Have you been watching the Olympics? I didn’t think I would this year; the hype, the scandals, the doping, the over-politicization of them, the hyper-nationalism and flag waving have all gotten to me over the years. So the first few days came and went without me watching any of the events. But then, one night, we were tired and it was too late for us to begin one of the movies or tv shows on our watch list, so we went over to NBC. And then I remembered why the Olympics can be so wonderful, inspiring, and awesome. We watched men and women running, a little pole vault, and caught the tail end of the women’s gymnastic competitions.
As I watched those athletes performing, I was overwhelmed by their skills and talent and by their amazing bodies. It’s like most of them belong to a different species than the rest of us. I read a piece last week that suggested world-class athletes like Olympic runners, swimmers, or gymnasts are basically genetic freaks. I don’t know whether that’s true or not. What I do know is that I’ve never been in the kind of physical shape those athletes are in, and I can’t imagine the effort it takes to maintain their athletic prowess. And to think that some of them have been competing at this level for over a decade. It’s mind-boggling.
In fact, I feel like I have much more in common with the bent-over woman in today’s gospel story than with someone like Usain Bolt. While I’m in pretty good shape, I’ve experienced my share of aches and pains over the years. Probably most of you would agree. The experience of physical limitation, suffering, or long-term pain is much more familiar to us than the bodies of world-class athletes. We can imagine ourselves in such suffering.
The healing stories in the gospels, and especially in Luke, are never just about Jesus’ power to bring healing and wholeness. I’ve encouraged you over these last months to hear each gospel reading on Sunday morning in the context of the whole gospel of Luke. That’s why we’ve placed copies of the gospel in the pews. Take it home, or pull it out now and look at the context of this story.
In Luke, Jesus begins his public ministry in the synagogue in Nazareth, his hometown. It’s a story we heard back in January and I said then that it constituted something of Jesus’ mission statement. He reads from Isaiah:
18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
Then he sits down and says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
While Luke records several other visits by Jesus to synagogues in his gospel, this visit we heard about today is Jesus’ last one and it’s interesting that we see him displaying both aspects of his public ministry—proclaiming the good news and healing the sick.
As an aside, it’s important not to get distracted by the conflict with the leader of the synagogue over Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath. Over the centuries, Christians have tended to overemphasize the conflict between Jesus and Judaism, to interpret Jesus as one who sought to bring an end to Jewish focus on the Torah or law. Luke himself plays a role in this. It’s no accident that Luke highlights conflict between the synagogue and Jesus here. He did it as well in his telling of Jesus’ visit to the synagogue in Nazareth. At the same time, by stressing Jesus’ visits to the synagogue, Luke wants to emphasize that Jesus is a good Jew, one who observes the law. And here, we see Jesus using Jewish law to defend his actions—helping someone in need is a central principle of Jewish law and takes precedence over rigid adherence to the law.
That’s one bit of the context. Let’s look at the story a little more closely.
First of all, the woman. Luke doesn’t tell us why she came to the synagogue. What he doesn’t say is that she came because Jesus was there, that she was hoping Jesus would heal her, that she asked Jesus to heal her. In fact, she doesn’t say anything to Jesus, she doesn’t touch his garment; she doesn’t disrupt the service. It’s Jesus who notices her and stops what he’s doing to heal her. Moreover, Luke says nothing about her faith, that it was faith in Jesus that brought her to the synagogue, or that she came to faith because of the healing. All he says is that after she’s healed, she praises God.
What brought her to the synagogue that day? Was it her custom? Was it desperation? What was her life like? For eighteen years she had been bent over, more literally the text could read, as the KJV does, “bowed together,” unable to straighten herself out. For eighteen years, her eyes were on the ground as she walked. She could not see the faces of anyone. She hadn’t felt the warmth of the sun on her cheeks; she hadn’t been able to look at the sky, or the horizon. Her world had narrowed to the few square feet directly in front of her.
What did she do when she was healed? She stretches out to her full stature. What must that have felt like? Can you imagine the sudden freedom? The new perspective on the world? What is her immediate response? She praises God—by the way, that was something that was typically done standing up, arms outstretched to the sky. Had the fact that her body forced her almost into a prostrate position kept her soul from glorifying God, from lifting itself up to God in praise?
And Jesus. The key moment in the story is that he sees her. How large was the crowd? How many people had come to the synagogue that day in hopes of healing? How many people were following Jesus with similar hopes. In the midst of the press of all those bodies around him, all those people with all of their cares and concerns, and perhaps many were there for completely different reasons. They didn’t know who Jesus was and didn’t care. In the middle of the synagogue, in the middle of a group of people, Jesus saw this bent-over woman. That in itself is remarkable because it’s likely his view of her would have been blocked by all the other people who were standing upright. Still, he saw her and responded to her need.
Look around. Do you see someone who is bent-over, suffering, in pain? Some of us are bent-over, our gaze turned inward or downward so we can avoid seeing the suffering of others. Jesus’ vision penetrated through the crowd, focused on one in deep need and it was only because he saw that he could heal. Look up, look around. See the need.
Look inside. Are you bent-over, suffering, in pain? Do those words describe you? Have you come here today in hope of being healed in some way, in body or soul? Have you come in despair because the healing and wholeness you have hoped and prayed for, for days or for years, have not come? Or are you here in spite of all of that doubting whether Jesus can bring healing and wholeness to you or to this broken world?
Look up. Look around. Take heart. Jesus’ words of healing and hope are spoken to you. Jesus’ healing touch makes you, makes all of us whole.
Look up. Stand up. Praise God. Jesus has come to set us free. Jesus does wonderful things!