Scripture: Luke 13:10-17
On the face of it, this story of healing and controversy has little to draw our attention. Jesus heals someone on the Sabbath again, and someone calls him out on it again, and the narrative just moves on. We’ve already done the whole “Lord of the Sabbath” thing in Luke 6:5, so this feels a bit like a faint echo of that more majestic response.
Couple that with the fact that these days we are generally a bit uncomfortable with Jesus doing miraculous things, since we don’t see the same thing happening around us now. “That was a long time ago,” some say. “God doesn’t work that way anymore,” some say. And so we are sometimes quick to dismiss what we believe ourselves to be incapable of replicating.
All that means that we aren’t paying too much attention to this story. Which is unfortunate, because it may be one of the most important healing stories recorded in the Gospel of Luke. Why is it so important, you ask? Because (I believe), it more fully connects Luke’s important themes of Sabbath and freedom than any other healing story recorded in Luke.
Lord of the Sabbath
Let’s talk first about Sabbath. If we’ve already read the first twelve chapters of Luke (which is how the gospels were intended to be read—from beginning to end like a book), then we would have already picked up on how the Sabbath is an important day for the Jews of Jesus’ day, and how refocusing the Sabbath is an important part of Luke’s gospel. Jesus does a lot of teaching on the Sabbath, and he is frequently doing it in local synagogues wherever he finds himself. But Jesus also defies Sabbath rules as defined by the Pharisees when he gleans grain to eat, or when he heals those with physical ailments or demons. Even Jesus’ death later in the gospel will be complicated by the Sabbath.
Early on in these confrontations, Jesus responds with the now-familiar line: “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath” (Lk 6:5). In telling that same story, Mark’s gospel also records Jesus as saying “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mk 2:27).
So as we read here, we see another Sabbath healing, another Sabbath controversy, ……yadda yadda Lord of the Sabbath. And we think that is all there is for us here. But there is more.
You see, it may well be that the primary theme of the Gospel of Luke is liberation—it is that God (in no small part through Jesus) paves the way for us to experience true freedom, freedom that allows us to live into God’s desires for each of us and all of creation.
Luke (and Jesus) set the tone for all this at the very beginning of Luke’s gospel. In chapter 4, on the very first Sabbath mentioned in the Gospel of Luke and before Jesus begins his ministry, Jesus reads these words aloud from the scroll of Isaiah while attending synagogue:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18–19).
After reading these words, Jesus tells his hearers that he is the fulfillment of this prophecy. And then he begins going about and living it out.
He teaches: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Lk 6:20)
When disciples of John the Baptist come to inquire of Jesus, he has them shadow him for a while so they can see for themselves. Then he says, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them” (Luke 7:22).
Jesus proclaims—quite literally—the year of release, the year of Jubilee, the year of the Lord’s favor.
But we should not think of Jesus as a miracle worker. Nor is he a revolutionary, per se. He brings instead liberty, breaking us out of the prison of our sin and circumstance so that we might know God and live more fully as the human beings God created us to be. We cannot live thusly without being free, because we cannot be free when slavery robs our choice.
Those victimized by the cycles of violence need liberation in order to break free and be able to choose God.
Those victimized by the cycles of poverty need liberation in order to break free and be able to choose God.
Those victimized by degenerative physical conditions need liberation in order to break free and be able to choose God.
All of them need to experience some kind of release before they are able to experience anything more, and especially anything as mysteriously wonderful as the life of Christ. It is (I believe) much as envisioned by Abraham Maslow’s concept of Hierarchy of Needs. No one, whose basic needs of food or safety are under constant threat, is much capable of attending to deep inward reflection or contemplation of God’s love. You become a slave to your need. When your being is threatened, your energies and resources are devoted to protecting and preserving yourself. For those victims of violence, poverty, or degenerative physical conditions, attending to anything but the immediate and crushing circumstances of your life is nearly impossible. This does not mean that they are in any way less human. They have only been treated less humanely.
The Ignorance of the Healthy
And it is frequently in this way that I believe the powers of darkness work to keep us from growing with God. It is why, in our scripture reading, this woman is said to have been bound by Satan. In keeping her hurting, in constant pain, and shamefully disfigured, Satan has effectively distracted her from pursuing God. But thank goodness God was not distracted from pursuing her.
