Proper 16, Year C
August 25, 2013
You’ve heard this story before. Even if you haven’t heard the particulars of this story before, you’ve heard the general story before. Jesus is teaching in the synagogue. A woman who is bent over, suffering for 18 years from an evil spirit interrupts the service, implores Jesus to help her. Jesus heals her; there’s another controversy with the literalistic Jewish authorities, and Jesus condemns pharisaic legalism. Why even bother listening? Count the rafters, look at the sun coming through the stained glass. We’ve heard it all before.
But wait, that’s not quite the story Luke tells. First of all, the woman. Luke doesn’t tell us why she came to the synagogue. What he doesn’t say is that she came because Jesus was there, that she was hoping Jesus would heal her, that she asked Jesus to heal her. In fact, she doesn’t say anything to Jesus, she doesn’t touch his garment; she doesn’t disrupt the service. It’s Jesus who notices her and stops what he’s doing to heal her. Moreover, Luke says nothing about her faith, that it was faith in Jesus that brought her to the synagogue, or that she came to faith because of the healing. All he says is that after she’s healed, she praises God.
And before we succumb too quickly to the Jesus against Judaism trope, remember where this is taking place, in a synagogue, on the Sabbath. In fact, it’s the third time Luke places Jesus in a synagogue on the Sabbath. More importantly perhaps, all three times Luke tells us that Jesus was teaching in it. In other words, it’s not just that Jesus behaved like a good Jew by going to the synagogue on the Sabbath. He was seen in all three locations as an authority on scripture, on the law, and was asked to teach, or preach, if you’d rather. He was interpreting Torah, interpreting the law to the assembled congregation. So for him to interrupt his teaching and train of thought, to notice a woman coming in, for him to stop everything and heal her is quite a big deal.
Then there’s the woman herself. What brought her to the synagogue that day? Was it her custom? Was it desperation? What was her life like? For eighteen years she had been bent over, more literally the text could read, as the KJV does, “bowed together,” unable to straighten herself out. For eighteen years, her eyes were on the ground as she walked. She could not see the faces of anyone. She hadn’t felt the warmth of the sun on her cheeks; she hadn’t been able to look at the sky, or the horizon. Her world had narrowed to the few square feet directly in front of her.
What did she do when she was healed? She stretches out to her full stature. What must that have felt like? Can you imagine the sudden freedom? The new perspective on the world? What is her immediate response? She praises God—by the way, that was something that was typically done standing up, arms outstretched to the sky. Had the fact that her body forced her almost into a prostrate position kept her soul from glorifying God, from lifting itself up to God in praise?
There’s something else in the story that’s curious. After the healing, the focus shifts to a dialogue between the Synagogue ruler and Jesus. The ruler criticizes Jesus for healing on the Sabbath but his criticism isn’t primarily directed at the question of its legality. Rather, he seems focused on Jesus breaking another rule—people come to the synagogue for healing on the other six days of the week. The ruler wants to keep it that way. Sabbath in the synagogue is not for healing but for other things.
Frankly, I’m somewhat sympathetic to the synagogue ruler on this point. In our context, it’s not healing that people come to Grace five days of the week; it’s for financial assistance. Every day one or two people drop by to tell their stories of need. On Sundays when it happens, I tend to get rather annoyed because often there are lots of other people who want to talk with me, or to whom I want to talk: visitors, newcomers, people with pastoral needs or who want to set up an appointment to see me, and dealing with another homeless person in the midst of all that is time-consuming, distracting, and often heart-wrenching. And sometimes I tell them to come back tomorrow (I also always share with them information about where they can get meals on Sunday afternoons, there are at least three possibilities of free meals, by the way).
So I understand the synagogue ruler when he complains that people can come for healing six days a week but that the Sabbath is set aside for other things, for holy things. At the same time, we don’t know why the woman came in the first place. All we know is that Jesus saw her, touched her, healed her. That should be a lesson to all of us, and especially to me.
We don’t know why people walk through our doors. We don’t know what motivates visitors. Are they seeking healing, physical, emotional, spiritual healing? Are they seeking connection with God, with a community? What brings them up our steps and across our threshold? Do we even notice them? Or if we do notice them, is it only or primarily, because of their strangeness, their otherness?
And the rest of us who come week to week—why do we do it? For what are we searching for? What physical, emotional, spiritual burdens have bent us over, bowed us together, so that our vision is limited to the few feet on the path in front of us? What healing touch do we need? Can we even open ourselves to the possibility that Jesus’ touch might heal us? Are we like that woman, so bent over in pain, that we can’t imagine the possibility that the grace of Jesus Christ might come upon us, heal us, help us stand upright? What boundaries and limitations have we placed on God that we lack the capacity to imagine God’s healing of us, our loved ones, or even God’s healing and redemption of the world around us?
A random, chance encounter. A woman bent over in pain, suffering for eighteen years, happens to come to synagogue the day Jesus is teaching. He happens to notice her, stops what he’s doing, touches her and heals her. In so doing, Jesus breaks through the social and religious conventions and rules of his day. He frees her body from its painful bondage and limitations; he frees her to rise up and praise God. He frees her to look around, to look up and see the beauty and glory of the world.
The challenge for us is simply this. First and foremost to allow God’s love and grace to come upon us in such a way that we too can stand upright and offer praise, to rejoice and give thanks for God’s goodness. That’s no easy task in this cynical age. But that’s not all. We also have to make sure that the limitations and boundaries that we place around God’s grace do not limit God’s freedom of action. How are we like that synagogue ruler who wants to make sure that healing takes place only on six days of the week. How do we prevent people bent over in pain, whether that pain is physical, emotional or spiritual, from experiencing God’s healing touch? And when should we extend our hands with God’s healing touch to those who come to us?