Bishop Michael Rinehart

2016 Louisiana Flooding and Response

On August 12, 2016, as the ELCA Churchwide Assembly was coming to a close in New Orleans, the skies opened and rain fell on southern Louisiana like never before. An unprecedented, historic 24 inches fell on Baton Rouge in 48 hours. Other places had as much as 31 inches of rain.

To put this in perspective for Northerners, 1 inch of rain is the equivalent to 13 inches of snow. Baton Rouge received the equivalent precipitation of 24 feet in 48 hours. 30,000 people were rescued. 40,000 homes were flooded. 75% of the homes in Livingston parish were destroyed.

Two weeks later, over 110,000 had applied for FEMA assistance. Governor John Bel Edwards said the number one need was for volunteers to clean out houses. Mold begins setting in almost as soon as the water recedes, so they need volunteers out there pronto. 

Photos below tell some of the story, but photos can’t convey the scope of the disaster. On August 27, 2016, A little over 100 volunteers of the Texas Gulf Coast Synod launched from three churches: St. Paul Baton Rouge, Lutheran Church of Our Saviour Baton Rouge and First Lutheran Church in Lafayette. These folks made a big difference for quite a few families.

In addition, St. Paul Lutheran Church, under the leadership of Pastor Mike Button, has been providing breakfasts and dinners for 50 Red Cross workers, and many people from the neighborhood. Anyone who is in need is welcome:

Thanks to all who have donated and are donating to recovery at or LDR gives to case management. The Gulf Coast Disaster Fund supports congregational efforts to help neighborhoods and individuals recover. 

“Mucking out homes” means hauling out water-logged belongings, furniture, appliances, carpeting, other flooring, drywall and insulation to the curb. Then the studs need to be treated with the combination of water, bleach and mold spray.

Kudos to St. Paul Baton Rouge for feeding so many each night. 

September 4, 2016 is Pentecost 16C

Jeremiah 18:1-11 – The potter’s house: “Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, what the potter has done?”
Deuteronomy 30:15-20 – I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live…

Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 – O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You formed me in my inward parts. I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

Psalm 1 – Happy are those who walk not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the seats of scoffers… They are like trees planted by streams of water, that yield fruit in due season…

Philemon 1-21 – Nearly the entire letter to Philemon, I would read the last three verses as well. Paul’s ominous, “Prepare a guest room for me” indicates: I’m coming to check up on you to see if you followed through with my request. This letter proves that when Paul says there is no longer slave or free (Gal 5:28-29), he means it. He doesn’t mean we’ll pretend when we’re in church, that these very real social distinctions don’t exist. He means a very real upheaval in relationships in the very real world.

Luke 14:25-33 – Renounce family and possessions. Take up your cross and follow me. Count the cost. Don’t start a tower and then fail to finish it.

August 29, 2005 is the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
September 1, 2008 is the anniversary of Hurricane Gustav.

Labor Day weekend. The first Labor Day in the United States was celebrated on September 5, 1882 in New York City. In the aftermath of the deaths of a number of workers during a strike in 1894, President Grover Cleveland helped rush legislation through Congress to make it a federal holiday. Pray for all who shoulder the tasks of human labor—in the marketplace, in factories, in offices, in professions, and in family living; for the gift and opportunity of work; for all who long for just employment, and those who work to defend the rights and needs of workers everywhere.

This week we have an irresistible selection of incredibly rich texts from which to choose.

In Jeremiah 18, Jeremiah is told to go down to the potter’s house and learn a thing or two. It would be really cool this week to have a potter come and set up a wheel, using the images for the sermon. You could give out clay to every member, for them to roll around in their hands and mold during the sermon. There are so many lessons. God shapes us and forms us in ways that are sometimes out of our control. We do not choose to be born. We do not choose our hair color, our country of origin, our circumstances, or our emotional makeup. So much is shaped by the Potter, whose hands continue to shape and mold us by events that are often out of our control.

This text is for the house of Israel. You will have to deal with theophany, because it is clear that God intends to bring calamity down on Israel if they don’t shape up. You can then speak of our imperfections. We are but clay pots with cracks. I’m mindful of Leonard Cohen’s lyrics, “There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” You could bring in Paul’s comments that have always moved me: “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” (2 Corinthians 4:7)

Deuteronomy 30 invites us to choose life. This is a passage of law but a great place to start to lay the foundation for gospel. The commandments are given to us for our own good, the Deuteronomist tells us. We often forget this.

