It’s Showtime in the synagogue. Something incredibly important is happening here – something that sets the tone for this whole next section of Luke’s gospel from 13:10-17:10. It’s a crunch section, whose theme is about the nature of the Kingdom of God and who will participate in it.
As always, it cuts to the heart of who God is, and how God’s saving intentions as revealed in Jesus relate both to the tradition and to how that tradition is understood by the authoritative interpreters of Jesus’ day (the Pharisees).
Look through the section 13:10-17:10 and see how frequently and consistently Jesus is in debate with the Pharisees. Up until now, his focus has been on the disciples, and on “the crowds”. As they near Jerusalem, however, Luke shifts his narrative focus to the Pharisees, who are the centre of opposition to Jesus. While this is clearly a narrative strategy of Luke’s, it is worth noting that the Pharisees are not reduced to caricatures – made into “universal baddies”. Jesus’ concern is not only to confront them: he engages in genuine debate with them as with people who share a similar passion to his for understanding God and living faithfully. In today’s text, the spokesperson for the Pharisees is the leader of the synagogue.
The healing of the bent woman is a vignette that encapsulates all that Luke will do in this section: look at Jesus’ “therefore” in v18. “Therefore, ‘What is the Kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it?’” What the Kingdom is like is always simultaneously a question about what God is like, because the Kingdom is the universal Reign of God – which means, if you like, that God is revealed. The conflict over who is right – Jesus or the Pharisees – is a conflict over what is presently hidden. The coming of the Kingdom is the adjudication of that argument. And Luke, as we shall see, is concerned to show that it is Jesus who is the authority on the matter.
Time and place
Jesus is teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath. Does that ring any bells? It ought to! It’s when we read Luke’s gospel right through as a narrative – as a story – that we pick up the narrative clues he leaves. Jesus’ ministry begins in the synagogue at Nazareth on the Sabbath (Luke 4: 16-30). This is where he outlines his mission. Note how he opens his sermon on the Isaiah text: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (v21). “Today” is the Sabbath, and in this week’s text, Jesus is back in a synagogue on the Sabbath. This week’s “today” is a Sabbath, and the issue is about whether or not it is appropriate for Jesus to heal the woman “today”, of all days in the week.
Luke means us to recall the Galilean ministry, and to understand the incident in this week’s text as a reprise of Jesus’ mission. The healing of the bent woman is the demonstration of what his sermon of liberation in Nazareth is all about. He sets himself up as an authoritative teacher the synagogue, you remember, was the place where the regular reading and interpretation of the scriptures took place (as opposed to the Temple, which was primarily the place of sacrifice). The incident turns around the correct interpretation of Deuteronomy 5:12-16 – the commentary on Exodus 20: 8-11, concerning Sabbath-keeping.
The conclusion of the argument between Jesus and the leader of the synagogue is meant to show both that Jesus (and not the ruler) is the authoritative interpreter of God’s saving purposes (Jesus is called “Lord”, in addition to winning the public argument!) and that his mission and message of the Kingdom is a fulfilment of, and not a departure from, the tradition. Jesus, in other words, does indeed reveal God! This healing is a seminal demonstration of what the Kingdom is all about.
Social ostracism and liberation
The synagogue is not only the place where the Law is read and interpreted: it is the social centre of the community. For all the fact that the story highlights the conflict between the Pharisees’ (represented, in this incident, by the leader of the synagogue) and Jesus’ understanding of Sabbath-keeping, the focus is actually on the woman, whom Jesus heals, as much as on the fact that he heals her on the Sabbath. Let’s look at the woman and at how events unfold more closely.
- The woman is plagued by a spirit. Luke presents this healing as more than a cure of an illness or a malady: this is a liberation from satanic bondage that is literally crippling her. This healing, in other words, is part of the theme of Jesus as the Liberator who is rolling back Satan’s power and rule in the world. It is a “mustard seed” (as Jesus goes on to teach): in this one woman, we see the cosmic struggle between God and Satan being played out.
- She is “bent over and quite unable to stand up straight” (v11). Her physical condition and appearance is illustrative of the fact that she is “bowed” by her affliction. She appears constantly subservient both to the demonic master and to the social mores in which her affliction means that she is ostracised and avoided because her condition is of demonic origin.
