10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11 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. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 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.” 15 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? 16 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?” 17 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 NRSV)
Whenever Jesus stands up to authority, we cheer. We’re delighted, perhaps because we’re the one he’s defending. Or we love to see the bullies and the rich and the powerful get their comeuppance.
Today, I wonder. What was so wrong about the synagogue leader speaking out on a matter of law. The bent-over woman made no request of Jesus; despite her disability, she wasn’t as death’s door; no one made a request in her name. She showed up for worship and Jesus picked her out and healed her.
The synagogue leader had a strong sense of Sabbath rest. In fact, he used scripture: it’s in the commandments. Exodus 20:8 clearly states that we’re to remember the sabbath. We have six days to work and go to the grocery store and clean the house. On the seventh day we rest along with our livestock, our family and even our servants.
The commandment is so important that there’s an explanation for why we should rest on the sabbath: because God took six days to create the earth and rested on the seventh day. God liked that concept so much that God blessed that day and made it holy.
Again, the woman wasn’t dying, she didn’t even make a request for healing. Jesus called on her, laid on hands and declared her healed.
In a world where the Jews were trying to hang on to their temple and their religious practice, Jesus turned the tables and broke the law.
Let’s go back to his “mission statement.” When he began his ministry he went to his hometown of Nazareth and read from the prophet Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19 NRSV)
- Bring good news to the poor
- Proclaim release to the captives
- Recovery of sight to the blind
- Let the oppressed go free
Wasn’t that what he was doing? He taught in the synagogue and I think we can assume it was good news he preached. He proclaimed release to the captives. And at that moment this bent-over woman walks in. Jesus calls her forward and “looses” her from her ailment. Then he touches this untouchable woman, uncaring of the law. His touch brings this woman who was denied human contact for 18 years into fellowship. His touch welcomes her back.
He brought good news, he proclaimed released to a captive and then he helped those present that day recover their sight. Not physical sight but spiritual sight.
He begins by reminding them that they don’t allow their animals to go thirsty on the sabbath. They need to be nourished while they, too, rest from their work. Jesus then points out that this woman isn’t a mere animal, but a daughter of Abraham. Wasn’t she entitled to be loosed from her bondage to the evils of illness?
You can almost hear the crowd saying, “Ah-ha!” When they left that day, they along with the formerly bent-over woman, had been released from their captivity to the law.
Yes, Exodus does speak to sabbath rest and keeping it holy. There’s another version, though, in Deuteronomy. The reason for keeping the sabbath holy was because those who inherited the law had once been slaves and God brought them out of slavery into a land of their own. The sabbath is a time for everyone from farm animal to servant to resident aliens to family to rest and remember.
And that’s what Jesus did that day. He broke the bonds of slavery to illness for that bent-over woman and he opened eyes to a new way of viewing the law.
When do you follow rules? When do you break them? I learned a long time ago that in leadership sometimes you ask for permission while other times you seek forgiveness. Rules and laws are made for a reason. They grant us boundaries within which we can live and move and have our being. Yet, our laws are created by human beings who can’t consider every eventuality. Our courts argue these laws every day, because sometimes a law binds someone up from living and moving and having their being.
God’s law is sacred and good. It is demeaned when we use it to keep power over people. The synagogue leader was guilty of trying to hang onto his power. He was guilty of keeping the bent-over woman in “her place.” Every time someone is healed, they can take their place in society and that changes everything.
We are the synagogue leader when we insist on rules being followed even when the innocent suffer harm. We are that leader when we see the law as more important than a child of Abraham. We are that leader when we use the law to keep the oppressed powerless.
When we shatter the notion that we’ve always done it this way, then we open ourselves up to the teachings of Jesus. We open ourselves up to more inclusive viewpoints. We open ourselves up to reaching out a helping hand to the oppressed and powerless and offering them grace.
The bent-over woman was a human being. She was oppressed. She was in bondage. Perhaps Jesus could have waited until the next day to heal her. But, the teaching moment would not have existed. And more than that needed to happen.
Because if we use the law to keep ourselves holy, then it seems to me that the most holy thing we can do is to release a captive from the power of Satan. Even on the sabbath.
All glory and honor be to God.