|Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at
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This miracle/conflict story is unique to Luke. It is the fifth (out of six) Sabbath day events in Luke and the third (out of four) healings on the Sabbath
4:16-30 Jesus preaches in the synagogue at Nazareth on the Sabbath
4:31-37 Jesus heals a man with an unclean spirit
6:1-5 The disciples pluck grain on the sabbath
6:6-11 Jesus heals a man with a withered hand on the sabbath
13:10-17 Jesus heals a crippled woman
14:1-6 Jesus heals a man with dropsy
Our text has some similarities with the final sabbath day healing (14:1-6) in that story, like our text, Jesus indicates that human beings are more important than oxen and donkeys. I'm not sure that I would consider that a complement. But, on the other hand, I've known animals that were much easier to get along with than some people <g>.
Last week we heard Jesus say that he came to cast fire on the earth and to bring divisions. This week we have an account of Jesus seemingly going out of his way to cause conflict and divisions -- the opponents are shamed and the crowd rejoices (v. 17). His means of dividing the people in our text is to do a good deed on the sabbath. He acts contrary to some people's expectations. He is breaking their rules.
Twice in our text we are told that the woman has had this illness for 18 years (probably a word connection with the 18 who died in 13:4). What difference would a few hours make? Why heal her on the Sabbath day and purposely cause all the conflict that such a "work" would create? Note also that the word "sabbath" occurs five times in our text.
Robert Capon deals with that topic in Between Noon and Three. It is part of his defense in writing an offensive story/parable that is the majority of this book. He relates his deed to Jesus' actions in Matthew 12, but they relate just as well to the miracle in Luke 13. He writes:
...his breaking of the sabbath seems pointless and unnecessary. He is not performing a good deed that, if delayed, would become unperformable. This is not a man who needs immediate rescue, not a man lying unconscious in a burning house. This is not even a man whose case is like the one Jesus cites to justify the healing -- a sheep fallen into a pit who would drown if left till sundown. The Pharisees are reasonable men. Of course they would pull out the sheep. If you care to make a rather Latin-style theological argument for them, you might have them reason that since the sabbath is the chief sacrament of the order of creation, it may lawfully be broken only if some significant individual instance of that order is in danger of imminent and irreversible disordering.
But that is not the case here. This man has had a withered hand for years [or a woman being ill for 18 years]. Why in God's good name can't Jesus wait out the afternoon and cure him without flying in the face of the Torah? Why can't he sit with him till sunset and use the time to fix the man's mind on the graciousness of God? Why can't they search the Scriptures together and set the stage so that the healing will be seen in all its unquestionable rightness? What is the point of this unnecessary muddying of the water? ...
Whenever someone attempts to introduce a radically different insight to people whose minds have been formed by an old and well-worked-out way of thinking, he is up against an obstacle. Their taste, as Jesus said, for the old wine is so well established that they invariably prefer it to the new. More than that, the new wine, still fermenting, seems to them so obviously and dangerously full of power that they will not even consider putting it into their old and fragile wineskins.
But try to see the point of the biblical imagery of wine-making a little more abstractly. The new insight is always at odds with the old way of looking at things. Even if the teacher's audience were to try earnestly to take it in, the only intellectual devices they have to pick it up with are the categories of the old system with which it conflicts. Hence the teacher's problem: if he leaves in his teaching a single significant scrap of the old system, their minds, by their very effort to understand, will go to that scrap rather than to the point he is making and, having done that, will understand the new only insofar as it can be made to agree with the old -- which is not at all. [pp. 140-142]
Capon concludes that if Jesus had waited until sundown, his wonderful miracle would have supported the people's expectations of a victorious and immortal messiah -- one "who is coming to punch the enemies of the Lord in the nose."
Jesus constantly announces the coming kingdom in words and deeds that run counter to the people's expectations for the kingdom. He comes from Galilee, from where no prophet comes. He talks with a Samaritan -- and a woman, which no decent male Jew would do. He eats with tax collectors and sinners. He is accused of being a glutton and a drunkard. He directly confronts their understanding of the Sabbath Laws. Eventually he will die as an accursed criminal on a cross.
We want to "see" Jesus through the lens of our own understanding of what a savior should be like. As long as we "see" in this way, we cannot see. Capon again:
He [Jesus] instructs them with a constant awareness that the one thing they must not do is see, because they would see wrong, nor understand, because they would only misunderstand. For he knows that the only thing that can save them -- himself, in the mystery of his death and resurrection -- is the one thing they cannot accept on their present view of salvation. Accordingly, he gives them not one scrap to confirm their present view -- or, more accurately, he always includes one solidly unacceptable scrap on which their minds will gag. [p. 143]
One way of dealing with an unappetizing message, is to kill the messenger.
