Out of the Shadow (Aug. 16-22)

Sunday, August 22
Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

Focus Theme
Out of the Shadow

Weekly Prayer
Merciful God, as we pour out the wealth you have entrusted to us, the parched places are watered; as we cease our evil talk, the rising light of peace dawns in the darkness.
So lead us into faithful living that your promises may unfold in us as a woman’s back, long bent, unfolds at Christ’s command, to the praise of your holy name. Amen.

Focus Scripture
Luke 13:10-17

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.

All Readings For This Sunday
Jeremiah 1:4-10 with Psalm 71:1-6 or
Isaiah 58:9b-14 with Psalm 103:1-8 and
Hebrews 12:18-29 and
Luke 13:10-17

Focus Questions

1. What kinds of healing might we offer to those we may or may not notice in our places of worship?

2. In what ways do we hinder liberation and healing for the sake of rules and tradition?

3. Is the suffering of some people easier to avoid than others, or to miss entirely? 

4. Have you ever experienced grace coming to you, even when you didn’t have the strength or confidence to ask for it?

5. How do you imagine the bent-over woman’s life was different, the day after she was healed?

by Kate Huey

It’s a simple story: on the way to Jerusalem, while Jesus is teaching in a synagogue, a “bent-over” woman passing by evokes Jesus’ compassion. Does the woman ask for healing? No. Does Jesus seem to care that it’s the Sabbath, when healing non-life-threatening conditions is not permitted? No. Without being asked, he calls her over to him, and sets her free from her longtime ailment by placing his hands on her, just as one would in blessing. And the woman is blessed, and freed, and has sense enough to recognize the source of the freedom she’s been given at last, freedom from the little bit of square footage she’s been limited to visually for almost twenty years. Now, is everyone amazed and grateful to witness such a thing? No, indeed. The leader of the synagogue is in fact upset by this breach of the Law and tells the crowd, which undoubtedly includes many others in need of healing (aren’t we all?), that they should come back tomorrow, when the timing will be more “appropriate” for such things as healing. The tension builds as Jesus heads toward Jerusalem and his death, and the lessons for us as disciples continue.

A simple enough story, it seems. But as in all biblical narratives, there is so much more to see. As always, when we consider the setting of the story, and its parallels with other stories, we begin to experience even more of its power and meaning. This isn’t the only time Jesus has healed on the Sabbath, or healed while teaching in the synagogue (or both). It isn’t the first time he’s provoked the religious leaders, and it won’t be the last.

Sharon Ringe describes the situation of the bent-over woman very well, a condition that could be translated as “a spirit of weakness”: “Her weakness itself is regarded as the power that holds her captive to restricted movement, to the inability to meet another person face-to-face, and to a world defined by the piece of ground around her own toes or looked at always on a slant. The words that effect the healing deal with what has enslaved her.” Ironically, while this woman’s line of vision has been severely affected by her ailment these many years, she has no problem seeing the salvation standing before her in the person of Jesus, and recognizing the source of her healing. The crowd is also able to see God’s hand at work and to appreciate Jesus’ timing in spite of the objections of the religious leader: they rejoice at this wonderful thing they’ve witnessed.

Remember back in chapter four of this Gospel when Jesus stood in another synagogue and began his ministry with a statement of intent to proclaim release to the captive? Remember the reaction of the crowd then, when they ran him out of town? Remember just a few verses before this passage, in Chapter 12, when Jesus said he had come to bring division (12:51)? The reaction to this healing is a good illustration of division: the religious leaders may be clueless and outraged, but the people are carried away with joy. That is division.

Do we perceive the burdens of others?

Woven into this story are several threads: the healing of the woman who’s pressed down, held bound by Satan, as Jesus describes her, is the most obvious. Each Sunday, all sorts of burdens are carried into our churches. Some, like the bent-over woman’s condition, are more visible than others. As you look around your congregation, what do you see? The weight of many years of suffering on one person’s face, the crushing hurt of a new and painful reality in another’s eyes: divorce; the loss of a loved one; financial worries; poor health; a child who has run away, physically or emotionally. Perhaps there are people in your church who know the pain and oppression of being pushed down, or out to the margins, alone and isolated in the greater community, if not within the church itself. Who are these people, and do we notice them, the way Jesus noticed the bent-over woman?

Just as important as their suffering is our response to it. Our hearts may be touched by the suffering of another, but are we moved by compassion, enough to reach out and do something? Then there is the question of self-examination: what are the ways that the church itself lays burdens on the people? Is there a word of judgment for us in this reading from the Gospel of Luke? When we’ve experienced healing and/or liberation from our own burdens, have we, like the bent-over woman, had sense enough to praise God?