If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. (v. 16)

In Exodus, the commandments begin with this phrase: “I am the Lord your God. I brought you out of the land of Egypt.” It is as if God is saying, “Look, I am the Potter. I created you. I know how you’re put together. I brought you out of the land of Egypt. I have your best interests in mind. Pay attention… Love God. Love neighbor. Honor your parents. Don’t kill one another…”

But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. (vv. 17-18)

Keep these commandments, so that you might prosper, so that you might have a long life. Or you can pursue other gods of self-destruction and live in chaos. Your call.

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.

Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying and holding fast; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. (vv. 19-20)

Psalm 139 fits well with the Jeremiah potter’s text: “O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You formed me in my inward parts. I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

Psalm 1 goes well with the Deuteronomy text: “Happy are those who walk not in the counsel of the wicked nor stand in the seats of scoffers… They are like trees planted by streams of water, that yield fruit in due season…”

Philemon is a complete departure from these texts. This text is worth an entire sermon at some point. Why not now, in the wake of the 53rd anniversary of the I Have a Dream speech? This lesson is 21 verses, nearly the entire letter. I would go ahead and read the whole letter. When Paul says there is no longer slave or free (Gal 3:28-29), does he really mean it? Is he suggesting the end of slavery, something that was taken for granted in every society ever? Or does he mean: Let’s just pretend these real-world distinctions don’t exist when we’re in church?

Philemon settles the matter. Here we have the revolutionary Paul. Paul insists Philemon received his escaped slave Onesimus not as a slave, but now as a brother. Paul’s ominous, “Prepare a guest room for me” warns Philemon: I’m coming to personally check and see if you done as I ask.

Luke 14:25-33: Large crowds are traveling with Jesus, we are told in the first verse. People today seem afraid to talk about numbers. Luke is not. Jesus draws a crowd. The religious authorities may have it in for him, but Luke wants us to know Jesus is very popular with the common people.

Then we get this very hard saying about “hating” your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and life in general. Drawing upon Tannehil, Mikeal Parsons (“Luke” from the Paideia series) says this is one of Jesus’ “anti-family” statements (8:19-21; 9:52-69; 12:51-53; 18:29; 21:26). This seems in direct contradiction with the commandment to honor your parents. I think this passage is a warning to would-be Christ followers about the cost of discipleship. Bonhoeffer is helpful here. “We must face up to the truth that the call of Christ does set up a barrier between man and his natural life.” (“The Cost of Discipleship” p. 106) If you take a stand for justice, for example, you are risking everything and might end up like Jesus, Gandhi, Lincoln, or King.

Jeffrey, in his(“Luke”) commentary says this is a great example of Jewish hyperbole. Parsons and Danker agree. He wants to say your love of God supersedes even your love of family. Hyperbole works well to get the attention of a large crowd. “If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. Better to go to heaven with one eye, than to hell with two.” Someone in the back of the crowd: “Wait. What?” Of course Jesus is probably not proposing self-mutilation, any more than he suggests putting a camel through the eye of a needle, but it certainly gets your attention. Jeffrey suggests Jesus is making a rhetorical not literal point. If you decide Jesus is making a literal point and choose to preach on it, please, send me your sermon.

And yet, imagine converting to Christianity from Islam. How might that go with the parents and grandparents? Luke is preparing his pagan folks to be prepared for the backlash. Don’t expect this to be easy. In the Central African Republic, Fulani tribesmen told me about their conversion to Christianity. The family took away all their cattle when they converted. They were left with no income. Lutheran churches there know they need to provide some financial support at baptism, until people get on their feet.

Jesus warns his would-be followers to count the cost before they set out on this journey. Just as you would not start to build a tower without thinking it all the way through, take a moment and think through your discipleship. Are you willing to go the distance?

The last phrase is perhaps the hardest. “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” (v. 33) Resist the urge to explain it away. In a wealthy, materialistic culture, this sentence will make us so uncomfortable, the urge to make it mean something other than what it actually means is nearly irresistible. While it too is probably hyperbole, overstating things to capture our attention, the preacher can take away its power by watering it down. You might ask your congregation and your self, what is standing in the way of me following Jesus that I need to give up?

Jesus invites us into a costly discipleship. He invites us to recognize this as a high risk endeavor.

