“A Woman Healed and a Pharisee: Two Perspectives” author unknown
WOMAN: I had looked at the ground for years.
LEADER OF THE SYNAGOGUE: I had been looking at the heavens for years.
WOMAN: I had wanted to stand straight for a long time.
LEADER: I had been walking straight with God for a long time.
WOMAN: Then he called to me, an untouchable woman who had been crippled for eighteen years.
LEADER: Then he ignored me, a Pharisee, a leader, a man of God.
WOMAN: He spoke to me, “You are free of your illness.” I was amazed.
LEADER: He spoke to her, “You are free of your illness.” I was shocked.
WOMAN: And I was healed, what a Sabbath!
LEADER: And she was healed, on the Sabbath!
WOMAN: I never expected to be healed particularly on this day of the week.
LEADER: There are six other days to be used for healing during the week.
WOMAN: I felt released, renewed, reborn.
LEADER: I felt angry.
WOMAN: I never thought the Sabbath could bring such a time of liberation.
LEADER: I never thought I’d see the day when the Sabbath was so damaged.
WOMAN: He took my life and celebrated it.
LEADER: He took the law and challenged it.
WOMAN: I am elated.
LEADER: I am downcast.
WOMAN: Now I look to the heavens with thanks.
LEADER: Now I stare at the ground with questions.
* * * * * * * * * * *
The story today, from Luke’s Gospel, is as much about differing perspectives as it is about healing. Jesus has accepted an invitation to teach at a synagogue on the Sabbath. He is a guest who has been honoured with an invitation to participate in worship. Jesus has gained a reputation, in the Jewish community, as a teacher and healer. We can assume the leadership of the synagogue was aware of Jesus’ reputation. Also, given the importance of hospitality, in that time and place, we can safely assume that Jesus was given a warm welcome as an honoured guest.
Everything seems to be going well until Jesus notices a woman “with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years”. The woman was “bent-over” with the burden of her infirmity. That is all we know about the woman. We don’t know her name – she is simply defined by her affliction.What we do know is that as soon as Jesus sees the woman he immediately stops teaching and calls to her, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” Then Jesus lays his hands on her and immediately she stands upright and offers thanks and praise to God.
It is not surprising that the leader of the synagogue was indignant — of course he was. A guest, who had been welcomed, and honoured, had disrupted worship on the Sabbath and in the process had disregarded cultural and religious laws. For hundreds of years, it had been a Jewish practice to keep the Sabbath as a holy day devoted to rest and the worship of God. In keeping with the practices of good hospitality, the leader of the synagogue does not chastise his guest but instead reminds the entire gathered community there are six days that are designed for work but that on the Sabbath one should not expect to be healed. There is an irony about this because the woman who has been healed on the Sabbath immediately gives thanks and praise to God. I would not be surprised if this woman became a great witness to the power of God’s healing love. Persons with deformities or afflictions of any kind were often shunned and thought to have done something to offend God. Jesus, by his actions, contradicts this belief. The woman who would have been practically invisible in her own community was seen immediately by Jesus and was recognized and valued as a “daughter of Abraham”. In this simple act, Jesus proclaims that the woman has a place as a valued member of the Jewish community. Jesus’ loving and compassionate response to the woman enables her to lift herself up and take her rightful place within the community.
It is tempting to focus on how Jesus challenges unjust institutions and is the champion of the marginalized and leave it at that. But, that is not the whole story. The leader of the synagogue was not a bad person. He was empowered to keep, in sacred trust, the religious traditions of Judaism. Rules directing behaviour on the Sabbath had begun centuries before to allow a day of rest and to enable people to have a regular time to gather and worship God.
The institution of the Sabbath is described in the book of Exodus:
“Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work…” (Exodus 20:8)
The book of Deuteronomy explains that the command to rest on the Sabbath is inclusive and for the benefit of all. Deuteronomy says, “…you shall not do any work – you or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well.” (Deut. 5:14)
In a time and place where most people had to work long days just to survive, the institution of a day of rest was literally a life-saver. The need for physical rest was also of great benefit in taking time to nurture spiritual, emotional and communal needs.
Laws, whether religious or secular, that are created for the well-being of society can sometimes, over time, lose something of the “spirit of the law” and can be enforced with a stringent rigidity that can actually hurt rather than benefit people. The most extreme case of punishment for breaking the Sabbath commandment is found in the book of Numbers, written centuries before the time of Jesus. Numbers records the case of a man who was charged, found guilty and stoned to death, for collecting sticks on the Sabbath. (Numbers 15:32-36) Whether the man was collecting sticks for a fire to keep his family warm or to cook food seemed of little importance. It seems that, at that point in time, enforcing the law became more important than the people it was meant to protect.
Rules of conduct, whether legal or religious, need to be examined by each generation to make sure they are serving the purposes for which they were originally designed. Jesus, as we know from today’s story and from other stories recorded in the gospels, railed against any person or establishment that put the welfare of ordinary people as secondary.
In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus says, “The Sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27) In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus heals a man with a “withered hand” in a synagogue on the Sabbath. On that occasion Jesus justifies his actions by saying, “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:12)
Jesus challenged people, who had the power to change rules and behaviour, to think about what they were saying and doing. He challenged them, as he challenges us today, to see that we can honour tradition as well as adapting to emergent needs and circumstances. Continuing to do things a certain way, just because that is the way it has always been done, does not serve God’s purpose. We must constantly discern God’s vision and guidance for us as a community of faith and make changes where necessary. Like the leader of the synagogue, in Luke’s story, this may cause us distress or confusion but it will certainly cause us to reevaluate our expectations and actions.
For me, the good news in today’s gospel lesson is that wherever love is freely offered, new life is nurtured. People can be liberated from brokenness and burdens that have long weighed them down. The amazing and healing power of love transforms ordinary lives and leads to extraordinary experiences of faith. This is cause for hope and celebration.
We can listen and share one another’s burdens. We can set ourselves, and each other free, with the healing power of God’s love. With this in mind, I’ll end this time of reflection with prayer:
Holy One, fill us with your Spirit;
empower and encourage us to believe in ourselves
and to be courageous followers of Jesus.
Guide us to challenge, within ourselves and our world,
every tradition that binds freedom,
every belief that limits imagination,
every custom that refuses change.
Guide us to challenge the structures
that keep one person strong and another weak…
Help us to carry one another’s burdens…
and set one another free.
May this be our reality, this day and always. Amen
(Seasons of the Spirit, Pentecost 1, 2007, adapted)