The Woman With the Bent Back
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, she immediately 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)
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We know very little about the woman who was healed in our text today. The text is silent on the question of why she was healed and others weren't. We don't know why she bore the pain and humiliation of a bent back. Perhaps modern physiologists might be able to give a diagnoses, you know, now that we know so much about human beings. Perhaps the source of her crippled physique was chiropractic in nature, perhaps a lack of calcium. Medically there's only conjecture on our side of the 2,000 years that separate us from her.
None of us may have ever experienced the spinal reality of such a thing, but the infirmity of the woman who was healed in this text seems spiritually familiar doesn't it? Because her collapsed posture is the physical representation of being se encurvatus en se, or, the self curved in on the self -- which, incidentally, is Luther's definition of sin -- myopically unconcerned for anything but the self and having no thought for God or the neighbor. In other words, bent in a manner in which we see nothing but our own feet. We can come by it naturally -- embodying the messages we receive from society and our families and ourselves -- that we are not thin enough, smart enough, rich enough, like our sister enough, or enough enough. This can just bend us in.
Then add to it our cultural obsession with the self and the notion that we are our own gods, and the result is a deformity of identity. One particularly insidious example is our inability to forgive ourselves for not being God; for making mistakes and getting things wrong and not hitting the mark. It is hard to say which is worse -- trying to be God for myself, or punishing myself for not managing to do something that isn't actually possible in the first place. What bends us over so that we see only self are the voices from inside or outside that try to overpower the sound of God naming us as God's own.
It's hard to say what it was like for her that day when everything changed. We think of this text in Luke as a healing narrative, but really it was nothing less than an exorcism. Well that, and another opportunity for Jesus to pick a fight with the nice religious folks since all of this happened on the sabbath.
In all fairness, the leaders of the synagogue were just doing their job when they said to the crowds that it was the sabbath day of rest and not a time for healing. But see, Jesus does not violate the sabbath by healing her. He fulfills it. By healing her he actually does sabbath to her. He physically embodies in her what sabbath is -- namely, a time for putting aside our handiwork so that we might witness the handiwork of God. She is passive in the midst of the faithful where she is restored to an upright position, no longer turned in on herself, and is named as a child of God's promises. That sounds pretty "sabbathy" to me.
After she is seen, touched, and healed by Christ, she is named as a daughter of Abraham by Christ, and restored to the dignity and wholeness of being a child of the promise.You know, this is the only place in the Bible where the term "daughter of Abraham" appears. Here, Jesus places her in the history of God's promises. And the promise to which she has claim; God's promise to Abraham was not that his children and children's children would be super rich and important and fabulous. God's promise to Abraham was that his descendants would be a blessing to all nations. The good news for Abraham had little do with himself and had a lot to do with God's love for the whole world.
So this daughter of Abraham is blessed to be a blessing. She encounters Christ and for the first time in 18 years, stands upright and praises God, not because she got what she wanted but because praise is simply the consequence of wholeness.
Here's where we finally learn what the purpose of her healing was. The purpose of her healing is not fulfilled when she stands up straight, and it's not fulfilled when she is named, and it's not fulfilled when she praises God. The healing is completed when the community witnesses new life in their midst and rejoices. In other words, her healing from God had less to do with her and more to do with God's love for the whole world.
Having seen God's mercy in the upright body of this daughter of Abraham, the community rejoices for having God in their midst. Right here in the mess of their broken lives and fractured hopes and crippled bodies. Right here in the midst of the hypocrites and religious legalists. This is where God shows up.
It's the same for you. Your encounter with God's grace has a purpose. Your being freed from the tyranny of self has a purpose. Your being acted upon by God -- being made whole -- has a purpose. And it's not so that you can collect higher self-esteem and a sense of well-being in order to spiritually feather your nest. God does all of this for the good of your neighbor. It has always been like that with God. You know why God gave us the ten commandments? Because God demands obedience? So that you will be happy? Nope. Because God loves your neighbor and would prefer you not to steal from them or to sleep with their husbands.
Having been restored by God, having been healed of being bent in on herself, this daughter of Abraham then bore Christ into her community. So if you too have been freed from bondage, if you have been shown selfless love, raised from the dead, restored to wholeness, it is for the benefit of the community. Don't keep it to yourself. Because like the bent woman, you really are blessed to be a blessing.
Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor living in Denver, Colorado, where she serves the emerging church, House for all Sinners and Saints. She blogs at www.sarcasticlutheran.com and is the author of Salvation on the Small Screen? 24 Hours of Christian Television.