This might be a good Sunday to talk about discipleship and to ask people what following Christ really means. The good news in this is the fact that we are never truly free until we have laid down our lives.

“Christianity without the living Christ is inevitably Christianity without discipleship, and Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ.”
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Cost of Discipleship,” Chapter 2

St. John in Wallis, 95th anniversary

Approaching 100 years old, St. John’s is a small congregation in the small town of Wallace, Texas, population 1200.

Pastor Kirstin Springmeyer is stepping down this month. Kirstin is a chaplain at Houston Childrens’ Hospital’s NICU, who has faithfully served this congregation for the last four years. This Sunday she had the unique privilege of baptizing one of the infants of the congregation who had recently been on her unit.

You might be Luterana yes… You have a steel guitar player at your church is 95th anniversary.

Lucille Kretzschmar is the matriarch, at 99 years young. 

Mrs. Kieke is 88 Years. She lives in Wallis, and told me this is her first selfie.

Look who I bumped into: Paul and Marie Monroe. Paul was our Synod treasure for many years.

Here are some photos of the past from their bulletin board. This week Pastor Blair Lundborg and I will be there to help them start visioning the next 95 years in the future. 

August 28, 2016 is Pentecost 15C

Jeremiah 2:4-13 – God states the case against the descendants of Jacob.
Sirach 10:12-18 – The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord.
Proverbs 25:6-7 – Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, “Come up here,” than to be put lower in the presence of a noble. What your eyes have seen

Psalm 81:1, 10-16 – I brought you out of the land of Egypt, but you did not obey me. So I gave you over to your stubborn desires.
Psalm 112 – Blessed is the one who obeys the Lord. His house contains riches.

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 – Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.

Luke 14:1, 7-14 – Jesus heals on the Sabbath and lectures on the law. Jesus teaches about taking the lower place. When you give a luncheon or dinner invite the poor and crippled.

The Last Shall Be First

Possible Theme: By Faith Welcome the Stranger. Hebrews: Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers. Luke: invite the poor and crippled to your dinner parties.

Our text today begins with Luke 14:1, then jumps to verses 7-14. Verses 2-6 never appear in the Lutheran lectionary. The missing verses recount another Sabbath healing, something we have already heard from Luke. Verse one sets the stage. Jesus has been invited to a Sabbath meal at the home of a leader of the Pharisees. Luke clues us in that this is a trap: “They were watching him closely.”

In verses 2-6, Jesus heals a man with dropsy (hydrpikos). This is the only place this word appears in Luke’s gospel. Dropsy is a swelling due to fluid retention. It is caused by an underlying problem, edema. In his commentary on Luke, David Jeffrey says the condition was associated (incorrectly) in rabbinic tradition with sexually transmitted disease. In Luke, Jesus reaches through walls of shame. Jesus taunts them, asking, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” Why would he provoke them knowing full well what they think? I’m not sure, but it’s interesting that they don’t answer. “If you have a child or even an ox that falls in a well,” Jesus asks, “would you not pull it out on the Sabbath?” I believe Jesus is appealing to our most basic sense of justice and compassion. He appeals to their common sense. The obvious answer is “of course.” Once again, they cannot answer. The law only gets you so far. If the law gets in the way of loving God and neighbor, it must be disregarded.

They have been scrutinizing him, “watching him closely” (v. 1). Now we discover that Jesus has been watching them closely too, in particular, how they have been scrambling for seats. He sees this for what it is, an exercise in privilege and status. Jesus knows this runs counter to the very law the Pharisees tout. Leviticus 19:15 says,

You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor.

The laws of hospitality imply a certain amount of humility. We put the other first. Leviticus 19:18.

As then, so today, most status is tied to wealth. The wealthy are almost always treated with more respect and kindness. They are given more privileges. The more you have, the more you seem to get. A mark of godly spirituality can be seen how we treat the poor and those from whom we cannot benefit. In particular, this applies to strangers, whom we may never see again from whom we cannot benefit.

Who are the people in your life that you treat with greater respect and deference and why? Ask your folks this question. Give them a moment to ponder it.

Jesus spells this out in the story of the Good Samaritan. It is central to his theology. James picks up the theme and expounds upon it (2:2-4):

“For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please,’ while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there,’ or, ‘Sit at my feet,’ have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?”

A great read on power and privilege is “Power, Privilege and Difference,” by Allan Johnson.