Generally, when people are stuck in a system or a particular way of understanding, they need to be SHOCKED out of the old and into the new. Logic and reason usually doesn't work. Just try logically trying to convince people about making changes in the church. I'm certain that Jesus could have spent all day arguing with the synagogue leader about whether or not it was legal to heal this woman on the sabbath -- while she remained ill. (How many council meetings are discussions about what should be done, rather than actually getting things done?) Note that the healing took place before the discussion about whether or not it was the right thing to do. When should we just do things in the church that we believe are right, and then deal with the repercussions afterwards? When do we need to discuss and come to an agreement before taking action? For instance, weekly communion: Is that something a pastor should do and deal with the "discussion" afterwards? Is that something that should be discussed and brought to a congregational vote? What about communing children: Act and then discuss? Offering a healing service? Wearing "street clothes" rather than vestments, or wearing vestments rather than street clothes?
Systems theory indicates that any time someone upsets the homeostasis -- the comfortable way the people are used to, someone is likely to sabotage the plans and attach the one making them. Being pushed out of homeostasis causes anxiety. Anxious people can do all kinds of things that may not be helpful.
Culpepper (Luke, The New Interpreters Bible) suggests a somewhat symbolic understanding of the woman:
...several features of the story suggest that the woman's condition may be seen as indicative of her diminished status as a woman; her condition is attributed to "a spirit of weakness," this weakness has left her bent over and unable to stand straight, Jesus addresses her with the general term "Woman," and Jesus answers the leader of the synagogue by contrasting what one would do for an animal with what he has done for the woman. In the end, Jesus confers on the woman a status of dignity: She is a "daughter of Abraham" (see 16:22-31; 19:9). Jesus is in the process of releasing the captive, freeing the oppressed (4:18) and raising up children to Abraham (3:8). As in other scenes in Luke in which Jesus responds to the needs of a woman, this scene points to a new status for women in the kingdom of God. [p. 273]
Tannehill (Luke), using a different approach, also suggests a symbolic understanding of the woman.
The description of the woman as daughter of Abraham is unusual. It is placed first in the Greek sentence (v. 16), a position of emphasis. This description will be matched in 19:9 by Jesus' insistence that Zacchaeus is "a son of Abraham," a point that Jesus makes against the crowd, which rejects Zacchaeus as a "sinner." Similarly, it is probable that Jesus insists the woman is a daughter of Abraham because she has been robbed of her rights as a member of the covenant people, since she is identified as the bearer of an unclean spirit. Her physical position -- bent over -- can be taken as symbolic of her social position, just as Zacchaeus's short statute can represent his vulnerability before the crowd. [p. 218]
....Thus the promise to Abraham will be realized only through social upheaval, which includes reinstating people like the bent woman and Zacchaeus and participants in the promise. [p. 219]
Using the title of a movie, a woman in a congregation I served described herself to me as "the incredible shrinking woman." Her marriage was falling apart. Their business was going broke. Her three young children were demanding more time than she had to give. (One has learning disabilities.) She was seeing her life disappear. She no longer knew who she was (if she ever did know). Could this be partially the plight of the "bent-over" woman in our text? Was she a "shrinking woman"? Did she ever have any status?
Related to this, there are a number of other words in this text that seem to be used in figurative rather than literal senses -- thus leading to possible figurative interpretations of this woman, her ailment, and the cure. (This isn't to question the historicity of the event, but to look at ways to preach meanings of the text to people today.)
Her "ailment" is described literally as "a spirit of weakness (v. 11) and "weaknesses" (v. 12). Astheneia is used in both verses. Its literal meaning is "weakness" or "incapacitated". Often this inability to do something is caused by a physical problem, such as disease or illness.
The pronouncement Jesus gives to the woman is "You have been set free (apoluo) from your weakness/sickness" (v. 12). (The perfect tense implies an action in the past with continued effects in the present. It can be translated with either a perfect -- as I did -- or with the present tense as NRSV does, "You are set free.") apoluo is not a word usually associated with healing! Its general meaning is "to release" or "send away." It is closely related to a word (luo) used twice in our text by Jesus: to "untie" an ox or donkey (v. 15) and to "set free" from bondage (v. 16).
The result of Jesus' pronouncement is anorthoo (v. 13) -- literally, "to set straight again," certainly a cure for this woman's "bent-over-ness"; but it also has the meaning "to restore" or "to set right again." Figuratively, Jesus restores her to the Abrahamic covenant.
In addition, the words for "bound" and "bondage" in v. 16 (deo -- used for the "tied up" colt in 19:30, its only other use in Luke; and desmos -- used in references to chains and shackles in 8:29, its only other use in Luke) can only be used of illnesses in a figurative sense -- being bound by some force.
