Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

This little story gets straight to the heart of Jesus’ mission in Luke.

Psalm 103:5
[W]ho satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.Photo by Richard Lee on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

August 25, 2019

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Commentary on Luke 13:10-17

This little story gets straight to the heart of Jesus’ mission in Luke.

Recall that when the Lukan Jesus first announced his mission — also in a synagogue on the Sabbath (Luke 4:16) — he described it in terms of human liberation and flourishing: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). There is hardly an episode in Luke that does not point back to this messianic manifesto.

In this week’s reading, the motif of liberation reverberates with particular force. Jesus insists that the bent-over woman be “set free” (apoluo, verse 12) and “released” (luo, verse 16) from her “bond” (desmos, verse 16). Moreover, when he debates the synagogue leader about Sabbath law, Jesus draws directly from Deuteronomy 5:12-15, the version of the commandment that connects Sabbath rest to Israel’s liberation from slavery in Egypt.

In Jesus’ view, since the Sabbath law commemorates and celebrates Israel’s liberation, it ought to be a day for enacting — not inhibiting — the present-day liberation of Israelites. Moreover, given the custom of providing water for thirsty livestock on the Sabbath (verse 15), it is surely appropriate to heal a long-suffering Israelite on the Sabbath (verse 16).

In none of this does Jesus abolish the Sabbath commandment. Rather he aims to follow it faithfully. Jesus enters what was, at that time, an ongoing Jewish debate about how to interpret the Sabbath law, locating himself at the less stringent end of the opinion spectrum (see also Luke 6:1-11; 14:1-6).

But this is more than a debate about scriptural interpretation. It is, more fundamentally, an instance of God’s kingdom breaking into the present world. Careful readers will notice that the episode does not really end with verse 17. Jesus continues to explain his actions: “He said therefore, ‘What is the kingdom of God like?”” (Luke 13:18).

It is like a tiny mustard seed that grows into a tree for sheltering birds, or like yeast that leavens bread for provision and fellowship (Luke 13:19-20). Notice the similarities to the bent-over woman: something seemingly small and insignificant becomes, with God’s loving and transforming power, a vessel to further God’s kingdom. “When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God” (verse 13).

I emphasize “seemingly small and insignificant” as a way to highlight Jesus’ distinctive messianic vision. Jesus sees and cherishes what others might overlook. We do not have to denigrate Jesus’ culture in imagining the woman’s social invisibility, or at least her perceived insignificance. For eighteen years she has been “quite unable to stand up straight” (verse 11), meaning she has been unable to look people in the eyes. Her vision has been limited to the ground in front of her. Likewise, the community’s perspective on her has been limited to her bent-over back and the top of her head.

Yet Jesus recognizes the mustard seed. Jesus sees the woman and calls her forward. He does not take her into a side room for a private healing. He engages her and heals her in front of everyone, which then allows her — for the first time in eighteen years? — to praise God face-to-face with other worshipers (the same verb for “straighten” [anakupto] in verse 11 is later used to describe believers welcoming Jesus at the Parousia [Luke 21:28]). And with the woman’s restoration comes the restoration of the community. Her neighbors now see her more fully. By straightening the woman to see them, Jesus grants them a fuller vision of the woman, so that, in the end, “the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing” (verse 17).

None of this is to say that the woman’s bent-over condition had compromised the validity of her worship, much less her personhood. Indeed, preachers must be careful not to appropriate the woman’s healing in a way that questions, however indirectly, the sacred worth of people who are differently-abled.

Luke and the other evangelists emphasize Jesus’ power to heal physical brokenness because they are convinced that God created everything and called it “good” (Genesis 1:1-31), meaning Jesus’ messianic mission is not some gnostic deliverance of the spirit out of the body but a healing of the entire person. In the case of the bent-over woman, Luke goes so far as to call her condition a form of Satanic bondage (verse 16), which is an ancient apocalyptic way of saying her condition violates God’s will for her life (and is not her own fault!). To be clear, she is not demon-possessed. But, according to the Lukan Jesus, she is tragically broken.

The pastoral conundrum is this: while being differently-abled is sometimes experienced as brokenness, it may also be experienced as something to be honored and celebrated. A pastorally responsible appropriation of this story will honor the spectrum of differently-abled experience. It will thus translate the woman’s brokenness in a way that does not reduce differently-abled people to “the broken.” It will define Jesus’ healing mission as broadly as possible, so as to foster identification with the bent-over woman and the experience of Jesus’ powerful healing, but also to foster a sense of communal vision and recognition of neglected daughters and sons of Abraham.  

Finally, it will be crucial to highlight the extent to which Jesus’ healing mission never waits for an allegedly more appropriate day. If the bent-over woman must (edei, verse 17; NRSV “ought”) be straightened on the Sabbath, then there is no time at which human healing cannot and should not occur. The kingdom of God does not accommodate our sense of propriety and polite timing, even when it comes to our most well-intended theological convictions. It is God’s will to heal human creatures. Now. The slightest delay to that healing indicates resistance to Jesus’ kingdom mission.