How do status and privilege function in your congregation’s immediate community? Are there ways you can point this out in humorous or anecdotal ways that make us laugh at ourselves and rethink our allegiances? Perhaps some stories about how people behave in lines, something we experience every day in traffic, at the bank, at the grocery…

As often happens in wisdom literature, Jesus shows that scrambling for the seats of privilege (protoklisiai) is not only unjust, but as it turns out, it is unwise. It could be potentially embarrassing if you overshoot your status and get asked to take a lower place. Much better to shoot for the lowest place and then get asked to come forward. Proverbs 25:6-7 says,

“Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presenceor stand in the place of the great;
for it is better to be told, “Come up here,”than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.”

Jesus is not making any of this up. He is calling the Pharisees back to the deeper traditions of their elders.

This is not an ancillary teaching of Jesus. It is at the heart of his theology as laid out in Luke’s gospel. This theology somehow makes it to the apostle Paul, who points out Jesus’ humility in many places, not the least of which is Philippians 2, where Paul points out that Jesus, though in the form of God, did not go to the front of the line in his earthly pilgrimage, but instead took on the form of a servant and even endured the shame of the cross.

Paul lives this out. He points out that though he has the right to have a wife, he chooses not to. Although Paul has a right to receive pay for his ministry, he chooses not to. I’m not saying pastors should be celibate and not take salaries. Paul defends pastors’ right to do so. He just chooses to make tents for a living, so he can serve for free. There are many who do this. What I am saying is there will be times in life when we will (and must) choose to take a lesser place, even though we have the right to a higher place. This is because we learn volumes in the lesser place, and because we know that joy is not really found in status.

What if a mark of a Christ follower is a simple behavior of not pushing to the front of the line? Never insisting on being first. Often willingly taking the last place. What might that look like? What witness might it promote?

When people see so-called Christians demanding privileges, insisting on first place, pushing to the front of the line, I believe they instinctively intuit that this is not a person with much spiritual awareness.

Instead, let us become “exalted” by taking the last place, for those who exalt themselves will inevitably be humbled. Pride goeth before the fall. Those who humble themselves will be exalted. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. This is the quintessential Jesus.

Meet William B. Horn II, ELCA VP

William Horn was elected the Vice President of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on August 12, 2016, at the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in New Orleans. He followed Carlos Peña, who served for 12 years. 

A member of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Clearwater, FLorida, “Bill” has served as City Manager of Clearwater, Florida since 2001, 15 years! He is also an officer of the US Air Force. 

Bill has served on the ELCA Church Council, 2009-15. He was the Florida-Bahamas Synod Vice President 2005-09. He has also been president of his congregation. 

Bill holds an M.A. Political Science from Auburn University in Montgomery, an M.A. Human Resources Management from Pepperdine University, and a B.S. in Chemistry from the University of Tulsa. He sits on the board of directors of Lutheran Services of Florida, the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary Advisory Council, the Pinellas Public Library Cooperative and the Clearwater Jazz Holiday Foundation. He is known for his empathy, executive decision-making, leadership, integrity, transparency, trust, experience in managing large organizations, ability to work with diverse populations and individuals, and problem-solving.

“Leadership is the key skill required of a leader in the church. No matter what challenges the church faces, bold, creative, confident leadership is required to make good decisions regarding the church’s future direction. Leadership is the skill that won’t rest  until the facts and spirit led strategies are made known to everyone in order to accomplish God’s mission in the world.”

August 21, 2016 is Pentecost 14C

Jeremiah 1:4-10 – Before I formed you in your mother’s womb I knew you. Do not say, “I am too young.” I will give you the words you are to speak for me.
Isaiah 58:9b-14 — God’s chosen fast: Remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.

Psalm 71:1-6 – In you O Lord, I have taken shelter. Let me never be confounded. I have trusted you since you pulled me from my mother’s womb.
Psalm 103:1-8 – Praise the Lord who forgives your sins, heals your diseases and delivers you from the Pit.

Hebrews 12:18-29 – Jesus, mediator of a new covenant. The blood of Jesus replacing that of Abel.

Luke 13:10-17 – Jesus heals a “bent over” woman on the Sabbath.

