“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?”
Welcome to Jesus Unmasked! The following show notes are not a transcript but a reflection on this week’s Gospel scripture in the style of Lectio Divina. For our application of this sacred reading method, we follow four steps: (1) attempt to discern the literal meaning and context of the verses we read, (2) find metaphoric or symbolic meaning in particular words or phrases, (3) find connections from the scripture to our lives and our world, and (4) discern a call to action. If the notes or video spark your own ideas or questions, please feel free to leave comments and join our live conversations! Adam Ericksen and I host the Jesus Unmasked Bible study every Tuesday morning at 10:00 CT on the Raven Foundation Facebook Page.
This episode explores Luke 13:10-17.
What’s Going On?
Jesus is teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath. Suddenly, a woman enters, and she is hunched over, carrying the weight of a demonic spirit that has crippled her for eighteen years. Jesus takes pity upon her and heals her with a single declaration and a laying on of hands. “Woman, you are set free from your ailment,” he declares, releasing the spirit that had weighed her down with just a touch. Imagine the relief that comes from a heavy burden, carried for nearly two decades, being lifted from your shoulders. In awe and gratitude, the woman stands straight up and begins to praise God.
The synagogue leader is incensed. Jesus has come into his space and proceeded to heal on the one day of the week that God has forbidden work. Who does he think he is? The synagogue leader berates Jesus for his act of blasphemy that could have waited one more day. “Come on [the other days] and be cured then,” he says to the crowd, intending to shame both Jesus and the woman, but also intending to regain his own authority in the eyes of the people by addressing them.
Mimetic theory helps us to pinpoint the envy this leader probably feels as Jesus threatens to usurp his authority and audience as he demonstrates an alternative understanding of what the Sabbath means. While we can’t know exactly what the synagogue leader is thinking, we can infer not only righteous indignation but also jealousy from the way he speaks to the crowd. It is important to him that he be recognized as the authority in charge. When have we reacted in jealousy and insecurity upon perceiving our own authority challenged?
Jesus does not mince words when he responds to the synagogue leader. “You hypocrites!” he exclaims. He points out that everyone feeds and cares for their animals every day, regardless of the Sabbath. “Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound for eighteen long years, be set free form bondage on this day?” With these words, Jesus puts his opponents – the synagogue leader and all who interpret the Sabbath in a strict, punitive manner – to shame. But the crowd is heartened by his words and actions, and they rejoice.
What Does It Mean?
A deeper dive into the text reveals more.
First, the woman has been “crippled” by a “spirit” for eighteen years. Eighteen is a significant number in the Jewish culture. In the Hebrew alphabet, letters have numeric value, and the word “chai,” meaning “life” is composed of the letters “Chet” with a value of eight and “Yud” with a value of ten, adding up to eighteen. Thus, eighteen in Jewish culture means “life.” In other words, being weighed down by a spirit for eighteen years means being weighed down for a lifetime. It’s a perversion of life that this woman spent it under an oppressive, malignant spirit. What was meant for love and joy has been spent in distress and pain.
What was this evil spirit that weighed the woman down? Jesus calls it “Satan.” Satan is the name of the spirit of accusation, a spirit of anger and blame. I imagine this poor woman, hunched over in pain and shame, as an outcast of her community. In mythology, a physical ailment like a hunched back is often a sign of a scapegoat, one singled out and blamed for a community’s crisis. We do not know if this woman’s family or community has used her as an outlet for their own frustrations or seen her has a source of their troubles. But if we start to wonder, “Why did this spirit afflict her?,” the spirit of accusation that has tormented her begins to press on our own souls. And if we wonder, “What did she do to deserve this?” then we have welcomed Satan in. Our task, in the face of suffering, is not to excuse nor compound it, but to shoulder it, share it, and, to the extent that we can, ameliorate it, if we would be followers of Jesus.
It is significant that Jesus does not lecture the woman; he merely calls her to him, declares her free, and touches her. A human touch after a “lifetime” of isolation is everything. Jesus’s touch is not only physically and spiritually healing, it is restorative. When the whole crowd rejoices at Jesus’s words, they welcome this woman back in. Rejoicing in her healing, they begin to recognize the God who heals, the God for whom the sabbath is not a day of solemn, fearful worship, but a day of joyful liberation and celebration.
For the Sabbath is meant to be a day of sharing in God’s joy. It recalls God reflecting on all that was made and pronouncing it “very good,” and “resting,” which I translate as “basking in the love of creation.” From within the depths of our being, we are called to behold the beauty and splendor of this world, perceive our interconnection to all that is, and respond in love and gratitude. We are meant to know the serenity and peace that comes from recognizing the Love in which we are made. The Sabbath interrupts the frantic frenzy of our days with the reassurance that we are loved, we are enough, and we may relax into the Love that surrounds and sustains us.
