Originally shared as a sermon at Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship, August 25, 2013. Joanna Shenk reflects on the story of the bent over woman whom Jesus healed in Luke 13:10-17. Just like in the first century, how do we continue to blame those exhibiting the effects of oppression, rather than looking at the root causes? In what ways does Jesus challenge our assumptions and judgments?
“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.”
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I’ve been trying to visualize how bent over this woman was… I guess that’s not really the point, but it tugs at my imagination. And I wonder why it is that I immediately imagine an older woman with many wrinkles and tattered clothes? We have no indication of the woman’s age other than she’s older than 18 years old, because that’s how long she’s been crippled.
I wonder if I visualize an old woman bent over by many years of hard work, because that seems normal to me? And then Jesus, being the nice guy that he is, works his magic as a “chiropractor God” and fixes her back. Pretty cool.
Turn out, as I read commentaries about this passage that my initial mental picture/interpretation was indeed missing the point.
It’s clear from the get-go that this woman’s affliction is not just physical… actually it seems to be that her bent-ness is a manifestation of the spirit that holds her captive. And 18 years is a long time. At that point in history it could be half a life time! The commentaries I read didn’t agree on the significance of the 18 years being mentioned twice, except to say that it represented a serious spiritual condition.
One biblical scholar, Mikeal Parsons, writes about the connection between physical features and inner moral character in the Greco-Roman world. In his book Body and Character in Luke and Acts, he points out the way that the early Christian communities subverted this idea that a weak body = weak moral character. And, of course, Luke was writing out of that context.
In relation to this story in Luke, Parsons quotes from puedo-Aristotle about the prevailing mentalities of that time:
“Those who have a large, fleshy and well-jointed back are strong in character; witness the male. Those in whom it is weak, fleshless and badly jointed are weak in character; witness the female. Those in whom the back is very bent with the shoulders driven into the chest are of evil disposition.”
So this woman was probably not only viewed with pity, but also disdain. She was one of the people you were glad not to be. And her condition was seen as her fault. “If only she had been more devout in her religious practices this wouldn’t have happened to her… if only she hadn’t been born into that family… or that part of town. If she wouldn’t just tried harder this wouldn’t have happened to her.”
Does this sound familiar? It sure sounds like blaming the victim to me. So I’m going to take some liberty and re-contextualize this for a second: if only she hadn’t worn that outfit, or walked down that street or went to that party, she wouldn’t have been raped.
The point I’m trying to make it not about whether the woman in the story was sexually abused, it’s that still today we blame the victims of oppression for their circumstances. So when patriarchy is the prevailing worldview, which is true today as it was then, women are blamed for their “sins.”
The same goes for any systemic oppression—racism, heterosexism, economic exploitation… to name a few.
We look at the manifestations and say, “wow, that person must have done something terrible to get such a punishment.” Clearly Trayon Martin was responsible for his own death, they say. Or, of course that person deserves to be locked up for years for nonviolent drug possession—they knew it was against the law.
So, if we think about systemic oppression in light of the bent-over woman’s reality—and systemic oppression could also be called the “principalities and powers of this world”—what’s going on? What circumstances is this woman in that contribute to her bent-ness? To the weight of the world pressing on her shoulders?
This woman is a non-citizen. She’s living under occupation, which always brings with it violence and economic exploitation. The cultural-religious milieu is thoroughly patriarchal. So even if she had full health, the best she could hope for was to be a daughter, wife and mother, under the control of men (and seen as property) her entire life. (That’s why choosing not to marry in the early church was such a radical and liberating choice for women.)
With this reality for women in mind, it’s clear that there are a lot of reasons why this particular woman is bent-over. And by no fault of her own! Yet it seems like it was all too easy for the community around her to blame her for her condition… or perhaps just say, “well, there’s nothing we can do about it.”
And that’s how systemic oppression is perpetuated throughout our lives and throughout history. Rather than looking at the root causes, we just look at the manifestations and thank God we’re better off than those people.