Stand Tall

This Sunday’s Hebrew Bible readings offer a choice of Jeremiah 1 or Isaiah 58. The former is Jeremiah’s call. It offers a chance to talk about calling. “Before you were in the womb, I knew you… Before you were born, I consecrated you… Don’t say I am just a youth…”

Isaiah 58 is the continuation of God’s chosen fast, the well-known prophetic call to justice. Forget all the religious mumbo jumbo; just feed the hungry and care for those in need. Isaiah 58:9b-10 says:

If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.

Note that it does not say “their” light shall shine. It says your light shall shine. Helping those in need not only blesses them, but also us.

Both Psalm 71:1-6 and Psalm 103:1-8 pick up the youth theme we saw in Jeremiah. Psalm 103:1-8 says:

In you, O Lord, I take refuge; let me never be put to shame.
In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me; incline your ear to me and save me.
Be to me a rock of refuge, a strong fortress, to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress.
Rescue me, O my God, from the hand of the wicked, from the grasp of the unjust and cruel.

For you, O Lord, are my hope, my trust, O Lord, from my youth.

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 you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

Hebrews 12:18-29 picks up fire themes that would have fit well with last week’s gospel. Hebrews 12:18 says:

You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest…

Hebrews 12:28-29:

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire.

In Luke 13:10-17, however, we get a different kind of story. Here is the text:

Now he 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.

Jesus heals a crippled woman on the Sabbath. The religious leaders are indignant. Jesus points out that they water and feed their animals on the Sabbath, right? They treat their animals with more respect than they are treating this woman. In other gospels he says, you pull your donkey out if it falls in a pit on the Sabbath, right? But maybe not. This was actually, believe it or not, a hotly debated topic.

One of the Dead Sea Scrolls says (Damascus Covenant 11.13-14):

No man shall help a beast give birth on the Sabbath day; and if it falls in a pit or a hollow, he shall not lift it out on the Sabbath.

As for the feeding of animals on the Sabbath, the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbath 128a says:

Bundles which may be lifted with one hand may be moved; but they may not be moved with two hands. Bundles of savory, hyssop and thyme may not be used on the Sabbath, if they were brought in for fuel; (but if they were prepared) to feed animals, one may use them on the Sabbath.

It’s safe to say that Jesus found these laws to drive people toward more nit-picky religiosity, fostering religious fights over this and that, rather than driving people towards a prophetic righteousness that centered on the big picture: justice.

The theme goes well with the prophetic message from Isaiah 58. Forget the religious mumbo jumbo and care for the needy. Compassion outweighs the law. Love is the fulfillment of the law. Love God. Love neighbor. On these two rest all the law and the prophets.

A sign that the kingdom of God is breaking in is when healing is brought to those in deep distress. A measure of the ministry of our churches might be our healing and care of those in need, rather than some unattainable religious ethic of moral purity.

There may be more going on here than just the issue of interpretation of Sabbath laws. The woman had a spirit which had her “bent over” for 18 years. The hyperbole suggested here in Luke’s gospel, a gospel so concerned for women, is palpable. What spirit had kept her bent over I wonder? Could it be that religious leaders (who Jesus bluntly calls hypocrites in this passage) are part of the problem? With her Jesus encounter, she straightens up and begins praising God. Jesus refers to her as a “daughter of Abraham,” publicly restoring not just her health but also her dignity.

This story rings true with the devaluation of women we see in the world. In some countries women still cannot vote, cannot drive cars, cannot inherit property, or cannot hold certain jobs. I am reminded that women didn’t get the vote in the U.S. until 1920, sixty years after the Civil War. [White] Women make less than men, about 79% what men make (the pay gap is worse for women of color). Only 20% of congress are female and only a handful of governors. These issues exist in the church as well. While female ELCA pastors make about the same as their male counterparts, women are far less likely to get the call to lead a large multi-staff ministry. Out of 65 bishops only a dozen are female. The wildly sexist remarks made in this presidential election, with a female candidate, have shown the tone of misogyny. When people are devalued, they tend to be bent over.

In Body and Character in Luke and Acts: The Subversion of Physiognomy in Early Christianity, Mikeal Parsons points out that this text has been largely ignored exegetically until recently. “…Dennis Hamm could write as late as 1987 that he could only find two articles devoted to Luke 13:10-17.” (Parsons, p. 83) He also comments that however interesting it may be for the preacher to speculate on what diagnosis a modern physician might give this woman, it sheds little light on the meaning of the story.

