This morning’s reading is the fourth of five sabbath healing stories in Luke and only one of many times that Jesus was at the synagogue, good Jew that he was. For this reason, it is easy to think that this is a reading about healing, or a reading about Sabbath observance; But, a close reading reveals that it is also about creation:
“There are six days on which work ought to be done,” said the Hazzan, “come on those days and be cured and not on the sabbath day.”
The Hazzan was only stating a sabbath rule that would have been known to everybody there. What he didn’t realise is that creation is not finished yet, it won’t be until the Kingdom comes. Of course Jesus has to work on Shabbat… he is not finished creating. It is worded, though, in a way that makes you think that Jesus might be doing a little rule-breaking, that he may even be trying to redefine the laws of Shabbat. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus countered with another sabbath rule when he said, “…ought not this daughter of Abraham, who has been bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day.” He said this because the sabbath day was a day to remember that they had once been slaves, in bondage, and now they were free. It was necessary for her to be healed, released from bondage, on a sabbath. In that way she became a living reminder, a sign, that God is still delivering his people from all kinds of bondage.
Jesus used sort-of a reverse qal vahomer in his argument. Qal vahomer is a hermeneutical device that means to go from a small thing to a bigger thing. So, if something is true in a small matter then it will be true in bigger things too. Here Jesus goes from the big matters of the exodus, creation, and sabbath to the particular matter of this one woman. If it were God’s ideal to free all the Jews, then it is God’s ideal to free this one too. It logically follows that this should be done on the day that we remember the exodus, and that the sabbath should be observed by bringing freedom to every individual Jew as well as all Jews collectively.
Just one more kind-of interesting thing. It sounds like a side-note, not something you’d notice; but, two times the text mentions that the woman had been afflicted for 18 years. Two times! That means it’s important. It might not be so striking to us, but the listeners in the first century would have remembered that King Eglon had sorely oppressed them for 18 years before God sent the left-handed Benjamite judge Ehud to deliver them. The remembrance of that, along with the remembrance of the exodus would have caused everyone to think in terms of freedom, release from bondage.
So, I am going to use a full-on qal vahomer and use this particular story to talk about something much bigger: In our pericope today one woman came into the synagogue. Jesus saw her, called her, and he healed her. This act restored her to health and also restored her to the community. In a broader sense, Jesus found Israel gathered at the synagogue and they were wrapped up in all the minutia of running the place. They had their rules, their ways of doing things. They were all bound up in that. But, unlike the Israelites in the time of Ehud and Eglon, they were not crying out for mercy. They rather liked their ways of doing things. Perhaps they’d always done it that way. Maybe they even dressed it all up and called it “tradition.” But, it was an affliction.
The one person who may not have shared that affliction was, ironically, the one who is said to be afflicted. The woman. Unnamed, of course. But, let’s look very closely at what exactly afflicted her. Jesus said that she had been bound by the Satan, the accuser. The Satan had bound her with the weight of accusation which is what he does, it’s his job, and the weight of the accusations was so heavy that she couldn’t look people in the eye. She kept her head down. Maybe she was ashamed, maybe she was even guilty, but in any case she was bound by the accusing finger of the Satan. The Satan in this case is not some otherworldly figure, it is the others in the community. They were the accusers. As James Allison has said, Satan exists because we exist. The devil is not “out there,” the Satan is among us, and when we point accusing fingers at others, placing a yoke of oppression and accusation on them, we are the Satan!
Oh, wait. Suddenly it’s not a passage about healing or sabbath rules. Now it’s a story about us. Uh-Oh. The unnamed woman in this passage may have seen through the selectively enforced rules of the synagogue. Maybe she saw the tension between strict observance and the mercy that sometimes bends the rules for the sake of the greater law. Maybe she bent sabbath observance in other ways. Or, maybe she bent other rules. It may be that God’s love and release were clearer to her and caused her to not really care about how to tie an ox, or when to worship, or where. Whatever it was, she did not buy into the entanglements of oppression that afflicted the others. So the Satan did what he always does, he accused her of the very thing he was doing. That’s what the Satan does. The community pointed their collective fingers and accused her with their malicious talk. Maybe they accused her of not being faithful, of not following the rules, or maybe of some other sin, maybe a serious sin, and maybe she had really done it. We don’t know. What we do know is that the weight of the accusations was so great that she couldn’t even stand up. This went on for 18 years.
When Jesus came on the scene he acknowledged the tension between faithful observance and mercy and he declared that to show mercy is the way to be faithful. The sabbath laws were not given to be restrictive. To a people who had been enslaved, a mandated day off would have been good news. Of course there are institutions, there’s power, there are people who want to codify God, who worship the false god of smooth sailing and, when that happens, rest and mercy fly out the window. Only empty rules remain.
We have to ask some serious questions in light of this reading:
Are we spending ourselves to feed the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed. Who is hungry and oppressed in your community? What are they hungry for? Do you contribute to the oppression of others?
Who is too ashamed — rightly or wrongly — to look others in the eye? What will it take to bring healing to them?
In what ways are we the Satan? Do we accuse? Maybe we mean well, but what is the real result?
In what ways are we like the Hazzan? What is more important: Institutional stability or throwing open the window to the wild winds of the Holy Spirit? How far would you go to ensure that your parish runs smoothly? Would you throw Jesus out?
In what ways are we like the unnamed woman? Is there a yoke of oppression on you? Maybe you’ve been accused of something. Maybe you are even guilty. The accusing finger of the Satan casts the illusion that you are an outsider, unwanted, unappreciated, and an object of shame. If he were here, and he called you, would you let Jesus touch you?
What does it mean to be a daughter of Abraham?
Where are you, really, in this story?
Some Notes of Possible Interest
There are five sabbath healings in Luke:
- Luke 4:31 takes place in Capernaum, in a synagogue, and Jesus healed a man possessed by a demon on the sabbath.
- Luke 4:38 takes place in the home of Simon, and Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law on the sabbath.
- Luke 6:6 takes place in a synagogue, and Jesus healed a man with a shrivelled right hand on the sabbath.
- Luke 13:10 (today’s reading) also takes place in a synagogue, and Jesus healed a woman who had been bent over for 18 years on the sabbath.
- Luke 14:1 took place in the home of a prominent Pharisee, and Jesus healed a man with an abnormal swelling on the sabbath.
Exodus 20:9-11… “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. “For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and made it holy.
Deuteronomy 5:13-15… Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns, so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought out of there with a mighty hand an and outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.
Linda McMillan is a free-range monotheist trying to live free in the midst of an enslaving culture.
Image: Christ healing the crippled woman who was bent over from Revised Common Lectionary (Vanderbilt)
©Linda Diane McMillan, 2019