You are Free! (A sermon on Luke 13: 10-17)

“One Sabbath Jesus was teaching in a synagogue. A woman there had an evil spirit that had kept her sick for eighteen years; she was bent over and could not straighten up at all. When Jesus saw her, he called out to her, “Woman, you are free from your sickness!” He placed his hands on her, and at once she straightened herself up and praised God.

The official of the synagogue was angry that Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, so he spoke up and said to the people, “There are six days in which we should work; so come during those days and be healed, but not on the Sabbath!”

The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Any one of you would untie your ox or your donkey from the stall and take it out to give it water on the Sabbath. Now here is this daughter of Abraham whom Satan has kept in bonds for eighteen years; should she not be released on the Sabbath?”

His answer made his enemies ashamed of themselves, while the people rejoiced over all the wonderful things that he did.” (Luke 13:10-17)

We’re in the middle of an election campaign here in Oz at the moment and I’m sure we should be making that more of a focus in our church gatherings. Certainly it is a matter of spiritual significance – who we have as our elected leader! Even so, I have to confess that I personally find all this pre-election campaigning rather farcical!

I know the media are depicting this election as an epic battle between two towering titans, but it strikes me as being something more like a schoolyard tiff – something like a popularity contest between two teenage girls!

You’ll have to forgive me if that sounds sexist but keep in mind that I have had two daughters now run the gamut of our schooling system and I have become accustomed to the way girls in particular can enter into epic battles over who is somebody’s second-best friend, and the whole thing can get horribly political.

I personally don’t want either Mr Rudd or Mr Abbott as my best friend or my second-best friend and I hate the game-playing and manipulation that forms the process. I would frankly prefer, if they’re going to stick to schoolyard tactics, that they opt for the way boys normally sort their issues out. I appreciate that a good brawl wouldn’t necessarily determine who the better man was (and I think in this case we all know who would win) but it would certainly make the process of political campaigning far more entertaining!

As I say, it all depends on how you ‘frame the narrative’ – whether you see it as an epic battle between the gods of politics or as a petty scrap between two school-children. It’s all in how you frame the narrative, which in turn depends on what philosophers call the ‘metanarrative’ – the big story through which we make sense of all of life’s little stories. It’s all in how we frame it, because how we frame things determines how we deal with them, and that’s true not just of politics, of course, but of all of life!

“One Sabbath Jesus was teaching in a synagogue. A woman there had an evil spirit that had kept her sick for eighteen years.” (Luke 13:10-11)

That’s not what we would have seen, of course – a woman with an evil spirit. We would have seen a woman with scoliosis.

In our culture we see illness only within a scientific/medical framework, and perhaps that’s the way we prefer it, but the medical framework can trivialize illness too!  After all, this woman wasn’t just sick. She’d be struggling with her affliction for eighteen years, body and soul!

She’d been fighting the devil, for half her life perhaps, over this debilitating curse that she’d been stricken with! I don’t think she would have appreciated it if we’d told her it was just a bit of bad luck!

Of course the medical model does have its positive side too, perhaps especially in the way it allows us to be less condemning of people who are ill.

We are familiar, I think, with the dark side of the 1st century framework of understanding, as we see it in the ministry of Jesus often enough. When somebody is ill – most especially with one of those debilitating afflictions like blindness or leprosy – there’s generally an assumption made that the person who is suffering must have done something to deserve it!

The tragic drama of John chapter 9, where Jesus encounters a man born blind, comes to mind. “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” the disciples ask Jesus. For after all, if you’re sick and suffering, there must be some spiritual raison d’etre for it, such as is consistent with the just laws of God!

Jesus doesn’t buy into that argument, you might remember – refusing to play the blame game. Even so, as I say, the medical-scientific model can help restrain us in our judgementalism too, unless of course someone is dying of lung cancer.

“Smoker?” we ask, shaking our heads? “Well … yeah … I guess you had it coming to you!”