Body and CharacterIn Body and Character in Luke and Acts, Parsons explores the belief in antiquity that people’s physical appearance revealed inner truths about their soul. So short Zaccheus, should be stingy and small-minded. The bent-over woman must be hopelessly flawed. The Ethiopian eunuch must be flawed internally, perhaps evil and certainly ineligible for Temple worship. Luke’s gospel, however, subverts: Zaccheus turns out to be generous. The eunuch converts. The bent-over woman is a daughter of Abraham.

Parsons sees symmetry in this text. Jesus reacts to the woman. Jesus removes her shame: she is made straight and praises God. Then, Jesus reacts to the Synagogue ruler. Jesus puts them to shame. The people praise God.

Luke establishes that it is the Sabbath and that Jesus is teaching. A woman appears. She has a spirit that has crippled her for 18 years. She is literally “bent over.” She cannot stand up straight.

In Greco-Roman society is was common to associate outer, physical characteristics with inner moral or spiritual qualities. This is called physiognomy. Parsons discusses the assumed relationship between pusillanimous appearance and character in Greek and Roman literature. This was commonplace from Homer to the fourth century A.D.

Hippocrates said, “Those with a large head, large black eyes, and a wide, snub nose are honest.” Pythagorus chose his students based on their appearance. He drew conclusions about candidates’ character from their facial appearance. Zopyrus believed he could determine people’s entire character from body, eyes, face, and brow. Parsons quotes Aristotle, Plato, Zeno, Marcus Aurelius, and many others who demonstrate this belief in physiognomy. Handbooks were created to help people determine who was honest and reliable and who was not.

Current physical characteristics of animals carry with them personality traits as well. So someone with features resembling a donkey might be considered to be stubborn. Aristotle: “it is also evident that the form of the body is similar to the functions of the soul, so that all the similarities in animals are evidence of some identity.” The lion was symbolic of the ideal male type: strong, generous, and liberal. Foxes, because they are reddish, are of bad character: sneaky, sly, and deceitful.

These themes are not as prominent in Jewish literature, but they are present. Saul is described as handsome and tall. David is ruddy and handsome with beautiful eyes. Animals sacrificed are to be “without blemish.” Leviticus 21 says no one with a blemish may enter the Temple. Likewise, neither can the blind, the lame, anyone with a mutilated face, a limb too short or too long, a hunchback, or a little person. There is an assumed connection between outer appearance and inner holiness. Priestly preoccupation with unblemished bodies is even found at Qumran. However, Isaiah promises in the coming age, eunuchs will be welcomed into the house of the Lord.

In the New Testament, Jesus calls Herod a fox. Opponents are wolves. The religious leaders are snakes or vipers. Jesus says, “Your eye is the lamp of your body. If your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of life; but if it is not, your body is full of darkness.” One can see how this would reflect negatively on the moral character of the blind. Paul seems upset with the physical problem he has. It appears to be a source of shame for him. There is a sense in the ancient world that strength and beauty of the body are reflections of nobility and character. Slaves and women were considered inferior, physically, intellectually, and morally.

It seems this pseudo-science made its way into the modern era as people made futile and erroneous attempts to invent a science of race by classifying physical characteristics.

Luke, however, subverts physiognomy, according to Parsons. The bent-over woman would be viewed as defective, physically, intellectually and morally. She is bent over, the posture of shame. And does not society’s indictment of her only compound the problem? Parsons quotes Pseudo-Aristotle:

Those whose back is very large and strong are of strong character; witness the male. Those which have a narrow, weak back are feeble; witness the female. (p. 85)

One cannot miss both the misogyny and the discrimination against the handicapped.

They believe it’s likely her lot in life because of something she has done. Keep in mind the question of the disciples about the man born blind. They are confused. He was born blind, so did he sin in the womb or did his parents sin? Whose sin caused his blindness? Jesus shakes off this interpretation.

Jesus does not shun her. He calls her over. He says, “Woman” – emphasizing her femaleness, her low stature in this patriarchal society – “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” Immediately, we are told, she stands up straight, and begins praising God. This is the goal of Jesus’ ministry: to reach through our shame and set us free, so that we might stand up straight and praise God. So: first the problem, then he heals her; her shame is removed. God is praised.

Then we get a new problem. The leader of the synagogue is unhappy that Jesus has healed on the Sabbath. “Six days shall you do your labor…” Jesus has violated the sabbath in order to set this woman free. Jesus rebukes them. You get water for your donkey on the sabbath, don’t you?

