on the way with Jesus: “a way of being made straight and whole”

Luke 13: 10-17

It’s not only the last time in the gospel of Luke
that Jesus will enter a synagogue on the Sabbath and teach,
it’s also the last time he will enter a synagogue at all.
And by no means the first time.
He’s been in and out of synagogues on a regular basis
throughout the gospel. It was his custom, after all (Luke 4:16).

So if we’ve been reading the gospel up to this point,
we have certain expectations going into this story.
We’re not going to be surprised with a male or a female protagonist
because Luke tends to balance his stories that way.
And I’m now going to regale you with examples:
with an annunciation to Zechariah (Luke 1:5-25)
and an annunciation to Mary (Luke 1:26-38),
the prophetic words of Simeon (Luke 2:25-35)
and the prophetic words of Anna (Luke 2:36-38),
the healing of a man with an unclean spirit (Luke 4:31-37)
and the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law (Luke 4:38-39),
the healing of the centurion’s servant (Luke 7:1-10)
and the healing of the widow’s son (Luke 7:11-17),
the men who accompanied Jesus (Luke 6:12-16)
and the women who accompanied Jesus (Luke 8:1-3),
the woman who gifts Jesus (Luke 7:36-38)
and the Pharisee who does not (Luke 7:39-50),
the Gerasene demoniac (Luke 8:26-39), whose name was Legion,
and Jairus’ daughter and the woman with the flow of blood (Luke 8:40-56).
We’ve noted before the careful balancing
of the story of the man in the ditch (Luke 10:25-37)
and the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42).
There’s the story of the lost sheep about a male shepherd (Luke 15:1-7)
and the story of the lost coin about a female sweeper (Luke 15:8-10),
the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)
and the story of the widow and the unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8),
the story of the tax collector and the pharisee (Luke 18:9-14)
and the widow’s last coin (Luke 21:1-4),
the women to whom Jesus appeared (Luke 24:1-12)
and the men (Luke 24:13-49),
our story of the woman healed on the sabbath (Luke 13:10-17)
and the man with dropsy healed on the sabbath (Luke 14:1-6).

More than you would have guessed?
It does suggest a level of intentionality, doesn’t it?
That many.
I subject you to this litany because I think it’s critically important.
Because there’s affirmation within such impressive balance.

Wonder if Luke had read that bit in Galatians about
in Christ Jesus there is neither Jew nor Gentile
(that was a big theme for Luke too), male nor female (Galatians 3:28).
And do you remember John the Baptist warning,
“Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’;
for I tell you, God is able from these stones
to raise up children to Abraham” (Luke 3:8)—
as if it’s no big deal?
But then Jesus is specifically referred to
as a child of Abraham (Luke 3:34)—
and other than Jesus, and, jumping ahead, only this woman—
and Zacchaeus (Luke 19:9)—Jesus, a woman and a man!
There’s affirmation in such balance!

And we have this woman in the synagogue.
She’s therefore not unclean;
she’s not rejected; she’s not excluded,
though she has been suffering, we read, eighteen years—
been suffering with a spirit of infirmity—
her back. She’s bent over—
quite unable to stand up straight.

So even amidst affirmation and inclusion,
still excluded—
still left out.
Sometimes it’s not the prejudice of another—
the rigid small-mindedness, the rejection of another.
Sometimes it’s just the way things are, right?
The particular circumstances in which we live.
For her, her back.

How many of y’all have dealt with chronic back pain?
I came across one description of back pain
by a woman suffering in the aftermath of a car accident.
She says the pain feels like “a big lump—red and hot—of muscles,
nerves, tendons bunched together in my upper back.
Feels as if everything has been ripped
after being pulled in different directions….
The pain shoots up into my neck,
which feels stiff sometimes
and other times vulnerable, weak, like it could break off.
[The pain] controls me. It’s limiting.
I can only go so far and then the pain stops me.
Whenever I have to do something really physical
or deal with a stressful situation, the pain increases terrifically.
I’ve had to stop thinking about decisions I need to make
in my marriage and relax and get the pain under control.
Can’t deal with my financial and career needs when the pain is bad”
(Richard B. Vinson, Luke in Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary
[Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2008] 452).

So notice what Luke’s done.
He’s identified this woman separate from her infirmity—
separate from her circumstance.
How?
By not denying one minute of the eighteen years
of debilitating, paralyzing pain—
not at all.
But
by also noting she was in worship with her community of faith.
She was living her life.
And it included prayer.
It included hearing the Scriptures read and interpreted
and singing the songs of God and faith.
And I’ll just bet she went out to eat with friends.
I bet she went to surprise birthday parties and stayed up too late.
She planned pilgrimages and went on vacation.
She gave to the poor.
She was faithful.
This was a good woman living her life
in the midst of circumstances she wouldn’t have ever chosen,
and though they were hers, they did not define her.

