Text Study for Luke 13:10-17
This reading has a number of possible wordplays and similar sounding words in the Greek text. It’s a challenge to capture those nuances in an English translation, but I’ll try to include some of those features in my initial discussion of the reading.
Some of those verbal cues are within the reading, and some are beyond the text. For example, does it mean anything that the number “eighteen” shows up in our text and in the preceding verses? In Luke 13:4 we read about eighteen construction workers who were killed when the Tower of Siloam collapsed during some kind of renovation or repair. In our text, the woman has been bent over for eighteen years as her physical structure is collapsing.
Levine and Witherington briefly discuss this connection in their commentary. One connection they make between the texts is “that neither the people killed in the accident nor the woman are to be seen as punished for sin.” If that connection is indeed to be found in the text, then it is another reason why the woman should not have to endure her physical bondage a second longer.
In addition, the number itself may have symbolic significance. Within the Hebrew numbering system, “eighteen” can be divided into the Hebrew letters that spell out the word “life.” Levine and Witherington note that “Both the people killed in the accident and the woman bent over are lacking full ‘life.’” The woman is restored – an outcome of repentance, which is the theme of the previous pericope – and returned to full life.
There is some tension in this reading which may be unpacked. If the woman is not guilty of some sin that has produced her suffering, then what is the connection to repentance? If repentance is not so much feeling bad for personal sins as it is turning (or returning) to life, then the interpretation stands up. And repentance as a purely personal matter is a Western and individualist construction, not a Jewish one. One is always returned to life in the context of a community. This certainly happens to the woman in our text today.
In this regard, I would commend the most recent “The Bible for Normal People” podcast, featuring Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg. In that podcast, she discusses this communal nature of the notion of repentance within Jewish scriptural interpretation and theology.
The description of the woman’s ailment in Luke 13:11 is worth a few moments of attention. On the one hand, the woman is bent over or bent double with her ailment. As Hawkeye Pierce describes his own back pain in an old M.A.S.H. episode, she was becoming a human question mark. The “bent over” condition has the sense of being bent back toward oneself (sugkuptousa). The opposite of that condition is the ability to straighten oneself out again (anakupsai).
I can’t say that Luke intends for the woman to serve as a metaphor or allegory for our bondage to sin. Yet, when I read the text with these words in mind, I can’t help but think of the confessional words in our Lutheran liturgy. We are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. We are bent double with the burden of our brokenness and can’t straighten ourselves out.
I don’t want to reduce the woman in the text to an object lesson. Nor do I want to steal her body or her suffering for the sake of clever allegory. Yet, the vocabulary suggests to me that Luke wants us to have such thoughts at least in the backs of our minds when we read this text. It’s even more obvious when one reads the text aloud in Greek and begins to hear the similarities of sounds in the reading.
Our text is labelled most often as a healing story. It certainly is that and can be paired with the healing of the man with dropsy in Luke 6. Yet, it must also be regarded as an exorcism. The woman suffers from her illness due to a “spirit of weakness.” Jesus uses the language of exorcism in the healing. “Woman, be released from your weakness.” Be loosed from the spirit that has held you in bondage for these eighteen years.
It also has elements of a call story. Jesus sees the woman and calls her over to him. I have to wonder why Jesus couldn’t have wandered over to her, stooped and struggling as she was. But in call stories, people come to Jesus in response to his invitation. The woman appears to do the same. When she comes, she is restored to full life and rejoices in God. These are features of other call stories in the Lukan account. And this dynamic will reach a climax in the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19.
When Jesus lays hands on the woman, she becomes erect once more. The verb is related to the Greek word, anorthos. The woman becomes “upright” once again. Inside the verb is the word that gives us terms like orthodoxy (right believing) and orthopraxy (right practicing). Again, I’m not sure what the Lukan author intends with this vocabulary, but the possibilities are tantalizing, to say the least. Not only does the woman now stand erect, but she is upright. Is that only in physical terms, or is there a moral and spiritual dimension to this restoration as well?
Shall I as a preacher surrender to the seduction of allegory in this story? I don’t have that settled in my homiletical conscience. I don’t want to reduce this suffering and resilient woman to a theological or rhetorical cipher. This is a real human being with real hurt, a real story, and real healing. If I’m not careful, I can join the head of the synagogue in making her a mere point of argument. I can lose touch with the embodiment of the story.
Yet, her story can be my story to some degree perhaps. How many of us are bent double by the weight of our struggles – physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually? Many of us, I am sure. And how we long to stand upright again and see something other than our neighbors’ belt buckles. Yet, we cannot do it ourselves. Further and further we bend, disappearing from sight and significance, gradually receding into the lonely background of isolation.
Yet, there is one who comes to straighten us out, to set us straight, to make us right.
I find myself getting anxious about the tyranny of normalcy at this moment. Whenever we approach a healing text for proclamation, that’s an important consideration. We can easily communicate that Jesus’ goal was to restore the women to some sort of physical ideal – in this case, standing upright. Thus, those of us already in such a condition can feel like we’ve achieved the ideal and can rejoice that the woman has been freed to join us.
The distance from that interpretation to condemning all who are “abnormal” is very short indeed.
Instead, we must find ourselves in the company of that woman. We are all in bondage in various ways, and all in need of being straightened – not simply to comply with some abstract ideal of normalcy but rather to be restored to the fullness of who each of us has been created to be as bearers of the Divine Image. It’s a homiletical tightrope, but I think we must walk it.
References and Resources
Levine and Witherington, The Gospel of Luke, 2018 (pages 364-365).