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 crippled woman on the Sabbath.
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.
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus conducted his ministry of teaching and healing in Galilee, home of Capernaum and Nazareth. In Luke 9:51 (which we read a few weeks ago), Jesus turned his face to Jerusalem. For now, we are on the Journey to Jerusalem, through Samaria and northern Judea. We will be in the road through October. It will take ten chapters to get to Jerusalem: Luke 9 to The Triumphal Entry, Luke 19. For those of us in the Revised Common Lectionary, we have already read Luke 19, as the Processional Gospel on Palm Sunday. This week we have come to Luke 13:10-17. Here is the text.
Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath.
11 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. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”
13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 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.” 15 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? 16 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?” 17 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.
In Greco-Roman society is was common to associate outer, physical characteristics, with inner moral or spiritual qualities. This is called physiognomy. Luke scholar Mikeal Parsons has written a book about this. In Body and Character in Luke and Acts: The Subversion of Physiognomy in Early Christianity, 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. They 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.
The physical characteristics of animals were believed to carry with them personality traits as well. So someone with features resembling a donkey might be considered to be stubborn. Parsons, quoting pseudo-Aristotle: “it is also evident that the form of the body are similar to the functions of the four, 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 considered to be of bad character: sneaky, sly, deceitful, etc.
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 dwarf. There is an assumed connection between outer appears 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. Are we also tempted to judge people by their appearance today? Mom used to say, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”
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 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. White scientists showed how African physical characteristics indicated less evolution, lower IQ, poor character. Nazi scientists tried to prove the Jews had specific physical characteristics that proved their inferiority.
Luke, however, according to Parsons, subverts this concept of physiognomy. Zaccheus is short, but repents and exhibits extravagant generosity. The castrated Ethiopian eunuch is baptized and brought into full community. Many people are healed, who end up praising God and serving neighbor. This brings us to this woman who is bent over and unable to stand up straight.
She would be viewed as defective, physically, intellectually and morally. She is bent over, the posture of shame. 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: We begin with a problem, then, he heals her, her shame is removed, and God is praised. A pattern is established.
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. He’s not happy this woman is set free. He is upset at the breach of protocol. 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, 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. So: Problem, then he rebukes the synagogue leader, they receive shame, 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.
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. The deck is stacked. Everybody knows…
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. 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. 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 over-coming, over-ruling, and over-riding 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, and freed to stand up straight, and praise God.
The Jeremiah passage also captures hints of the gospel: “Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?”
The Hebrews passage continues the narrative of those who lived by faith, but it comes to a climax in the cross. Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, endured the cross because of the joy that was within him. It was his joy that empowered him to walk the way of the cross. This too is echoed in the gospel reading, when Jesus says, “I have a baptism with which to be baptized,” a clear reference to the crucifixion.
Luke 12:49-56: Playing with Fire 🔥 (and Swords)
Here is the text of Luke 12:49-56:
49 “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52 From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53 they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
54 He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. 56 You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
This week’s gospel provides us with provocative (and easily misunderstood) images. Jesus says he has come to bring fire to the earth, hearkening back to Jeremiah. Not peace, but division. Actually, my title above notwithstanding, there is no sword in this passage. In some versions says he has come to bring a “sword,” probably to align it with the parallel passage in Matthew. In Luke, however, the word is διαμερισμός: division. There is no variant reading. So, there is no sword.
The first part of this passage (verses 49-50) has no parallel in the synoptic gospels. Fire to the earth and Jesus’ upcoming baptism. There is, however, a parallel in the Gospel of Thomas, a gospel discovered in 1945. Click here for a Scholar’s Translation of the Gospel of Thomas.
Gospel of Thomas, Saying 10:
Jesus said, “I have cast fire upon the world, and look, I’m guarding it until it blazes.”
And Gospel of Thomas, Saying 16:
Jesus said, “People probably think that it is peace that I have come to impose upon the world. And they do not recognize that it is divisions that I have come to impose upon the earth – fire, sword, battle. Indeed, there will be five in a house. There will be three over two and two over three, parent over child and child over parent. And they will stand at rest by being solitaries.”
Starting in verse 51, we have a parallel in Matthew 10:34-36:
‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
Since Matthew and Luke quote this passage, it is likely from Q, the Sayings (of Jesus) Source. But this raises the question, is the first part also from Q? Does this mean Thomas is also quoting Q? Does this mean Matthew, who clearly had Q, also had the first part of this passage, but intentionally omitted it? So many questions.
This is most certainly raw source material. We are hearing the earliest recordings of the voice of Jesus emerge from the cacophony of later copies of copies. Jesus was most certainly a mystic who spoke in parables and enigmas, which we too easily attempt explain away by jumping to 21st century conclusions. Why not let the fire burn?
The average congregation probably doesn’t give a hoot about source theories or narrative criticism scholarship. I’m sure a gifted preacher can set the stage for a mystique about getting to the original voice calling to us down two millennia, but few congregations will tolerate a steady diet of this. I mention it to spark the imagination. What on earth might this wild, traveling exorcist have meant when he said he was casting fire on the earth?
So, what is this fire that Jesus came to bring? Our people may go to fire as hell fire.
In the Jeremiah passage, the Fire seems to be God’s Word.
