On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.
Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.”
The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”
When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing. (New International Version)
The way in which we interpret events says a lot about who we are and what we need. The story sounds different, depending upon which person(s) are viewing it….
The Crippled Woman
She had gotten used to looking at people out of the corner of her eye, by looking up and sideways.
After eighteen years, she could hardly remember any other way of seeing the world. On this particular Sabbath, there was a special excitement at the synagogue, where she regularly went to worship. A Galilean preacher and prophet, Jesus of Nazareth, had arrived in town and would be teaching there.
She and the others in town had heard reports about Jesus–how he talked about God’s reign arriving soon and how he healed sick people. She was not sure how many of the rumors to believe, but she was trying not to get her hopes up. Her life already had too many disappointments to count.
When she entered the synagogue, the place was abuzz. As Jesus began to teach, however, the room was hushed. Moments later, his words turned from teaching to invitation. He had caught her eye–no mean feat, given that he had to lean over and incline his head to do so. “Come here,” he said to her. She slowly made her way to the front of the assembly.
What happened next amazed the whole congregation. “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When this man, Jesus, spoke those words and put his hands on her broken, bent body, she felt power surge through her. Without hesitation, she straightened her once crooked back. She stood tall and praised her God . . .
The Synagogue Leader
He has come to the synagogue every Saturday. Each Sabbath day the synagogue leader stands and faithfully reads the Torah. On this particular Sabbath, a Galilean preacher is coming. Some say his is a prophet, even Messiah. The leader has seen his share of would-be messiahs come and go, claiming to speak for God. He doubts anything will come of this. Just another man.
But what is this? A synagogue full of people! And just as the leader thought this may just be good for the people, getting them to pay attention to the law and the prophets, this preacher calls a woman forward, and of all things, heals her!? This is not good. This is not how things are to be done!
In the Torah, the seventh day was set aside by God for Israel’s rest. Work is prohibited. Non-life-threatening illnesses and conditions can be treated on the other six days. The synagogue leader is not opposed to healing. In fact, he welcomes it. But at an appropriate time, on the right day. He says to himself, “This all must be done decently and in order. Who does Jesus think he is? We cannot have such insubordination amongst the people, and in the synagogue, of all places!”
And so, the synagogue leader is beside himself with both anger and fear that the Law will not be properly upheld, and that God will be displeased and take away their place of worship.
Jesus comes, looking forward to being with the people in the synagogue on the Sabbath. He understands that since the Sabbath law commemorates and celebrates Israel’s liberation, it ought to be a day for enacting — not inhibiting — the present-day liberation of Israelites. Yes, it is a good day for a healing. Every day is a good day for healing.
As Jesus enters the synagogue, it is full of people, charged with the atmosphere of anticipation. During the service, Jesus sees a woman. Although he rightly discerns that the synagogue leader and some of the congregants will not be happy about this, he calls her forward, intent on freeing her from her satanic bondage. And also knowing that placing his hands upon this woman will appear scandalous, he does it anyway.
Sure enough, the synagogue leader is livid. The leader feels the need to correct Jesus. Yet, Jesus unmoved by this, calmly retorts, without budging an inch, that given the custom of providing water for thirsty livestock on the Sabbath, it is surely appropriate to heal a long-suffering Israelite on the Sabbath.
In none of this does Jesus abolish the Sabbath commandment. Rather he follows it faithfully. Jesus enters an ongoing Jewish debate about how to interpret the Sabbath law, locating himself at the less stringent end of the opinion spectrum.
Jesus is determined to uphold the spirit of the Law, to practice compassion, to do what leads to human betterment. He is doing God’s will. He is allowing the Sabbath to serve this old woman, rather than letting the woman serve the Sabbath as a bent over crippled person.
They come, as they do each Sabbath, to gather and listen to Torah read, to pray to God, and to strengthen one another in their common faith. Yes, the synagogue leader can be a bit tedious. The synagogue service can be a bit boring. But he is a good man doing good work.
Today, however, is different. Jesus, the one they have heard so much about, is there. And what a synagogue service it is! Jesus teaches us, and with authority! But, to our astonishment, he calls one of our women forward. And he touches her! Then heals her! This is the woman who has been tortured with such crippling pain and bent over all the time!
Oh, my, the synagogue leader is upset! We are so full of joy for our healed sister, yet also confused. This is a good thing that Jesus did – God’s kingdom breaking into this world. Yet, here is the synagogue leader and Jesus debating Torah. Does freedom from Satan only come on six days, not seven? Surely, God is especially honored on such a holy day as the Sabbath to do such important work. But work, it is. And Jesus did it. Is this really a good thing, or not?
This is a story about the role and function of our religious traditions, our claims about what could and should be practiced, when and where it ought to take place, and who is allowed within the walls of our faith communities. Special religious practices may become hindrances to including folks. We must be diligent to recognize what theological ideas we hold dear that disallow full participation from others.
Jesus was no Sabbath breaker. He operated well within Jewish tradition of the day. At the same time Christ is also not one to allow the tradition to exclude people from access to the community and the potential for their healing. Even though the synagogue leader and some others disagreed, many in the crowd agreed.
Today’s story is about the community and addresses questions such as, “What kind of community do we want to be?” “Do our religious traditions help us to become that kind of community or do they hinder it?” “If we want to be a healing community, how can we make that happen?”
O God the Father, whose will for us and for all your people is health and salvation, O God the Son, who came that we might have life and have it in abundance, O God the Holy Spirit, whose indwelling makes our bodies the temples of your presence, have mercy on us.
O Triune God, we pray you to hear us, and that you will grant your grace to all who stand in need of healing of both of body and spirit, and lead them to look with confidence in you;
That you will grant patience and perseverance to all who are disabled by injury or illness, and increase their courage;
That you will grant peace to all who are troubled by confusion or pain, and set their minds at rest;
That you will grant relief from suffering to all sick children, and give them a sure sense of your tender love and care;
That you will grant rest to all whose increasing years bring weariness, distress, or loneliness, and give them the abiding comfort of your presence;
That you will grant confidence to all about to undergo surgery or difficult procedures, and keep them free from fear;
That you will grant purpose to the church as it seeks to carry on Christ’s ministry of healing to suffering humanity, and keep it always true to the gospel of Christ;
That you will grant skill and compassion to doctors, nurses, technicians, aides, and all who are called to practice medical arts, and make strong their dedication to help others;
That you will grant to all people the peace of quiet sleep and the joy of resting in your everlasting arms, that we may rejoice in your care while we are on earth, and in the world to come, have eternal life.
O God, who in Jesus Christ called us out of darkness into your marvelous light; enable us always to declare your wonderful deeds, thank you for your steadfast love, and praise your with heart, soul, mind, and strength, now and forever. Amen.