For the last time in Luke’s gospel, Jesus enters the synagogue.1 A couple of weeks ago, back in Luke 4, Jesus walks in JUST as his ministry began. He goes to the front of the temple and reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, proclaiming that the spirit of the Lord was upon him to bring good news to the poor – to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor! THEN the folks in Nazareth, his hometown, who had watched him grow up, tried to throw him off a cliff. When Jesus walks into the synagogue it isn’t a place of warm feelings. Conflict is coming.
Just as he walks in there appears a woman, crippled for 18 years. She was bent over, unable to straighten up. This is all we know. 18 years. I have had a pretty easy life in that regard, haven’t had times when I’ve experienced pain, really. I yanked my back last fall and was laid up for a week. That was enough- and maybe this says more about my low pain threshold than anything else – to give me a glimpse. Those of you how have been in real pain, for short periods, or who live with it, or have for years. You know. Pain drives you crazy, it gets in your head, you can’t think. She had been in enough pain she couldn’t stand up straight for EIGHTEEN years.
Jesus calls her over. He didn’t ask what was going on, how she got this way. He didn’t ask how good a person she was. Woman, you are set free. He laid hands on her, on her shoulders, maybe that bent-over back, and IMMEDIATELY she stood up straight and began praising God. The kingdom of God had broken in, and she was – released is the word in the greek, loosed. The pain that had quite literally bound her was gone.
But Luke continues – this is more than a healing story. I imagine her stretching, rubbing her back, getting used to her body again, the leader of the synagogue comes over. He doesn’t congratulate her or testify to the miracle. He comes over indignant, mad and ready to give someone a lecture about it. He doesn’t rebuke Jesus directly, but turns to the crowd to speech-ify, to humiliate. He places the blame on the vulnerable and until recently crippled woman, surely of lower status than the religious leader. That’s what bullies do. They don’t pick on someone their own size, but go for the runt, the kid already standing alone. The refugee. Someone not ‘from here,’ who doesn’t fit the mold, someone less likely to fight back. There are six days you could have come here looking for someone to heal you, he says to her. You could have come any other day.
Fred Craddock writes: "Jesus does not disguise his response by the indirection of speaking to the people; … he speaks directly to the ruler, the plural ‘hypocrites’…indicting all [his] colleagues… The controversy plays on the words ‘bound’ and ‘loose.’ Jesus loosed (released) the woman from the infirmity [to which she was bound]. If their law permitted the loosing of a bound (tethered) animal for watering on the Sabbath, should it not be permitted for this woman, not an animal but a …daughter of Abraham, not tethered for a few hours but bound for eighteen years?2
I think it’s important to pause and offer a word of caution with regard to our Jewish brothers and sisters. It important for Luke to push at a rigid adherence to the law, especially in the face of Jesus’ remarkable compassion. But within Judaism then and now there remains a rigorous debate about the role the law plays, about how one is to follow laws, rules, principles, set centuries ago. But interpreting this text in a way that throws stones only at the leaders of the synagogue stays too much at the surface.
It seems to me this text is much more about the relationship between our faith, and its accompanying rituals and practices and rules, AND how we live in a world that is a mess a lot of the time. In the course of an average day we run into this woman all the time – when you walk into church, into the grocery store, on campus. She may not be bent over in a way you can notice, but he might also be. Or he’s in treatment. Or she’s carrying scars you can’t see. Jesus is challenging the religious leaders then, and religious leaders and religious people now, to think about the implications of that faith in our lives. When you meet this woman, when you encounter suffering, how does your faith direct your response? What do you do?
We’re ten days into Lent, the forty days excluding Sundays leading to Easter. It is a time the church historically does a lot of thinking about the rituals of faith, churches have extra worship services, people fast and pray. Lent is all about this kind of stuff, and in that vein many folks – you might be one – give things up for Lent. We give up caffeine or soda, or sugar, which is fine if it actually enhances your discipleship. When I was in high school a handful of us decided to give up foul language and covenanted to drop and do ten pushups in the hall at school when we slipped and said a bad word. In college some of us TRIED to give up gossip, talking about other people, who they are, what they’ve been up to. When you try and give it up you notice how much of our time we spend talking about other people. But when Lent’s over, little changes.
I read something this week that struck me on this note – a commentary in Time Magazine on Pope Francis’ Lenten message. The author frames the season of Lent, then mentions how the Pope often quotes the early Christian mystic John Chrysostom who said: "No act of virtue can be great if it is not followed by advantage for others. So, no matter how much time you spend fasting, no matter how much you sleep on a hard floor and eat ashes and sigh continually, if you do no good to others, you do nothing great." Your practices are hollow if they are not FOR others. Frances suggests, and I love this, that for Lent we give up indifference toward others. In his Lenten message he writes, "Indifference to our neighbor and to God … represents a real temptation for us Christians. Each year during Lent we need to hear once more the voice of the prophets who cry out and trouble our conscience."3
Suffering is everywhere. And we’ve all got our own needs and schedules and important business to which we must tend. But too much of our world, I’ll confess it, too, has become callous. Indifferent. Too willing to walk by, staring at our phones. But Jesus not only GOT involved, GOT engaged, WAS affected by the suffering that walked up to him. He also stood firm in the face of those who told him what he was doing didn’t matter, wouldn’t help, wasn’t appropriate. I don’t know if you’re giving up something for Lent, or taking something on. But the pope’s suggestion might be a good one, and it’s not too late to start. To quit being indifferent to your neighbor, to poverty, indifferent to injustice, indifferent to racism and homophobia, indifferent to those who disagree politically in this hyper-partisan election season, indifferent to seeing the humanity in the person in front of you, no matter how much they seem like you, or seem different.
"When he said this," Luke says, after Jesus had healed the woman and silenced the religious leaders, "all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing." Might we, in our own Lenten preparations, add our voices, and our lives, to the chorus. Might we be so invested in NOTICING and CARING about others, setting our indifference aside, that we might bring glory to God. May it be so for you and for me. All praise be to God. Amen.
1. The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 273.
2. Fred Craddock, Interpretation: Luke, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 170.
3. Pope Francis’ Guide to Lent: What You Should Give Up This Year, Christopher J. Hale, Time.com, 2-18-15.