Brian Stoffregen says the fire could be revelation and calling: Moses’ burning bush. Or it could be purification (the refiner’s fire).
Mikeal Parsons (Luke, Paieia series) points out that some interpret the fire to be the tongues of flame on Pentecost, part of Luke’s story in Acts. Parson’s take on it is that the fire is the eschatological judgment. Earlier in Luke (3:9), Jesus equated fire with judgment day: “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” See also Luke 3:17.
John Wesley, who attracted a huge following, was once asked how he did it. “I set myself on fire, and people come watch me burn,” he purportedly said. It’s fun to imagine a church baptized with fire. Even a small group of people on fire with the sacrificial love of God would shed a lot of light on the world.
Jesus says he has not come to bring peace. “No peace” also brings Jeremiah to mind: “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6:4) Jesus will set family members against one another.
David Jeffrey (Luke: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible) points out that there are partial parallels in the other synoptics (Matthew 10 and Mark 10). Pointing to the impending arrival of eschatological judgment must clearly have been a recurring theme in Jesus’ teaching. The entire Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24-25) is given over to this theme.
But what about no peace on earth? What about the song of the angels in Luke 2, “Peace on earth, goodwill to all…”? The peace Jesus brings is not the pax Romana, which is a false peace, based on a dominating dictatorship. In order for true peace to happen, there will have to be conflict, struggle. This is inevitable. This is clearly not a call to arms, however. Jesus obviously did not put together an army. He is speaking of the fire on the day of judgment.
Families will be separated.
52 From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53 they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.
Parsons invites us to hear the prophet Micah (7:6) here:
for the son treats the father with contempt,
the daughter rises up against her mother,
the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
your enemies are members of your own household.
Familial or clan membership cannot save you. Households will not be saved, Jeffrey points out. There is a sense of personal responsibility here. Luke’s Jesus is drawing heavily upon the Hebrew prophets.
Also, following Jesus may very well result in family conflict. It did for Jesus. Mark 3:21 says,
When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.”
Phyllis Tickle once remarked, “Intentionally giving up one’s life and its natural loves for the sake of being true at all costs to God’s logos and his prescribed way of mercy, justice, compassion, humility, and love of the other as of one’s self is a hard command.” If I treat the Samaritan as a neighbor, then is this a threat to my clan? If all people are my brothers and sisters then what of my family? The way of Jesus threatens all competing allegiances. Following Jesus forges a new family. Jesus is playing with fire.
Jesus redefines family as those who are in mission together. Mark 12:46-50 says,
While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him.
47 Someone told him, “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”[c] 48 But to the one who had told him this, Jesus[d] replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
Then Jesus invites the crowd to look for signs in the moral universe in the same way they read the weather. Parsons quotes Culpepper (Luke: New Interpreter’s Bible):
The “weather-wise” Palestinian farmers were able to read the meteorological signs, since their livelihood depended on it. Clouds from the west, from the direction of the Mediterranean Sea, foretold of impending rain;’ the prognosis of southerly and southwesterly winds, from the direction of the desert, was scorching heat.
No doubt Jesus would have drawn upon these Farmer’s Almanac images, but Francois Bovon (Luke and Acts, ed. O’Collins and Marconi) points out that Luke, unfamiliar with Palestinian geography and context, probably is inserting his own Greek weather images for his listeners.
They are hypocrites because they can read the signs in the skies, but are missing the signs of the times.
I am not sure why the pericope doesn’t continue to the end of the chapter. It clearly is the conclusion of this section. Chapter 13 begins with a fresh narrative. Here are the final three verses of Luke 12:
“And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? Thus, when you go with your accuser before a magistrate, on the way make an effort to settle the case, or you may be dragged before the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer throw you in prison. I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.”
Jeffrey likes to paraphrase “And why do you not judge…” as “How could you possibly miss this?”
I have often felt the eschatological judgment in the future and the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. (beginning with the siege of 66) get conflated. Things were clearly building to a head in Jesus’ earthly lifetime. Later generations would see the destruction of Jerusalem as the prophets did: a sign of God’s judgment.
This is not a happy passage. Jeffrey points out that “debt” is a euphemism for “sin” in Luke. Forgive us our “debts” means forgive us our “sins.” Being thrown into debtors’ prison is then like being thrown into sin prison. You don’t want that. Jeffrey points out that Palestinian jailers beat prisoners horribly to urge families to resolve indebtedness. Most did not survive jail. It was an expression of power then, as it is today. “You will never get out until you have paid the very last penny,” is an ominous phrase, perhaps known to Jesus’ hearers. Perhaps those who framed the lectionary didn’t want to end on such a tone of hopelessness.
But there is grace here. We can look up. We can read the signs. Cyril sees in this passage an encouragement to seize the grace of Christ before it is too late. For Jesus, sin is a serious matter. It threatens to destroy the good in us, the image of God, and the good in the world as well. But in Christ, there is forgiveness of sins.
Circling back to the beginning of Luke 12, don’t be like the rich fool who did not care for the poor, but hoarded his stuff, spending his life accumulating things for himself, and when the harvest was in, died and faced God. Instead, make heavenly purses that don’t wear out, where moths and rust don’t consume and where thieves cannot break in and steal. Practice prayer, faith, generosity, service. Follow in the footsteps of Christ, because the end, your end, is sooner than you think.