It’s an inspirational story. A woman, physically crippled by a spiritual illness, has been unable to stand up straight for eighteen years. She comes to her local synagogue to hear the words of a rabbi who has recently become famous: Jesus of Nazareth. But this woman gets something more than an inspiring sermon. Jesus calls her over and says, “woman, you are set free from your ailment.” He lays his lands on her, and immediately she stands up straight and begins praising God.
It’s an inspirational story. But not a straightforward one.
First, there’s a problem with the local leader. He decided to allow Jesus, a traveling preacher, to speak in his community. And he got more than he bargained for.
I talked last week about the controversy going on in the first century of the common era about Sabbath observance. Rabbis of that time period disagreed about the correct way to keep the commandment to rest on the seventh day of the week. It may be hard for us to imagine, but this was a hot button topic.
As a guest, Jesus really should have been more sensitive about this hot button topic of Sabbath observance. But for all his many gifts, Jesus was not really great at dealing carefully with sensitive issues. Not only does Jesus speak in direct contradiction to the teachings of this local rabbi; without hesitating, he actually performs a healing in the synagogue on the Sabbath. As a religious professional, I have to say – that was pretty rude.
Rudeness and religious controversy. That’s the first problem. And the second problem is: illness and healing.
As people of the book, we have to contend with conceptions of illness from the ancient near east, which are more than a little different than our own. In that time and place, people with various forms of physical and mental illness and disability were often assumed to be evil, sinful, or spiritually unclean. In this case, the author of the gospel describes the bent-over woman as “crippled by a spirit” and Jesus describes her as “bound by satan.”
The bible’s understanding of the root of illness and physical difference is problematic; and so is its depiction of healing. It’s just a little too easy. Jesus, in the gospels, seems capable of anything: restoring sight to the blind; curing epilepsy; stopping hemorrhages; even bringing people back from the dead. These acts are still almost impossible for our medical professionals, let alone our faith leaders. If this kind of healing is within God’s power, why wouldn’t God heal every illness, make all suffering cease?
It’s an inspirational story. But it’s carried out by an insensitive messiah, in a way that is hard for us to understand or believe. What can this story about a daughter of Abraham have to teach us?
At least two things. First: God is in the business of healing. And second, a corollary of the first: healing is holy work, appropriate for our holiest times and spaces.
As we try to carve out space for Sabbath in our lives, I hope we will accept these lessons. No, we cannot demand healing from God; for some reason, that is not how it works. And yet, the Sabbath may be a time in which we allow ourselves to become aware of the healing we need. The Sabbath may be a time in which we open our hearts to the possibility of healing.
God is in the business of healing. And healing is holy work, appropriate for our holiest times and spaces. Using the tools of words of prayer and touch, let us invite the power of God into our broken places, that we may be set free from every bondage. Amen.
Practice: Offer a Sabbath blessing to someone you love. If you are with them, place a hand on their head or shoulder, offering a prayer. Or, offer a silent blessing to someone at a distance; someone who has died; or even a stranger on the street. Here are two possibilities:
May God bless you and keep you. May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious unto you. May God look upon you with kindness and give you peace.
May you be safe. May you be content. May you be free from fear.
May you be peaceful. May you be healed. May you be a source of healing for others.