PROPER 16, C
Last week Jesus told us he came to bring to division to the world, and this week we see him in action, doing just that.
Jesus is teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath, when a woman arrives who is all bent over, so that she is always looking at the ground. We learn that she has been this way for 18 years. Jesus stops teaching in order to heal her. Notice that she didn’t ask for healing, but when it happens she stands up straight and praises God.
The leader of the synagogue is shocked, shocked and dismayed. Work is not allowed on the Sabbath. Why couldn’t Jesus have waited one day to heal her? When he voices his complaint, Jesus is quick to reply, “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?”
The congregation rejoices at his response. But what does that mean for the leader? He is shamed in front of the congregation and they rejoice. What do you suppose life will be like in that congregation in the coming weeks? We know what sort of strife arises when a congregation is divided in this way.
What we see is new life for the woman who is healed, but at the cost of division in the body of worshippers. Will the leader also be healed? Will he realize that he had gotten “caught up in the all-too-common trap of placing form before substance” (Emilie Towne, Feasting)?
Charles E. Raynal notes that “Jesus elicits rage because the Pharisees control the Sabbath with their work of cumbersome requirements that imprison or enslave people with longstanding bondage. A religious observance that is to remember and honor the liberation of God’s people thus becomes in the hands of the Pharisees a means of social control and oppression. A spirit of bondage lives in the woman and restricts her independence and freedom to live in strength and fullness.”
The juxtaposition of bringing division and bringing healing may be what we are supposed to focus on. Can healing come about without causing any division? Does causing division always bring about some sort of healing? I’m not sure about the use of ‘always’, but I know from experience that division of some sort often precedes healing and some kind of new life.
At the personal level, I can certainly see how the division of divorce brought me new life and a new direction. Like the woman in this story, I felt I had been freed from bondage.
Last week Sam addressed the communal experience of division when she said, “Jesus recognizes that division, disturbing and destructive, is the midwife of new life, life in faith, life in God. Slavery would never have ended in Great Britain, or in America without division, without William Wilberforce and countless others to follow their consciences, to be willing to disturb the status quo. In this country, would women have gained a right to vote (or to serve as clergy) without division? Would workers have a right to a living wage? Would children have a right to schooling? Would South African apartheid ever have ended? Would any partner gather the courage to leave an abusive spouse?”
If both sides of any divide refuse to engage the opposition, and merely insist they are right, they are both like this bent over woman, and as such can only see the part of the world that is directly beneath their gaze. Sounds rather like Congress, doesn’t it?
Besides looking at the personal and communal meanings of this story, let’s also consider the metaphorical possibilities. When you think about this woman and her plight, what does it bring to mind. What would it be like to live like that?
She can’t see the sun except its reflection on the dirt around her feet. She can’t look people in the eye when she speaks to them. When someone approaches her she has no way of identifying them except by looking at their shoes or lower body or listening to their voice.
She is so weighed down by her condition that she doesn’t even think to ask Jesus to heal her. She has given up. For me, this brings to mind two kinds of metaphorical meanings, either of which could be applied to your personal life or to our communal life together.
One, this woman is in a rut! She has accepted the limitations her condition has imposed upon her and just goes about the business of daily living without hope, without joy, maybe without meaningful relationships. I suspect that all of us have had this experience at some point – letting the business of life take over our lives to the point where we’re just plodding on. Sometimes this can happen without our even noticing it.
Clearly this same condition can affect churches and other institutions. We just keep on keeping on. And when Jesus or the Spirit jumps into the situation, division results. Remember what it was like for us when we first considered becoming a Total Ministry church? Yes, there was division of opinion for quite a while, but change did come and I hope that healing was a part of that. It certainly feels to me like there is a new life and spirit in this church.
The other metaphorical sort of meaning I can see in this story is that this woman is exhibiting all the symptoms of depression. She seems so weighted down, as though she has a heavy albatross hung around her neck that has bent her over. She can’t see the possibilities around her. All she can do is keep putting one foot in front of the other. One of the commentators thought she was burdened by sin, and I’m sure that sin can become a burden, but it seems to me that depression is a better metaphor, because it also rolls in without any warning and often without apparent reason.
Jesus jumps into the middle of this and releases the woman. “Come to me all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” In our time, that is the job of the Holy Spirit – to yank us out of our rut, to break into our depression, to break into our doing the same old thing over and over, so that new life can emerge. Divisions are often part of this, so we have to confront them and attempt to heal them. We cannot let them stop the new life emerging.
We don’t always want new life, we don’t always welcome change, but at some level it is inevitable, so we’d best be involved in discerning the way forward. We might even be able to partner with the Holy Spirit to bring new life and healing to ourselves and to those around us. Like the bent-over woman, we too can stand up straight and praise God.