The Bent Woman – She was bound to be set free
If your first reaction to today’s gospel story is, “Oh, no – another healing story”, I have some good news for you.
This passage actually never mentions healing at all, except in the English translation. And since it does, we miss a great wordplay, and the point of the story.
Instead, it’s a commentary on the Sabbath.
We get a hint of thi by noticing the other readings chosen for today: beginning with Isaiah: He offers his own remarks about the 7th day of creation, the Sabbath, the day of rest, when God looked on all that God had created and breathed, “It is good!” and urged his people to do the same.
Isaiah understood the Sabbath as a way to participate in that pause – that breath of approval for what God has done. The Sabbath is for gratitude and for hope. It was given to Israel, as Sunday is given to us, to help the people of God stop and consider that all human striving might not be winning after all; a day to let humans and even animals slow down and be grateful, full of trust, joyful in hope.
So listen to Isaiah, paraphrased a bit, as he spoke to a people who found themselves discouraged, frustrated, and disheartened:
There is a way forward out of your current darkness. Remember who you are. Remember who God is.
“If you create, instead of destroy, if you build up, lift up, renew hope instead of crushing the hungry and the afflicted, THEN you will see again – You will again see waters running clear and light shining, and you will again be called, “the restorer of the breach” – “the repairer of streets to live in.”
Someone commented this week that this passage, and others like it, frightened her. But look again. There is no threat here. Only promise. If you choose not to do these things, life will go on pretty much as it always has. You may be miserable, but no punishment is in the offing.
It’s a word of hope for people who are tired of slogging around in darkness and despair.
And part of what that word emphasizes is that it matters to remember. TO step back and look, and recall the creative love of God.
Do good, yes, as God does, and stop “trampling the Sabbath.” Stop pursuing your business interests and your private affairs, “going your own ways” on the Sabbath.
Take a day away from all that. Stop and watch and listen and rejoice: eat and drink, dance and sing, tell stories, delight in each other in celebration of God’s continual acts of Creation, and in honor of God who creates and re-creates even you.
The ancient law of Sabbath rest included servants, children, wives, slaves, even animals. Nothing should be made to work on the holy day – and no one. No one ought to take advantage of anyone else’s labor. Everything simply stops.
Everything but the joy of freedom to rest and take delight in bread and wine and laughter and peace.
But as the law old, and as people forgot who they were, the freedom that the Sabbath intended to provide became legalized and enshrined in rules, the Sabbath, God’s gift to Israel, a gift of participating in God’s own rest – became a burden – and no longer a joy. What constituted “work” took front and center stage.
Exactly how many steps could be taken before walking was “work”, for example, was regulated. The goal was to stay as far within the boundaries as possible, to do as little as possible, for fear of stepping over that holy line. For fear of breaking the Sabbath, for fear of displeasing God who gave it.
Jesus showed up in one of the synagogues on a Sabbath morning. Nothing unusual in that. A woman appeared who was “bent over and quite unable to stand up straight”.
But she was there. Not in hiding from shame. Not home in bitterness or resentment. But out in public, at the synagogue, worshiping and listening. And that tells us something about her, doesn’t it? (It seems to have told Jesus something about her, too, as you will see in a minute.)
As soon as he saw the woman, he called her over, and declared her “unbound”, set her free. She had been “bound” for eighteen years, tide up, and was now “set free”. So she stood up straight and praised God.
If we think “healed”, we miss something significant. And we don’t quite see why Jesus’ remark to the Pharisees who challenged him won the day, either.
In fact, the leader of the synagogue isn’t upset about the healing, but about Jesus “working”. That is, Jesus had “unbound”, or “untied” the woman, which was, technically, work. And he had done it on the Sabbath. That’s what the text actually says.
And to make it even clearer, he blames the woman: “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days….not on the Sabbath day. (The original text does no say, “cured”.)
Well, in the first place it’s a bit late for that admonition. She’s standing up, straight and free, right there, already unbound. Already free.
But here is that delicious word-play I promised you. Jesus steps up and rebukes the Pharisees, saying “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you – even on the Sabbath – unbind, (or untie) his donkey and lead it give it water?”
(The crowd would love this! But it only makes sense if the leaders were upset about Jesus “unbinding” a human being on the Sabbath.)
The Sabbath was given to Israel so that gave animals, and people, could have a day every single week to taste the final freedom toward which all history is moving – REST: JOY.
The Sabbath was NOT given to bind animals, or people, to rigid rules – to prevent them from slaking their thirst! The Sabbath is precisely the opposite.
“And shouldn’t this woman-” now notice this – “A daughter of Abraham”, – not an animal not a beast of burden, not an interfering old woman who has messed up their polite gathering of the beautiful people – but a daughter of the promise – a woman like Abraham and Sarah themselves, aged, but perfectly capable of receiving the promise that was given for to her ancestors – She, as she is, is a worthy daughter of the Covenant.
It seems no one else had actually “seen” her before. But Jesus did. He saw who she really was when she came into the synagogue, and so he called out to her.
“Shouldn’t this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom the accuser (satan) bound for 18 years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day”
He never says, “You are healed”, – but, “You are set free”. You are loosed. Unbound.
And that is precisely what Isaiah is on about, too. Step back. Look at God. Remember Creation. Then do the creative and restorative and redemptive work God gives you to do. And afterwards, turn around and spend a whole day to thank him for the freedom to act, to share, to participate, to trust, to be glad, to love, to join in the creation and re-creation of the earth. Spend the Sabbath unbinding, loosing, setting yourself and everyone else free. Free from guilt. Free from mistakes, Free from sin. Free from expectations. Stand up and dance.
Sabbath was precisely the right time to set this woman free.
In the end, the whole creation will be set free from all bondage; that will be Creation’s final, and eternal, Sabbath rest: Creation’s final Sabbath joy.
But nothing at all can stop you from entering – and offering – that wide freedom right now.