I want to ask you to use your imagination with me. I want you to imagine this bent-over woman in her full humanity. I want you to picture her in your mind. A woman who was bent-over, unable to look anyone in the eye. Unable to see anything more than a patch of ground in front of her. Unable to work. Unable to contribute. Told she is cursed by God because of her deformity. I want you to imagine this woman who had likely been told her condition was her conclusion. That the limits of her life were the way things will always be. Told that she was not equal and undeserving. We must remember as we consider this story that in the time of Jesus, even more so than today, a physical or mental illness or infirmity was considered to be an indicator of the value of the person. The worth of that person to God and society. The world looked at her, bent over, and decided she was not worth time, attention, or care.
But this woman went to synagogue. She went to prayer. She prayed to God. Perhaps she prayed for healing. Perhaps she prayed for mercy. Perhaps she simply prayed to God because it felt as though God was the only one who saw her. But then Jesus saw her. He was in the synagogue, on this way to Jerusalem, preaching and teaching the Good News of God and he saw her. He saw her and he healed her. Remember, she does not go up to Jesus and ask for healing. She did not approach him, rather he called her over to him. He drew her in from the margins, drew her into the community, and healed her. Our translation says, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” But, I think the King James Version of the Bible says it so much better. “Woman, thou art loosed.” Thou are loosed of your bonds. Thou art loosed of your limited sight. Thou are loosed of the place society has put you. Thou art loosed and she was liberated.
She was liberated of that which held her back and was now able to live a life of fullness and dignity. She was liberated and immediately began to praise God. It is said so stalely in the scripture: “She stood up straight and began praising God.” But, let’s use our imaginations again and imagine what that praise looked like. I can hear her praising just as the Psalmist does in Psalm 103: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits – who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagles.” I imagine her praising God with the same grandeur, the same exuberance because now she is standing tall. She has been seen by Jesus and she has been loosed and liberated. For 18 years she was bent over and could only see the patch of dirt on the ground right in front of her, but now she stands tall and her limited sight has been restored to full vision. A vision of a future that she could now create. A vision of equality. A vision of looking the world straight in the eye and demanding they recognize her worth and value as one of God’s people. It is a wonderful, liberating story of healing.
And the story should end there. The story should end with the woman now standing straight. The woman now healed could fully participate in the economy of her society. She could work, contribute, make her life and the life of her neighbors a better place. She was now an equal because she could look people in the eye. The story should end there with her rejoicing God and us praising right alongside her. The story should end there, but it does not.
The story quickly goes on and we hear Jesus and his healing action rebuked by an indignant leader. Jesus had, once again, broken the rules. The norms which were created by people. He had once again said the Sabbath was created for people, not people for the Sabbath. In the Gospel of Luke, four times Jesus is scolded for breaking the rules of the Sabbath – three of those times it is because he heals someone whom society had looked over. Whom society had said their condition is their conclusion. But Jesus sees these people as sons and daughters of Abraham – sons and daughters of God’s chosen people. Sons and daughters whom reflect the face of God and carry within themselves the divine spark. Four times in the Gospel of Luke Jesus breaks the established rules because doing the work of God is more important than following the rules people have established.
Jesus is rebuked by an indignant leader and Jesus is indignant right back. “Hypocrite!” he says. Doesn’t this same leader untie his oxen or donkey on the Sabbath so they don’t die of thirst? Doesn’t this same leader make sure his way of maintaining economic stability – which is what a donkey or an ox provided – didn’t this same leader make sure to protect his prosperity on the Sabbath? Is this not a daughter of Abraham, Jesus questions? Does this woman not deserve the same as your animal? Do you not break the rules of Sabbath to maintain your place in society, but you rebuke me because I break those same rules to give this woman a chance to participate fully?
