It’s good to keep that in mind: This relatively mild story is framed by serious warnings, issued as part of Jesus’ determined journey to Jerusalem and the Cross.
The story seems kind of ordinary: Luke 13:10-17 shows Jesus teaching in a synagogue, healing a woman, and getting berated for doing so on the Sabbath. As is often the case, there are odd details hidden in plain sight that make it all quite interesting.
I think those details show best when we look at the stories of the separate characters. Of course overall this is Jesus’ story. It is Jesus who teaches in the synagogue, heals the woman, and has some verbal repartee with his critics. But each of the players that day saw the scene as if he or she were the focus of the drama.
The woman’s story
So there was this woman who came to the synagogue that day.
I’ve always pictured her as elderly, with the kind of arthritic spine that turned her posture into the shape of a question mark. Pain kept her bent down, looking always at the ground, shuffling forward, wondering if people were staring.
Of course she might not have been old. All we know is she’d been suffering for eighteen years. If her crippling condition came on in childhood, she might be as young as twenty.
Whatever her age, Luke’s and Jesus’ analysis of her condition is spiritual: they say it is “a spirit,” or “Satan” that has caused the problem, even if the manifestation is physical deformity.
The first odd thing, though, is that Jesus sees her. If this synagogue were in the form that became standard in later centuries, the main area would be for the men, while the women would pray separately, out of sight.
But there she is, this woman, in the main area.
- Did she lose her sense of direction, with her eyes turned toward the floor?
- Did she have a proto-feminist objection to being segregated to the women’s gallery?
- Or was she drawn to Jesus, having heard that he was a great healer?
The way Luke tells her story there is no indication that she was seeking to be healed. She makes no request.
She doesn’t sneak up to touch his cloak. She’s just in the room.
Jesus sees her. That’s the lovely thing about her story. She didn’t even have to pray. Jesus saw here, and was moved by compassion. Without being asked, Jesus called her to come over (right in the middle of the men’s area — making a point perhaps?). He spoke to her, declaring her free of the malady that had enslaved her body for nearly two decades.
And then she responds. She stands up straight for the first time in 6,570 days (but who’s counting?).
She no longer looks like a question mark. She’s as straight and tall as an exclamation point. And she knows the theological significance of what has happened! She speaks out her praise to God!
That’s exactly the right response, eh?
Right there in the men’s part of the synagogue.
The Synagogue Leader’s Story
If this were only that poor woman’s story, it would be all over now, with a happy ending.
But wait, as the commercials say, there’s more.
This is a story that took place in a synagogue. That synagogue had a leader. And that leader wanted to keep a good and godly order.
He had invited Jesus to teach, perhaps. Or maybe Jesus just showed up and the leader didn’t stop him. In any case, the leader had his eye on this out-of-towner.
When Jesus called a woman over and healed her, right there in the men’s area, and right then on the Sabbath, the leader was not amused.
The problem was, Jesus did something extremely impressive. The whole crowd was abuzz. It was a hard moment to stand up and object that this miracle was completely irreligious and inappropriate.
So, he resorted to a very old strategy: I call it “gossip schtick.”
That is, the leader developed a line, a bit of schtick, that sounded spontaneous. Then he whispered it in any ear that would listen.
…the leader…kept saying…,
‘There are six days on which work ought to be done;
come on those days and be cured,
and not on the sabbath day.’ ” (Luke 13:14 NRSV)
Whisper whisper whisper.
It’s a funny little speech. I mean, it isn’t like the crowd he spoke to had actually come for a cure of any kind.
But that’s how the gossip schtick works: Just keep repeating the speech, even if it doesn’t apply to the people you are speaking to. The point is to get them on your side, co-belligerents against the designated offender.
Jesus calls the leader out.
…the Lord answered him
‘You hypocrites!’” (Luke 13:15 NRSV)
Did you notice his little shift? He moves from singular (him) to plural (hypocrites).
Jesus calls out everyone who takes the leader’s side against the woman who came and was cured on the sabbath.
What Was Jesus’ Text?
I wonder if it had to do with the text Jesus had been preaching on. Luke doesn’t tell us what that text was.
Luke just tells us Jesus’ accusation, the nature of the hypocrisy he dislikes.
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?” (Luke 13:15-16 NRSV)
He makes an analogy based on the mercy shown to animals — even on the sabbath day.
It might give us a hint about the text Jesus was teaching on. Nothing firm or probably even convincing, but consider this passage from Exodus:
When you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey going astray,
you shall bring it back.
When you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden
and you would hold back from setting it free,
you must help to set it free.” (Exodus 23:4-5 NRSV)
Loving your neighbor gets a practical beginning where the law says you have to take good care of the animals of those you hate and of those who hate you.
By analogy, how much more do you need to take good care of the actual people who are lost or struggling under burdens — whether you like or approve of them or not?
Or maybe it was this one from Deuteronomy:
You shall not watch your neighbor’s ox or sheep straying away and ignore them;
you shall take them back to their owner.
If the owner does not reside near you or you do not know who the owner is, you shall bring it to your own house, and it shall remain with you until the owner claims it; then you shall return it.
You shall do the same with a neighbor’s donkey;
you shall do the same with a neighbor’s garment;
and you shall do the same with anything else that your neighbor loses and you find.
You may not withhold your help.
You shall not see your neighbor’s donkey or ox fallen on the road and ignore it;
you shall help to lift it up.” (Deuteronomy 22:1-4 NRSV)
There is a clear obligation to take good care of the property of one’s neighbor. You can’t look away and plead ignorance. You can’t hold back. You have to help.
And by Jesus’ analogy, how much more are we obliged to help our actual neighbors when they are personally struggling under oppressive burdens?
The leader and his followers were put to shame.
The crowd in general cheered for Jesus as he put them to shame.
But the point is not which side you are on.
The point is to help people who struggle under burdens — even when they come on the wrong day and find themselves in the wrong place.
I’d love to send you all my Monday Meditations, plus my other new articles and announcements. Just scroll down to the black box with the orange button to subscribe, and they’ll arrive by email most Fridays.