Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Healing on the Sabbath: Freeing a Woman Unable to Stand Tall or Speak Up

She was huddled in a corner of the church, so twisted and broken by poverty and suffering she couldn't stand up. She had come into the church to get out of the cold. She liked to listen to the preaching and the different from the harsh sounds of the street where she often spent the night, frightened and alone.

She was glad that no one in the church paid any attention to her. She felt ashamed of her poverty, her broken body. She wanted to be invisible.

A man entered the church, a famous Teacher that everyone was talking about.  He saw the woman and walked over to her.  Everyone's eyes were upon her and she knew something extraordinary was about to happen. 

"Stand up," he told her. "You are free!"

She couldn't believe this important person was paying attention to her. She was frightened, and at the same time excited. When he said, "You are free," what did he mean? She felt his loving gaze and began to feel alive again. The Teacher believed in her, and she began to believe in herself. Maybe she could stand up and straighten out her back and her life. With great effort she raised herself up and stood tall, for the first time in nearly eighteen years. Tears of joy welled her in eyes.

"Thank you, God," she said in a loud, confident voice. Everyone in the congregation saw what had happened, and were amazed. Some whispered, "It's a miracle."

The pastor came down from the pulpit and confronted the Teacher.

"Our worships service is beginning," he said in a booming, indignant voice, loud enough for all to hear. "Why are disrupting it? Couldn't you have waited till the service was over?"

The Teacher fired back at the pastor.

"You hypocrite! If the church's electrical system failed and the lights went out, you would have given it your immediate attention. But here is a woman, made in God's image, living in darkness and pain and you complain when I help stand on her own two feet and shine with the Light of God."

At these feisty words, some in the congregation began to cheer, and many silently praised God. The pastor decided he wanted nothing to do with this disruptive street person who pretended to be some kind of prophet and was obviously unhinged.


This story came to me after we read Luke 13:10-17 during our Bible study at the Kinsler's this morning. (Ross and Gloria Kinsler authored an important biblical study called "Jubilee Economics and the Struggle for Life.") Our discussion focused on how this story about Jesus healing a crippled woman on the Sabbath was all about liberation.  This woman who was "bent over and couldn't straighten at all" for eighteen years was "in bondage to Satan." (According to the Gospel, Satan was the tempter, the deceiver, and the originator of illness.) In what way was she deceived and broken? Was it because of the oppression she suffered as a woman, as a woman living in poverty, under Roman occupation? We don't know what caused her infirmity, whether it was physical or psychological, but we do know that Jesus "freed" her.

When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” 13 Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.
The word "free" reminds us that the Sabbath was given by God to the Jews as a sign of their freedom from bondage and oppression. In Egypt, they had to work seven days a week, 365 days a year, if the King so demanded. Once they were free, God granted them one day a week to be utterly free from all work. What a blessing!

Like all good things, however, Sabbath had a dark side. For some Jews, especially those in power, there were harsh penalties for those who "broke the Sabbath." Even today some ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel throw rocks at people who drive their cars or ride bikes on the Sabbath.

The leader of the synagogue was angry when Jesus disrupted the Sabbath worship with his healing. He threw verbal stones at Jesus and tried to make him look bad in the eyes of the congregation:
14 Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.”
Jesus responded to the religious leader, and to those who agree with him, with righteous indignation:
15 The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? 16 Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”
The word "hypocrite" means "actor" in Greek. Actors in antiquity typically wore masks (called personae in Latin) and pretended to be someone they were not. By speaking truth to power, Jesus "unmasks" the leader of the Temple and shows how he utterly misses the point of the Sabbath. It is to bring liberation, not more oppression.

It is clear from this passage that Jesus is not only on the side on the oppressed, he also honors women. With heavy irony, he reminds the leader of the synagogue that this woman is not a beast of burden, but a "daughter of Abraham." His deep love and respect for her as a child of God and "daughter of Abraham" is what frees her from her bondage. She no longer has to be bent over and silent. She is now able to stand tall. She has a voice. And the crowd cheers and praises God. 

During our Bible study we talked about how important it is to help the oppressed and downtrodden stand tall and have a voice. We talked about going to our elected officials and speaking the truth that they don't necessarily want to hear. We talked about the Sunday service at the Pasadena Presbyterian Church where homeless people and church members worship and break bread together, and where we feel that Jesus is present for that reason. When Jill preached there, she greeted each homeless person and got to know them by name. This is how we begin to break through the class walls that separate us from each other. 

This is the essence of the Gospel, the good news that liberates us from prejudices that prevent us from loving our neighbors, especially our poor and homeless neighbors. We give thanks each day that Jesus has shown us the way to free ourselves and our neighbors from bondage to ego and to an oppressive system that makes the poor invisible. 

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