This morning’s Gospel passage from Luke may be a new one for many of you. Oh, it’s not something that was recently added to the canon, but it is one that for many years, until quite recently in fact, we never heard on a Sunday morning.
Luke today tells us the story of the woman bent over for 18 years. A woman condemned by some ailment to shuffle along in life, probably needing a stick to keep her balance, certainly condemned by those around her who believed that those who suffered were being punished for their sins.
The woman’s story is what author Mary Ellen Ashcroft, in her book The Magdalene Gospel, calls one of the “muffled whispers” of the Scriptures. It is muffled because the focus here is on a woman, an unnamed woman, and like so many other stories about women in the New Testament, it is briefly mentioned, if at all, and then all too often quickly forgotten.
But if we skip this story entirely, as the lectionary did for so many years, or pass over it too quickly, as we might be tempted to do, we miss not only who God is in our lives, but how God is acting – right now, today – in our lives. If we don’t pay sufficient attention to this woman and what happened to her in that synagogue 2,000 years ago, we might miss yet another chance for us to learn something important not just about God, but about ourselves as well.
Luke tells us that this woman was so crippled she could not even see the sky, that she could not look another person (at least, not another adult) in the eyes. He uses the word panteles – all (pan) complete (teles). It is a word with eschatological – with end-time meaning (telos usually refers to the “consummation of the universe”). One commentator says that Luke used this very descriptive word to “suggest that this woman was unable in any sense – physically, spiritually, psychologically, eschatalogically – to raise herself up.”
Imagine what it must have been like for this woman … to be bent over, neck stiffened, staring at the ground, at the dirt, all day long. The only way she was going to see the sky was if she laid down on that ground in broad daylight! The only way to look another adult in the eye was to have that person lay down on the ground in front of her! She spent her days … bent over … looking down … at the very dust to which the serpent was sentenced to spend its life after deceiving Eve and Adam.
In her book, Ashcroft takes the stories of 10 women who followed Jesus and imagines them gathered together on the first Holy Saturday – after the crucifixion but before the resurrection. The 10 women are women we know from the Gospels: Mary, the mother of Jesus; Mary Magdalene; Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus; Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward; Susannah, Salome and Mary Clopas, who are mentioned by name, but only in passing; the woman who bled for 12 years; and today’s woman, who was bent over for 18 years, but is given no name, which is true for almost everyone who was healed by Jesus. They, too, were not identified by name, only by their ailment.
As these 10 women sit in Mary and Martha’s house in Bethany, restricted there by the commandment to keep the Sabbath holy, and by all those other commandments that grew up around that one – the commandments that said they couldn’t light a fire, couldn’t cook, couldn’t walk beyond a certain distance, couldn’t gather wood or wash clothes or really, do much of anything, except honor the Lord – they comfort each other. They mourn the loss of their Lord, and they begin to share their stories of how they first met Jesus, of how Jesus healed them, how he set them free, and how, as a result, they left everything to follow him.
Ashcroft gives the woman bent over for 18 years a name, Rhoda, and she gives her a voice, a voice that tells us (through Ashcroft’s imagining), what her life was like:
Her life was normal for a girl child and then a young woman who lived in the days when Jesus walked the earth: She cooked, she cleaned, she spun wool, she care for children. But then one day, she woke up and her body was twisted, like her life. She kept on doing what she had done before, because she had no choice. What was she to do? There were no doctors who could heal her, and her prayers went unanswered. Eventually, even the children for whom she cared grew up, and jeered at her over her head, and called her names. Eventually, people stopped talking to her and instead spoke only over her, over her crooked spine and bent neck.
For 18 years, Rhoda says (as Ashcroft imagines), she could see no sky, no planets in their courses, no faces of other people. Her life, she says, was one of dust and dirt. I never talked to anyone, looked at anyone, touched anyone. I began to wonder if I were really human.
Can you imagine a life like that? Because that’s what Ashcroft, the author, wants us to do. She wants us to imagine our lives lived like that – alone, separated by an ailment, spoken to most often in a jeer, condemned to study the dust and the dirt.
