by Ellen Sims
Text: Luke 13: 10-17
Jesus must have inspired the saying, “No good deed goes unpunished”—or un-criticized. According to today’s Gospel reading, Jesus healed a woman who’d been crippled for eighteen years. Jesus was more “observant” of people’s needs than religious traditions. Because he healed her on the Sabbath, a synagogue leader accused him of violating religious law preventing work on the Sabbath —even though, as Jesus pointed out, the law gave permission to untie a beast of burden (ox or donkey) and lead that animal to drink on the Sabbath.*
The woman’s ailment and Jesus’s implicit analogy suggest that she needed healing not simply of a physical condition. We’re told she was bent over and unable to stand up straight, perhaps a result of having been used like a beast of burden. Her perpetual posture was that of a servant or inferior forever bowing down to a master or someone in authority. This woman was literally not able to look someone in the eyes. She was the picture of a person abused and oppressed by others. Twice Jesus declared her to be “set free” from Satan’s bondage. It’s significant that he didn’t say she was healed but that she was “set free.” This woman needed to be freed of her ailment but also liberated spiritually and socially.**
What had been oppressing her? Who had burdened her with care and duties to the point that she was bent over like a beast of burden, her crippled back parallel to the ground? How had her life been “bound” for eighteen long years?
There are surely socio-political explanations for her condition. But the details of the story make it possible to read her situation metaphorically: bad religion was the burden that bent her low — unable look up, unable to see the light of God, maybe too ashamed to seek God’s face. And she was also unable to look people in the eye, brought too low to risk meeting their gaze, past hope of being regarded as part of the community. Jesus criticized the religious leaders for creating rules that bound people rather than set them free. They used the Sabbath to constrain people rather than empower them. Of course, the synagogue leaders had not literally caused her disfigurement. But they were not part of her liberation. Even when religion is passive in relationship to social systems, its passivity and silence can support oppression. And it can encumber and weigh people down and keep then bent over with duty and rules, not joy. One biblical scholar says that the woman’s crippled condition “can be taken as symbolic of her social position, just as [6 chapters later] Zacchaeus’s short stature can represent his vulnerability before the crowd.”***
The woman bent by the weight of religion on her back needed to be healed of an oppressive religion. But if the woman was crippled, the religious leaders were blind: blind to the way they practiced a religion that placed duty, shame, guilt upon people until they were bent, crippled, misshapen by the religion that should have strengthened them.
Jesus healed by setting the woman free from religion’s oppression, demonstrating, as he did, that “the Sabbath was not made for humans, but humans were made for the Sabbath,” to quote Jesus from another Gospel (Mark 2: 27). He demonstrated his power over oppressive religion by violating a religious law that forbade healing work on the Sabbath. He insisted the physical, social, spiritual needs of human beings take priority over religious traditions and rules.
Have you ever experienced religion as a duty and a care? Have you known churches that, in a sense, cripple their members by not respecting their full humanity? Have you been part of churches that limited what you can think and say, for instance, squelching creativity, stunting mental and spiritual growth, weighing people down with guilt and shame?
Many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Christians have felt crippled by their churches. In a place and among people intended for strengthening them in faith, they’ve lost faith in the goodness of God because of oppressive, merciless religion. Some people have walked in here bent over, finding it hard to look up, hard to meet the gaze of others. But I hope Jesus says to all who come here—through our words and interactions—“You are free from that old bondage.” And to all of us who have been brought low and all who have dragged in here feeling burdened, let us all sense Jesus putting the tips of his fingers under our chins, lifting up our drooping heads, and helping us see straight into the eyes of love and hope.
Hear Jesus saying to you and to those still oppressed by bad religion: Be set free from this bondage. Put down the baggage of oppressive religion you still carry with you. Turn loose of the fear and condemnation it promotes. Find the grace it withholds. The Sabbath is not supposed to limit us; it’s to free us. And this freedom in Christ is healing.
* “The Mishnah makes clear that animals may go out on the Sabbath (m. Shab. 5. 1-4). Tying and untying knots are listed as forbidden work (m. Shab. 7.2), but exceptions are made for some kinds of knots (m. Shab. 15., 1-2). It is not certain that these regulations were in force in the first century.” Tannehill, Robert C. Luke: Abingdon New Testament Commentaries (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996) 220.
** See Luke 4:18. Jesus embarked on his liberating ministry (also on a Sabbath in a synagogue) by reading from the scroll of Isaiah and thus announcing he, too, was called to “set free everyone who suffers.”
*** Tannehill 218.