Again, Parsons quotes Pseudo-Aristotle: “Those that have thick extremities to the nostrils are lazy; witness cattle… Those with thin faces are careful, with fleshiness are cowardly, witness donkeys and deer.” Donkeys are considered inferior because of their bulging eyes, long faces, and stubborn braying.

Jesus points out they have more compassion for their donkeys than for this “daughter of Abraham.” This honorific is used in 4 Maccabees and other places to depict a strong woman with the strength and character of Abraham. Jesus praises the woman and honors her, while calling the religious leaders hypocrites. Jesus’ opponents are put to shame and the people rejoice. Problem: he rebukes the synagogue leader, they receive shame, and the people rejoice. There is inverse symmetry between his treatment of the woman and his treatment of the synagogue leader.

This is a theme throughout Jesus’ ministry. In John 8, the woman caught in the very act of adultery is being set up for a stoning while the man with whom she supposedly committed adultery is nowhere to be found. Jesus defends the woman against the religious elite. In the gospels, Jesus is a defender of women.

It still happens today. A woman in Sudan is sentenced to stoning for adultery. It is ironic that women are sentenced to death for adultery at an astronomically higher rate than men. How can that be? What’s really going on?

A woman in Saudi Arabia is sentenced to ten lashes for driving a car.

A Norwegian woman claimed she was raped in Dubai. The court decided there was not enough evidence, so instead she was charged with adultery and illegal alcohol consumption and sentenced to 16 months in prison. Where she is mistreated. The deck is stacked. Everybody knows it.

Parsons makes a final interesting point about the 18 years the woman had had this ailment. The number 18 appears only three times in the New Testament, all three in this 13th chapter of Luke, two in this story. The other is the 18 who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them. In Luke 13:11, it is δεκαοκτώ. In Luke 13:16, it is δέκα καὶ ὀκτὼ. In Greek, numbers are written with letters. α=1, β=2, γ=3, and so on. So 18 is iota eta (ιη) with an overstroke (a line over the top). But iota eta is also an abbreviation for Jesus, the first two letters of his name in Greek: Ἰησοῦς. Jesus’ name is often abbreviated as ιη in sacred literature. The number 18 had christological value for early Christian writers. Numbers are highly symbolic in Luke. And, in fact, Parsons points out that in p45, one of the oldest/earliest copies we have of Luke’s gospel, 18 is abbreviated as ιη in both Luke 13:11 and 13:16. What’s more, in 13:14 Jesus’ name is also abbreviated as ιη, making his name indistinguishable from the number.

Parsons believes Luke is using this symbolism to say that the woman’s 18-year bondage comes to an end in Jesus. He is with her. He has her number and vice versa. There is an alignment of history in Jesus’ encounter with this woman.

Okay, what’s the point of all this?

  1. Don’t let the law get in the way of compassion. The law is a guide to help us love God and love neighbor. Keep the spirit of the law at the heart of your faith and practice. Jesus’ mission is to release the captive, free the oppressed, and to raise up children of Abraham. Make that your mission too. Be about the business of recognizing those who are enslaved, and respond to them with compassion and care. Don’t let your legalism get in the way of Jesus’ healing!
  1. Don’t judge a book by its cover.
  1. Healing is about freedom from bondage. Ask yourself, how you are in bondage? What is the greatest bondage you face? To what are you captive? From what would Jesus like to set you free today?
  1. Remember, all of life comes to an end. Physical healing is temporary. Spiritual healing is eternal. Seek first the kingdom of God…
  1. Hold fast to this: Jesus is not interested in shaming, but in overcoming, overruling, and overriding the shameful judgment. He does not stand over us in judgment, but Jesus stands under God’s judgment with us, placing his hands on the illness of our bent condition. Jesus is God’s compassion, the love of God in the flesh. His hands were outstretched on the cross because of this offensive grace that overruled the rules and regulations of God’s law. By sharing in the deadly consequences of our sin, he has “shamed” sin, death, the devil, and even the law for its execution of God’s own Son; and by his resurrection, he has provided for us the ultimate healing: We are set free from our bondage, freed to stand up straight, and praise God.

Last thought:

This story of healing provides an opportunity to talk about healing and perhaps have a service of healing, ELW, p. 276. If you do leave plenty of time for it. Consider using James 5:13-15 as the epistle reading:

Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.

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