Of course, those of us who have struggled with addictions know full well that they are never simple medical issues either. I smoked for fifteen years, and it was a battle royale for me, and that addiction was relatively trivial! This woman had been struggling for eighteen years and let’s not simply reduce her problem to an unfortunate spinal condition. Here was a woman whose whole life had been twisted and perverted through her inability to stand up straight!

We don’t know when it began for her. Apparently though this sort of condition starts to manifest itself quite regularly during adolescence. Perhaps it started when she was just at that age of having reached puberty, was starting to get interested in boys and was thinking about her own prospects for marriage and a family of her own! And then the crippling cramps and pains that started to hunch her over, such that she became increasingly incapable of doing her normal chores or socializing with her friends.

Her hopes for her own future would have faded gradually as her condition grew worse. Perhaps her friends felt sorry for her? No doubt many made fun of her! No doubt some assumed that she must have committed some terrible secret sin – a sin of such a magnitude that it warranted such a cruel punishment!

We can’t be sure how the woman perceived her own illness but presumably she framed her reality similarly to her peers. Presumably she saw herself as locked in a conflict with the devil and, most likely, after eighteen years, she had accepted that it was a battle she was never going to win!

Was she angry with God about that? Did she feel perpetually guilty about it all? Did she just see herself as a victim? What was her metanarrative? However it played out, after eighteen years of struggle I imagine that this tormented woman must have been quite tired. Happily though, on that Sabbath morning she happened to be at the right place at the right time, and her eighteen years of struggle with her evil spirit suddenly came to a wonderful climax!

When Jesus saw her, he called out to her, “Woman, you are free from your sickness!” He placed his hands on her, and at once she straightened herself up and praised God. (Luke 13:12)

We get the impression here that Jesus actually spotted this woman at a distance and took the initiative with her!

I love the brevity of this part of the story. Jesus evidently figured that this woman has suffered long enough and that there was no need to draw out the healing process. He calls her forward. He places his hands on her. She straightens up. Everybody rejoices (well, almost everybody)!

The Gospel writer gives us no detailed depiction of how the woman responded, though we can imagine. Neither are we given any indication of what was going on in Jesus’ mind. I imagine the two of them – Jesus and the woman – may have had a little dance together! But the focus of the Gospel writer turns to the leader of the synagogue, whose reaction is clear, and stands in sharp contrast to the rapturous response of the rest of the audience!

The official of the synagogue was angry that Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, so he spoke up and said to the people, “There are six days in which we should work; so come during those days and be healed, but not on the Sabbath!”  (Luke 13:14)

The way the text is worded, it seems that the synagogue leader blames the woman rather than Jesus, and I guess that makes sense. He may well have felt intimidated by Jesus. It’s much easier to beat up on the cripple. After all, she’d been the butt of everyone’s jibes for the last eighteen years! Why stop now, even if, as the text suggests, it was Jesus who took the initiative in her healing.

Once again we seem to be dealing with an issue of differing frameworks. There is no dispute over the facts. Everyone can see what has happened. It’s just that the synagogue leader can only view what has happened within a religious framework whereas Jesus doesn’t seem to do that, or at least He doesn’t view the woman’s healing within the same religious grid as does his antagonist!

For the synagogue leader it’s all about the law, and the law has been broken! His was a religion of the book, and the book says that you don’t work on the Sabbath, and for a professional healer like Jesus, healing counted as work!

Jesus doesn’t enter into theological debate on this issue at all in this scene. He does on other occasions. When Jesus is accused of Sabbath-breaking in an incident where his disciples are picking grains and eating them on the Sabbath (as recorded in Mark chapter two) Jesus argues with a group of Pharisees over their interpretation of the Scriptures when it comes to the Sabbath, pointing to precedents in the life of King David and claiming finally that “the Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).

On this occasion, in start contrast, Jesus makes no reference to the Scriptures! Nor does Jesus offer any theological justification for His actions. Rather, He says simply, “Hey, you give your donkey a drink on the Sabbath, don’t you?”

It seems that there are two conflicting narratives here once again – the narrative of the synagogue leader and his pious associates who can only see this miraculous healing within the framework of law and responsibility, and the framework of Jesus where everything seems to be focused on the woman!