Clearly, Jesus’ disposition toward women subverted the status-quo of his day and this story is no exception. He wasn’t going to abide by the Greco-Roman idea that a weak back meant you were evil. Rather, he called the religious leaders on it.
In the story, Luke is clear about that fact that the woman has a bent back, which conjures up all the stereotypes we just named. So Jesus, knowing full well what the community thinks of this woman, heals her, saying “you are set free from your ailment.”
Then she stands up straight… and the word in Greek for “stand up straight” carries a meaning of restoration. She is fully restored and begins praising God.
That’s not the end of the story though. The leader of the synagogue is not happy about. He addresses the people saying the Sabbath is the wrong day for this kind of healing. I find it interesting that he’s addressing the people repeatedly and not Jesus.
Nonetheless, Jesus calls him on it. Says he’s a hypocrite because he would take care of his lowly animals on the Sabbath—the ox and the donkey to be specific. Parsons says,
“To an audience familiar with these characterizations [of lowly animals], the message of the Lukan Jesus is clear. Not only are Jesus’ opponents more willing to aid an animal than a woman, but they are also more than willing to aid those animals who symbolize such negative traits as cowardice, sluggishness, stupidity, laziness or insolence.”
Then, Jesus says something that is not repeated anywhere in the New Testament. He calls this woman a “daughter of Abraham.” And the implication is that she has always been a daughter of Abraham, not just beginning with her healing.
Parsons points out that this designation flies in the face of women = weak and bent back = evil. He notes that this phrase “daughter of Abraham” would have carried some familiarity for his readers, since a similar phrase was used in 4 Maccabees (which was written around the same time). In 4 Maccabees, a Jewish text, it was in reference to a Jewish woman of strong faith who refused to compromise, even to the point of death. This woman was said to be “the daughter of Abraham’s strength.”
These are powerful words. The woman is restored.
The opponents are put to shame and the entire crowd is rejoicing. They have seen the truth of God embodied. This woman that they had been marginalizing is a strong daughter of Abraham.
Where does this story sit with you? What character or characters are you drawn to? Which ones repel you? Granted, at different times in our lives, we’d probably have different answers. In what ways have you been bent-over by the death-dealing forces in our world?
In my own life I am sometimes bent-over by depression, which has been a reality in my family for some generations. I used to be much quicker to blame myself… what’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with my family? Why do I have to feel this way? What did I do to deserve this when everyone around me seems energetic and free-spirited?
These questions never got me very far… or close to a helpful answer. At some point I noticed that being depressed actually felt like things pressing down on me. Well, that makes sense.
And then I started thinking about root causes. Was it really just my fault that I felt this way? What outside forces were pressing down on me? What could I learn from my depression about the way I experience the world? What strength could I draw from prayer and from conversations with trusted friends during the “pressed down” times?
That’s when I started to see my cycles with depression as an opportunity for learning rather than for beating myself up… becoming bent. I began to understand it as my bodyspirit’s way of saying, “You’re trying to process too much right now… you can’t fix all the oppression you experience or that others experience in the world… yes, it’s heavy. Learn to sit with it and care for yourself in the midst of it.”
What does it means for us as the body of Christ to not ostracize the bent-over? Whether it’s depression or unemployment or incarceration or something else. What does it mean to not see bent people as “other.” In carrying on the healing work for Christ (which I believe is salvation work), are we not empowered to restore those who are bent-over? And sometimes that’s us, right?
May we as the church not be afraid to look at the root causes of ailments and bondage in ourselves and in our world. May we be a part of the rising of strong daughters and sons of God. And may we always rejoice when the bent-over are restored.
I leave you with this poem from Jan Richardson called:
Prayer for All Things Rising
For all things rising
out of the hiddenness of shadows
out of the weight of despair
out of the brokenness of pain
out of the constrictions of compliance
out of the rigidity of stereotypes
out of the prison of oppression;
for all things rising
into life, into hope
into healing, into power
into freedom, into justice;
we pray, O God,
for all things rising.