Psalm 103:1-8, Isaiah 58:9b-end, Hebrews 12:18-end, Luke 13:10-17
In today’s gospel we hear about a woman being healed by Jesus who has been doubled over in pain for eighteen years. As I read the gospel for this Sunday after getting back from my honeymoon in Greece a few days ago, I started trying to imagine what it must have been like for this woman. Over the years, she had become accustomed, if not resigned, to her long and serious illness. Even worse she had been rejected by society because of it. The woman would have been an outcast in society and viewed as unclean as her disability was connected by others to the devil. For eighteen years this unnamed woman must have strained to see the sun, the sky, and the stars. For eighteen years she had become accustomed to looking down or just slightly ahead but never upward without difficulty.
I have just come back from a trip which reminded me of what my old classics teacher taught us when we did walking tours of our town, “Look up girls – there is a whole world you will miss if you don’t look up and see” When we were in Athens, we looked up to see the magical Acropolis rising high above us and stood next to it and stared up at the columns of the magnificent Parthenon, built two and a half millennia ago before the time of Christ. By looking up I had access to so much beauty and history. Why is it that we place things we think are of greater status and importance up high? Why do we need to look up to see eminence and value?
The unnamed woman has come to live with her disability and no one else questions her fate. Even the leader of the synagogue is offended that Jesus would heal her on the Sabbath. She has become so accustomed to life as it is that she doesn’t ask Jesus if he will heal her, and neither does anyone else in the synagogue petition Jesus on her behalf. What has brought her to be there though? A woman rejected by society? I like to think she has been drawn there by a glimmer of hope inside her, that this man Jesus she has heard about might be able to help her.
Jesus is left in what appears as a quandary, and one he has faced several times in other healing episodes in the Gospel of Luke. Will he heal her and violate the Sabbath law, or will he attend to the Sabbath restrictions and withhold the blessing that she needs? It is no surprise then, going from Jesus’ previous responses to such calls for healing, that he cures the woman, despite the indignation of the leader of the synagogue. It is important though, not to view the leader of the synagogue too harshly. Those in leadership positions in any time and space are supposed to care about the rules. They bear the responsibility for understanding the rules and interpreting them as best as they can. The safest and easiest course, usually, is to stick to the rules, and that is what the leader of the synagogue is doing!
Yet Jesus is perhaps challenging all of us on this point. When, as Christians, is it right to challenge rules, rather than stick by them for the sake of order and keeping the peace? Jesus identifies with the woman, he feels empathy with her, as if her disability was his own, or perhaps his mother’s. Rules are more likely to be broken when the weight of that law rests on someone you empathise with or feel close to. That empathy allows us to see injustice in a rule we might ordinarily support.
Yet Jesus not only heals the woman through his words, he also reaches out and touches her. This second step in healing the woman distinguishes this miracle from the earlier Sabbath healing narratives in Luke. In chapter 6, where the man with a withered right hand is healed as Jesus commands him to extend his hand, or the narrative in chapter 4 where the spirit of an unclean demon is cast out as Jesus gives the command. In the present story Jesus’ two-part healing allows him to touch a woman who is unclean, and thereby restore her socially as well as physically.
Touching says symbolically that Jesus does not care for his own sake that those he heals are viewed as unclean, and that he will not allow the threat of the taking on the uncleanness through touch keep him from redeeming the wounded and thus marginalized. An iconic image in the history of the Aids movement was when Princess Diana held the hand of an Aids patient in hospital, breaking many harmful taboos around the disease. In each of the instances where Jesus touches in healing, his touch represents fellowship for those whose ailments may have excluded them from human contact; Jesus’ touch is their initial welcome back into community.
Again for Jesus, the care of human beings takes precedence over rites, rituals, and the social systems they ensure. This is a potent reminder to all of us not to let institutionalised rules get in the way of our understanding of what our faith and religion is all about. Jesus’ words in this gospel are a reminder that the care for God’s people in need (and creation in need) is at the heart of our faith. Our calling is to reach out to those who are in need, those who are marginalised, those who the rest of society have forgotten about, those who have lost hope and resigned themselves that things will never get better. But this is also about more than this woman’s disability, perhaps this is less about physicality and looking up, and more about perspective.
We place a lot of importance on things placed high, like Athens with the acropolis on the highest point in the land with the highest building and statues, but that is not where Jesus looked – he looked low and to the margins when he looked in order to reach out to those in need. This is not really about where we look, but how we look. It is about knowing when to choose empathy and kindness over following rules. This Gospel passage points towards the reality of God’s kingdom on earth, where no one is marginalised – in this kingdom all of God’s creation will be repaired. How can we respond to this Gospel and contribute to the coming of that kingdom today in our context?
Rev Melanie Harrington