The daughters of Abraham

A second thread to follow is one that leads to reflection on Jesus’ ministry with women. We see the quiet humility of a woman who has apparently come to the synagogue to pray, asking nothing for herself, and, according to Ringe, we also see the restoration to the community that Jesus offers in his healing, expressed by the unusual address (the only time it’s used in the Gospels), “daughter of Abraham.” Perhaps the condition of the woman is a metaphor for the experience of so many women bearing heavy burdens in every culture and time, whether they are hauling water for miles, caring for sick children without needed resources, enduring physical abuse, or treated unjustly in the workplace. Jesus repeatedly ignores rules and customs that reinforce such marginalization and injustice, and this story embodies his attitude toward all women, not just one “victim” of “a spirit of weakness.” If Jesus “deals with what has enslaved her,” as Ringe says, aren’t we called to deal with what enslaves women and girls today, not just to study the oppression of women or acknowledge it as a sociological phenomenon, but to deal with its causes? 

And then there is the question of timing. This healing was a problem because of when it happened, not to whom or by whom or how it was accomplished. Come back tomorrow, the synagogue leader says, when it’s alright for healings to be performed. Wait a little longer. The tension here, according to Richard Swanson’s interesting commentary, is between two faithful Jewish men who are struggling with what it means to be faithful. The religious leader as Swanson portrays him is not mean-spirited but trying to press his case for obedient faithfulness. So is Jesus, of course, but each of these men believes he is the one keeping Sabbath. 

A different sense of timing

The story portrays Jesus as keeping the Sabbath because he sees it differently, and because he has a different sense of timing. The time for God’s healing reign is now, not later. This is an urgent matter. Jesus spent much of the previous chapter speaking about “the hour” and about the ability to see what is really important. This woman’s ailment may not threaten her life, but her life is so precious that each day is a gift and an opportunity to praise God. According to Barbara Reid, “When the purpose of Sabbath rest is to be free to praise God, Jesus deems it necessary to free a bound woman so as to do precisely that.” Jesus’ timing matters, Reid writes, because “Jesus is urgent that now is the time of salvation.” So it’s not unreasonable to suggest, as Sharon Ringe does, that the point of all this is not “whether,” but “how” to keep Sabbath. 

This problem, of course, seems to be an ongoing one, Charles Cousar writes, for the religious elites and all who failed to “perceive the clear signs of God’s rule” or to “realize that the present was a time of crisis, a time for repentance and changed lives.” And this brings us to our own time and our own questions and our own need for healing. Our world doesn’t know the meaning of Sabbath or grasp the importance of timing. Richard Swanson does a beautiful job of pointing out the contrast between our modern approach to Sunday (our Sabbath day) and the profound regard that the people of Jesus’ time would have had for the day of rest: “This scene comes out of a world that remembered that Sabbath is different. Sabbath is not just a day of rest. It is a day of promise….Sabbath is welcomed into the house as a queen would be welcomed. Sabbath provides a foretaste of the culmination of all things, a glimpse of God’s dominion, a little slice of the messianic age dropped into the midst of regular time. Sabbath offers a remembrance of God’s promise of peace and freedom for all of creation. It is a good thing, a gift from God….Sabbath had become a symbol of the resistance God’s people offered to tyrants of every sort and every time…Sabbath is a day that lifts people’s eyes to God’s promise in the midst of the most unpromising circumstances.”

We are fortunate in many ways in our culture, but we are burdened, too. For example, many children in our society are as pressed down as the bent-over woman with schedules that leave them no time to play or to just “be” with their families, friends, and nature. We adults are the same way. Our health and the well-being of our families, our churches, and our communities are affected. Sabbath observance, rather than being a burden, challenges us to make a regular spiritual practice of setting aside a time of peace and rest, but even more, to immerse ourselves during that “special” time in the promises of God, the promises that sustain us each day, during “regular” time, too. As the bent-over woman’s gaze was “lifted up” to God in praise, perhaps our perspective, too, will be raised and will lead us to new and deeper faithfulness and praise.

A preaching version of this commentary can be found on http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel.

For further reflection

Alice Walker, 21st century
Anybody can observe the Sabbath, but making it holy surely takes the rest of the week.

Anita Diamant, 21st century
The Sabbath is a weekly cathedral raised up in my dining room, in my family, in my heart.

Marva Dawn, 21st century
Sabbath ceasing [means] to cease not only from work itself, but also from the need to accomplish and be productive, from the worry and tension that accompany our modern criterion of efficiency, from our efforts to be in control of our lives as if we were God, from our possessiveness and our enculturation, and finally, from the humdrum and meaninglessness that result when life is pursued without the Lord at the center of it all.

Barbara Brown Taylor, 21st century
The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth wrote, “A being is free only when it can determine and limit its activity.” By that definition, I have a hard time counting many free beings among my acquaintance. I know people who can do five things at once who are incapable of doing nothing. I know people who can decide what to do without being able to do less of it. Since I have been one of these people, I know that saying no is a more difficult spiritual practice than tithing, praying on a cold stone floor, or visiting a prisoner on death row.

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Weekly Seeds is a service of the Congregational Vitality Initiative, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The Revised Common Lectionary is © 1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.