The story of the woman with the crippling spirit (Luke 13:10-17) is not one of the more familiar healing stories, but it ought to be. There are so many ways it touches our lives, it’s hard to know where to focus – the woman with the crippling spirit; the leader of the synagogue, who was crippled in his own way; or Jesus, the standard by which our own wholeness and maturity is to be measured (Eph. 4:13).
First, there’s the woman – bent over, unable to rise to her full stature, her perspective limited to the ground around her feet or what she could see sideways or over her shoulder. She didn’t know, or had forgotten, what it was like to meet anyone face-to-face. In the story, she didn’t ask for healing, maybe didn’t know there was anything more to hope for than the bent-over life she was living. Maybe she had given up hoping because others had told her for so long that her condition was hopeless, and so she believed it.
We could pay attention to that woman because we’re all crippled in one way or another. We all suffer limited perspective, unable to see too far beyond where we stand. Has any of us risen to our full height in life, to the maturity St. Paul described as “the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Eph. 4:13)? Maybe, like the woman in the story, we think this life is all there is, all we can expect, that the “more and better life than [we] ever dreamed of” that Jesus offers (John 10:10 The Message) is reserved for the future. In the story, the woman may have no name, but she’s no stranger to us.
Then there’s the leader of the synagogue – more concerned with rules than with the woman’s condition, more concerned with serving tradition than with serving her wholeness of life. He had the excuse that this healing occurred on the sabbath, but was he ever really concerned with her wholeness of life? After all, she had suffered her condition for eighteen years. Was there no occasion during that time, sabbath or not, to attend to her healing? Why had she gone unhealed for so long?
Was healing beyond the ability of this leader or others, or was it simply beyond their interest? Maybe he didn’t want to see her condition because it reminded him of his own partial, unlived life. If he hadn’t found any way to his own wholeness, why would he be concerned with hers?
Maybe her healing would have been too costly. Being “made whole” is not mere physical healing; it’s bringing her fullness of life, respecting and protecting her full rights in society; restoring her losses. Perhaps it’s a case of justice, defined as “remembering what belongs to whom and returning it to them.” What would the cost to society have been if the woman were to have been healed in a way that serves justice for her? Bending rules and breaking with tradition is often more than we’re willing to pay so that others can enjoy fullness of life.
And then there’s Jesus – more concerned with people than with rules, more concerned with one person’s wholeness than with preserving the status quo for the many. He grew up and was well trained in the rules of his day and culture. He was steeped in his people’s tradition so that they called him “rabbi,” teacher. But he went beyond law and tradition, and he embodied the life law and tradition were meant to serve.
There’s a famous parable about a raft. A man traveling along a path came to a great river. There were dangers and discomforts all around him, but the other shore appeared safe and inviting. Since there was no boat or bridge to be found, he made a simple raft and paddled across to the safety of the other shore, where he could continue his journey on dry land. Now, what would he do with his raft? Would he carry it with him or drag it along? Or would he leave it behind? Of course, he would leave it behind. It had served its purpose well and was no longer needed.
For the leader of the synagogue and others like him, which was practically everybody in Israel, all the Jewish religious laws were like that raft. They had gotten the people across the wilderness to the promised land. They had come, as the Letter to the Hebrews describes it, “to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb. 12:22). Most people, like the leader of the synagogue, were still carrying the raft on their backs; Jesus had left it behind.
Most people thought they still needed the law to get to the other shore. Jesus knew they had arrived. He announced the good news that the kingdom of God had come near, and he called people to start living as if the good news was true (Mark 1:14-15). If you don’t do it now, he said, you never will; later will be too late (Luke 14:15-24). You have arrived on the far shore, he said; leave the raft behind.
Carrying a raft on our backs is a poor substitute for walking in freedom. We have laws and by-laws, rules and regulations, policies and procedures, customs and traditions, social norms and mores, and all sorts of other controls in our lives so we can get to the other shore, so we can get to the “more and better life than [we] ever dreamed of” that we still hope is somewhere ahead.
But like Jesus invited Peter to step out of the boat (Matt. 14:28-33), we’re invited to leave the raft behind. Like that unnamed woman in the story, we’re invited to stand up, see the world straight on, meet each other face-to-face, and walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:4).