- “When Jesus saw her, he called her over” (v12). She has become almost literally invisible. Being bent over, her face cannot be seen. We can easily imagine how her stooped condition resulted in social invisibility. The point is, Jesus sees her! Those who have been rendered invisible to others – seen as less than human, and of no account – are of huge importance to God. God is the One who heard the groans of the Hebrew slaves in the brick pits of Pharaoh. In Jesus, God “sees” the invisible woman. This is the “mustard seed” – the tiny seed that has enormous significance in terms of the Kingdom (cf v19).
- Jesus calls her over. Jesus, remember, is sitting in the centre of the synagogue, in the place of teaching. He represents (symbolically) both the spiritual and social centre of the community, whose identity is given by Torah. Jesus calls her from the side – from invisible obscurity – into the very centre of the community and into the presence of God (in the same way as he takes a child and places it on his lap). What Jesus does in healing the woman is thus meant to be seen as a “test case”: all that God is and is doing somehow becomes crystallised in this moment and in this place.
- Jesus lays hands on her – touches her – and heals her. He also calls her “Woman”, restoring to her both her communal dignity as a full human being and divine status as a human being made in the image of God. She is able to stand – to rise up and be all that God has made her to be. Note how Luke is careful to present her standing straight and praising God as one action. She becomes the exemplar of what Jesus’ mission is all about: in the moment that she becomes a healed and liberated human being, she fulfils her dignity and calling by doing what human beings are created to do: she immediately praises God!
This is why this particular healing, happening where, when and to whom it does, highlights what God in Jesus is all about: God is liberating the world from bondage to hostile powers; God sees those who are invisible – the least, or the last – who become the first and the centrepiece of the Kingdom; God is restoring human community and divine communion between God and human beings; God is bringing wholeness and joy that results in praise and full Life.
What we need to remember is just how shocking this all appeared to Jesus’ contemporaries. It was shocking in its power and wonder. But most of all, it was shocking because it cut across the established understandings of who God is and how everything “worked”. It meant a radical reassessment of the way in which the tradition was understood and interpreted; in how social community worked; in what constituted faithfulness to God – or what the Kingdom of God was actually all about!
Compassion, the Sabbath and Torah (Luke 13:14-17/Isaiah 58: 9-14)
Look at how Like sets the story up: the woman rises up and begins praising God, yet the leader of the synagogue is “indignant” (ie filled with holy anger) because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath. Reading v14, we can picture the scene vividly: the synagogue is in an uproar, with everyone talking and shouting in amazement and wonder. Again and again, the leader of the synagogue shouts out, trying to make himself heard above the hubbub as he paraphrases Deuteronomy 5:13. He makes his objection as public as Jesus has made the healing.
What is the significance of his objection? It sounds risible, doesn’t it? Indeed, Jesus will go on to demonstrate just how ridiculous it is. But we need to remember: it’s only ridiculous if we operate by Jesus’ interpretation of the Law, and not by the tradition!
The weight of the leader’s objection is this: if Jesus has indeed broken one of the most important Commandments (which are the foundation of the Law), then it cannot be God who is at work through him, and the woman is wrong to praise God as the author of Jesus’ power. The Kingdom is ruled by God – that much is obvious – and God has already given the Law. If God is at work through Jesus, God will not break that Law. From the leader’s point of view, there is a real problem!
Note that the leader does not get involved in some technical debate here. He quotes what he (rightly) assumes will be obvious to everyone: Jesus, for all the wonder of his actions, has broken the Law. It’s like one of those courtroom dramas in which dramatic, last-minute evidence comes to light that an apparently guilty person is innocent, only for the prosecutor to stand up and (rightly) point out that, for some technical reason, the evidence is inadmissible.
Jesus gives the leader short shrift. The question mark over Jesus’ authority is allowed momentary space only. Luke emphasises this by calling Jesus “Lord”: “But the Lord answered and said …” (v15).
Jesus refers to the leader and his followers (presumably those who are swayed by his argument as “hypocrites”. That’s a harsh term! It’s a prophetic term. Jesus, at this point, places himself in the line of the prophets who have criticised Israel and Judah for “trampling the Sabbath” (to use Isaiah’s words in today’s text: Isaiah 58:13). Isaiah’s task is to make visible what is invisible to the people. In 58:3, he asks (in the name of Yahweh), “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble yourselves, but you do not notice?” He goes on (in much the same way as Jesus will respond to the leader): “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day, and oppress all your workers … Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?”
Yahweh goes on to outline the “acceptable fast” (vv 6ff): loose the bonds of injustice; let the oppressed go free; break every yoke; share your bread with the hungry; bring the homeless poor into your house; clothe the naked; look after your family members who have become dependent. When these things happen – when you change your understanding of what worship is all about, and begin to understand who Yahweh is – then, says Yahweh, “you shall call, and Yahweh shall answer; you shall cry for help, and he shall say, ‘Here I am!’”
