Sermon for 12 Pentecost Yr C, 22/08/2004
Based on Lk 13:10-17
By Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &
Chaplain of the Good Samaritan Society’s
South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta
“The crippled, bent over woman”
Who is this Jesus anyways? And who are we? Those are two basic questions that today’s gospel invites us to explore. Our answer to the first question of Jesus’ identity shall likely be closely related to our answer to the second question and vice-a-versa. In today’s gospel, we see Jesus as: a devout Jew, an unconventional teacher, a healer, a liberator. Just who we are, I think, depends on where we locate ourselves in the story by seeing whom we identify with the most.
So, first then, we see Jesus as a devout Jew. This is made quite clear in verse ten, where Luke tells us that Jesus: “was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath.” There are several instances in the gospels of Jesus attending and participating in synagogue services on the Sabbath. Whenever he had the opportunity to do this in his travels, he would drop in to a synagogue. He obviously felt quite at home doing this and many of the people, sometimes even the leaders, welcomed Jesus into the synagogues. Moreover, he participates in the Sabbath services, like any devout Jew would, by reading the scriptures and teaching the synagogue members. All of this affirms that Jesus was a devout Jew who worshipped, taught and studied in the synagogue just like other faithful Jews at that time.
As Christians living in today’s world, I believe this emphasis on Jesus the devout Jew is instructive for us in at least two ways. First, it reminds us that we too need to be devout in the practice of our Christian faith by regularly attending worship on the Sabbath. If Jesus needed to worship and practice his faith in this way, then how much more do we?! In so doing, we draw strength for our daily faith journey, receive love and encouragement and are, in return, also able to better love and encourage others. Second, by recognizing the Jewishness of Jesus, we might be better able to show empathy towards and love the Jewish people today. We as Christians cannot be anti-Judaic or anti-Semitic in light of the fact that Jesus himself was Jewish; he loved and cared for the Jewish people. Thus, we too are called upon to follow his example by speaking out against or resisting all forms of anti-Semitism.
Next, we see Jesus as an unconventional teacher. The first example of this is in verses twelve and thirteen of our gospel. Here Jesus probably does an unconventional thing by, first of all, speaking to this crippled, bent over woman in public. In a man’s world, it was not considered very acceptable behaviour for a religious teacher to speak with a woman in public. Women, along with children and slaves were treated as second class citizens. So that’s the first thing that would likely have raised eyebrows and upset several of the men in the synagogue. However, Jesus doesn’t stop there! In verse thirteen, he goes on to complete his healing action, by fulfilling his words with the act of touching this woman, laying his hands on her. This again was a very unconventional thing to do, a Jewish man was not supposed to touch a woman in public. Even worse than that though, it was very unconventional for a religious teacher to heal someone on the Sabbath! How dare Jesus violate the Jewish Laws—the age-old rules and regulations, policies and procedures by healing this woman on the Sabbath! Yet, that’s precisely what he did. Although he himself did not consider this to be unconventional at all. Rather, it was a matter of compassion for this poor woman who suffered from her ailment for eighteen long years that Jesus healed her. In doing this he was merely reinforcing his teaching about the Sabbath earlier—namely, that the Sabbath was created for the health of human beings, not human beings for the health of the Sabbath.
This brings us to our next way of seeing Jesus—as a healer. Jesus obviously had so much compassion that he could not help but heal this poor, suffering woman. For him, the suffering had to end now; it could not be delayed another day. The fact that it was the Sabbath merely was, in a sense, a reaffirmation of Jesus’ identity as the Messiah. The Messiah came to seek out the suffering and grant them healing. So, if that’s the case, then a healing on the Sabbath—gives life and health and helps the healed person to worship and praise God—would actually be a sign that the Sabbath was being kept, not violated. What better place and day to confirm the Messiah’s identity than a healing in the synagogue on the Sabbath.
