Monday, March 1, 2010

The Woman With the Bent Back

Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then 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. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’ When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.’ But the Lord answered him and said, ‘You hypocrites! 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?’ When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing. -- Luke 13:10-17, NRSV)

Have 10 people read this story and tell what the story is about, you'll probably hear "Oh, it's about the (fill in the adjective or expletive) Pharisees trying to trap Jesus for healing a woman on the Sabbath. Well, normally I'd agree with them but I read something a few days ago that turned my thinking around.

In Killen and De Beer's The Art of Theological Reflection, one of the exercises for a TR beginning with a tradition or tradition source was this passage.  They offered a meditation not on Jesus and the Pharisees but on the woman, the bent-backed one who precipitated the confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees and who slipped back into oblivion as suddenly as she emerged from it.

I don't know a lot about her, only that she was a woman, she had been afflicted with the severe curvature of the spine for 18 years, and she had come to the synagogue. That's not a lot of information to go on but perhaps it is enough to be of value.

I know people suffering with osteoporosis, some of them having suffered with it for years and to a great extent. If I walk around bent over at the waist for a few minutes and try to see something above the ground it hurts, and the longer it goes on the worse it gets. There isn't much to be seen other than the ground, the edge of the road and people's feet unless I strain my neck upward which adds another level of pain. Nothing is said of her pain but it's almost certain she had it. It didn't stop her from going about, though, at least, not to the synagogue and probably other places as well. She might have gotten jostled by people looking over where her head would be and not seeing her but that was their kind of blindness just as seeing too far ahead and too high up was hers. People would probably have ignored her, possibly being afraid that to take notice or be kind would open them up to the same kind of spirit coming into them as they were sure had come into her. It wasn't a "go see the local orthopedist and see if he can't help" kind of culture. Whatever was wrong with you probably came from an evil spirit as a result of something you (or your parents) had done and this was the punishment.

She was a woman. In those times she would most likely have been a wife or widow but for her affliction. If she were unmarried she would have been under her father's care or her oldest brother, and would probably been considered a burden since in her disfigured state she could not marry or bring a dowry to the family while still needing to be fed and taking food from someone else to supply her meager needs. Her coming to the synagogue alone was clue -- she probably did not have a husband, father, son or brother to watch out for her. It was unheard of for women to just go wandering about, even to do such a  thing as going to synagogue alone.

I wonder what went through her mind when Jesus, a stranger and therefore someone who would not have come in direct contact with a single female to whom he was not related, called her to him. What did she think when he spoke to her and, horror of horrors, actually put his hands on her! He was compounding taboo on top of taboo and yet suddenly she could stand up straight for the first time in 18 years and look him in the eye. If she had come to the synagogue to praise God before, she now had a thousand times the reason to continue with what she had originally come to do.

Putting myself in her shoes, I wonder what my particular bent-edness is. Physical pain, yes, I have that. Anger, yes, fear, yes, envy, depression, uncertainty, all yes. What would life be like for me if I walked into church with the sole purpose of worshiping and were suddenly healed of the brokenness that had been a crippling part of my life for so long? The woman most likely had the philosophy that "what can't be cured must be endured," and she (and maybe her family) had possibly tried everything possible to cure her of her infirmity. I can understand that one. Still, pain or not, she plugged along as best she could.

There are times I wish I could run into a Jesus who would call me over and without a protracted examination of what was wrong with me, what results I hoped for, what treatment I'd had and what life changes I were willing to make in order to be healed, would just tell me to stand up straight and it would be an achievable action. So far I haven't reached that level of faith, if that is what is holding me back.

I do thank that nameless woman, though, for reminding me that there is bent-ness and broken-ness I can bring to the praise of God. I'm not dead so even if I hurt or feeling broken and brittle I can still praise God and maybe, just maybe, healing will result or at least begin unasked. 

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