We are all, in a way, the bent over woman. We are all, each of us, put into boxes that assume our worth and our value. We are all put behind walls that limit our sight, if not our vision. We are all, in a way, the bent over woman. But we are all also, in a way, the leader of that synagogue. The leader who says that is not the way we do things around here. That is not how it’s always been done. If I may use my own translation of what the leader is saying, “I’m sorry Jesus, but we don’t do healings on the Sabbath. She needs to come back during office hours. She needs a state-issued photo ID and a credit check first. She needs someone we already know to vouch for her. She needs a work history that we can verify. She needs a man to co-sign because she can’t be trusted on her own. We have rules in place for a reason. We don’t do things like that around here.”
We are all, in a way, that leader who rebukes Jesus. We have all said to someone else the rules are in place for a reason, and no matter what kind of good you are trying to do, we must follow the rules first. But God doesn’t work like that. We know God doesn’t work that like because Jesus does not work like that. It was against the rules to heal on the Sabbath, but Jesus did it anyway. It was against the rules to eat with tax collectors and sinners, but Jesus did it anyway. It was against the rules to proclaim God’s salvation was for everyone, not just the select few, but Jesus did it anyway. It was against the rules, but Jesus did it anyway. Because God is the God of all. God is the God of healing, justice, hope, and new life. God is the God of you and me, the rich and the poor, the evil and the good, the bent over and standing tall. God is the God of everyone and the rules which we are so fond of creating get in the way of God’s kingdom. But Jesus didn’t work like that – and as followers of that itinerant Rabbi born as a refugee into abject poverty, we are called not to work like that.
We are called to remember the words of the Prophet Isaiah that says “you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” Isaiah goes on, “if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord.” To practice Sabbath, we are taught, is to delight in the Lord. It is not to follow the rules of people. To delight in the Lord and make the holy day of the Lord honorable – what greater way to delight and honor the Lord than to break whatever bonds are holding people bent over so that they can once again stand tall? What greater way to delight and honor the Lord than to see someone, to truly see someone, and have a vision of who they really are and what they can achieve. To see them as a Son or Daughter of Abraham – one of God’s chosen.
When Jesus calls out the leader for his hypocrisy, he is calling out us all. And if I can use my imagination once more, I can see that woman, who is now ‘loosed’ standing tall behind Jesus as he rebukes the leader. I can see her standing behind her savior, the first one to see her, to see that her condition was not her conclusion, the first one to see her as a daughter of Abraham, rebuke the leader who said she is not as important as the rules. I can see this woman fully restored to her humanity within a society that told her her condition was because she was cursed, hear her savior say that she is equal in the eyes of God and that the rules that were put in place to keep her in her place, were not of God.
And that is where this story ends. We wanted it to end with the healing. But instead it ends with the reminder, once again, that God’s ways are bigger than ours and that we must set aside our pre-conceived notions and hypocrisy and recognize when the rules we have put in place only keep people in the place we want them to be. That is not the way of Jesus, that is not the way God, that is not the way of justice. Jesus teaches us this lesson over and over again, and we must continue to work to take that lesson seriously.
We are all that bent over woman and at times we are all the leader of the synagogue who rebukes the good work of creating God’s kingdom. But Jesus calls us to be more than the limits we have around us – whether they are ones that we have created or society has imposed. Jesus had the vision to see the woman in her fullness of humanity. And God has the vision to see us the same way. Now we must see all those before us in the fullness of their humanity. To have the vision of God’s Kingdom and to do the hard work – even if it means breaking the long-established rules. As followers of Christ that is our primary task. Henri Nouwen perhaps said it best, “Love Jesus and the love the way Jesus loved.” To love the way Jesus loved is to see past the walls and barriers, to see past the assumptions and hypocrisy, to see past the conditions that people experience – to see past all of that and have a vision of all that can be. And, when we do this, we will likely be rebuked. Because it frightens people. It frightens us. But when we are able to overcome that fear, that is when Jesus says to us “Thou art loosed.” Let us too be liberated of our bonds and praise God. Amen.