Jesus, as is his custom, is in the Synagogue, on the sabbath, teaching. He is with the whole gathered community, with them for praise of God and for learning. And just now there appears a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. Into the midst of their regular worship comes a woman bent double with a crippling illness. Presumably she is something of a familiar sight to most of the congregation. She has struggled to get to synagogue. Her disability no doubt makes it especially difficult to get there. It must be like carrying a heavy burden, each step an effort. Just to place one foot in front of another is a struggle, never able to straighten up and rest, or even see properly where she is headed. Yet despite this she comes. Her desire to be with the people of God and to worship is that strong. Even an illness as debilitating as hers is not going to stop her. Nothing would prevent her from offering praise to God in the congregation. For half a lifetime she has been weighed down with this spirit of weakness. But in all of those eighteen years it has not held her back from continuing to praise God. Despite the accusation that the leader of the Synagogue makes later, there is no ulterior motive to her coming. She has not come with the expectation that she will gain anything tangible from her being there. She hasn’t turned up with the expectation that Jesus would heal her. She would have been there anyway.
I suspect that all of us can think of, and indeed know faithful souls like this. That despite all the obstacles, despite all the difficulties, in the face of illness and disability, they still find their way into church week in and week out. In the face of all the might stop them, they still long to be among God’s people for prayer and praise. The woman bent double came into the synagogue. She came to pray. She is bound, held down by her illness. But she use what freedom she has to praise God. In that sense she uses her freedom to fulfil the true purpose of hers and every life, to give glory to God.
The woman does not approach Jesus. She says nothing to him. It is easy to imagine in fact that bent over as she was, unable to look up as she came into the synagogue, she didn’t even see that he was there. The initiative is entirely with Jesus. When Jesus sees her he calls her over and say, “Woman you are set free from your ailment.” No request is made. No one has to plead the woman’s case. Jesus sees her need and responds. Jesus’ preaching and teaching is consistent. He stands up in synagogue, and in the fields, and on the street corners. He stands up and announces that the kingdom of God has come very near. God’s reign of freedom is about to take place! As the woman bent over enters the synagogue the inbreaking of God’s rule becomes a visible reality. Her healing is the work of God. It is a sign of God’s power. And it demonstrates God’s intention for his people. When Jesus declares “Woman you are set free from your ailment,” he takes us to the heart of God’s kingdom. The announcement of God’s kingdom declares that people should be set free. They should be able to stand up straight. The will of God is loosing and reviving. It is liberation and restoration. What Jesus had declared in words in another synagogue, quoting the words of Isaiah he said:
“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 favour.“
Jesus announced then that those words were being fulfilled in his listeners’ hearing. In this synagogue those words are being fulfilled in their sight. And prominent in Isaiah’s prophecy are the ideas of “release” and “freedom.”
At the heart of what we’re about is setting people free. The woman bent over stands as a representative of God’s mission. Her disability can be a metaphor for all the things that holds people down or holds the back for everything that restricts or oppresses human life. And the mission of the church is to participate in that mission of freedom and release.
When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began raising God. Standing upright for the first time in eighteen years, looking around and seeing the house of God, filled with God people, properly, the woman does what she came here to do: she praises God! Perhaps not in the words of the spiritual: “Free at last, praise God, free at last!” But no doubt in something with a very similar sentiment. What happened to the woman is truly a miracle. It prompts wonder. It produces that sense of awe which is the recognition of the inbreaking of the power of God. And this in turn leads to both praise and faith. The congregation join with the woman in seeing the power of God at work in Jesus and rejoice at all the wonderful things that he is doing.
Perhaps we don’t see miracles, or expect to see them. But God’s power continues to work in the world. We need to remember what God’s will for his people is that people, all people, should be set free. The will and mission of God is liberation and restoration. So every small sign of those who are captive, to what ever force is holding them, being released; Every small indication of those who are oppressed, weighed down by whatever burden, being restored; each of these is a small sign of God’s power at work in the world and the source of our praise and our faith.
Of course there is always someone who wants to rain on the parade: 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.” Maybe he has a point. There are indeed six other days in which a healing could have been done. And one more day after eighteen years doesn’t seem so long to wait. The sabbath is one of those important signs of loyalty to God. We keep God’s commandments, not because they necessarily make sense, or because we understand them, but because God made them and we want to demonstrate our loyalty to God. But Jesus rebuts that suggestion: 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? Some work is permitted on the sabbath. Work which prevents the suffering of dumb animals, who do not have the freedom to help themselves, is allowed. Jesus then uses a rabbinical argument against his rabbinical critics. He argues from lesser to greater: If you can help animals on the sabbath, how much more must you be permitted to alleviate human suffering. “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 woman is both more significant in God’s consideration and her suffering has been greater, therefore releasing her, even on the sabbath, is a priority that overrides other religious duties. The argument that Jesus has with the synagogue leader is not whether to observe the sabbath or not, any more than it might be an argument about being religious or not. It is an argument about how to observe the sabbath, how to be religious, what religion is for.
It is clear from all of Jesus’ teaching that religion should never get in the way of doing good One of the most damning criticisms that can be made and is made of religious people in general, and Christians in particular, is that we want to be right more than we want to be kind. Perhaps the synagogue leader suffers from that attitude of mind as well. The priority as far as Jesus is concerned is meeting the human need as we encounter it. And it is responding to that need according to God’s intention for human life, to lift the burden of oppression, and to set people free from affliction.
Appropriate moment for liberation
The truth is actually there could be no more appropriate moment for this healing than the Sabbath. What the synagogue leader seems to have overlooked or forgotten, like so many other religious people, is the purpose of religion in general and the Sabbath in particular. The sabbath, which is a microcosm of all religious activity, is a period of rest to leave people free to worship. The sabbath is the most prominent symbol of God’s will to release and restore people to fulfil their true purpose, which is to give glory to God. The continued “binding” of the woman bent over would actually be a contradiction of the intention of the sabbath. Any religious activity that binds people up rather than releases them to praise is a contradiction of the teachings of Jesus.
Didn’t see a miracle
The problem is that the synagogue leader didn’t see a miracle. In contrast t the rest of the congregation who saw God at work in Jesus, and as a result could only respond with praise. The synagogue leader ascribes the healing directly to Jesus. It was, in the synagogue leader’s view, Jesus rather than God who had healed on the sabbath and therefore he could be deemed to have broken the law by working. The synagogue leader didn’t see a miracle. That is, he didn’t see through what happened to observe the activity of God’s inbreaking kingdom. It is Jesus who enable us to see in all those small miracles of liberation and restoration the hand of God at work. In the end it is Jesus who is always decisive
and who much to our surprise divides people’s response even as good is being done. Those who see in him God at work, will praise God. Those who don’t are ultimately silenced.
Sabbath of Freedom by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0