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.
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…
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.
In 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?
- 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!
- Don’t judge a book by its cover.
- 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?
- Remember, all of life comes to an end. Physical healing is temporary. Spiritual healing is eternal. Seek first the kingdom of God…
- 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.
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.