Commentary on Luke 13:10-17
The Gospel of Luke opens with dramatic appearances of the archangel Gabriel, who announces to Zechariah the prophetic ministry of his future son John (1:13–17) and tells Mary that her child, the Son of the Most High, will reign forever (1:31–33). The jubilant prophetic responses of Mary (1:46–55) and Zechariah (1:68–79), with prophetic confirmation from the holy Simeon (2:28–35), set the tone for Luke’s unfolding narrative. The theme of divine mercy is featured prominently in Mary’s and Zechariah’s songs. For Luke, mercy (eleos) is at the heart of what God is doing in Jesus (1:50, 54, 58, 72, 78).
Simeon emphasizes the “light for revelation” the discerning will see in Jesus: this illumination is “glory” for believers but will also spur opposition (2:32, 34). For Luke, following Jesus requires that believers emulate the ways in which divine mercy is enacted through Jesus’ ministry, persevering even in the face of hostility. As a youth, Jesus had studied with scribes (2:41–52; only in Luke). Jesus has grown in wisdom and now offers revelatory insight through his teachings on the Sabbath, starting with his inaugural proclamation from Isaiah in the Nazareth synagogue as defining for his mission (4:14–21). Jesus grants healing and liberation to those struggling with economic precarity, incarceration, and other conditions of diminishment. In Lukan theology, Jesus, the deliverer of Israel (1:54–55, 69–75, 77–79), is a Spirit-filled teacher whose words and deeds are prophetic and emancipatory.
In 13:10–17 preachers find a powerful story, unique to Luke, in which Jesus heals a woman who has suffered for eighteen years from severe forward flexion of her spine, as occurs with orthopedic conditions such as ankylosing spondylitis. Preachers might describe the challenges to wellbeing that could result from her debilitating condition: neck and back pain, fatigue, difficulty breathing, heart problems related to inflammation of the aorta, and, potentially, feelings of frustration, vulnerability, or isolation. Exploring what this woman has endured over years of what Jesus terms Satanic bondage (verse 16), preachers should take care that their words show no insensitivity to hearers living with inflammatory bone disease or mobility challenges.1
Jesus speaks an emancipatory word before he puts his healing touch on the suffering woman. The word Jesus speaks is mighty to heal, as Luke demonstrates again and again (4:39; 5:24–25; 6:10; 8:28–33; 9:42; 17:12–14; 18:40–43). Jesus’ word can even raise the dead (7:14–15; 8:52–55). Here, preachers might point to the exemplary request of a centurion, “Only speak the word, and let my servant be healed,” a petition taken to demonstrate superlative faith (7:2–10). In Luke 13, Jesus says, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment,” and immediately her spine is straightened. The praise offered by this “daughter of Abraham” serves as a paradigmatic faithful response to the God who has shown unfailing mercy to Israel’s ancestors (1:54–55, 72–75) and now works life-restoring miracles through Jesus.
The synagogue leader, in his role as teacher of Torah, objects to Jesus having performed a healing on the Sabbath. The commandment forbidding work on the Sabbath (Exodus 20:10; 31:14–15; Leviticus 23:3; Deuteronomy 5:14) leaves “work” undefined, allowing for various interpretations from ancient times to today. A list in Mishnah Shabbat 7:2 of thirty-nine kinds of labor forbidden on the Sabbath includes such tasks as sowing, baking, hunting, writing, building, and leading from one domain to another, that last category featured in Jesus’ riposte when he observes pointedly that his opponents lead livestock to the watering trough on the Sabbath (Luke 13:15).
The list of types of forbidden labor does not discuss healing. Rabbinic authorities agreed that lifesaving intervention was permitted on the Sabbath, but were divided on whether healings of non-life-threatening conditions, such as a withered hand (Mark 3:1–5; parallels in Matthew 12:9–13; Luke 6:6–10) or the orthopedic disease that had afflicted the woman for years in our Luke 13 passage, should be healed on the Sabbath. Some interpreters would aver that miracle-working ought not be forbidden, even theoretically, in regulations designed to shape faithful life in the covenant community, since stipulations regarding what is permitted and what is forbidden were intended to honor the Holy One whose divine power would be performing any authentic miracle that occurred.
A pivotal moment comes in 13:15 when the Lukan narrator identifies Jesus as the “Lord” (kyrios) during the dispute: on this matter, Jesus’ authority is elevated over that of the Temple leader. Jesus frames the woman’s release from suffering as a matter of cosmological significance: in setting the woman free from her condition, Jesus has defeated Satan on this holy day, honoring God and pointing to liberation as a fundamental characteristic of God’s realm.
This passage challenges all who have settled into narrow interpretations of Scripture or ungenerous theological positions. In what ways might ecclesial authorities or seasoned believers interpret Christian theological traditions or liturgical praxes in ways that accord with long-established norms but may miss the heart of what it means to be a “new creation” in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17)? Preachers can explore in contextually resonant ways the linkage of this story of emancipation with the theme of liberation in the Sabbath rationale given in Deuteronomy 5:15: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.” Preachers can urge hearers to encounter Jesus, in his healings and teachings, as the embodiment of radical good news for the poor, release for the captives, and emancipation for the oppressed (4:18).
- Instructive for preachers is John T. Carroll, “Disability and Dis-ease: Body, Restoration, and Ethics of Reading in Luke’s Gospel,” in Anatomies of the Gospels and Beyond: Essays in Honor of R. Alan Culpepper, ed. Mikeal C. Parsons, Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, and Paul N. Anderson; Biblical Interpretation 164 (Leiden: Brill, 2018), 211–225.