Our Gospel message comes to us today from the 13th chapter of Luke, beginning with the 10th verse.
Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 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. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 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.” 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? 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?” 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)
All mighty God, we thank you for your word and the way that you in it revealed to us who you are and what you’ve done for us in Christ. Now, as we open that word, we pray that your spirit may be present, that all thoughts of worry or distraction may be removed and that the Spirit will allow us to hear your voice. And so, oh God, fill us with your spirit through the reading and proclamation of your word this day. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
“Cure for an Aching Back”
It is unexpected and agonizing. You reach over to pick up a package, bend down to tie your shoe, or put out your arms to scoop an “arms-up” child… and suddenly, something goes terribly wrong. You know it in an instant. A wrench. A tweak. A tear. A back muscle, or disk, or nerve… something has gone completely “off-line.” In the twitch of a muscle, moving becomes misery.
Even if you’ve never studied anatomy ever, you are immediately an expert in just how intimately connected your back is to your arms and legs, neck and shoulders, hands and feet. Everything anywhere near your back hurts. When there is a “wreck” around the “super highway” of our nervous receptors, all of the other roadways in our body, muscles, and nerves all suffer together.
In the “back-to-school” shopping ritual, a new backpack is one of the most essential and expensive family purchases. Dozens of kids will walk to school in the coming weeks. Most of them will have a backpack. Does it seem to you, too, that every year our kids’ load becomes heavier?
In fact, there is genuine concern among medical professionals about the long-term effects of this “weightiness” on young children’s nerves, bones and muscles. Long-term studies are underway to follow up on the muscular-skeletal impacts that may result from years of hauling around pounds and pounds of books, sports gear, computers, and all the other portable “necessities” our kids carry on their back ten months out of the year. In later life, the back-packer may develop the newly named syndrome of “backpackilepsy.”
Notice how our story begins, “One Sabbath day, Jesus was teaching in a synagogue. A woman was there who was severely disabled. Her body was all bent over.” Even with her pronounced deformity, she was in the synagogue on the Sabbath. I admire her. I wonder if I would have that kind of courage to be in public with that kind of condition.
Even more important, she had not allowed her physical condition to impair her relationship with God. She had been this way for eighteen years; all bent over and unable to rise. The pain was sometimes severe. Yet, her habit was to be in worship to praise her Maker. That’s devotion.
I know people who will miss church if they have a slight headache. Or if there is a threat of a bit of rain or the threat of sunshine for that matter, for there are so many other things you can do when the weather is nice. But here was this woman where she was supposed to be on this particular Sabbath: in worship. And because she was there, she received a very special blessing from God.
The visit of Jesus to a local synagogue reported in this week’s text is unique to Luke. It is the last time this gospel writer specifically locates Jesus in a temple. In an earlier episode (6:9), Jesus healed someone on the Sabbath, which raised the hackles of the religious establishment. Jesus is “teaching” in the synagogue, so obviously, he had been recognized as a qualified leader and scholar of the Torah.
Yet the moment this woman appears in the synagogue, “bent over” and “quite unable to stand up,” he focuses on her and her disability. It is unclear just how separated men and women were in first-century synagogue services. Usually, in a two-story synagogue, the women were upstairs. Still, for Jesus to single out and call forward a woman to the center of the temple during the Sabbath was highly unusual.
Jesus not only called a woman forward. He called an obviously diseased woman into his presence. In this first century world, when one had a disease, it was viewed as a sign of divine displeasure. Remember the story of the man born blind (John 9)... what was the disciple’s question? Who sinned this man or his parents? This woman’s physical condition suggested a spiritual shortcoming.
Here is the setting. Jesus has been invited on the Sabbath to address the congregation. You have the synagogue ruler off to the side who has invited him. Then you have the congregation who has heard so much about this young man from Nazareth. They are excited to have him there in their hometown synagogue. That’s the scene. The stage is set. Entering in is bent over, a frail woman knew throughout the small community. They call her the cripple.
Society has a way of dehumanizing us. We fail to see our worth before God when we allow this to happen. The hunchback was, in the synagogue ruler’s opinion, only a woman and of little value. The Mosaic Law was more important than a woman, let alone a disfigured one.
Jesus deals head-on with a debilitating back issue. When Jesus sees the woman walk into the synagogue, he calls forward without her ever seeking him out. She is “bent over and quite unable to stand up straight.” Luke doesn’t tell us her name. We do not know if she was rich or poor, someone who was honored or ostracized. All we know is that she was perceived as one who had endured “a spirit” that had crippled her, bent her in half, for the past eighteen years. We also know that despite that affliction, she still attended worship in the synagogue during the weekly Sabbath ceremonies.
