As a part of the Kenya Consultation, I recently participated in a small-group discussion on this Sunday’s gospel lesson—the story of the bent-over woman. Actually, I facilitated the discussion and, when I managed to hold my tongue, listened to a small group talk about this story that is dear to my heart. We were engaged in contextual bible study—the kind that Gerald West of the Ujamaa Center has written about. Using the “See, Judge, Act” model, we looked at the passage and explored the context of the story, connections between the story and our own contexts, and potential responses we were willing to make to what we had learned.
This is a passage I had spent a good bit of time studying, but the insights that the participants brought to the discussion made all my study seem elementary. (That shouldn’t surprise me—they were theologians of the first-order.) One spoke of a synagogue in Galilee that was two-stories. The women would have had to sit upstairs, separate from the men, but this woman, because of her condition, may not have been able to climb the stairs. Jesus may have seen her through a window or door standing outside, getting as close to the congregation as she was allowed. Another participant drew our attention to the preceding passage—the parable about the fruitless fig tree. He invited us to ask whether Luke positioned the tree in parallel with the synagogue leader and the religious elites he represented. Could the fact that the woman had been bound by a spirit of infirmity for eighteen years be a sign of the fruitlessness of their religious life?
As our conversation went deeper and deeper, these brilliant women and men of faith made connections between the ruler of the synagogue and the woman’s condition that bridged the two-thousand years between Jesus and us. Jesus’ healing of the woman was threatening to the leader of the congregation, but he was not willing to take his frustration out on Jesus or even on the woman he had healed. Instead, he lashes out at the whole congregation: “There are six days on which you should be healed! Come on one of those days instead of the Sabbath.” Jesus then eviscerates the man’s authority and hypocrisy by appealing to the common practice of watering one’s ox or donkey on the Sabbath, asking the rhetorical question, “Should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?” As the narrator tells us, all Jesus’ enemies were put to shame, and the people rejoiced. Yes, this is a story about healing. Yes, it’s a story about recovery. But it’s also a story about power.
In a community like that one, the ruler of the synagogue would have held considerable power—the power to pronounce God’s will for his community. He was the one who made sure that women like that hunched-over, downcast, feet-shuffling woman knew their place and remained in it. When Jesus saw her, he called her over, bringing her from the outskirts of the community into the center of attention. By calling her over—by challenging the authority of the synagogue leader—he elevates one who was shunned, making her one who is celebrated. When he says to her, “Woman you are freed from your disability,” he essentially says to her, “Stand up straight!” That’s a point that Jeffrey John, current Dean of St. Alban’s Cathedral in England, made in his book The Meaning in the Miracles, which I highly recommend. Including a passage from a YWCA bible study, he helps the reader see that this is a story about liberation.
As our conversation came to the third part of our work—the “Act” part—we asked ourselves what we would do in response to this story. It was clear to us that the rules of institutional religion had been the very bonds that held this woman. It was the ruler of the synagogue and all the power that he represented that bend the woman over, forcing her to stare at the ground. If Jesus was challenging that hypocritical authority and giving the oppressed the ability to stand up straight, what would we do about it? How are our own rules hypocritical? How have our religious life and worship failed to bear fruit? How are we standing on the side of oppression, forcing others to stare silently at their feet?