And she’s not sitting by some pool waiting for the waters to stir.
She’s not sitting by the gates of a city.
She hasn’t heard about Jesus and is waiting to ask him to heal her.
She’s living her life.
It’s the sabbath, and she went to synagogue.

And so Jesus sees her,
and Jesus sees her circumstance,
and Jesus takes initiative.
She’s not asking.
He’s not offering either.
He just flat out says, you’re set free,
and when he laid hands on her,
immediately she stood up straight
and began praising God.

At other times, Jesus asks what people want him to do,
he asks if they want to be healed.
In some cases people ask for the healing—beg for it.
In some, friends or family ask on behalf of their loved one.
This time, not.

Because, see, I imagine Jesus noticing her
amidst the liturgy of worship
within the faith community at this synagogue—
I imagine Jesus noticing her bent over,
maybe grimacing occasionally in discomfort—
especially in those transitions from sitting to standing to kneeling.
I imagine Jesus noticing her—
I imagine Jesus with a big smile thinking to himself,
“Here’s someone who does not need what I can give her.
What joy to be able to gift her that way!”
And when he laid hands on her,
immediately she stood up straight
and began praising God.

So it’s in the midst of joy, celebration and praise, of course,
that we would expect someone to be unhappy—
a religious leader, specifically, to be unhappy.
And we have our indignant synagogue leader,

who is, at first glance, not at all impressive:
“Okay, okay, okay,
all you other sick folk back up!
Back up, I say.
Come back tomorrow—
or the next day or the next or the next or the next or the next.
You’ve got six other days to choose from.”

But in his frustration, do you hear echoing the commandment of God
recorded in Exodus 20:8-10:
“Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.
For six days you shall labour and do all your work.
But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God;
you shall not do any work.”

And we can laugh at this religious leader
for what we deem his inappropriate attempt to keep this day apart,
but we don’t even much try, do we?
We have our soccer games—our baseball games—football.
And we go out to eat and out to the movies.
And we go into the office to finish that project.
And we employ people to work in our basements.
We laugh at his legalism that obscures the law he seeks to honor,
while we ignore the law.
And I’m not sure we have much business laughing.

It was (and is) a valuable discussion,
how to set aside this day for worship—
as part of our identity as followers in the way of God.
And there was (and is) such discussion and debate
and agreement and disagreement—
with general consensus back then, that mortal wounds could be treated,
but non-fatal wounds should wait for treatment.
And here we have a woman
whose condition was not going to change.
“Can’t we wait a day? For the sake of this day?”

It’s not that the synagogue leader didn’t care about the woman.
It’s that he did care so very much—not about the rules,
let’s give him the benefit of the doubt, but about the Sabbath.
“You’ve been living with this eighteen years, Yael,” he says—
because he knew her, right? He was her synagogue leader.
“What’s another day?”

And here’s the thing:
Jesus was kind of flaunting it.
In addressing her directly in the synagogue,
in laying hands on her,
violating all kinds of Sabbath, synagogue and faith expectations.
If Jesus hadn’t made a big deal about it,
if he’d just let the healing happen,
if he hadn’t touched her,
it would have been fine.
No problem with inadvertent healings on the sabbath!

It’s not that the synagogue leader didn’t care about the woman,
and yet instead of confronting Jesus,
he’s indirectly critical of the woman, addressing the crowd as he does:
“There are six days on which work ought to be done;
come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”

So two things:
one, did she come to be healed?
Because no she didn’t come to be healed.
She was there as part of her regular faith practice.
And so two, and perhaps more truly—more importantly,
she came for the healing she regularly found in worship.
The kind of healing you can’t, in fact, get the other six days—
the six days the synagogue leader, ironically, was indicating!
Amidst her circumstance, she received the freeing peace of the sabbath.

So when Jesus goes on
to talk about how it was okay to free animals to get to water,
and then how this woman should be freed
from her crippling infirmity,
either Jesus just flat out got it wrong,
or it got written down wrong after Jesus said it right.

Because Jesus said to the synagogue leader—to the one man,
“You hypocrites!” which is interesting in and of itself!
Makes me think Luke had others in mind
grouped together with this synagogue leader.
But more importantly because Jesus had seen in this woman
someone who didn’t need the gift he was going to give her,
to focus on the physical healing she didn’t ask for,
was to ignore the more important affirmation
of her presence in the synagogue
and the blessing she already knew.

