When Jesus saw her, he 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.Luke 13:12-13
Every time I read this miracle story in today’s gospel reading (Luke 13:10-17), I think of Dottie, a homebound member of the first church that I served as pastor, back in Florida. When I first visited Dottie, I didn’t see anything unusual about her. In fact, I was wondering why she was even homebound. But when she got out of her chair to show me something, it became obvious. Dottie had worked on an assembly line all her working years, and when she finally retired, she found herself in the very same condition as the woman in today’s gospel reading: bent over and quite unable to stand up straight.
Dottie, I would soon learn, could not store anything in her kitchen cabinets, or even the top shelves of her refrigerator, because she simply couldn’t reach those places. And Dottie was too embarrassed to even leave her house most of the time. She was a dear, sweet, woman, and did not complain of her ailment. But it affected her life dramatically.
I read this gospel reading, and I imagine Dottie. I imagine her summoning the courage to come to church. Like the woman does in this reading. And then, I imagine Jesus being there that Sunday, and seeing her, being filled with compassion, and saying to her: “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” And I imagine Dottie, immediately standing up straight and praising God.
What a wonderful gift Jesus gave to the woman in today’s gospel reading. Healing does not always come in that same way, in this life on earth. But I have no doubt that Dottie is now standing in the presence of Jesus, set free from this earthly ailment, the promise from Jesus fulfilled at last.
The Woman Bent Over
But this gospel reading is not just about a woman like Dottie. It is really about all of us. The crippled woman in today’s gospel reading represents, in a symbolic way, the whole human race. We are all bent over with the heavy burden of sin. None of us are truly able to stand up straight, and to praise God on our own.
We are all in need of help. In need of a Savior. And that is precisely what Jesus longs to be. The world’s Savior. Our Savior. Who frees us from the heavy burden of sin. That is what Jesus came to do – to set us free from sin, to help us stand up straight and praise our loving God.
The Leader of the Synagogue
But that’s not the end of the story. There is another person in this story, who is important to look at, and who has much to teach us. And that is the leader of the synagogue. He, too, is in need of healing, in need of a Savior. But, sadly, he doesn’t know it. He is blinded to his own sin, to his own need of a Savior. And as a result, he acts in a way that is truly shameful. A woman is miraculously healed by God’s Son, and all he can think is that it’s the Sabbath. And we’re not supposed to work on the Sabbath. And Jesus is working. The synagogue leader is outraged by this. But he’s also, apparently, reluctant to confront Jesus directly. So instead, he tells the crowd to come back another day if they wanted to be cured, but not on the Sabbath day.
It’s hard to comprehend how anyone could be so cruel. The woman who was healed by Jesus had been crippled for 18 long years. Think about that, for a moment: 18 years. What were you doing 18 years ago? August of 2004. That’s before the first iPhone. That is back when Facebook was only for college students, and Twitter did not even exist. That is also back before most of our children and youth were even born. 18 years is a long time ago. A long time to be crippled, bent over, unable to stand up straight.
So, imagine how heartless and cruel you would have to be to do what the leader of that synagogue did that day. Not to celebrate or give thanks for this miracle. But simply to focus on the fact that this was done on the wrong day, the Sabbath. Imagine getting angry at Jesus for healing this crippled woman on the wrong day. This could be her one and only change to even see Jesus. And this synagogue leader is upset.
Why would he be so heartless? I really believe that it is because he does not see his own deep need for healing. He was obeying God’s command, honoring the Sabbath day, and doing all the things that the law required. Or so he thought. And so he didn’t need to be healed. And he didn’t see why those who knew of their need for healing couldn’t wait.
If only he knew. If only he could see that he, too, was doubled over, burdened, by his own sin. Living in bondage to sin, death, and the devil, without even being aware of it. If only he knew how great the burden was that he carried. He would have gladly been healed by Jesus, even on the Sabbath day. And then, I suspect that he, too, would have stood up straight, and rejoiced. And joined that woman and all the crowd in praising God, and giving thanks to God for setting him free. If only he knew.
You see, this story is not just about the healing of the crippled woman. It is about the healing that we all need. In the case of the synagogue leader, he is in need of healing, but not physical healing. He needs to be able to see the world in a new way. He needs a softer, kinder heart. He needs to be made to see that love is sometimes more important than rules.
Who Are We?
And if the woman represents, in a symbolic way, the whole human race, then so does this synagogue leader. We all have our times when we are like him. When we stand tall and proud. We all have times when we think we’ve got it all figured out. Or at least we want to think we have it all figured out. We think we can manage it on our own. We profess faith in Jesus. But we live as though we have to be our own Saviors, or at least we want to be our own Saviors.
And along with that, we find ourselves standing in quiet judgment of someone who is suffering. It serves them right, we think, at least on our worst days. Or, if they just worked harder, tried harder, they wouldn’t be in that mess. What’s their problem? We see the splinter in their eye, but don’t notice the log in ours. Just like the leader of the synagogue, who saw this woman bent over, but didn’t see the burden he was carrying. For he, too, carried the heavy burden of sin. He just didn’t realize it.
Yes, there are times when we are like the leader of the synagogue. And part of the task of this story today is to shine a light on this part of ourselves. The truth is that we are all weighed down by sin, bent over and quite unable to stand up straight: The crippled woman, the synagogue leader, you and me. And part of the task of Scripture is simply to make sure that we know it. To make sure that we see that we are carrying the heavy burden of sin. To realize that without Jesus we are all bent over by the sheer weight of our sinfulness. We all are in need of a Savior.
Regardless of how things may look on the surface of our lives, the truth is that we all are on a road that ends in desperation and despair until we turn to the one who died for our sins, to the only one who can take away this burden. And to all who know they are carrying this heavy burden of sin, Jesus offers a wonderful invitation:
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
The good news for all who know they are burdened is that Jesus offers us rest. That’s why we are here, isn’t it? To find rest for our souls. To take his yoke upon us. To be forgiven our sins, and helped on our way. The reason we are here today – the reason the Holy Spirit has gathered us together in worship – is not so that we can be like the leader of the synagogue. And keep up false appearances. And delude ourselves by thinking that we can earn God’s righteousness by keeping God’s law.
The reason we are here is to be reminded, and to admit, to confess, that we are bent over with sin, and quite unable to stand up straight. We are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. We are here to admit that; to confess that. We have come to this place, in obedience to God’s command, to keep the Sabbath day holy. And to confess that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. And, yes, to hear those wonderful words reminding us that Jesus forgives us all our sins. We have been set from that burden, forevermore.
We have come to this place today, not because we get it all right, but because we too often get it all wrong. We have come to this place today, not because we are strong, but because we are weak and in need of saving. We have come to this place today, not because we have no burdens in our lives, but because our burden is so great. We have come to this place today, not to be like the leader of the synagogue, and stand proudly before the Lord today; but to be like the woman bent over, in need of help and healing from the Lord today. We have come to this place today, to be strengthened by God’s word, to be nourished by God’s meal, and to find in the Lord rest for our weary souls.
“O day of rest and gladness,” we shall soon sing, “O day of joy and light, O balm for care and sadness, most beautiful and bright: on you the high and lowly, through ages joined in tune, sing ‘Holy, holy, holy,’ to the great God triune.” Amen.