21 May 2013
Healing a woman in the synagogue on the sabbath (Luke 13: 10-17)
Luke 13: 10-17
10 Ην δὲ διδάσκων ἐν μιᾷ τῶν συναγωγῶν ἐντοῖς σάββασιν. 11 καὶ ἰδοὺ γυνὴ πνεῦμα ἔχουσα ἀσθενείας ἔτη δεκαοκτώ, καὶ ἦν συγκύπτουσα καὶ μὴ δυναμένη ἀνακύψαι εἰς τὸ παντελές. 12 ἰδὼν δὲ αὐτὴν ὁ Ἰησοῦς προσεφώνησεν καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῇ, Γύναι, ἀπολέλυσαι τῆς ἀσθενείας σου, 13 καὶ ἐπέθηκεν αὐτῇ τὰς χεῖρας: καὶ παραχρῆμα ἀνωρθώθη, καὶ ἐδόξαζεν τὸν θεόν. 14 ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ ὁ ἀρχισυνάγωγος, ἀγανακτῶν ὅτι τῷ σαββάτῳ ἐθεράπευσενὁ Ἰησοῦς, ἔλεγεν τῷ ὄχλῳ ὅτι Ἓξ ἡμέραι εἰσὶν ἐν αἷς δεῖ ἐργάζεσθαι: ἐν αὐταῖς οὖν ἐρχόμενοι θεραπεύεσθε καὶ μὴ τῇ ἡμέρᾳ τοῦ σαββάτου. 15 ἀπεκρίθη δὲ αὐτῷ ὁ κύριος καὶ εἶπεν, Ὑποκριταί, ἕκαστος ὑμῶν τῷ σαββάτῳ οὐ λύει τὸν βοῦν αὐτοῦ ἢ τὸν ὄνον ἀπὸ τῆς φάτνης καὶ ἀπαγαγὼν ποτίζει; 16 ταύτην δὲ θυγατέρα Ἀβραὰμ οὖσαν, ἣν ἔδησεν ὁ Σατανᾶς ἰδοὺ δέκα καὶ ὀκτὼ ἔτη, οὐκ ἔδει λυθῆναι ἀπὸ τοῦ δεσμοῦ τούτου τῇ ἡμέρᾳ τοῦ σαββάτου; 17 καὶ ταῦτα λέγοντος αὐτοῦ κατῃσχύνοντο πάντες οἱ ἀντικείμενοι αὐτῷ, καὶ πᾶς ὁ ὄχλος ἔχαιρεν ἐπὶ πᾶσιν τοῖς ἐνδόξοις τοῖς γινομένοις ὑπ' αὐτοῦ.
10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’ 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.’ 15 But the Lord answered him and said, ‘You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16 And 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?’ 17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.
I have chosen this story not because of some of our discussions last weekend about elderly women, their health, widowhood and experiences of bereavement, but because it is the first of the Gospel readings in the lectionary readings for this morning. We are reading through Saint Luke’s Gospel in these weekday readings, but we also started reading the Book of Ruth this week.
When I read this story I am reminded of the Kahal Shalom Synagogue, the last surviving, functioning synagogue on the Greek island of Rhodes, and the woman who gave me a tour of that synagogue.
The interior of the synagogue follows the traditional Sephardic style of having the tevah or reading platform in the centre, facing south-east towards Jerusalem. Behind it and above is the balcony, created in 1935 as a result of a liberalisation of religious policy, for use as a women’s prayer area. Before that, the women sat in the rooms beside the south wall of the synagogue, and could see into the main body of the synagogue, through curtained openings. Those rooms are now used for the Jewish Museum of Rhodes.
The brave woman with an extraordinary story who showed me around the synagogue and the museum, Lucia Modiano Soulam, was bent over and in her 80s. She was an exceptionally brave woman with an extraordinary story. She was a survivor of Auschwitz and spoke Greek, Ladino, Italian, a little French and Turkish and very little English.
Because there are only seven Jewish families left on Rhodes, the synagogue depends on tourists to make up a minyan, and to lead public prayers.
As a family, we attended a sabbath service in the synagogue as her guest, and she sat with us, so that there were two women among a congregation in which the minyan was made up thanks to Israeli and American tourists.
I think of her as having been captive to Satan in Auschwitz for many years because of the sins of so many men. Now she was old and bent over, but taking her place in a synagogue where once she would only have been seen in the balcony above and behind the tevah, or behind the screens and curtains in the adjoining women’s rooms.
In her suffering, Lucia had become, truly, a Daughter of Abraham.
Some introductory questions:
Which images leap out at you in this story?
Which characters leap out at you in this story?
Perhaps Jesus, but in what role? As teacher (verse 10, verses 16), keen observer of humanity (verse 12), healer (verses 12-13), Lord God (verse 15), judge (verse 15), affirmer (verse 16) or wonder worker (verse 17)?
The woman? She is unnamed, but so too is the town in which this synagogue is located.
How do you image her? In her previous physical condition? Or as she looks after Jesus heals her?
The leader of the synagogue (verses 14 and 15)? He too is unnamed.