Tiede (Luke) presents this interpretation:
The suggestion that it is Satan who has bound the woman in her disability is significant. Jesus is challenging the dominion of Satan, and those who are piously defending the Sabbath have not discerned what is happening. More is at stake than mere human religiosity. Jesus has suggested that his critics are in danger of aiding Satan in his reign of bondage. He has put them to "shame" (v. 17), just as the makers of idols are put to shame and confounded upon the revelation of God as Savior in Isa. 45:15-16. By contrast, the people join the woman in joy and praise to God, recognizing that Jesus has done glorious things. [p. 251]
Everything about this woman, her plight, and her healing, can be understood in a figurative sense. I think that this could easily lend itself to fruitful preaching. What has our people in bondage? In what ways does society, our churches, or legalism bind them? How are congregations in bondage to past success? ("This is the way we've always done it.") Can our criticisms of what is new and unexpected (and unacceptable) keep us from praising God for the miracles in our midst? Can our criticisms of the old and traditional keep us from praising God for the miracles in the past? Can our churches and worship services be freeing events? How can we free/release our people from the things, people, and powers that bind them?
Tannehill (Luke) suggests a broadening of our text when he writes:
One of the kinds of captivity from which Jesus frees people is Satanic oppression in the form of physical ailments, but this may be accompanied by social oppression through being stigmatized. [p. 219]
One definition I've used of forgiveness is that one no longer has to let the past determine the present. It is being released from bondage to past mistakes. By forgiving those who have sinned against us, we are freed from bondage to resentments and feelings of revenge. By forgiving ourselves, we are released from continually beating up on ourselves for acting so stupidly or hurtfully. Forgiveness brings release and freedom. Thus, this text isn't just about physical healing, but renewal that we all need.
The two parables which follow our text (and are not part of the Revised Common Lectionary) are meant by Luke to be read in conjunction with our text. Verse 18 begins with "Therefore." Jesus speaks these parables as a result of the preceding miracle. They could be used to support a symbolic interpretation of the miracle (which isn't to deny that it happened historically). That which is small and insignificant with probable negative connotations (mustard seed -- frequently a weed of nuisance; and leaven -- usually a negative symbol: "beware of the yeast of...") become images of the coming kingdom. Couldn't the same be said about this woman and Jesus' actions? Both viewed with disdain by the religious authorities, but, in actuality, are signs of the coming kingdom.
It is the synagogue leader who calls Jesus' actions "healing" (therapeuo in v. 14 twice) -- and thus a "work". He doesn't see it as the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy of releasing from bondage -- or a re-enactment of the Exodus journey from slavery to freedom.
I also notice that this angry synagogue leader doesn't approach Jesus with his complaint, but addresses the crowd. On one hand, that's a tactic still is common use today -- frequently referred to as "triangling." Those who might be upset with the pastor or the organist or the youth director, etc., tell all of their friends (whom they think represent "everybody in the congregation"), rather than talking with the person with whom they have the complaint to seek constructive ways of dealing with the perceived problem.
On the other hand, the synagogue leader's actions indicate that he doesn't doubt Jesus' ability to heal. He questions the crowd's faithfulness and obedience to the law by coming on the sabbath for healing. In his mind, "No good Jew would seek healing on the sabbath day." Although it doesn't appear that this woman came seeking healing. Her "release" came about because of Jesus' initiative -- but couldn't he have waited one day and avoided all the problems? However, as we read last week, Jesus' came to cast fire on the earth and cause divisions.
I wonder if this text could also lead to a discussion about a congregation's priorities. The "shame" felt by the opponents, I would think, came about because they understood that Jesus was right. People are more important than oxen and donkeys (or even liturgical rubrics -- it has to be traditional or it has to be praise band? or one's understanding of the Law?). People in bondage should be set free on the sabbath day. What if that were the guiding principle behind worship planning (or sermon writing)? Some basic questions I've used for moving from text to sermon are: What type of bondage does the text talk about? What type of bondage is enslaving our people? How do we free them from that bondage? How is Jesus involved in their release?
What if we expanded this principle to be a guide for all church meetings? Could church meetings be times of freeing people, rather than binding them? Could every meeting be a time of personal and spiritual growth? How might that happen? Perhaps we need to consider that each person at the meeting is more important than any business. Sharing with each other about what's happened since the last meeting may be a better of starting life-giving meetings than reading the minutes. (A synod committee that I was on always began with 1-2 hours of "story-telling" before we went to other business. I felt that our day and a half meetings were life-giving. We became a community that listened and cared for each other. We usually had three brief worship services during our time together, too.)
If we tried to make such a change, who would complain? Why would they complain? Are their complaints coming as a divinely-led prophet (sometimes we can be wrong) whom we should heed as messengers from God? Are their complaints coming from those who seem to be in league with Satan to keep people bound and "bent-over" and being less than God has created and called them to be? Do we need to shame or humiliate such people as they are shown the error of their thinking? Does this text indicate that if we are to be offering new life to all people, it is likely to cause conflicts and divisions -- some will be shamed and others will rejoice?
Brian Stoffregen, Marysville, CA