Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 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. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 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.” 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? 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?” 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.
In the beginning of all things, when the heavens and the earth were first made, God crouched down in the dirt and pulled together the red clay to form the first human. If you have ever worked with clay, or watched someone else work with clay, then you know that there is a quality of “lifting up” in this process. As a potter works the clay, it is as if shape and form are pulled up out of what had been a huddled mass of wet earth. I like to imagine God doing a similar thing—pulling shape and form from the earth as the first human is lifted up out of the red clay.
It tells us something about the nature of God, for it reveals that God creates in order that we might be pulled up and set free into the world. God creates the first human to be a companion, God creates the first human to tend to creation alongside God, and God creates the first human to see and enjoy the world that God formed. In today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, we see that Jesus hasn’t fallen far from the tree, as it were, because in his encounter with the crippled woman, we are reminded that Jesus is here to lift people up out of bondage and set them free.
We know very little about the woman in today’s story—the author doesn’t share with us her name, where she came from, or what happened to her after this encounter with Jesus. In fact, she has no voice at all in this story—she never asks Jesus to heal her and the words of her rejoice after the healing are lost to us. All we know is that she had been crippled for a very long time; for eighteen years she had been severely hunched over. For eighteen years she had endured the physical and social pain of her disfigurement. For eighteen years this woman had only been able to see the ground, seeing nothing but the red clay at her feet.
Why has nobody helped this woman? This is the unspoken question that reverberates so loudly in this story. In the eighteen years that this woman has suffered, why has no one thought to lift her up, to pull her up out of that which has bound her for so long? Why has no one thought to set her free from bondage? No one speaks this question, but everyone hears it, and I think that the religious leader is attempting to answer it in his rebuff of Jesus’ actions. “The rules say that we can’t do anything,” he cries, “this is not what the Sabbath is for! This is not why we come together for worship—what will other people think when they hear what you have done!”
But Jesus sees the world as it is and Jesus sees the world as God intended it to be when it was first pulled up and given form. What’s more, Jesus sees this woman, this child of God, this daughter of Abraham—bound, bent over, and in pain—and he heals her. Lifting and pulling her up, Jesus sets her free from the bondage that has held her for so long. For the first time in eighteen years, she no longer sees the red clay at her feet; she sees the world around her that God created.
This story makes us ask where we see others in bondage and where we ourselves experience bondage. What are the things in our world that make it so that we can only see the red clay at our feet? Perhaps it is abuse that binds us. Whether it is physical, sexual, verbal, or emotional, abuse binds us, slowly reducing the world around us to a place of fear and survival. If you have ever been abused or know someone who has, then you have seen the way it cripples.
Or maybe it is addiction that binds us, either as the individual with the addiction or as the friends and family of the addicted. Either way, it crushes us until it seems that the addiction takes up every aspect of our lives and not a day goes by where we do not feel its presence.
Poverty and hunger can also bind us. When we have to live paycheck to paycheck, constantly aware that we are only one unexpected expense away from having our world fall apart, when we have to struggle to pay every bill, to make every last dollar stretch, we feel the weight of finances binding us. Or perhaps we have lost everything and every day is filled with the uncertainty of depending entirely on others for survival.
Yes, there are so many things that bind and cripple in this world—racism, sexism, homophobia, sickness, and disease. They all pull us down, bending our backs, contorting us, blinding us to the world as God intended it to be, and drawing our sight ever lower until we find that the only thing we can see is the red clay.
This is the Good News in today’s scripture. God did not create us to be in bondage, God created us to be free of bondage, and Jesus comes to us in order to heal and set us free. And just as it was in the Gospel this morning, Jesus’ healing also brings with it an indictment, a challenge. “Why has no one else done the work of healing?” he asks.
Indignant, we reply, “Why should we be bothered?” After all, it isn’t our problem, let them unbind themselves; isn’t it their fault that they ended up in this trouble? If they had just worked harder, made better choices, or took some initiative, there wouldn’t be a problem! But Jesus persists, “Why has no one else done the work of setting people free from bondage?”
Flustered, we respond, “aren’t their rules and guidelines about what we can and cannot do? We have to follow procedure and protocol, otherwise there might be unintended consequences!” Rules and procedures are there to keep everything fair, and if we help one person, everyone else will want us to help them too. We add as an afterthought, “besides, if we were seen breaking the rules, what would other people think?”
Jesus pushes us harder, “why do you allow people to remain in bondage?” “Leave us alone,” we shout, “this is not what church is for! We don’t come here to change things, we don’t come here to upset the world outside.” Angry, we add, “This isn’t what church is supposed to look like! It’s supposed to be a place where we can bring our kids, sing some songs, and hear a nice sermon from the Bible.”
But Jesus won’t stop, “Why do you leave people unable to see anything but the ground at their feet?” “Because,” we confess, “we don’t think we have the power to do anything about it. Nothing we do can make a difference.”
Jesus reaches out a hand and lifts and pulls us up. “Be healed,” he says, “and stop looking at the ground at your feet. Be healed and see the world around you as it is and as God intended it to be. Be healed and join me on the way that will set the world free.”
My sisters and my brothers, Christ heals us. Let us rejoice and join in the work of healing the world.
Preached by Adam Yates