For eighteen long, painful years, she has been thus distracted. And over that time, “she has become accustomed, if not resigned, to her long and serious illness… For eighteen years this unnamed woman must strain to see the sun, the sky, and the stars. For eighteen years she has become accustomed to looking down or just slightly ahead but never upward with difficulty. For eighteen years her world has been one of turning from side to side to see what those who stand upright can see with just a glance. She is used to this, and no one questions her fate” (Townes, Feasting, 382).
It has been eighteen years, the synagogue leader likely knows. And like many a healthy person might, he thinks she can easily enough wait another day. No need to break the rules. No need to defy religious custom. If she has already waited 6,570 days, why can’t she wait one more?
Oh, the ignorance of the healthy……
Some in our church family—including some of you present—live with chronic pain. Some have physical ailments that might well be even more severe than that of this woman. And some of you have battled your condition much longer than eighteen years.
What if you could respond to this synagogue leader’s question: “She’s waited so long already; can’t she wait another day?” ——What would you say?
I imagine you would say—with the loudest, strongest voice you could muster up: “NO!!! She definitely can not.”
You would say this because you know something that this woman knows and Jesus knows, but the healthy synagogue leader most certainly does not—This woman is in bondage. Her affliction holds her back. It beats her down. It holds her captive and keeps her from living life, from doing the things she wants to do. It isolates her from friends and family—even her church. It is as much bondage as if she were in prison, for that is how it often feels: You are serving a life sentence.
Jesus knows. There may not be another human being in all of history that knows quite what you are up against—who knows your struggles, who knows the darkness, and who knows the isolation and shame. But Jesus knows.
And even more than knowing, Jesus acts. The woman never asks to be healed—she may well have lost all hope of healing—but Jesus calls her over and speaks words of liberty to her. Putting his hands on her, he breaks through the barriers that keep her a social outcast and he draws her back into the center of a community. In doing so, she is made whole again.
But healing is not enough for Jesus. He also confronts this callous synagogue leader who would make the woman a victim yet again, rebuking him for his lack of love. And Jesus even dares to suggest that the Sabbath is the perfect day for liberation. He actually invokes the Sabbath tradition to support his action here.
Creation Sabbath vs. Exodus Sabbath
The thing about the Sabbath is that there are actually two Sabbath traditions in the Bible. The first, found early in Genesis 2 after the first story of creation, is rooted in God’s own actions. Having finished the creation of the world, God rests from the work of creation to bless and consecrate the Sabbath. On account of this, as we read in the Ten Commandments of Exodus 20, the Sabbath is to be a day of complete rest, with no work whatsoever being performed.
But the other Sabbath tradition suggests something different. Its genesis is found in Deuteronomy 5, where God claims the Sabbath is a time of remembrance. In Deut 5:15, God says, “Remember what it was like when you were a slave in Egypt. Then with overwhelming power I brought you out of there. That’s why I have commanded you to observe the Sabbath each week.” So the Deuteronomy tradition of the Sabbath requires the day be observed and kept holy in recognition of their release from their slavery in Egypt. In this tradition, Sabbath is about remembering liberation and God’s “overwhelming power” to free us from bondage.
It is this second Sabbath tradition that Jesus hearkens back to now. Since the Sabbath is about remembering how God liberated our ancestors from slavery in Egypt, is it not the perfect day for a person to be liberated from their own bonds of slavery?
What Jesus suggests is something like our doing a baptism on Easter Sunday. It just makes sense to couple the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus with an observance of the symbolic death, burial, and resurrection of one who is publicly committing to following Jesus. As Jesus begins his resurrected life, so the baptismal candidate “begins” living a newly resurrected life in community as well.
The Sabbath, Jesus instructs, is about liberation. It is about breaking free of the bonds that hold us back and reaching forward to the new life God desires for us.
But in our own Sabbath-like traditions, we are still frequently deceived into elevating rules over people and emphasizing ritual over transformation. In the eyes of so many in our world, Sunday worship services are anything but freeing. Over the last 50 years or more, we have put so much emphasis on “right behavior” in church that most of the non-church-going population thinks worship is about following cumbersome rules and being inconvenienced for an hour a week. It is no wonder that they are not drawn to us.
None of this happened because we are or were bad people. Quite the opposite, really. We felt the awesomeness of our God. We believed in the sacredness of worship. We acknowledged our responsibility in preserving the tradition we have received.
And so we, like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, set about to do just that.
With everything good in our heart, we decided the best way to teach our children of the sacredness of the space of worship was to force them to be still and quiet when they were there, even when there weren’t any services going on.
