Monday, August 15, 2016

Not Just a Sabbath Healing


For three whole years, I look forward to this Sunday--Proper 16C. This week's gospel lesson, Luke 13:10-17, contains my favorite miracle story in the bible. I love the healing of the bent-over woman. If I allow myself to engage the story fully, I cannot read it without a tear coming to my eye. Of all of Jesus' healing encounters, this one hits me the hardest because it's much more than a Sabbath healing. It's a story of a woman whose religious community had held her down and whom Jesus set free. Her literal, physical straightening up is the manifestation of her dignity restored in Christ. There's something about the denial of someone's basic humanity that fills me with anger, and this story--the giving back of a woman's full humanity--is a reason for me to celebrate.

Look at the language Luke associates with the woman's affliction. She had "a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years." This caused her to live each day "bent over," and she "was quite unable to stand up straight." After healing her, Jesus calls her "a  daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years," and he describes her healing as "be[ing] set free from this bondage."

And notice how Luke depicts the tension in the story. Jesus' primary opponent is the leader of the synagogue, who is "indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath." He spoke not to Jesus, who was the visiting rabbi in his synagogue, but to the congregation: "There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured." When Jesus responds, it isn't only to the leader but also to the other local religious authorities whom he represents: "You hypocrites!"

Finally, don't miss the way Luke articulates the woman's healing. When Jesus laid hands on her, "immediately she stood up straight and began praising God." And, as previously noted, Jesus labels this healing a form of being set free from Satan's bondage.

This isn't just a Sabbath story, but it is a Sabbath story. The woman is bent over by an oppressive spirit, and Jesus sets her free so that she can resume her proper God-designed place in society as one who praises God. And what is the spirit that bends her over and keeps her down? What is the spirit from which Jesus sets her free? Is it not the oppression of the synagogue leader and those he represents? How foolish it is for him to claim that the woman could come back on any of the other six days for healing! She's been suffering from this oppressive ailment for eighteen years. Waiting even another day would itself be a tightening of the chains that have bound her this long. No, this isn't a story that merely tosses aside Sabbath observance, but it is one that attacks those who use the rules of religion to keep people in their place.

This is a story about healing from religious oppression. It's a story about setting people free from the harm that religion has done. It's about reconciliation for the divorced. It's about the inclusion of the bankrupt. It's about the admission of the addict and the embrace of the mentally ill. It's about saying that nobody's perfect and that sinners are welcome. It's about Jesus coming to prioritize healing and wholeness and welcome over religiosity and regulations and restrictions. Isn't that the gospel we want to preach?

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