How could you do that!?

Week of Sunday August 25
Gospel: Luke 13:10-17

Luke 6
6 On another sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. 7The scribes and the Pharisees watched him to see whether he would cure on the sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him. 8Even though he knew what they were thinking, he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come and stand here.’ He got up and stood there.9Then Jesus said to them, ‘I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?’ 10After looking around at all of them, he said to him, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He did so, and his hand was restored. 11But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.

Luke 13
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.2He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’ ...

10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath.11And 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. 12When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’ 13When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.14But 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.’ 15But 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? 16And 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?’ 17When 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.

18 He said therefore, ‘What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? 19It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.’

20 And again he said, ‘To what should I compare the kingdom of God?21It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’

Numbers in stories do not seem to be used by accident. So I immediately wondered why the woman in this story was bent over for 18 years.

I was also struck by the language describing her disease. It did not sound like a physical disease or physical healing. She is not simply "a man with a withered hand." (Luke 6)He says she is set free, not that she is healed. Stoffregen notes that

The pronouncement Jesus gives to the woman is "You have been set free (apoluo) from your weakness/sickness" (v. 12). …. apoluo is not a word usually associated with healing! Its general meaning is "to release" or "send away." It is closely related to a word (luo) used twice in our text by Jesus: to "untie" an ox or donkey (v. 15) and to "set free" from bondage (v. 16).

The result of Jesus' pronouncement is anorthoo (v. 13) -- literally, "to set straight again," certainly a cure for this woman's "bent-over-ness"; but it also has the meaning "to restore" or "to set right again." Figuratively, Jesus restores her to the Abrahamic covenant.

In addition, the words for "bound" and "bondage" in v. 16 (deo -- used for the "tied up" colt in 19:30, its only other use in Luke; and desmos -- used in references to chains and shackles in 8:29, its only other use in Luke) can only be used of illnesses in a figurative sense -- being bound by some force.

It was common to understand illness as something more than simply an organic problem. But is Luke seeking to emphasise the bondage her illness is causing her? It is not simply any illness, but something more serious. She is separated from Abraham by her disease; cut off from her people.

Is this disease just as deadly as having a tower fall on you? Eighteen people were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them just a few verses before. (13:4) If he does not hasten to heal her does he place her, or leave her,  at just that risk?! Or is it that the re-use of the number 18 is simply a rhetorical echo?

Jesus is deliberately provocative in the healings of this woman and of the man with the withered hand in Luke 6. All he had to do was wait for sundown when the Sabbath would be finished. But he goes out of his way to be inflammatory. Luke 6 says

[T]he Pharisees watched him to see whether he would cure on the sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him. 8Even though he knew what they were thinking, he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come and stand here.’

He knew what the controversy that would result in Luke 13.  (He also touches the woman, who technically is probably unclean because of her illness, although that is not raised as an issue by the leader of the synagogue.)

In his reply to the leader of the synagogue Jesus

points to the need to water animals on the sabbath. One could argue that that was necessary for survival. But the woman would have survived another day. She had been in this state for eighteen years! It is not a very good argument. (Loader)

In fact, Loader almost suggests Jesus' reply is a 'throw away line.'

The counter is weak and off hand because Jesus’ understanding of the Law is quite different. His basic assumption is that God’s will (in the Law as elsewhere) is focused on people’s well being. Elsewhere he states: ‘The sabbath was made for people; not people for the sabbath’ (Mark 2:27).

What is God like? Loader asks. Is God interested in the law for the law's sake, and does God wish to be worshipped simply because he is God?

What is God really like? What if God’s chief concern is not to be obeyed, but something else? What if God’s chief focus is love and care for people and for the creation? Then the focus moves from God’s commands to God’s people and world. It is as though God is telling us to get our priorities right. Commandments, rules, guidelines, traditions, laws, scriptures are also subordinate to that purpose: love. God’s focus is not self-aggrandisement as it is with so many who have power and wealth and want to keep it, but generosity and giving, restoration and healing, encouraging and renewing. When any of these means (commandments, laws, scriptures) cease to be seen in that light, they become ends and we find people in absurd conflicts about whether they help someone in need or obey God. (Loader)

There is an absolute clash of world views in this story. Each is dumbfounded by the other. How can you break the Law like this? There are six other days! You could wait. How can you insult God like this? The leader of the synagogue is not being petty. His God has been insulted, ignored, and belittled by what Jesus has done. It is sacrilege.

Yet how could you make her wait one more day!? Can you not see her agony? Healing is here! God wishes her well! Why withhold the blessings of God? What kind of God do you believe in?! Jesus cannot believe what he is hearing.

We still worry about serving "God" instead of being simply compassionate. The two world views still compete with each other. The "issue is alive and well," Loader says.