We decided that the best way to keep pure the tradition we have received was to limit contact with other church traditions.
We decided the best way to educate people of the tradition was to reinforce that tradition through repetition. So we did not require anyone to think for themselves; we controlled interpretation by giving an answer to every question.
More or less like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, we built a hedge around our tradition because we loved it and we didn’t want to trample it—even accidentally. But like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, we built a hedge so large and thick that no one could see what was in the middle anymore. No one could see the tradition we loved. No one could see the light of God in the middle. No one could see anything except a hedge.
Which made us look like nothing more than gardeners cultivating a hedge. And some of us have been doing this pruning for so long I wonder if even we have begun to forget what this was all about. I wonder if some of us have begun thinking it’s all a contest in growing the best hedge.
But God is still there. The traditions we love are still deeply embedded in there somewhere. But an unbeliever can see nothing except the obstructions we put up between them and God. Our Sabbath—our worship—is seen as archaic and lifeless. Our churches are seen as places that take and take and take—time, commitments, money……
But this should not be so. Our Sabbath—our worship—is to be a place of liberation.
That is why I believe God is behind the changes in our religious landscape. Because God and Jesus and the story of Luke is still alive in the world—God is still working to liberate us from slavery, to liberate us from ourselves.
As church membership and attendance drop around the country, as many churches are struggling to make their budgets each year, as many communities of faith are even forced to close their doors—we are tempted to believe that the powers of darkness have gotten the upper hand. But I don’t think so.
I think God is tearing down the hedges we have built around God and our traditions. I think God is removing the barriers we have built—barriers that were built in good faith, but have since become obstacles to God’s mission. I think God is demolishing the walls that have begun to block the light of God.
I think God is liberating us from ourselves, inviting us to move closer, to look deeper, and to encounter anew the raw closeness of God and God’s love.
I used to do a lot of reading and research into modern German history—say, the 1920’s through about 1970. There’s a lot of really neat stuff that even today has yet to be translated into English, making it off limits to the average person. But one of the things that has always captivated me is the Berlin Wall.
I think origin of my interest was my vivid memories of the day the Berlin Wall came down. Among other things, I remember a teacher moved to tears when she discovered the news. I wonder now if she was of German descent and had relatives behind the Wall.
The biggest discovery I made about the Wall in those days continues to haunt my mind. The most common explanation offered up for its being built is that it kept East German citizens from getting out of the country. Therefore, they were completely under the authority of their government who controlled everything—groceries, petrol, utilities, housing, etc. In other words, these textbooks claimed the wall was built to keep people in.
But the earliest documents I read described a motive entirely inside-out from this–and far more honorable. The aim of the wall was to protect the people from corrupting influences and to preserve the ideology. In other words, it was designed to keep bad people out; it was intended to protect the convictions the government and many of the people held dear. But what may have begun with the good intentions of protecting and preserving ended up being a system of bondage and oppression. A haunting warning for future generations, to be sure.
I tell these stories and ask these questions because I am dead serious about following the cause of Christ. If being a disciple of Jesus means I must take up my cross, abandon my family, let the dead bury their own dead, give all I have to the poor, have no place to lay my head, and the like—then it must also require me to be willing to give up even my ideas of right religious practice in order to follow where God is moving.
Humility is not a quality often associated with Christians anymore. We claim to know what we know absolutely, and we will fight to the death with anyone who believes otherwise. Some churches even encourage their members to leverage and destroy any relationships they have in misguided attempts at evangelism.
But Jesus always values relationships over rules. He always chooses people over ritual. Like God, Jesus is persistent in meeting people where they are, rather than forcing them to do it his way first. And if we are serious about being called “Christians,” we’re going to have to start doing all that too.
That cross is just a chunk of brass. That statue is just a piece of plaster. This space is just a building to gather in. It is more than that, but it is just that, all the same. Because what matters—what truly matters—is people. At least, that’s what matters to God and Jesus.
If we can’t understand that, then we won’t be able to get along with each other. And we won’t look much like followers of Jesus. We will look like gardeners trying to repair a hedge planted a long time ago. We will look like custodians of a museum of religious artifacts and language. We will look like a synagogue leader trying to drive away the liberating power of God because it does not follow our rules.
We will be slaves to ourselves, rather than free people in Christ and liberators of the world with God. If even an ox may be freed to drink water, why do we keep so many bound and without access to the living water of Jesus Christ?
Bound or free? Slavery or liberation? The choice is yours. The future is God’s.