I don’t know about you, but when I hear this story from today’s Gospel—about a woman so crippled she can’t even stand up straight; about Jesus healing this woman; and about the synagogue leader’s response—whenever I hear this story, I immediately focus on the synagogue leader. Is it the same for you?
In part, I’m sure, it’s because of my modern American sensitivities. The synagogue leader is just plain mean. She’s a crippled woman, for goodness’ sake! Shouldn’t she be treated with at least the same dignity and respect as any other person—or at least with as much dignity and respect as a donkey? Go Jesus! You tell that bully a thing or two!
Also, my kneejerk focus on the synagogue leader probably has something to do with my American independence. I mean, this guy’s opposing Jesus—Jesus, who is always the good guy, by default. And Jesus helps the underdog, right? So there’s that. And also there’s this constraint the synagogue leader demonstrates: he’s bound by the rules of his tradition. He’s legalistic. And what good American wants the rules of some foreign tradition foisted upon him?
Then there’s my personal bias. I was raised during the musical era that’s known today as “classic rock”; and—what can I say?—I’m a product of my culture. We all are. Anyway, the synagogue leader represents the establishment. And as all good cynical classic rock-and-rollers know, the establishment is designed only to benefit those in charge, its leaders. So, here’s this leader of the synagogue—the establishment! Take him down, Jesus!
Are you with me?
But what if instead of focusing just on the synagogue leader we also focus our attention on the bent-over woman?
I have a good reason for asking: the context suggests it.
Immediately before this story Jesus tells a parable about a barren fig tree. For three years it bore no fruit. The owner of the farm tells his gardener to cut the tree down. But the gardener talks him out of it, saying to give it just one more year; if it bears no fruit by that time, then he will cut it down.
Is today’s story, then, just about an unrepentant synagogue leader; and how God is patient with us when we act like that synagogue leader, giving us more time to repent? Maybe. But it feels like there should be more to it.
So we look at what follows. Here, Jesus tells two more parables, now about the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God, he says, is like a mustard seed. Though a very small seed, it grows into one of the largest plants in all of the Mediterranean region, so large that even the birds of the air come to roost in its branches. And again, the kingdom of God is like yeast that spreads throughout a batch of dough until all the batch is leavened.
And so, aha! Now we begin to see!
On the one hand there’s repentance; and on the other there’s the kingdom of God. And wedged between these teachings we find today’s story. Surely, it’s got to be about more than just a kneejerk response to the establishment.
You see, because of our cultural context—we’re independent, rock-and-roll Americans—we immediately turn our focus on the synagogue leader and say Boo! and try to learn lessons about what we shouldn’t do; how we shouldn’t behave. But the biblical context suggests that we should focus not just on the synagogue leader but also on the bent-over woman. And perhaps even mostly, or all, on her! For she is the one in this story who experiences a change in direction—i. e., repentance—and is transformed into a citizen of the kingdom of God.
So, setting aside our desire to heckle and jeer the bad guy in this story, what do we learn from this bent-over woman?
First, here are a few observations:
- She’s been crippled for eighteen years. Where were you eighteen years ago? What were you doing? That’s a long time!
- Her ailment—for the last eighteen years!—is being bent over. So severe is her ailment that she is unable to straighten up.
- In contrast to the earlier miracles in Luke’s Gospel, this crippled woman does not ask for healing.
These observations come from the text. So, next, what might we infer from them?
Well, what would it mean to be bent over so that you couldn’t straighten up? You’d be looking at the ground all the time. Imagine that. Dust. Dirt. Mud. Rocks. Feet. (In cities, sewage.) All the time!
You hear a bird chirping in a nearby tree and you can’t look up at it—not without a lot of trouble anyway. You approach a group of people talking and laughing with one another and you can’t look in their faces, you can’t see the laughter in their eyes—at least not without turning sideways and twisting your neck awkwardly and painfully.
The sun, the moon, the stars, the tops of trees and mountains, the distant horizon, the up-close faces of friends and family—all of these are mostly inaccessible to you. Imagine that! For eighteen long, frustrating years!
To struggle to see only the path immediately at your feet! To see only the dirt and dust immediately before you! Imagine!
And what can we make of her not asking for healing? Had she resigned herself to her condition? Had she concluded, “Well, I guess this is simply the way things are and the way things are always gonna be”?
But then! Ah, then! Jesus breaks into her life. He calls her to himself; and he says, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment”; and he lays his hands on her; and immediately she stands up straight—straight!—and she sees the sun and the birds and the faces all around her, without difficulty; and she begins to praise God.
She begins. That’s an interesting word, isn’t it? For it suggests that she will continue doing so—that she will continue praising God for her new condition; that she has experienced a changed life (repentance), and that this transformation will continue (into the eternal kingdom of God).
So, what do we learn from this bent-over woman? Just this: transformation. This crippled, often overlooked, unnamed woman offers us a picture of transformation, a picture of the ongoing life we should be living in Christ.
Jesus has called each of us to himself—whether we’ve asked him for healing or not! And he’s said to each of us, “Child, you are set free from your ailment.”
Consequently, have you begun to praise God for your new condition? If so, are you continuing to praise God? Or, to rephrase these questions: Have you begun to be transformed in Christ? And, if so, are you continuing to live into this transformation?
Too often we end up spending our whole lives looking down at the dust and dirt and muck at our feet, unable to take in the larger world around us because of our great ailment—an ailment much greater than this woman’s—called sin.
And don’t think for a moment this ailment only applies to those outside of the church!
Jesus was standing right in front of this woman. And no doubt she had heard about him already. No doubt, by this time in his ministry, word had spread far and wide of his teachings and workings of miracles.
And yet, when the opportunity presented itself to her—right before her downward-angled face!—she did not approach him; she did not express her need for healing.
Have we resigned ourselves similarly? Have we been a part of church—has church been a part of us—for so long now that despite hearing Jesus’ call we merely continue looking down at our own two dirty, dusty feet; at our own treacherous path of life upon which we walk? Do we fail to look upward at Jesus and praise God? Do we forget to continue praising God for our ongoing transformation in Christ?
Transformation in Christ is a continuous process. We are being transformed more and more throughout our lives from our marred, sin-laden, fallen images into the perfect, sinless image of Christ. Or at least we should be!
This is the Good News. This is why we follow Christ in the first place.