Scholars call Jesus’ rhetorical strategy
of talking about animals and then relating that to the woman,
arguing from the lesser to the greater.
But if he dismisses the gift worship was to her
to focus on a physical healing,
that’s an argument from greater to lesser.

So my guess is Jesus said something more like:
“You hypocrite! Don’t be mad at them for what I did.
And don’t people take care of their animals on the sabbath?
Feed them, water them. And isn’t that what the sabbath is for?
For the nurture and sustenance of the soul.
You don’t think that takes work?
And this daughter of Abraham knows that.
And in point of fact, she has long been set free from this bondage
by her work on the sabbath day in worship with you all.
All I did was straighten the bone to go with the spirit.”

Or maybe he said something like, “You hypocrite!
You might be able to wait. They might. She has.
I can’t. I know the joy of balanced wholeness,
and where I find faithfulness,
the joy of wholeness overflows my being.”

And we read that all opponents
were shamed (cf Isaiah 45:16).
Part of our problem today, I believe,
is too many who don’t know to be ashamed.
All opponents were shamed and everyone rejoiced.
Do you really think everyone rejoiced?
Did the synagogue leader rejoice?
Can we even imagine these days
someone confronted and corrected
then rejoicing?
The news would have to be overwhelmingly good, wouldn’t it?
What if it was? What if it is?

Part of Luke’s message remember,
is to remember the dignity of the individual—
of every individual—Jew or Greek, male of female—
to honor the dignity of each child of God.
So, in the name of God, not to revile, not to mock,
not to ignore, not to abuse, not to oppress, not to exploit.

I must confess that’s been hard this past week,
given what’s been going on in DC.
Entirely too many too easy to mock and, honestly, despise.

But then I remembered a conversation
with Dawn Baker downstairs in the preschool.
And we so often have WEE families under stress—separated—
in the process of divorce, and in their anger and grief,
they often lash out at the teachers—at Jane and Dawn.
And I once told Dawn, “You know this, but I’m reminding you,
and it’s in no way to excuse their behavior,
but it’s not personal. So can we work to not take it personally?
Can we hear in it their feelings of grief and anger and hurt
of betrayal and failure,
and hear it all with even some gratitude that we’re catching it
and so maybe, hopefully the kids aren’t?

It’s not as easy when it comes to thinking about DC.
They’re by no means living with their circumstances
as impressively as this woman in our text.
They’re immature, shallow, angry whiners …
see how easy it is to get off into easy anger?!
But I do think there are a lot of people over there
who live with such deep fear—
such a fear of scarcity and such a need to hoard,
such a fear of otherness and such a need to reject.
A lot of people in proximity to some forms of power
who mistake that for security and as the means of peace.
What would it be like for them to know the joy
of God’s peace overflowing?

Our God is too big—our faith story is too big
to have small enemies.
Fear is the enemy, manifest in those it has vanquished.
They are not our concern. The fear is.

So I want to close
by going back to the healing—
back to where it says:
“Immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.”
Because this is Luke, after all,
and immediately’s not so much a theme as in Mark—
with the hustle of the incarnation.
I made a mental note here, by the way, to do a sermon
on the incarnation in Mark called “do the hustle!”

Now admittedly, the travel narrative picks up the pace in Luke’s gospel—
there is a building momentum,
but more than a sense of pace,
we’ve more consistently noted the tough words,
the blunt assessment of cost—
the price to be paid—and to be paid willingly.
And so after all these hard words we’ve encountered on our way,
how nice to finally arrive at a wonderful and easy story.
Immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.
Hmmm.

So I’d like to suggest, alternatively,
more in keeping with what we’ve come to expect,
that immediately is how it was described some fifty years after the event
when the story was being written—
when Luke was invested in creating/sustaining
a certain level of respect and authority for Jesus
and a justification for belief,
but that if you’d actually been in that synagogue,
immediately is not how you would have described
the inexorable straightening—vertebrae by vertebrae
with accompanying pops and cracks—
with winces and muscles clenching—
sudden exhalations of surprise and pain
when out of the blue,
there’s the unexpected imposition of the unfamiliar on the familiar,
the introduction of otherness into schedule and routine,
something new into what was taken for granted.

Now it’s not that Luke was wrong,
fifty years later, to say immediately.
Maybe immediately relative to eighteen years of pain
and eighteen years of balancing pain with worship and prayer.
So maybe immediately in the larger scheme of things.
And, truly, after fifty years of living whole and straight,
what’s the pain of having been straightened?
And she gave praise to God.
And everyone rejoiced.

So the enemy is not who but what? Fear.
And the work of wholeness is indeed work.
May we learn and come to know
and share with each other the witness
that on the other side of such work,
there is wholeness and joy,
and the pain of having gotten there will be forgotten.

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