I was reminded very strongly, when reading this story, of an earlier incident recorded in the Gospel of Luke, in chapter seven, where Jesus is having a meal in the home of a Pharisee named Simon and, we are told, a woman comes in and starts kissing the feet of Jesus, anointing them with oil and wiping them with her hair.  And as the murmuring begins Jesus asked Simon the Pharisee a question. Do you remember what it is?

“Simon, do you see this woman?”

It’s the question that cuts to the heart of the issue, as in that case the answer surely was ‘no’. Simon didn’t see the woman at all. What he saw was an issue! He saw an incident, a scandal! He saw a sinner and an act of law-breaking, but ‘no’, he didn’t actually see a beautiful yet struggling human being there at all!

It’s the same case here, I believe. This synagogue leader, for all his religious piety, doesn’t see a healed and restored woman at all. He sees a law broken! Perhaps he also sees someone challenging his authority in his synagogue. Either way, he sees the whole thing within his own black and white theological and ecclesiastical framework and so, no, he doesn’t see the woman at all!

For Jesus though the focus is all on the woman, and so the story concludes with Jesus challenging the synagogue leader to make a paradigm shift!

“You hypocrites! Any one of you would untie your ox or your donkey from the stall and take it out to give it water on the Sabbath. Now here is this daughter of Abraham whom Satan has kept in bonds for eighteen years; should she not be released on the Sabbath?”

I wonder how long it had been since anyone had referred to this woman as a ‘daughter of Abraham’? I wonder if anyone had ever referred to her as a daughter of Abraham? My guess would be that certainly since the scoliosis set in, nobody would have spoken of her in such lofty terms – as a person of genuine spiritual significance!

‘What’s in a name?’ we often say, and yet in this case there is a lot that is in this name, as behind the relabeling of this woman as a daughter of Abraham is a change in the meta narrative!

Who is this woman? We never hear her name yet we can guess what she was known as to most of the people at the Synagogue service that Sabbath. She was ‘the cripple’, ‘the hunchback’ – that poor unfortunate soul who had been cursed by Satan to eighteen years of groveling pain and humiliation.

‘No!’ says Jesus. This woman is a daughter of Abraham! She is a proud descendant of a noble race. She is a woman of spiritual significance who shares in the mission of God’s chosen people to bring light and life to the world! This woman is not to be trifled with! Stand up straight, sister, and take your rightful place in the worshipping community as a daughter of Abraham and a child of God!

And so the story ends on a happy note. The woman is rejoicing and her critics, we are told “were ashamed of themselves” (Luke 13:17).

You see, they were not bad people. When Jesus confronted them, they realised the stupidity of what they were saying. They were not bad people. They had their heads stuck inside a rigid religious framework that had little room for the miraculous work of the Spirit of God but they were not bad people. They were embarrassed for their harsh words, and (while we don’t know for sure) I’d like to think that this scene ended with them joining in the celebration with the woman.

It’s all a question of framework – how you read the Scriptures, how you see events, how you interpret life.

“I owe. I owe. It’s off to work I go!” Is that your metanarrative?

I mention that one only because I see it often enough on bumper stickers. God forbid that I should ever see my life as one of lifelong enslavement to mammon!

I hope that whoever writes my eulogy one day will have the wisdom and grace to start it “Once upon a time” and tell the story of a boy who set out on a sacred quest for the Kingdom of God, because that is my metanarrative – fighting the good fight and getting knocked down by the devil and getting up again …

It all comes down to how we frame things – life, people, and political campaigns – and the goal for us as followers of Jesus should be to allow Him to shape the way we perceive things – to set the metanarrative for us.

To put it simply, we need to see things through the eyes of Jesus – to see people as Jesus sees them, to see ourselves as Jesus sees us, and to see our lives within the framework of that sacred pilgrimage that we walk with Jesus.

“Woman, you are free”, says Jesus. Stand up straight! Claim your place in the community of God’s people as a daughter of Abraham and as a child of God! Sister, you are free! Brother, you are free! Woman, you are free!

First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 25th of August.

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.

www.FatherDave.org

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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