So simple, the story of Jesus’ encounter with a woman in a synagogue (Luke 13:10-17), so lean in its telling, and yet so full of meaning! Full, so it’s a story not only about a crippled woman’s healing encounter with Jesus in a synagogue 2,000 years ago. It’s also a story about us, about what cripples us and limits our life, and about our being set free to live the life God is creating us to live.
First, notice the setting. “He was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath” (v. 10). Sabbath services were not something people fit into their busy schedules when it was convenient. They didn’t make room for sabbath in their routine; they built their routine around the sabbath. It defined their routine and gave structure and meaning to the rest of their life.
This was a time to concentrate on understanding the scriptures; to learn to live as well and faithfully as possible the life God wanted them to live. They did not come merely for information and instruction; they came to wrestle deeply with the application of the scriptures to life.
It’s a principle of our faith that, while we cannot elicit or control any manifestation of God’s creative energy, we can create opportunities for it, and we can be ready when it happens. That’s part of what keeping sabbath is about.
Second, notice the interruption. “There appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight” (v. 11). Women would have gathered unobtrusively on the fringe of the assembly, separated from Jesus and the rest of the men. This particular woman caught his eye incidentally.
What about her caught his attention? Perhaps it was a sudden, unexpected opportunity to apply the text they had been discussing. Or was it another test for Jesus, to see how he would apply his faith in a practical, real-life situation? In opening the scripture that day, Jesus might have been more than usually open to an opportunity to connect with what was going on around him.
It’s a principle of our faith that when we truly encounter meaning at the heart of the scriptures, life will present opportunities for us to make a practical application of its truth.
Third, there is Jesus’ response. “When Jesus saw her, he called her over . . .” (v. 12a). Jesus takes the initiative, calling her from the edge of consciousness into the center of attention. And he was intruding into her life with no indication that she or anybody else wanted him to do so or welcomed his advance. This is entirely Jesus’ own agenda.
Did she want Jesus to change her life? Did she resist and pull away? In eighteen years, perhaps she had grown well adapted to her condition and considered it normal. If suddenly she were no longer crippled, her entire life and all her relationships would change, perhaps dramatically, maybe not for the better. She might experience it as great loss. There would be grieving for her to do and the very difficult task of creating a new life out of the wreckage of the old.
It’s a principle of our faith that God’s healing intrusion often appears as an unexpected disruption of our lives and offers a potent opportunity for us to manifest the reign of God.
Fourth, notice what Jesus says. “Woman, you are set free from your ailment” (v. 12b). He responds to her physical condition by addressing its spiritual aspect. He doesn’t talk about a cure for this woman; he talks about her freedom. He doesn’t talk about a change in her physical condition; he talks about a change in her relationship with life and with those around her.
Physical healings in the gospels are always signs of the presence of something greater. They are manifestations of the reign of God breaking into contemporary life and changing the context and quality of that life. Jesus did not come to cure us. He came to tell us life has changed, that our best hopes for tomorrow are fulfilled today even in the midst of this broken and burdensome life. That’s what the Incarnation is about, that’s what it means that God condescended to live among us as one of us.
It’s a principle of our faith that Jesus doesn’t remove life’s burden from us; he makes it possible to bear it differently. He doesn’t transport us to a different world in another time; he radically transforms this world so that its best possibilities become our present reality.
Finally, there’s the result in the woman of what Jesus does. “When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God” (v. 13). People can be cured of their ailments and still live mean, miserable lives. However, when we are set free from the burden of conformity to this world, we rise to our full God-nature, the full stature of Christ, who “was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces” (Isa. 53:3) yet who also shone with the full glory of God.
Another result of what Jesus does is that “the leader of the synagogue [was] indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath,” thus breaking the rules of his religious tradition (v. 14a). The leader of the synagogue was more concerned with preserving the tradition he had received than he was with the freedom and wholeness of the woman in their midst.
It’s a principle of our faith that when we are remade in the image of Christ, like new wine in old wineskins, we can no longer be constrained by our old life and its rules. We grow into what one of my seminary professors called “genuine, honest-to-God, graceful eccentricity” and are free to live fully in authentic relationship with God, with others, and with all of creation.
The story of the woman in the synagogue was played out this summer when Methodists in one of our jurisdictions elected as bishop a woman who is a lesbian and who lives openly in a committed relationship with another woman. One woman, forced by tradition – along with many others – to live a constrained life at the fringe of the church, was set free to stand up and bless the Lord in the full glory of life God created in her. Some are indignant at the breach of tradition and the breaking of rules. I think Jesus is beside himself with delight.