“Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” Luke 13:12
I want you to imagine what it would be like. To be bent over for eighteen years. Eighteen years of struggling to get dressed in the morning. Eighteen years of having your field of vision limited to your feet and the dusty ground around them. Eighteen years of being unable to stand up straight and look people in the eye. Eighteen years of having people gossip about you and pity you and wonder what you must have done to end up this way.
Now imagine that you hear a voice calling to you. It’s not a voice you recognize, but it’s clear that he wants you to come closer. So you do. You shuffle over in the direction of the voice, slowly. Your body won’t let you move anywhere quickly. You hear the whispers in the crowd and realize that it’s Jesus calling to you. Jesus, that guy who’s been teaching in the synagogue where you grew up. People say that he is wise, that he has ways of talking about scripture that will blow your mind. You can’t imagine why he is calling out to you.
You finally get close enough for him to place his hands on you. You flinch at first, startled. People almost never touch you. You hear what he has said, but it makes no sense: “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” Set free. Impossible. This guy might not be so smart after all.
And yet…and yet…you find yourself moving in a way that you have not moved in eighteen years. Your spine stretches out. The muscles in your lower back start to move again. And before you know it, you are standing up straight. Shoulders back. Head up. You’re so surprised that all you can do is open your mouth and praise God.
But wait. While you are singing those praises to God, you hear an argument bubbling up around you. The leader of the synagogue has some questions. He’s come to challenge Jesus, claiming that Jesus should not have healed you on the Sabbath. Jesus has broken the holy law.
Are they kidding? You’re standing tall for the first time in eighteen years, and they want to have a debate about whether it’s OK? You can finally – finally– look directly at the faces of the people you love, and they want to turn you into some kind of legal case study? You stand there, shocked to be the focus of so much attention. Doesn’t anyone care that you are standing up? Doesn’t anyone care that you are free?
I’ve thought about this woman all week. How she becomes the object of debate when I’m sure all she wants to do is walk around and look up at the sky and feel the breeze on her face and hug the people closest to her. Maybe dance a little.
Notice that Jesus uses the language of freedom to describe what has happened: “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” And later: “Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham…be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”
There are several reasons given for Sabbath observance in scripture. Early on, in one of the creation stories found in Genesis, God models Sabbath rest for us. After six days of creating everything, God rests on day seven. You don’t have to believe that creation took place literally in six 24-hour days, but consider that if God needs some relief, maybe we do too.
It shows up in the Ten Commandments. Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.
One of my favorite descriptions of Sabbath appears in the fifth chapter of Deuteronomy [verses 12-15], where we find a more elaborate version of the Sabbath commandment. It says:
Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work…Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.
There’s a connection in Deuteronomy between Sabbath and freedom. Jesus draws on that connection in the gospel. You are set free from your ailment. The Israelites knew what it was like to live in slavery, to be crushed by the power of the Egyptians, to work beyond all reasonable limits day after day after day. God had led them out of slavery into freedom, so to honor the Sabbath meant to honor freedom from oppression in all its forms.
Jesus wants us to be free. Free from what holds us captive. Free from what weighs us down. Free from the exhaustion that drains our souls. Free from the distractions that pull us in a thousand directions. Free from the fear that we are not good enough. Free from the shame that we carry with us.
Jesus also wants to us to be free for something – to be renewed for the ongoing work of making sure that all people are free.
In healing the woman on the Sabbath, Jesus is reminding us that sometimes the law of compassion is more important than the letter of the law. We don’t just follow rules in order to follow rules. We seek to make sure that those rules allow for human flourishing. As writer Debie Thomas says, Jesus is about “the kind of compassion that consistently sees the broken body, the broken soul, the broken spirit – before it sees the broken commandment.”[i]
This week marked the 400thanniversary of the beginning of slavery in this country. In 1619, an English pirate ship called the White Lion arrived at the ironically named Point Comfort with about 20 black captives. The captain of the White Lion traded the enslaved people for food, bringing slavery to Jamestown in what would later become Virginia.
In considering this anniversary through the lens of today’s gospel, I’ve thought about how often in our history the law has not been about people’s freedom. Again and again the law of compassion demanded that people defy the laws on the books in order to support freedom for those who were enslaved or oppressed.
When the Fugitive Slave Act required that escaped slaves be returned to their owners, there were those who gave shelter to the runaways and helped them find their way to freedom. When the Jim Crow laws of the 20th century enforced racial segregation, people held sit-ins at lunch counters, putting their bodies on the line for people’s freedom.
We have more work to do until all people are truly free – in our country and around the world. Jesus looks at humanity in all our brokenness and longs to say, “You are set free from your ailment.”
I invite you to turn to the back of your bulletin. There you will find a litany that some of my colleagues wrote for today in observance of that 400thanniversary. Let’s share in this litany now as a way to recommit ourselves to seeking freedom for all people.[ii]
Leader: God yearns for all to be free.
Congregation: God, we praise you.
L: God knows that many are still enslaved. God weeps with them.
C: God, help us to work for the full humanity of all people.
L: Jesus our Lord became fully human. He experienced suffering in solidarity with the oppressed.
C: Lord Jesus, grant us your compassion and willingness to work for justice for all.
L: Where we would cling to death, the resurrection brings freedom and new life.
C: Lord Jesus, thank you.
L: Help us to follow Jesus in standing with the oppressed and proclaiming release to captives.
C: Holy Spirit, teach us to love our neighbor in word and action.
L: May that same Spirit open us up to our history and to the pain of our neighbors. In the name of the God who leads us and guides us forward into new life,
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i]From “She Stood Up Straight” by Debie Thomas at Journey with Jesus https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2316
[ii]Adapted from https://www.socalsynod.org/2019/08/16/resources-for-commemorating-the-400th-anniversary-of-the-arrival-of-the-first-enslaved-africans-to-north-america/?fbclid=IwAR2iDsQIVUvzjEtGSLEAvEsKWVmXnMSW1SxMmmHJ88T_OXdi73iD4I3JSvc