So just as eighteen years of affliction is a perversion of life, so using the Sabbath as an excuse to prolong suffering is a perversion of the Sabbath. The Sabbath is a gift and a mercy. But an understanding of a fearful, frightening God and a conflation of divinity with violence seeps the joy out of the Sabbath, or uses it as a tool of control and submission. Scripture tells the story of humanity’s evolving understanding of God. Where humans found power in violence, exclusion, and uniting over and against enemies, God reveals God’s self as Love and mercy. So a day of holy observance can be interpreted sacrificially, or it can be interpreted mercifully. And Jesus said, “Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Jesus violates an abusive interpretation of the Sabbath to uphold the true meaning of the Sabbath.
What Connections Can We Make?
Jesus’s act of bold compassion, in defiance of the leadership of his time, reminds me of a saying I read from a conscientious objector, that sometimes “civil disobedience is Gospel obedience.”
When laws violate our vocation as image-bearers of the Living God, as image-bearers of Love, then we are called to to listen to another Authority, speaking to us from deep within our being.
When Jesus healed on the Sabbath, he was slandered as a criminal. But his actions went beyond obedience; they were acts of Love in full communion with Love. He knew, more clearly than all of us, the Spirit of Life that the laws were made to serve.
At their best, the laws we make to govern ourselves are meant to protect and sustain us. When they fail to do this; when they exploit, harm, or degrade, they serve a purpose in conflict with Love and with Justice. As Saints Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Martin Luther King Jr. have said, “An unjust law is no law at all.”
So when I consider this story, I am heartened by all who have defied perversions of authority in obedience to Love. I think of Harriet Tubman and conductors along the Underground Railroad. I think of André Trocmé and the village of Le Chambon which harbored Jewish people during the Holocaust. I think of Daniel Berrigan and the Cantonsville Nine who could not do otherwise but to burn draft cards instead of children. I think of Scott Warren and “No More Deaths” as people are prosecuted for leaving water in the desert for desperate migrants, many of whom die in the scorching heat trying so hard to find a better life for themselves and their children. I think of Black Lives Matter, Palestinians marching in Gaza, and the protesters striving for democracy in Hong Kong. I think of the courage and compassion it takes to shake the unjust foundations of the status quo in order to build a stronger foundation rooted in justice, rooted in the Truth that we are all made in love, for love, and to love.
What Am I Called To Do?
Reflecting on the Sabbath as a time of relaxing in the beauty of creation and Jesus’s radical Gospel obedience to Love as he healed this woman, I feel called to examine, with care and compassion, the foundation, purpose, and results of the laws of my own land and the social norms that govern my daily life. Where do the laws and customs we are conditioned to follow uphold the dignity, truth, and beauty of life, and where do they demean, belittle, exploit or harm life? Where is harm being done under the veil of good, just as the good of the Sabbath was being used to justify indifference to suffering? I can think of many answers…
If I am not ready for the consequences that come from breaking unjust laws, how may I work to change those laws? How may I petition, advocate, raise awareness? How may I summon the courage to break the status quo of silence when I see suffering? How may I pray, connecting myself to the Source of Love and using that energy to replenish my hope in the best of humanity? How may I stay grounded in the Truth that Love is more powerful than hate, that all will be well? Isn’t this connection what the Sabbath is for? How may I ensure that those who suffer injustices under a million false justifications may find their Sabbath, their ability to rest knowing that they are loved? What is my role in creating a world that honors Love by loving all?
I do not know the answers to all of these questions, but I believe that grounding myself in Love each morning, taking the time to reflect on the truth of Love, holding a little Sabbath daily, is one thing I can do to remind myself of the One whom I follow. Grounding myself in love and rejoicing in awe and gratitude, I am reinvigorated to love the whole world.
How does this scripture speak to you? What are you called to do?
Jesus Unmasked is an invitation to join a search for the presence of the living Christ in scripture. The path of Jesus leads to joy and peace, but too often we see Jesus through the masks of our own limited perspectives. Masks of exclusive theology and violent cultural lenses obscure the truth: Jesus is Unconditional Love. We see Jesus unmasked when we allow him to unmask us, lifting the blinders of bias from our eyes. In the unmasked face of Jesus, there is hope, acceptance, and forgiveness that frees us from fear, that we may live into our fullest selves as reflections of God’s love. We welcome you to join us live on the Raven Foundation Facebook page.