Who are the hypocrites in verse 15? Who are the opponents in verse 17? The leader of the synagogue and …?
The ox and the ass (verse 15)?
Abraham (verse 16)? Apart from Jesus, he is the only other character named in this story.
The crowd (verses 14 and 17), the many? The fickle crowd who rejoice now, like the crowd who rejoice at the entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday?
And, to test your imagination, if this had been a lost Gospel passage and you came to it as a first-time reader, who would you identify with initially?
Let us look at some of the figures in this story.
What makes this woman unusual, or what makes this healing story unusual? Like many of the women in the Gospels, she remains anonymous. So who can she be compared with?
No other woman in the Bible is referred to as a daughter of Abraham. Indeed, the Book Genesis records no named daughter of Abraham, and the rabbis argued over whether Abraham had any daughters (see Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra, which records an argument between R. Meir and R. Yehuda). So, seeking to compare her with a daughter of Abraham, or with other woman in the New Testament, is chasing after shadows.
Yet, although the description of the woman as “daughter of Abraham” is unusual, it is placed first in the Greek sentence (verse 16) as a position of emphasis. We are all familiar with discussions about how this stakes a claim for her as a true heir to the covenantal relationship with God. But there are two men in Saint Luke’s Gospel that she might be compared with too:
1, The unnamed rich man in the story of ‘Dives’ and Lazarus (Luke 16: 19-31) addresses Abraham as ‘father’ or ‘Father Abraham’ (verses 24, 27, 30), and Abraham address the rich man as ‘Child,’ but the child of Abraham is the outsider who is brought in.
In this morning’s story, Christ shows what it means to be a citizen of God’s kingdom – through his actions. He heals this woman and calls her a “daughter of Abraham,” which makes her, remarkably, a full member of Jewish society. Christ is saying the kingdom is open equally to women and to the sick and disabled.
2, The description of the woman as daughter of Abraham is matched later in this Gospel when Christ insists that Zacchaeus is “a son of Abraham” (Luke 19: 9), a point that is also made in the face of a crowd, this time a crowd that rejects Zacchaeus as a sinner. Think of how this woman’s physical position of being bent over is symbolic in the way that Zacchaeus is short in statute.
It is also worth noting too that the woman does not ask to be cured, and no one asks so on her behalf. Christ notices her himself (verse 12). This involves a turning round. She enters while Christ is teaching. If he has the scrolls in front of him, he is facing forward in the bema in the synagogue, and so she is behind him, either above in a balcony, if it is a large synagogue, or hidden behind a curtain in a smaller synagogue. She is unlikely to have been visible to Christ unless he turns around.
What does Christ do?
He turns around, and he calls the woman over. He tells her she is free, and he lays his hands on her. He has not yet addressed her as “Daughter of Abraham.” So it is not this label that causes offence.
Is it calling the women into the centre of the assembly? The ritual implications for many men present are outrageous and even incalculable.
There are five responses worth noticing:
● of the woman;
● of the leader of the synagogue;
● of Jesus;
● of all his opponents;
● of the crowd.
Those responses are:
● To stand up and praise God (the woman, verse 13);
● Indignation (the leader of the synagogue, verse 14);
● Judgment and teaching (Jesus);
● Shame (his opponents);
● Rejoicing (the crowd).
Ever since this story was written, I imagine, the synagogue leader has been typecast as the bad guy. Yet it is he who twice describes what Christ does as healing (θεραπεύω, therapeuo, twice in verse 14). Would he have been seen as the “bad guy” on the day itself? Can you imagine telling the story from his point of view?
His indignation is neither unusual nor outrageous, but is justified given who he is speaking on the behalf of, given the religious culture within which he is operating.
His first concern may have been for the men in his synagogue who risked being ritually tainted on the day. He voices his objections not when Jesus calls her over, not when he lays his hands on her, but only when she stands up and praises God.
Twice in our text we are told that the woman has had this illness for 18 years (probably a word connection with the 18 who died in Luke 13: 4). What difference would a few hours make? Why heal her on the Sabbath day and deliberately stir up all this conflict? We should note that emphasis is provided by the word sabbath occurring five times in the text.
Jesus’ breaking of the sabbath seems pointless and unnecessary. He is not performing a good deed that, if delayed, could not be performed at a later time. This is not a woman who needs immediate rescue, or who is caught upstairs in a burning house. Having waited 18 years, she could wait until after sundown.
For the Pharisees, the sabbath is the chief sacrament of the order of creation, so it is reasonable for them to argue that it may lawfully be broken only if some significant individual instance of the order of creation is in danger of imminent and irreversible disordering. If the woman has been able to bear her disability for 18 years, surely Christ can wait out the afternoon and heal her after sunset without flying in the face of the Torah? Why can he not wait until sunset? In the meantime, he and the synagogue elders could search the Law and the Prophets together, and then the healing could be seen in all its unquestionable rightness.
Perhaps if Christ had waited until sundown, his wonderful miracle would have supported the people’s expectations of a victorious, triumphalist Messiah. But he constantly announces the coming kingdom in words and deeds that run counter to their expectations for the kingdom.
