. Can you imagine coming to the Synagogue for that number of years and no one seemed to even know your name? She was just known as ‘the bent-over- woman’. If people thought about her at all, it was probably with scorn. Physical deformity is seen as a curse by many people. I even heard some even said she was possessed, her condition a punishment from God. To be honest, any physical infirmity is thought of as God’s punishment or even as the work of the Devil. I don’t know what to think. She seems harmless, but I am afraid of how she looks.
She usually sits on the far side of the other women, way up the back, off to herself. No one rushes to welcome her. No doubt about it, whatever has caused her condition, she is oppressed by many other things and I think of her as being bent over with many burdens. Though all we can see is the physical burden, I sit and wonder what other burdens she may have, emotionally and spiritually.
Could part of her oppression be just that she is a woman, which definitely diminishes her worth? I wonder about the other women at the synagogue. What kind of burdens do they feel? For that matter, what about the men? It would be especially shameful if they showed themselves to be burdened and bent—and isn’t that a burden in itself - trying to hide emotions and pain? That is not always easy either. We sit, in synagogue, waiting for something. A glimpse of God, a healing touch. Sometimes it seems to happen. But often we just sit, and wait, and worry.
And then, one day, a visiting preacher came. A man called Jesus. He came to teach in the synagogue. But then he didn't. Teach I mean. Not straight away. He called out "woman". “Woman,” he said. Somehow the bent over woman knew he was talking to her. Can you imagine what a shock it must have been when she heard Jesus calling her? No one had called to her in all those years. Then Jesus called “woman” to her.
She moved, from her place way at the back of the synagogue, into the centre of the crowd. And then Jesus did an amazing thing. He laid his hands upon this bent over woman and told her that she was set free from her ailment; and immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.’ Amen! What a blessing for her! Amen, and hallelujah’, we said. ‘Praise the Lord!’ God was moving in our lives, and especially hers.
And then he did another thing—it was a little later on when he was debating with the disapproving leader of the synagogue—he gave her a new name: he called her the daughter of Abraham. It was amazing - Jesus really gave two gifts to the bent over woman—the gift of healing from her bent over, painful existence, and just as important—the gift of recognition as a daughter of Abraham, a member of the chosen people. It was a great moment.
I mentioned an argument. Remember I said that this happened in the synagogue? And it was on the Sabbath, our holy day. Jesus healed the bent over woman on the Sabbath, much to the disapproval of the leader of the synagogue. We Jews are instructed in the importance of the Sabbath from our childhood. We are taught it is a day set apart, a day that is holy and honourable, a joy for those who observe it. Observing the Sabbath has not only been not only a part of our Law since Moses’ time, but also a part of our worship of God. Well, this Jesus showed he could argued like the best of the Pharisees, and he was pointing out that it was hypocritical to care for an animal then not recognize the need for care of a human being.
You people may not recognise it, but Jesus was making a classic rabbinic argument. You know, it follows a pattern, a kind of “you say, I say” pattern. Jesus did it beautifully. Firstly, he moved from a matter of minor importance to something of major importance. What I mean is the donkey was a minor action, a little thing. The big thing was this poor woman who has been bent over for eighteen years. Jesus is saying that if it's true for the minor thing—your ox or your donkey— then how much more should it be true in relation to a major thing, namely, this woman's life? And was it not a greater blessing to receive such a gift from God on the day God had blessed and set apart for the refreshment of humankind?
One other thing I think I should point out to you in case you missed it. When Jesus responded to the leader’s words, he was very clever with his use of words. You know, he said, "You hypocrites! Doesn't each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey and lead it away?" In the next sentence about the bent over woman, he says "then ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be untied from this bondage on the Sabbath day."
The connection he was making was very clear. Let me put it another way. Jesus said "You guys untie your ox or your donkey. I am untying and releasing this woman who has been bound for eighteen years and that's a great thing to do on the Sabbath." The crowd applauded this great wit. The point was well made.
I felt very happy for the bent over woman. She had been restored from a life lived on the margins to one that would be now lived in the community. Jesus, when he called her from the back, also symbolically was calling her back to life. I felt angry at the synagogue leader, and so did most of us. Jesus certainly won that argument, in our opinion. And I did feel some shame, I confess. I hadn't bothered to get to know this woman and help her. I should have. And I decided that in the future I would at least make the effort to say ‘Shalom’ to others, even if they seemed different from me.
Back to our time
The story of the woman who was bent over is a story of two types. It is a story of confrontation about Sabbath laws, but also a story of liberation. It is a story that reports debate and argument over interpretation of laws, but also release and freedom from repression and regulation.
In the background of this story is the argument about the character of the kingdom of God. Actions such as this—a woman being set free from an evil spirit—are an obvious and physical proclamation of the coming of the kingdom. When she is able to stand up straight, to have dignity again, and to be set free from her affliction, we can see a clear sign of the presence of the God and of the wholeness and equality and shalom promised by the kingdom.
This is a story that combines a miracle of healing with a controversy about the law. In that sense, it is like the healing of the paralytic in Mark 2—the story of the man lowered down through the roof by his four friends. The move from the miracle and subsequent celebration to conflict, is a story development that makes his story very interesting.
That is the same move, in that story, as we find here, in this story about the woman bent double. Furthermore, it ends with an even greater degree of joy on the part of the entire crowd, who were rejoicing at the things Jesus was doing. So it's a great story of hope. It’s a story that points to the healing, the resolution, of all our problem issues.
Can you imagine a world where poverty is healed? where racism is ended? where indigenous people are respected? where there is no longer discrimination or prejudice towards gay and lesbian people? where environmental problems are resolved? and so forth. What a world that would be!
This isn’t a story where we should be saying, “Go Jesus, you showed those legalistic synagogue leaders.” That is not what the story is about. Because in many ways, we are like the leader of the synagogue, clinging to our traditions and wanting others to agree with us and think like us. We don’t like change and we don’t like doing things differently.
In many ways we are also like the bent over woman, waiting for our burdens to be lifted from us so we can be freed and stand up and be transformed and praise the name of God.
I want to conclude by reading some excerpts from a poem called
OH WOMAN … DEAR NAMELESS WOMAN, by Anna Murdock
Oh woman, dear nameless woman,
how your heart must long
to look into the eyes of others once more;
to seek hope and acceptance and love.
But alas, you cannot, can you?
Your head cannot be lifted.
For whatever reasons, it is bent low.
You see only the dust of the streets
and the feet of those who step over you
and around you and on you.
Oh woman, dear bent-low woman,
God has brought you to this place …
to this synagogue … to this person
who is teaching freedom from bondage.
On this day … yes, on this very Sabbath day
you will be set free
and will stand tall once more.
He has called you … not by name, but “Woman”.
Even before his touch,
even before you might stand tall,
he proclaims that those things
that had kept your head low
and your back so bent
be gone forever.
Did you hear his words, dear woman?
Set free from all of the bent-down bondage!
His eyes are the first eyes
that you have seen in so long.
How can you not respond
in the way that you do!
Standing straight … Praising God!
May all of us be set free from whatever bends us low and keeps our eyes on the ground instead of raised upwards.
May all of us help others to also stand up straight, to live the lives of dignity and inclusion that God intended them to have.
And God’s kingdom come, and God’s will be done.