There is, however, another message, especially for us contemporaries reading and studying this passage today. The message is this: Jesus the healer comes today too to heal us of the various things that cripple us and cause us to be bent over like this woman. For some, it might be an actual physical healing of being crippled and bent over. For others, the healing might be from that which cripples and bends us over socially, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. Socially, we may be crippled and bent over because we are a member of a minority and are discriminated against; or we live in poverty and feel that we are treated like second class citizens. Emotions such as fear and anger can cripple and bend us over. Mentally we can be crippled and bent over by thinking that we are not good enough to accomplish certain things in life. Spiritually we might be crippled and bent over by believing that God is a God of wrath and punishment, not a God of grace and love. Whatever cripples us and causes us to be bent over, Jesus invites each of us today to come to him for healing.
Next, we see Jesus as a liberator. This view of Jesus as the One who sets us free is clear in verse thirteen when Jesus speaks to the woman, as well as in verses fifteen to seventeen, when he answers the synagogue leader’s criticism of healing on the Sabbath. Jesus says to the crippled, bent over woman: “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” Those words, “set free” carry with them here the meaning of: to untie or unbind, or to loosen, or to open up. The images that come to mind are that of being set free from a prison, or a bird let out of a cage, or of a slave being given their freedom as a full-fledged citizen with all the attendant rights and privileges. Place yourself in the crippled, bent over woman’s shoes for a moment. Can you imagine the surprise and the overflowing joy and gratitude she experienced when she could stand up straight?! WOW! WHAT A FREEDOM! Now she could really live the abundant life that Jesus came to give her and each and every one of us.
Again, in his answer to the synagogue leader, Jesus emphasises the importance of being “set free.” His reasoning method here in these verses is the Jewish one of “from the lesser to the greater.” He says that even Sabbath-keeping Jews would exercise compassion on their animals by untying them and giving them a drink. So, how much more ought one to exercise compassion on the Sabbath by unbinding a human being from the bondage of evil. For Jesus, and hopefully for us then, exercising compassion towards people and serving their needs is far more important than following prescribed rules and regulations. Jesus gives us freedom, he does not keep us crippled and bent over by oppressive laws. He gives us freedom to stand straight and live life to the fullest. He sets us free so that we, in turn, can help others to be free too.
Speaking of us, now we shift gears to the second question: Who are we in light of this gospel story? There are a few possibilities, perhaps we identify with more than one person in this story.
First, there is, of course, Jesus. He is the central, most important person in the story. Maybe we believe that we engage others like Jesus did in this story—therefore, we see ourselves as following Christ’s example. Maybe we have been blessed by being a healing presence for others and responding to other people’s needs by exercising compassion towards them. This is a great gospel story that inspires us to do so. Maybe by following Christ’s example here in this story, we are blessed by being able to draw others to Jesus.
Or maybe we’ve been struggling with a crippling ailment, and we too are bent over in one form or another. So we can identify with this poor woman who suffered in this way for eighteen long years. Maybe we, like her, are still looking and hoping for the healing of Jesus—whether that healing be physical, social, emotional, mental, or spiritual. So, we keep coming to hear his words of promise and love and participate in his meal. Then, suddenly, we’re taken by surprise and we too are healed, and even more, we’re given a new-found confidence and dignity because Jesus has named us a “daughter or son of Abraham” too. It is amazing how “name calling” can either enslave and destroy us or free and heal us. I think we’ve all had experiences of schoolyard bullies who run us down with derogatory name calling. That really does hurt and can even destroy us in one way or another. On the other end of the spectrum, we’ve also had inspiring, kind, loving people who have also called us names that surprised us because they raised our sense of worth and dignity and gave us a new confidence to face the world and live more holistically.
Or maybe we’re like the leader of the synagogue, we love to obey the law and keep everything in good order. Maybe we struggle with our priorities: is keeping the rules and regulations more important than meeting people’s needs by exercising compassion or is it the other way round? Jesus then challenges us to enjoy our freedom and to ease up on our zeal to follow the laws in a slavish, unbending way.
Or maybe we are the crowd, who, upon witnessing the wonderful words and acts of compassion of Jesus are filled with joy because he has set us free to love, inspire and care for one another. Our life counts, we can make a big difference thanks to Jesus.
So, this wonderful gospel story is full-to-overflowing with promises, surprises, and endless GOOD NEWS for us all! Amen.