|"Bonus Photo - Reality" by reway2007, on Flickr|
Now [Jesus] was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And 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. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, "Woman, you are set free from your ailment." When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But 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." But 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? And 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?" When 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.
If you read any handful of Madelenie L'Engle's novels and memoirs, you might pick up on a common personality trait among her heroines, herself included. Many of these women, at one point or another, talk about their mental and emotional states as a matter of being "in proportion" or "out of proportion." L'Engle uses this talk of "proportion" to convey something common to each of us: knowing when things in our lives feel balanced, settled, and ordered, and knowing when things in our lives feel unbalanced and askew.
It is this idea of proportion that intrigues me about the woman in today's gospel reading.
For eighteen years, she has been living out of proportion. She has been stooped over and thus bent out of normal physical proportion. But more than that, eighteen years of being bent-over must also have put her emotions, her livelihood, her hopes for a future out of proportion as well.
With such an ailment, and being a woman at that, her life would have been difficult. She would have been at the fringes of society, and totally reliant on others to carry out necessary tasks, such as drawing water. Who knows if she would have been deemed "marry-able," and if not, she would have been left without a husband, without status or protection. The difficulties of such a life would have been absolutely out of proportion with any hopes, dreams or expectations that she might one day have had about her life.
The text says that this woman has been crippled by a spirit. It is hard to discern whether the author intends us to understand this woman as being actually possessed, as with other characters in the gospels, or whether this talk of being crippled by a spirit is meant to imply no one could figure out the cause or her ailment, and thus everyone ascribed it a supernatural cause. Or maybe the author simply means to tell us that both her body and spirit were weighed down, bent over, downcast; we all know that a broken and downcast spirit can, quite literally, weigh us down and bend us over.
We also don’t know exactly why this woman is in the synagogue. She is Jewish, and so perhaps this is a mark of her identity and faithfulness. It is also possible that she went to the synagogue when she knew there would be lots of people around, with a flash-in-the-pan hope of receiving money or food from a generous soul. All that we know from the text is that the woman happens to pass by the place where Jesus is teaching.
Unlike other characters in the gospel who seek out Jesus for healing, this woman does not approach him, and she has no friends who push her into his personal space. It is Jesus who notices her, who calls her over, who interrupts his lecture that he might show love and compassion to this nameless woman.
This is the first important thing we need to take away from today's gospel: that Jesus seeks out those who are bent down, who pass below the gaze of society. While there is wisdom to the idea in our society that recognizing your own need for help is the first step in your recovery, Jesus doesn't function inside these parameters. Remember that early in Luke's gospel Jesus unrolled the scroll, and read from Isaiah, "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."
Jesus is always actively seeking out need and fixing it. Jesus brings wholeness to those who seek it, but he also brings wholeness to those whom he seeks out. Remember that he also describes his mission in terms of a woman seeking a lost coin or a shepherd seeking a lost sheep. Jesus understands his mission to be seeking out those in any sort of need, and lifting their burdens. His healing is free and openly offered. And so he calls over the bent-over, out-of-proportion woman, and heals her of his own volition.
Of course, this gets him in a little bit of trouble. It's the Sabbath, and the letter of the law says that you are to do no work on the Sabbath, and so those who are itching to get Jesus in trouble are quick to point out that it doesn't matter how miraculous the healing of this woman is, Jesus should have waited to do it until some other day.
This is the second important thing that we need to take away from today's gospel: Jesus isn't concerned with the letter of the law; he is concerned with the spirit of grace and freedom. Jesus understands God's law as something that is intended to bring life. Indeed, the Sabbath commandments were never really about restricting work for the sake of restricting work, that somebody might be able to be smug and boast. The Sabbath commandments were about freeing slaves and livestock and workers of any variety from the burden of their work. It was an opportunity for rest, given justly to all, and not only to those who could afford it. Jesus understands that the law is not about bondage but about freedom. And so it is more important to him to liberate this woman from her ailment than it is for him to worry about the letter of the law.
Jesus, in today's gospel, is acting out of proportion, acting outside the normal balance of society. He offers for free what society says should come at cost, and he offers with grace that which society says should come with boundaries. Jesus acts out of proportion precisely to bring this woman back into proportion, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Today’s gospel reading is one that we often overlook, but one that speaks very deeply to our hearts. We all know what it feels like to be out of proportion, bent over by the weight of the world.
These are the times when heartache paralyzes us from even simple functions like eating and sleeping. These are the times when worries overtake us, or physical limitations come to define us, or depression descends upon us like a dense fog. These are the times when we feel lonely and tired, stumbling, stooped. In these out-of-proportion moments, we can feel mildly off-kilter or overwhelmingly despairing. In our out-of-proportion moments, we can easily forget who we are and lose sight of our inherent, God-given belovedness.
This is when we need to remember the bent-over woman in today’s gospel. She is a living reminder to us that no matter how bent-over we feel, no matter how out of proportion our lives get in their worst moments, Jesus always seeks us out, promising to lift us up and bring shalom to our troubled hearts.
The bent-over woman in today’s gospel reminds us that, from the beginning, God has been working to bring our world into proportion, putting things again and again into their beautiful, ordered, intended places.
In the beginning, God created the earth, drawing order and meaning out of chaos. Through the prophet Isaiah, God promises that every valley shall be lifted up, and every hill made low, the crooked straight, the rough places smooth. Jesus proclaims that the last shall be first and the first shall be last; that the lost shall be found; that those who humble themselves will be exalted and those who exalt themselves will be humbled. And Jesus, on the cross, did the most disproportionate thing imaginable: he died so as to restore the promise of life and forgiveness to a broken world.
God in Christ is always in the work of restoring things to balance and wholeness, of returning this world to proportion over and over again, no matter how many times sin and death throw things out of whack. This is good news and healing balm for our souls.
So whether you are in good proportion right now or feeling totally out of sorts, trust that Jesus is keeping his eye out for you. He will always notice you as you pass by, and call you to his side. No matter how ungracefully you shuffle over to him, his compassion remains the same. He will touch you and speak to you, and restore your soul.
Because just as Jesus spoke to the woman in the synagogue, so also does he speak to each of us, saying “My dear one, you are set free from whatever ails you. Rejoice, and go forth in peace.”