Today’s Gospel reading is a beautiful one, a story of a woman who is given back her life by Jesus, quite unexpectedly. But as with all healing miracles, it isn’t just physical healing which is going on here, and it isn’t just the woman who needs that healing.
The story takes place in a synagogue, probably somewhere in Galilee. Crowds are flocking to Jesus, out of need or curiosity, but not everyone has made up their minds what to think of him. Is he a good teacher, a healer, an inspiring leader, or is he a troublemaker intent on causing mayhem? The jury, for many people, is still out. On this particular Sabbath day he’s been invited to teach in the local synagogue, the place where that town gathered for prayer – a bit like we do in our parish churches. Maybe the synagogue leader who invited him was under pressure from the crowds to do so, maybe he wanted to see for himself what the fuss was all about.
But anyway, here is Jesus, preaching to an eager crowd, when suddenly a woman “appeared” who was clearly suffering. Where did she appear from? Was she lurking quietly in a dark corner, or hovering at the doorway? Was she a regular, or someone who had just come because she’d heard Jesus was there? We don’t know, but she doesn’t seem to want to push herself forward. She doesn’t seem to have any expectation that she will be healed. After all, she’s been like this for eighteen years, so why should today be any different. It is Jesus who notices her and calls her into the centre of the synagogue.
She was bent over, according to the Bible. Just imagine what that would have been like. As well as the pain and discomfort, it would have meant that she couldn’t see what was going on around her easily, that she couldn’t look people in the eye or join in their conversations easily. She probably felt lonely and excluded. And to cap it all, in her culture, disability was often seen as a punishment from God, a sign that you’d done something wrong, so there would have been a religious stigma associated with it as well. It must have been a miserable existence, but after eighteen years of it, she seems resigned– this was her life, how it was, how it always would be.
But Jesus noticed her, and Jesus called to her, and Jesus brought this woman centre stage where everyone could see her. And then he laid his hands on her, and as he did so, for the first time in eighteen years, she stood up straight. The words the Greek original text uses to describe this are interesting. She’s described first as “sunkuptousa”, literally bent double – kupto means “to bend”. But when Jesus heals her the word that’s used “anakupsai” usually translated as “straightened up”, but really meaning “unbent” – you can hear that word “kupto” in the middle of “anakupsai”. In the Greek, Jesus literally unbends this woman, and in doing so he gives her back her “standing” within her community of faith, as well as straightening her up physically. He declares that she is a “daughter of Abraham”, part of the Jewish family, equal in dignity and honour to anyone else there.
Jesus unbends her. But as it turns out, she isn’t the only one in that synagogue who needs unbending, because we soon discover that the leader of the synagogue, the one who was responsible for its smooth running, is just as twisted up psychologically by anxiety and anger because of what is happening as she had been physically. Whatever he thought Jesus would do, it wasn’t this!
I have some sympathy for him. If I invite someone I don’t know to lead worship or preach here I’m always aware that I’m taking a risk. What if they say something homophobic or sexist? What if they tell you that you’re all going to burn in hell?
I was confident that you were in safe hands with Adie and the others who led services and preached here during my Sabbatical because I knew them. I knew that they were people who’d do a good job, and would respect the values that are special to us. But an unknown preacher is another kettle of fish. I’d have been mortified if I’d come back to find that anyone had been hurt by what they’d heard from this pulpit.
This synagogue leader was not a bad person. He was just unbearably anxious about what he was seeing unfold in front of his eyes in the synagogue he was supposed to be in charge of, because it seemed all wrong to him.
His problem was that Jesus had healed this woman on the Sabbath. The Sabbath was supposed to be a day when everyone ceased from their work, just as God had done on the seventh day after he had finished creating the world. Observing a Sabbath Day is good. It reminds us that we don’t have to work 24/7 to prove our worth – in God’s eyes we are beyond price anyway. It’s a day when we can enjoy God’s goodness, treasure one another, a day when we can stop doing and discover that just being is enough. It all sounds simple, but, of course, in practice it isn’t.
What counts as work? That was the question which bothered the religious experts of Jesus time. Was cooking work? Was carrying something work? Did that apply to everything? Could you stir a pot? Could you move a chair? If so, how far? Agricultural labour was certainly work, but cows still needed to be milked, animals needed to be fed. Taking a Sabbath is a great idea - but as with so many things, the devil is in the detail.
It is those devilish details which are causing the problem here. This synagogue leader had come to his own conclusions about where the lines should be drawn and in his mind, healing was work, so it shouldn’t be happening on this day. When Jesus healed this woman – and who knew how many others there might want healing – he was overwhelmed by anger and anxiety. This was all wrong, and no good would come of it, and he would get the blame because he was supposed to be the one in charge. “There are six days on which work ought to be done, come on those days and be cured, not on the Sabbath day”. He “kept saying” it, we told. He sounds frantic. The situation is slipping out of his tidy-minded grip, and he is trying desperately to get the crowd on his side, to regain control. But all he succeeds in doing is tying himself in even tighter knots, bending himself even further out of shape.
He’s the one who really needs to unbend here. His rigidity isn’t just hurting him; it’s hurting everyone. This poor woman has lived for eighteen years hardly able to lift her eyes from the ground, but he is living his whole life with his eyes bent downwards over his precious rules and that means he can’t see the effect those rules are having on the real, flesh and blood people around him.
Now, it’s easy for us to judge him, but the truth is that we’re all a bit like him sometimes. We call it “sticking to our principles” or being singleminded in our commitment, but often the things we refuse to bend on are really just the fruits of our own anxieties and resentments. We want life to be tidy, black and white, with simple rights and wrongs, and we lose all sense of proportion as we try to make it so. We suffer, and so do those around us as a result.
Christian history is littered with vicious infighting and bitter schisms over things which in the long run look very trivial. Christians burned each other at the stake for centuries over what, precisely, they believed happened to the bread and wine at communion. In church communities people take offence because someone else sat in “their” seat, or because they didn’t happen to like the hymns that day, or they were inadvertently left off an email list. Families are torn apart by things that, in the long run are ridiculously unimportant - an unintended slight, a unwise remark - and one branch of the family never talks to the other again. “There’s a principle at stake” we declare, self-righteously, as we turn our backs on each other. Small wounds become running sores that never heal. We can’t see the wood for the trees anymore.
This synagogue leader wasn’t wrong to value the Sabbath day and want to keep it holy. It is a precious thing to set aside time to rest and to worship. But his devotion to the Sabbath had blinded him to this woman’s needs, and to the love of God which brought about her healing. He held tight to his principles, but she paid the price for them.
The Sabbath was meant to be a foretaste of God’s kingdom, a mini-Eden, a day when people could catch a glimpse of the peace and freedom God wanted them to enjoy all the time, but the synagogue leader had missed that completely, because the rules had become an end in themselves to him, and a dead end at that. In truth, this woman’s healing wasn’t an interruption of the Sabbath, it was the Sabbath, a glimpse of God’s power at work in the world. It wasn’t just about one individual being enabled to stand up straight, but a part of the unbending of the world, the unknotting of the tangles of sorrow and trouble which twist us all out of shape.
It is, as I said, a beautiful story, one which speaks to the twisted up places in all of us, which calls to us to let God unbend us, release us, show us his freedom. The story ends by saying that the entire crowd rejoiced at the wonderful things he was doing. I like to hope that maybe that included that anxious synagogue leader, that he, eventually, was unbent too, and stood up straight and looked around him and saw God at work, and found it in him to rejoice.