How we imagine God is directly related to how we imagine what it means to be a decent person.

As two serious and devout Jews, Jesus and the leader of the synagogue are formed in their response to the suffering of the woman.

In Australia the Federal Election is three weeks away. Each of the major parties has embarked on a scape-goating 'race to the bottom' to get the redneck vote. Refugees, already treated treated in contravention to basic human rights, will be treated even worse. I am dumbfounded that any Christian could consider voting for either party; the treatment of refugees is symptomatic of a general move to gain electoral advantage at the expense of the poor.

Yet I see Chrstian friends on Facebook 'liking' Tony Abbot or Kevin Rudd. I am dumbfounded. I cannot believe what I hear and see; it contradicts other dearly and costly held stands for discipleship by these people; I do not know even how to begin to talk about the issue.

This is not just a matter of the big national issues. In my own congregation there is constant petty behaviour and complaint over trivial issues. The absolute pettiness in the face of the need of others, for whom we are truly able to be Christ, leaves me wordless. The people who so astonish me are good, decent, salt of the earth folk. I suspect my lack of caring about the issues which concern them grieves them greatly. Truly, "how we imagine God is directly related to how we imagine what it means to be a decent person." And what we imagine, we become.

Stoffregen suggests

We want to "see" Jesus through the lens of our own understanding of what a savior should be like. As long as we "see" in this way, we cannot see.

Jesus acts in the way he does to burst through our seeing, our prejudices. There is no place for half measures. Indeed

Systems theory indicates that any time someone upsets the homeostasis -- the comfortable way the people are used to, someone is likely to sabotage the plans and attach the one making them. Being pushed out of homeostasis causes anxiety. Anxious people can do all kinds of things that may not be helpful. (Stoffregen)

A world view is rarely changed by persuasion and reason. It takes crisis to change.

I have argued for years that International Roast coffee is an insult to people; a sign that we do not want them to be with us. Congregations never really listened. So I went out and bought a coffee machine, which is now well patronised. It has upset some folk, who insist on drinking instant coffee any way!

I'm sure Jesus was not thinking about coffee!  But at what point did he find that what he was on about, what he was envisioning, was simply beyond people to see? Were there times when he 'just did it?' It seems to have paid off.

Despite his 'weak and offhand argument' (Loader) "all his opponents were put to shame." (17) The crowd "was rejoicing" because they understood the point Loader made: "God’s chief focus is love and care for people and for the creation" not the keeping of laws which many of them could simply not afford to keep. The opponents understood him too. There is no more comment about waiting for the other six days.

Despite the ending of the lectionary reading at verse 17, it is clear that Luke's 'train of thought' goes beyond this verse.

18 He said therefore, ‘What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? 19It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.’

20 And again he said, ‘To what should I compare the kingdom of God? 21It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’

The link is plain. What is the kingdom like if God's chief focus is love and care for people and creation, rather than people turning the guide of the law into an idol that takes precedence over compassion? The kingdom grows from small acts of compassion; acts where people use law and scripture as a guide rather than immovable rules that leave others in pain or need. And from even tiny acts like a mustard seed something becomes as big as a tree. Small amounts of yeast leaven the whole loaf. The kingdom runs and grows on compassion!

I want to return to the woman. Practice what it means to have a curved over spine. There is no looking at anything but the ground. I assumed the posture of a person I knew. To look at anything I had to stand side on, head cocked like a bird. Even then it was difficult to look up; that curvature of the spine makes it hard to tilt the head. What an agony to live with, "quite unable to stand up straight." (13:11)

I tend to stoop; the combination of an old sporting injury and scoliosis. When my melancholy is deeper than usual, the stoop gets worse. Sometimes then, I force myself to stand tall and straight; it's an effort, but the effects on the way I feel are quite stunning. 'Standing tall' is a true expression. There is a dignity and health in that simple act which is deeply healing. Imagine being "quite unable to stand up straight!" Long before we take this story as a metaphor about healing from all kinds of  oppression—not least gender oppression—it holds a simple physical truth. He set her free.

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical! 

Sandy 20-08-2013
Great insights, Andrew. Especially pertinent with our 'inconvenient' refugees and asylum seekers who we'd rather see wait than help them when they present at their time of great need.
Jennie Gordon 20-08-2013
Thanks Andrew, this is so helpful to the path I am taking this week, combined with Jeremiah. By labeling ourselves 'only a boy' and labeling others, 'bent' 'rule breaker' 'gay' 'refugee' - we restrict the work of God and deny people their right to stand tall. We do it individually and as a congregation and church. We lose sight of Love. Thanks again - blessings, Jennie

Would you like to comment?
Click to add Feedback

© Copyright     ^Top