By Paul Lutter
We know neither her name nor the location from which she comes. All we know is that she was “a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years,” and that, “[s]he was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.” (Lk. 13:11) We don’t know from the text exactly what causes this spirit to lash out at this woman. We do know, though, the power of this spirit is to slowly and deliberately destroy this woman’s life. Whether this spirit manifesting its wicked power in this way is a result of the woman’s sinfulness or was it simply the way she was born we do not know. So weighted down by its power is she that she can’t “stand up straight.”
All we know is that bent over, exhausted, worn, and arid from the despair that comes from the power of this spirit, pushed to the margins of society, and dead inside, this woman comes in from the heat of the day to seek shelter in the synagogue.
They are nameless when they arrive at Magdalene. Seeking shelter – relief – from the power of the spirit whose work it had been to destroy them through drugs and prostitution, they come completely exhausted and desperate. Like the woman in the text, these women of Magdalene live on the edge between death and life. Living in the shadows, under the oppressive weight of the spirit whose power it had been to press the life right out of them, these women, like the woman in this text from Luke, “can’t stand up straight.”
While there may be interesting, and coincidental, similarities between the woman in Luke 13 and the women of Magdalene up to this point, where their stories converge is that none of them were looking for Jesus. Jesus found them anyway. And a new power, the power of God’s love, emerges in their lives. When Jesus finds them, they are no longer in the cold shadows of sin and despair they are brought into the light and warmth of the new day that dawns. No longer “bent over” by a spirit who intimidates, Jesus forgives, heals, and even sets them free.
These women – both in this text from Luke and those in Magdalene – need not “look for love.” When he shows up, they are overcome by the power of a love that pours itself out for them in Jesus Christ. And, by God’s grace, they are never the same again. Maybe for the first time in their lives, they are given a name they can speak out loud without fear of being hurt, ostracized, shamed, or pushed back into the shadows of a power that destroys. Their new names are this: Child of God.
And in this new God given name, as my students would say, these women become legit. And so, when Jesus does his new thing among them, these women “[stand] up straight and [begin, without ceasing] praising God.” (Lk. 13:13) What else are they to do, really, once they who were dead are now raised?
It would be easy, even preferable, perhaps, to stop reading Luke’s account here, where the woman – and the women of Magdalene, and we, all of us, by extension – are “set free from [our] ailment.” Yet, this is the gospel of Luke, and so whenever and wherever Jesus shows up and makes all things new, there’s sociopolitical ramifications.
Thus we are reintroduced in Luke’s gospel to those who understand their job to keep and further uphold the old order. In this case, the problem appears to be that Jesus is working on the Sabbath. Yet, as Jesus is quick to point out, the work he’s doing is no more problematic than the work they, who would prevent Jesus from being Jesus, were doing.
So we come to the real problem for which Jesus was yet again in trouble with those who would hold tightly to the old order. In a world where women were not persons, Jesus identifies, heals, makes room for and restores this woman – and this woman – to the community. With this unfathomable act, Jesus tosses out the power of the spirit that would oppress, subdue, and enslave, in order to make room for and further establish the power of love. The power of this love that Jesus demonstrates turns everything on its head so that the weak are strong, sinners are forgiven, those deemed untouchable were embraced, those at the margins were given central place at the table, and those who didn’t deserve to be healed were not only healed but actually restored to the entire community.
Sociologists are quick to point out that in situations where the oppressed are set free, it is often the case that those who were oppressed turn into oppressors. Yet this is not the kind of love that Jesus, or his community, exercises. The power of love that Jesus lives out sets the table so that everyone has a place at the table, where everyone tells their stories of pain, sin, separation, and death. And by the power of God’s love, their stories are made new.
This love, God’s love made known to us in Jesus Christ, is what’s at work in the story of the woman in Luke 13. And it’s the operating force that animates the ministry to women who would enter Magdalene. In light of this, the old order is exposed and put to shame. Yet, because the power of love is God’s and not something we conjure up in ourselves, Jesus shows up for those, too, who would so cling to the old that they can’t see daylight. When he shows up, their eyes, too, are opened and they – we – too are set free and stand up straight for the very first time. Where once we stood apart, now by the power of God’s love poured out for us in Jesus Christ, we stand together praising God. In this, we all have hope.
Paul Lutter serves as senior pastor of First Lutheran Church in Litchfield, MN, a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He has taught as an adjunct instructor in the Religion Departments at Augsburg College and Gustavus Adolphus College, both in MN. He’s also been an adjunct instructor in the Theology Department at Mt. Mary College in Wauwatosa, WI, and as an adjunct instructor in homiletics at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN.