Sunday 25 August
Crippled by religion ©Sue Grimmett ‘It is such a privilege to be embodied’ writes the late John O’Donohue.
I wonder how much we think about our bodies, about the connection between our body, mind and soul, and about how your body expresses your being.
It is through our bodies that we find a home in life, and it is in and through our bodies that your soul becomes visible…real…both for you and for others. So often our bodies yield an insight into our souls; a ‘mirror where the secret world of the soul comes to expression.’1 For a religion which centres on the transformative event of the incarnation, the Christian religion remains remarkably shy of the body and what it reveals when we allow it to communicate.
John O’Donohue goes on to write that ‘Everything in the world of soul has a deep desire and longing for visible form; this is exactly where the power of imagination lives.’2
Jesus was the master of making the world of the soul visible in his embodied life. Too often we read stories at face value and do not look at what the tableaux of these gospel scenes reveal about the souls of the individuals encountered as well as the souls of the communities in which these stories are set, particularly the religious communities.
It would be easy to skim over today’s gospel reading as just another healing story. When we bundle all the healing stories together in our minds we can miss the imaginative power behind each encounter and the story each particular body is telling. Jesus acts in such a way as to make things of the soul visible, creatively revealing truths about our beliefs and relationships that may be hidden in plain sight.
Today’s story is just such an enacted parable.
In our medically oriented culture, we may find yourself wondering just what was the nature of the ailment facing the woman who had been crippled for eighteen years. Did she have disc degeneration or osteoporosis?
But the world of Jesus, and the narratives of the gospel, are not medically oriented, but theologically and spiritually oriented. The miraculous cure of the bent-over woman is meant to be understood in all the symbol laden language of such a spiritual world view. The version we have simply says the woman has ‘a spirit which had crippled her’ but in the original Greek it says she was crippled by a “spirit of weakness.” This spirit had made her weak, leaving her feeling cowed down and invisible.. of no account…diminishing her personhood. And where does this spirit come from, or what is its cause? For that I think we need to look at the context in which this story occurs.
Jesus is teaching- where? In the Synagogue and on the sabbath. Both the place and the time indicate that we are in a story dominated by religious symbolism and law. The woman’s condition symbolically renders the effect of the religion on this woman and others like her. What Jesus calls out over and again in the gospels are religious systems that do not set people free but rather exclude and oppress. Jesus says earlier in Luke’s Gospel, “For you load people with burdens hard to bear and you yourselves do not lift a finger to ease them.” (Luke 11.46). This afflicted woman would have been one among many who would have been so easily left to be invisible in that society; a woman and so subordinate to men, unclean because of her disability, and probably aged, poor and alone. The judgement of her religious community had oppressed her. She was bent over, unable to see others and be seen- eye to eye, face to face.
The text also tells us that this affliction had lasted 18 years. Numbers never seem to be insignificant or meaningless in scripture, and earlier in this same chapter of Luke the number 18 has already appeared; Jesus speaks of the 18 who were killed when a tower fell on them. There he is teaching that what happened to them was not because these victims of a random accident were any worse sinners than any others. Remember in the 1st century worldview any affliction or tragedy meant that you are out of favour with God. Jesus is teaching in that passage, and then with this act of healing, that God is not a God who makes humanity suffer for its failures but rather is a God of life and wholeness.
But Jesus doesn’t just heal. He does something far more important still. Where this woman has been overlooked, he sees her and draws her into full visibility in this scene in the synagogue. In doing this he is breaking the taboo of men talking to women and touching women, openly defying possible contamination from her Satan-induced crippled condition. And Jesus uses the language of the demonic to describe her affliction saying “Satan had bound her for eighteen long years.” With all the hundreds of years of mythological construction around this figure of Satan, it is hard to get past our visions of a red man with a pointy tail and a pitchfork. But I think it is clear in this context how Jesus understands the idea of the Satan which is not an individual supernatural being but rather an oppressive power rooted in human communal life.
When Jesus heals this woman, allowing her to stand up straight, look others in the eye and praise God, the backlash is swift and loud. The religious leaders are indignant. Jesus is breaking the rules- it is the sabbath. This reaction reveals the spirit that is found in this religious system and it is a spirit not of love and liberation but one which places burdens on people that are difficult to bear. Anything which creates and sustains oppression and exclusion within human community, whether religious or otherwise, I think Jesus would call out as satanic. Where is such exclusion today? On this day of prayer for refugees, I think we may see the systems that ignore, punish and scapegoat some of the world’s most vulnerable people as satanic. We might point to the violence of colonisation and the generations of trauma on First Nations peoples. I think the religious judgment around issues of sexuality and gender are another way that we can dehumanise and load people with burdens too difficult to bear. Such systems invariably impute guilt to those who suffer and would place them outside the compassion of God. Jesus in today’s Gospel brings these invisible powers to visibility as he sees, touches and liberates this woman.
So Jesus asks, “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?’” The leader of the synagogue had made his argument sound reasonable. He was not, after all, forbidding the healing but just following the law of Moses that called for total rest on the sabbath. The woman could, after all, come back on another day. But Jesus calls out the hypocrisy of such self-justification, reminding them that the law is created as gift of God for human flourishing, not to be a vehicle that will bind and oppress, judging and excluding some from full inclusion in the family of God.
How important it is, that we understand that the way we think about God creates the way we think about ourselves and one another. These ideas hit the ground in a very incarnational way, whether for good or for ill. Who we think God is determines how we treat our neighbour. The God of this synagogue leader cared more about the rules and maintaining control and purity than about releasing this woman to stand tall and be seen. But Jesus enacts through this healing what God first instructed Moses to tell Pharoah: “Let my people go!” Sometimes what we need to be set free from is our religion. There is a popular meme that reads, “If your religion requires you to hate someone, you need a new religion.” I think you could also say that if your religion requires you to judge, exclude, ignore, look down upon or oppress, then it doesn’t look like the way of Jesus.
Do we believe in a God who is still calling, “Let my people go?”
As Jesus revealed this liberating spirit through his actions, we are also called to step into the great and holy adventure of incarnation. May we enflesh the spirit of Jesus; seeing the downtrodden, lifting up the lowly and setting the captive free, that our lives may be an embodied story of the goodness of God and the liberating power of love. +Amen.
1 John O’Donohue, Anam Cara: Spiritual Wisdom from the Celtic World, Bantam Books, UK: 1997, p 73 2 Ibid, p 76