That is true Sabbath observance! Isaiah does not mean that fasts are unimportant, or that they ought to be abolished and replaced only by the doing of justice; rather, he means that praise of God (remember the bent woman!) only rightly happens and means something when it is accompanied by doing the things that make for human community as Yahweh intended and which reflects Yahweh’s character and priorities.
Jesus, then, says to the leader and his followers, “You’ve got it all wrong! Which is proper worship of God – slavish observance of the Sabbath that leaves a woman who has been afflicted for 18 years still bound, or healing her on God’s Day?” He goes on to comment on Deuteronomy 5:14b: “Don’t you untie your ox or donkey on the Sabbath in order to lead it to water? How much more, then, ought this daughter of Abraham to be untied from 18 years of bondage to Satan and set free on the Sabbath?”
Jesus’ argument with the leader is not so much on the finer points of the Law as it is on the heart of the Law. They are hypocrites because they have lost sight of the woman as a human being – which is what God created her to be. Yet how could this be? How could the leader have been so blind?
The answer is lack of compassion. Jesus “sees” the woman because he is compassionate. “Compassion” literally means, “to suffer with”. Jesus is alive to human suffering – because God is. The parable of the Good Samaritan is, as we have seen, about the centrality of compassion. Compassion is at the heart of understanding the Law of God because compassion is at the heart of God.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, how easy it is to lose compassion. We talk of “compassion fatigue” in relation to disaster appeals. Like the leader and his followers, it’s ironic that the very people who can be blind to human suffering can become distraught at the suffering of animals. The anger and campaigning energy of many animal liberationists is often nowhere matched by their concern for the sufferings of the Palestinians, the Zimbabweans, or for Africa’s AIDS victims. British animal-lovers who will give a home and a plate of food to starving strays will shut their eyes, hearts and their doors to homeless people on their streets, people who are mentally ill or who are lonely and forgotten.
Compassion is more than charity. It drives both the alleviation of suffering and the dealing with its causes. It is when the latter begins to happen that transformation begins to take place. As Dom Helder Camarra observed: “When I ask for bread for the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no bread, they call me a Communist!”
Jesus is doing more than healing a woman. He is taking on the causes of her suffering. The healing takes place in the synagogue on the Sabbath – against the wider backdrop of his vision of the Kingdom of God. Seen in this light, what happens in this tiny, rural community is immensely significant. It is a mustard seed – tiny, but set to grow into a plant out of all proportion to its size. It crystallises Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom and of who will participate in it: it is for those who see the world as God does – through the eyes of compassion.
Heaven and earth (Hebrews 12: 18-29)
The eyes of compassion are the window between heaven and earth. The doing of justice and peace, and the fulfilment of the dual commandment to love God and neighbour, brings heaven down to earth. That is what the prophets teach us; that is what the disputes between Jesus and the Pharisees is all about. If the texts we have considered remind us that heaven touches earth is Jesus, and ought also to do so in the lives of the community of faith, the writer to the Hebrews reminds us that the traffic is two-way: we can make the mistake of forgetting that when we deal with these “earthly” things, we are in the presence of heaven.
“Pursue peace”, he instructs. Avoid bitterness. Don’t cause trouble. Don’t trade what is of ultimate importance for instant gratification” (vv 14-17). These apparently “mundane” (ie earthly) pieces of wisdom are not a checklist of “4 steps to a better life”. They are important and have coherence when we realise that they “touch heaven” – ie have significance far beyond what is immediately apparent. They are “mustard seeds”. Just as the mustard seed of a healing of a woman of (apparently) no account in an obscure village synagogue has immense significance in Kingdom terms, so these apparently all-too-human “failings” have immense significance. They amount to “the refusal of the One (God) who is speaking” (v25).
We may be tempted to think that the things we do that are destructive of community are “little things”. We may be tempted to pass them off as insignificant. After all, whom do they affect? How wrong we are! The Church – the community of faith – is already part of heaven. We’re a part of a heavenly community that is affected by what we do and think and say. We are part of the community who see things as they really are – who see the significance of what appear to us to be mustard-seed-small. They see the absence of compassion. The things we do are not just part of the here-and-now – they are part of the future because they are part of “a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (v28). For that reason, we, like the upright, tall woman, ought to give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe.