In recognition of the gifts that women offer to the world and acknowledgement of the suffering experienced by so many women, the scripture passage I’ve chosen for today describes the healing of a woman. This is good stuff – in the story of Jesus freeing the bent-over woman, we get the healing of an unclean woman which is also a healing on the Sabbath – two taboos for the price of one.
So…what’s the significance of this healing taking place on the Sabbath? In Exodus 31:1 it is written, “...whoever does any work on the Sabbath day will be put to death…” but Isaiah 58:13-14 describes the Sabbath not as a burdensome ritual, but as a day of delight in which to experience liberation from daily tasks. By healing the bent-over woman, is Jesus rejecting the Sabbath commandment? Or by restoring a woman suffering from physical and social ailments on the Sabbath, is Jesus restoring the Sabbath as a benefit for humankind, transcending restrictive human interpretations which limit God’s intention?
What about the healing of a woman? How does that fit into the context of first century Jewish society? According to the Anchor Bible Dictionary, the Palestinian Jewish culture was one of the most patriarchal in the Mediterranean crescent. Women’s role was limited to the home; their rights of inheritance, choice of relationships, participation in the synagogue and freedom of movement were severely restricted.
Viewed through this lens it’s surprising that this woman made it to the synagogue on the Sabbath at all! She is described as bent over and unable to stand up straight due to a spirit that has crippled her for eighteen years. Luke’s description of her physical condition is also a metaphor for her social position, for in this culture physical illness creates social devaluation. This woman would have been socially invisible, a pariah, and the very fact that “Jesus saw her,” as it says in verse 12, is remarkable. Going even further, Jesus calls her over to join him in the focal point of the scene, symbolizing her restoration to the community. The woman does not ask to be healed, but Jesus heals her. With his usual lack of hesitation in touching the “unclean,” he lays his hands on her, a gesture used to convey blessing as well as healing.
But then, Jesus’ ministry often ran counter to conventional wisdom – he included women as his followers, and rejecting the notion that they were inherently unclean. Jesus identifies the woman as a daughter of Abraham, but not because she has been set free from her crippling condition. That’s who she was when Satan bound her – that’s who she’s been all along. Jesus restores the dignity and status she was denied by others in her infirmity. I particularly like the Inclusive Bible’s translation of this verse, which refers to her as a daughter of Abraham and Sarah. It is Mother’s Day, after all.
And did you notice that in both verses 12 and 16, Jesus’ action on behalf of the woman is described not just as healing her, or curing her, but setting her free? “When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’” And when the synagogue leader criticizes Jesus to the crowd, trying to discredit him rather than engaging him in conversation, Jesus asks, “And ought not this woman…be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” Clearly Jesus regards his act of healing as liberation, as “letting the oppressed go free,” just as he promised when he first appeared in the synagogue in Luke chapter 4. At that time he unrolled the scroll of Isaiah and proclaimed, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ Release for the captives. Freedom for the oppressed. This is God’s promise in Isaiah, which is fulfilled in our hearing today.
This is an ancient story of oppression. Even looking back on the bigotry and contempt for women, the LGBTQ community and people of color in the 20th century can seem like ancient history to those who have no recollection of life before the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the gay liberation movement. Many of the outward signs of hatred and discrimination in our country have been wiped away. It’s possible to live under the illusion that we live in an enlightened era of equal rights, equal respect, for all, if you don’t scratch too far below the surface. But the 21st century context of greed, fear mongering and social media, gains in freedom and equality such as the election of a president of color, the establishment of marriage equality for all and women’s inroads into traditional male realms such as sports and politics pierce the veneer of tolerance to reveal hatred that has gone underground, anger that smolders beneath the surface.
The level to which political discourse has sunk in this country is unprecedented. Progress in recognizing the rights of the gay and transgender communities is met with a backlash of restrictive legislation. Even as the Justice Department warns the state of North Carolina that its new law limiting bathroom access violates the civil rights of transgender people, signature gatherers are working on a ballot initiative to pass similar legislation in Washington State. Thanks to the anonymity of social media sites, women who venture into traditionally male-dominated fields face misogyny so raw and vicious that many of the comments are too foul to be printed verbatim in the press, which can only describe the tweets, posts and chats rather than transcribing them word for obscene word. A recent The New York Times described the vitriol unleashed on female sports journalists: “The hatred that arrives rapid fire into their social media accounts is so personal and acidic that it could sear through even the thickest skin.” Messages from men who said they wanted them dead. Or raped. Or beaten by their boyfriends. Closer to home, the Seattle Times reports that council women who opposed the sale of a street in the Sodo neighborhood for a proposed basketball arena were so viciously attacked online that even the developer whose proposal was shot down publicly condemned these attacks.
While we rejoice in stories of people being set free from their suffering, it’s painful to acknowledge that we don’t always see the suffering, the oppressed in our midst. Often they are hiding in plain sight, yet we do not perceive them. That’s why those three words in the story of Jesus healing the bent-over woman are so crucial – “Jesus saw her.” Jesus noticed her in her pain and isolation. Jesus saw her through the eyes of compassion and set her free.
A minister I know frequently encourages his parishioners to imagine themselves as one of the characters in stories from the Bible. He observes that people almost always see themselves in the role of the downtrodden, the sick, the one to whom Jesus extends compassion and healing. Surely all of us can relate to the bent-over woman. Who hasn’t felt burdened or oppressed by society and authority? Who hasn’t felt the desperate need for someone to speak a word of power and extend a hand to us to free us, to restore us to our birthright as part of the sacred creation of God?
But can we also see how this woman represents “otherness” – how we distance ourselves from her? She is a woman in a patriarchal society; she is suffering from a physical deformity in a society that equates disability with inferiority and devaluation. We need only pick up a newspaper or turn on the television to see that these issues are as much a part of our world as they were of 1st century Palestine. Can we see the desperate and depressed transgender adolescent in her, the Hispanic family living in terror of arrest and deportation, the female office or construction worker subjected to daily sexual harassment?
Can we confront the image of the synagogue leader within ourselves? Can we see how we cling to law and order, rules and regulations, the firm hand of control whenever we feel threatened physically, emotionally or spiritually? Can we see the ways in which keeping to our own kind, only forming bonds with those who share our beliefs, race or class, judging and rejecting others who do not live up to our standards creates the illusion of safety but costs us our open-heartedness? Can we admit that those who cling to rigid rules for inclusion exclude themselves from the culture of God?
Can we see ourselves in the face of Christ? Do we step forth boldly when God calls us as Christians to defy conventional wisdom, to extend compassion, to see the sons and daughters of Sarah and Abraham beneath the layers of suffering, oppression and shame? Do we lay hands on another and speak a word of liberation and healing?
A spirit deformed by years of oppression walks into a sacred place on a sacred day, in defiance of the rules that would exclude her. A spirit of evil binds her like a prisoner, like a beast of burden. A spirit of mercy and radical freedom releases her from that bond and speaks her true name. A spirit of self-righteousness objects and tries to shame the healed and the healer, but is himself shamed and gnashes his teeth while everyone else in the room receives and celebrates the presence of God. Just as the bent-over woman had always been a daughter of Sarah and Abraham, we have always had the freedom to choose. Injustice may threaten to bend us to the breaking point. Self-righteousness may threaten to blind us to the living presence of God. But we can, if we choose, speak a word of freedom and extend a hand of blessing to the other, and in so doing we are freed and blessed ourselves. Amen.
 Heidi Torgerson. “The Healing of the Bent Woman: A Narrative Interpretation of Luke 13:10-17,” Currents in Theology and Mission 32.03 (June 2005).
 Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, 518.