One way of dealing with a message we do not want to hear, is to shoot the messenger. Perhaps Christ could have spent all day arguing with the synagogue elders about whether or not it was legal to heal this woman on the sabbath – while she remained ill.
But why does the leader not direct his words to Christ? Instead, he addresses his complaints to the woman and to the crowd. He does not doubt Jesus’ ability to heal, and it is the woman’s action rather than of those of Jesus that he condemns. He has no problem about her coming to synagogue or coming for healing. Instead, he upbraids her for coming on a Saturday, and he tells her to come for healing on any one of the other six days of the week. Yet, it does not appear that this woman comes seeking healing. She asks for nothing. Her release comes through Jesus’ own initiative.
What is the significance of Christ’s rebuttal? It is clever, for while untying an ox or a donkey on the sabbath was forbidden in one part of the Mishnah or Jewish book of laws, it was permitted in another. If you untie animals on the sabbath, why not humans?
We should be aware that in his rebuttal, Christ does not attack traditional Judaism. He simply offers one of a number of traditional points of view. This story continues the story in Luke 4 of Christ reading from and teaching from the scroll in the synagogue. He is now putting into action in the synagogue what he has taught in the synagogue.
Meanwhile, Christ has set free or untied the woman. But what was she tied to? To her disability and her infirmity? To Satan? To her community’s refusal to accept her? To one interpretation of what could or could not be done on the sabbath?
Her ailment is described literally as “a spirit of illness” (verse 11) and “weaknesses” (verse 12). The word ἀσθένεια (asthéneia) is used in both verses. Its literal meaning is without strength of body, in other words weakness or incapacity. Often this inability to do something is caused by a physical problem, such as disease or illness.
The result of Christ’s action is ἀνορθόω (anorthoo) (verse 13), literally “to set straight again.” But it also means “to restore,” “to rebuild,” or “to set right again.” Figuratively, Christ restores her to the Abrahamic covenant.
Jesus says to the woman, “… you have been set free,” ἀπολέλυσαι (apolélusai) “from your weakness” (verse 12). The NRSV translates it with the present tense, “you are set free.” This word απολουω (apoluo) is not usually associated with healing. Its general meaning is “to loose,” to unbind, to release, to send away, even to divorce (see Matthew 5: 32; 19: 3, 7, 8, 9). It can refer to the bandages used to tie a woman to her husband. It is closely related to the word λύω (luo) used twice by Christ in this story: to “untie” an ox or donkey (verse 15) and to “set free” from bondage (verse 16).
Finding some meanings in this story:
Is this is a story about controversy and division? Or is this a story about healing, wholeness and restoration?
Given the two synagogue settings I have referred to, is this a story about the practical relationship between what we believe and what we do – getting the balance right between being and doing?
The woman is not named in this story, and, once she stands up and praises God, she disappears from the story, never to be seen or heard again. She is written out of the controversy at the end of the story. So is it a story about her, or about the reaction of the crowd, our reaction, to the promise of restitution and wholeness that Christ offers? Apart from teaching that women and people with disabilities have a place in the centre of the community and at the heart of the kingdom, are there other meanings to be found in this story? What is it saying to us may be more important a question than what is it saying about the woman.
In addition, the words for “bound” and “bondage” in verse 16, δέω (deo) is only used in one other place in this Gospel, when it is used for the “tied up” colt (see Luke 19: 30, 33).
An icon of the Nativity of Christ … the ox and the ass are inseparably linked with the manger, but are not mentioned in the Gospel accounts of the Nativity
And this leads me to the images that strike me in this story which include the ox and the ass in the manger. Of course, the ox and the ass in the manger are not mentioned in the Nativity narrative in Saint Luke’s Gospel. This is a popular image that is drawn from the Old Testament. In the Book Deuteronomy there is prohibition on tending to crops with a bull and a donkey side by side. But the ox and the ass later acquire a Messianic symbolism: “The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand” (Isaiah 1: 3).
The ox and the ass also make for some Talmudic and Mishnaic verses relating to Messianic prophecy, in which the bull becomes the symbol of Joseph and the donkey is interpreted as the Messiah’s vehicle of choice – and so there is a Messiah from the houses of Judah and Joseph.
Some questions for discussion:
When should we do things in the church we believe are right, and only deal with the repercussions afterwards?
When do we need to discuss and come to an agreement before taking action?
What holds people in bondage?
In what ways does legalism bind them?
How are we held in bondage to past successes, defending our habits by saying: “This is the way we’ve always done it”?
Does the way we behave in our churches on Sundays free people or kept them tied up?
Let us pray, in the words of the Collect in the Service of Celebration of Wholeness and Healing in the Book of Common Prayer (2004):
you anointed your Son Jesus Christ
with the Holy Spirit and with power
to bring to us the blessings of your kingdom.
Anoint your Church with the same Holy Spirit,
that we who share in his suffering and victory
may bear witness to the gospel of salvation;
through Jesus Christ, your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. These notes were prepared for a Bible study at the opening of a faculty staff meeting on 21 May 2013.