And then one day, Jesus comes to town, and Rhoda decides she wants to hear – not to see, but only to hear – this man about whom people say such great things. So she goes to the synagogue – hobbling there, dusty step after dusty step, sun beating on her back – and has to push her way in because so many others are there. But there is no space; no one wants to make room for her. She is about to leave, filled with sorrow because she could not be there, when Jesus calls her forward … her, the woman no one pays any attention to, the woman no one looks in the eye, the woman who felt more like a beast of burden than a full human being … Jesus stands in the front of the synagogue, where only men are allowed, and calls her to him.
And when she gets to that hallowed space, Jesus says to her:
“Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” He laid his hands on her – as Ashcroft imagines, this was the first time in a very long time that anyone touched her with love and tenderness – and immediately she stood up straight – straight! able to look Jesus in the eye! – and began praising God.
Now, don’t you just know it, the whole freedom thing, the whole praising God thing, get overlooked by the leader of the synagogue, who is more concerned with doing things the right way, on the right day, who is so bound up by the commandments to make holy the Sabbath, that he misses the whole point of who Jesus is and what Jesus is doing!
“There are six days on which work ought to be done” – healing somebody in need, setting that person free, is work?!? – “come on those days and be cured and not on the Sabbath,” the leader shouts (and you know he had to be shouting by this point, because everything about this healing was wrong, wrong, wrong according to the commandments: the healing, the woman coming forward, the woman speaking in the synagogue …
Not only does Jesus not care about those commandments, he schools the leader in the Torah as well: For Jesus is the one who remembers that the commandment to keep holy the Sabbath (from Exodus) is there not only to get people to rest, but also so that the people will remember – will never forget – that they once were bound up – in Egypt! – and that God set them free from their bondage and then declared (in Deutoronomy 5, for those who wish to look it up) that they were to use the Sabbath as a day of celebration! The Sabbath, God makes clear – long before this particular healing took place – the Sabbath is supposed to be day of freedom, the day of liberation!
God set the people free, God sets us free, and by God, we are never supposed to forget that!
That was Jesus’ argument: God has liberated us, and what better day to liberate a woman bound up by an ailment than on God’s holiest day!
And then, to really make his point, Jesus sets the woman free again! In front of everyone, standing there at the front of the synagogue, where women don’t belong, Jesus calls this woman a “daughter of Abraham,” a term never before and never again used in the Scriptures or in any other writings about the chosen people of God. He calls her a “daughter of Abraham,” giving her the same rights, blessing her with the same inheritance, that all men, all the “sons of Abraham,” had.
Jesus not only sets this woman free from her ailment – the one that had condemned her to a lesser place in that society – he sets her free to stand up before the Lord, to see God face to face, to look God in the eye, as a full human being, unrestrained by commandment after commandment that kept her quiet, that kept her in the back of the synagogue, that denied her the education, the blessing, the beauty of the Torah.
Jesus sets this woman free not once, but twice.
“Woman, you are set free.” And she responds by praising God loudly, right there, in front of everyone, despite the fact that she wasn’t supposed to be right there, in front of everyone, and despite the fact that she was not supposed to speak in the synagogue. She rejoices! She praises God! And eventually, after listening to the argument between Jesus and the leader of that synagogue, so do the people. Because right there, in their sight, freedom has come.
Do you see now why this story, which for most of the Church’s history was not told on Sunday mornings in church, do you see now why this story is so important for us?
It is a story about liberation – our liberation! A story about us being set free. A story about how God comes into our lives and removes our ailments and allows us to stand up straight before the Lord, to see God face to face and look God in the eye and rejoice in our own liberation!
Jesus is standing right here with us, right now, in this place, offering to lift us up, to remove our burdens, to heal our ailments.
Jesus is right here with us, touching us with loving hands, assuring us that we are not alone. Jesus is lifting us up, helping us to stand up straight, telling us that we have been set free!
This is our day of liberation … and by God, we ought to celebrate that!
A sermon preached on he 13th Sunday after Pentecost, 22 August 2010, Proper 16, Year C, at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Arlington, Va.
 John Petty, http://progressiveinvolvement.com.
 Mary Ellen Ashcroft, The Magdalene Gospel: Meeting The Women Who Followed Jesus.