Medically, this disease is probably what physicians today call Ankylosing spondylitis (Marie-Strumpell disease, Bechterew’s disease), a fusion of the spinal bones. Early in the condition, sufferers often find the pain somewhat relieved when they lean forward. So they often go through the day leaning slightly forward, and gradually their spine begins to fuse. The more they lean in order to relieve the pain, the greater the angle until a patient might be bent almost double, as the lady in our story. Even today, we don’t have any medicines that can actually cure this condition. (1)
In this Jewish religious culture that is highly patriarchal, Jesus breaks at least six strict cultural rules:
1) Jesus speaks to the woman. In a civilized society, Jewish men did not speak to women. Remember the story in John 4 where Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well? She was shocked because a Jew would speak to a Samaritan. But when the disciples returned, the Scripture records, “They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman?” Jesus jettisons the male restraints on women’s freedom in speaking to her.
2) He calls her to the center of the synagogue. He challenges the notion of a male monopoly on access to knowledge and God by placing her in the geographic middle.
3) He touches her. Oh my gosh... He touched her... which revokes the holiness code.
4) He calls her “daughter of Abraham,” a term not found in any of the prior Jewish literature. This is revolutionary. In Jewish theology, it was believed that women were saved through their men. To call her a daughter of Abraham is to make her a full-fledged member of the nation of Israel with equal standing before God.
5) He heals on the Sabbath, the holy day. That was considered work. It would be breaking the 3rd commandment. As a Rabbi, He should know better.
6) Last and not least, he challenges the ancient belief that her illness is a direct punishment from God for sin. He asserts that she is ill, not because God willed it, but because there is evil in the world. (In other words, bad things happen to good people.)
And Jesus did all this in a few seconds.
Luke writes that Jesus was frustrated at their legalism: “You Hypocrites!” What one could have written... “Give me a break! Everyone one of you... don’t you untie your donkey or ox and lead them to drink on the Sabbath? Of course, you do! Why should this woman not receive God’s mercy...”
“If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” Jesus is quoting the O.T. Prophet Micah 6:8 “This is what the Lord requires... To act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” The Son of Man is the Lord of the Sabbath and one greater than the Temple is here in your midst.” (Matthew 12:12, 6-7, NIV)
The Divine Cloud of the Old Testament was now standing in from of them in the person of Jesus… The “Cloud” had moved from the temple to the person who was healing the blind, curing the lame, raising the dead... but what was their response?
When Jesus healed a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath, Matthew writes, “they plotted how to kill him.” (Matthew 12:14, NIV)
Now, all things being equal, the news that our heavenly Father has used His Son’s death and resurrection to forgive and redeem us really ought to be the end of this message. All things being equal, just about everyone ought to grasp the obvious fact that Jesus’ death and resurrection show the depth and intensity of God’s love for us. All things being equal, if you can figure out that storm clouds will bring rain and winds which blow from the south will warm things up, you ought to be able to grasp this fundamental truth: God loves you. All things being equal, everybody ought to be brought to faith by the Holy Spirit.
All things being equal, the Pharisees should have known that the One who heals the lame, cures the blind, and raises the Dead... is more than a great prophet... all things being equal... but it challenged their authority, their control, their self-righteousness...
Of course, things aren’t equal, and not everybody believes Jesus is their Savior or that God really cares. Things aren’t equal because sin, Satan, and this world work very hard to make people question the Lord and His intentions toward them, precisely what the Pharisees were doing.
When Jesus was doing His ministry on earth, the devil used some respected and often well-to-do men called Pharisees who really relished telling others that God was angry with them. These Pharisees made up and tried to force people to obey laws that God had never given, which were so strange that God would never have thought of them.
Let me give you an example. When the Lord handed down His Ten Commandments, He said, “Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy.” The Pharisees, however, felt God’s Law was woefully inadequate and dreadfully incomplete. Believing God had not finished the job, the Pharisees felt a moral obligation to tell other folks exactly how the Sabbath day should be remembered. They drew up rules on exactly how far a person could walk, precisely how much a person should work, and defined just when an individual should do that work.
Then, when people broke one of these new commandments they’d never heard of and which God had never given, the Pharisees looked down their noses and sarcastically said, “You’re a sinner. I don’t like you, and God doesn’t like you either.”
If some woman was childless, the Pharisees were pretty sure her condition was some kind of punishment from God. If someone was born blind or lame, the Pharisees were convinced that an angry God had said, “See, I told you this kind of thing would happen if you sinned.” With the Pharisees around, it’s not surprising that people felt they were in a no-win situation with the Lord.
Of course, the Pharisees are long since gone. You can take out your telephone book, go to the Yellow Pages, and you won’t find the office of a single Pharisee listed. Let us trust in Jesus. Let us do what the Lord requires... To act justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.
1. Source: Healing the Woman with a Bent Back by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson www.jesuswalk.com
Scripture taken from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)® Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Sermon contributed by Rev. Clarence Eisberg.
Jesus breaks all the Jewish rules.... no wonder the Pharisees wanted him dead. He is the “cloud” of the O. T. in their midst. One Sabbath day, Jesus was teaching in a synagogue. A woman was there who was severely disabled. Her body was all bent over.