Text Study for Luke 13:10-17 (Part Three)

Perhaps it’s useful to remember that this section of the Lukan account focuses on telling time. “You hypocrites!” Jesus scoffs in Luke 12:56 (NRSV), “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” Sabbath is, among other things, a way of marking time. But what kind of time is this Sabbath in our text? That’s an important part of the debate between Jesus and the leader of the synagogue.

We find the commandment on Sabbath keeping in Exodus 20:8-11. There it is rooted in the Creation account. On the seventh day, the Sabbath, all work shall cease. That commandment applies from the king to the cows. In the Creation account, the Lord rested on the seventh day. In that way, the Lord both blessed the day with significance and set it apart with holy purpose. In the Exodus telling, the Sabbath is about holiness – as is the balance of Exodus and Leviticus to follow.

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We find the commandment on Sabbath keeping as well in Deuteronomy 5:12-15. On the one hand, the command is that all work shall cease. On the other hand, there is no mention of the Creation calendar in this text. Deuteronomy affirms that the Sabbath is the seventh day of the week. However, the reason for keeping the Sabbath is to remember God’s mighty act of liberation from slavery. “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day” (Deut. 5:15, NRSV).

Both Sabbath texts set aside the Sabbath as “holy.” The Exodus text calls Israel to “remember” (Hebrew: zqr) the day by practicing it. The Deuteronomy text calls Israel to “observe” (Hebrew: shmr) the day by practicing it. The two verbs overlap to some degree in meaning but are not synonyms. Is this difference in emphasis part of the Torah debate that is happening in our text? Does the synagogue leader focus in the ritual remembering of the Sabbath while Jesus focuses on the liberating celebration of the Sabbath? I think that is the case.

If we want to point to these differences of emphasis in our preaching, I think it’s important to note that one focus is not “better” than another. That’s not the point I would want to make here. Both themes exist in the Hebrew bible. It’s frequent for us Christian preachers to slide into an easy and unconscious supersessionism that makes a “Jewish” focus on ritual bad and a Christian focus on liberation good.

That’s a simple and self-serving misinterpretation, and we should avoid that trap. More than that, I think that in every controversy story we should be at pains to point out that Jesus is presenting one alternative interpretation in a Torah debate. It’s not necessary, as Amy-Jill Levine often says, to make Jesus look good by making Jews look bad. So, Christian preacher friends, let’s tread carefully and exercise a wise touch in this matter.

I don’t think the issue is “ritual bad/liberation good.” The focus on this section of the Lukan account is on knowing what time it is. Since his inaugural sermon in the Nazareth synagogue in Luke 4, Jesus has proclaimed that his time is liberation time. He has come, he says, “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:19, NRSV). That is the year of Jubilee. That is the age of release from debt and bondage. That is the time for the restoration of all things as God intends. That’s what time it is when Jesus is about.

“There’s plenty of time on the other days of the week for curing illnesses,” the synagogue leader declares. In fact, he says, six days out of seven this activity is permitted. But not today. This is the Sabbath. The Lord labored six days and rested. Let us remember the Sabbath and honor it by doing precisely the same thing. It is time to maintain our holy boundaries and remember who we are as God’s people. It is time to stick to the script and not to experiment on the edges.

Jesus disagrees with this reading of the times. Luke 12 begins with a warning against the “yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy” (Luke 12:1c, NRSV). “Have a care for yourselves,” Jesus urges the disciples, “against the yeast (which is hypocrisy) of the Pharisees” (my translation). It seems throughout this section that the hypocrisy in question is an intentional misreading of the times in order to serve the interests of the status quo of power. Remembering this can help us to read and interpret our text today.

In other words, it’s not that careful attention to Sabbath rest is bad or beside the point. However, when the requirements of the Law are used to keep people in bondage, that’s a bad reading of the time (and of the Sabbath text). When Jesus is about, it’s liberation time. That may be hard to see at first, as in the following parables of the mustard seed and the yeast. But it doesn’t take a graduate degree in theology to see what’s going on – if only we are willing to look beyond our own privilege and position.

Our text is filled with liberation language. “Woman, you are released from your illness,” Jesus says. The ox and the donkey – who are also commanded to rest on the Sabbath (in the Exodus reading) are loosed from their bonds and led to water. Satan had bound the woman for eighteen years, and now she is to be loosed from the bonds (the cords or ropes) that held her. Jesus comes to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free (see Luke 4:18, NRSV). We get to see this in real time in our text.

When Jesus is about, it’s liberation time. This isn’t about denying or denigrating the need for Sabbath rest. However, it would seem that, for Jesus, a Sabbath rest will always be disturbed as long as any remain in bondage on that day. Another of the themes in this section of the Lukan account is that the right time is the time for action. Be dressed and ready for the moment the Lord comes. Don’t be caught napping, even at midnight. Don’t let the fear of conflict slow you down. Don’t pretend that you’re less of a sinner than others whose time had come.

Now is the time. Now is the time for liberation. Now is the time when Jesus is about, whether we recognize it or not.

There is a sense in the text of a sort of “one time offer” when it comes to Jesus and his liberation. Yet, let’s remember what comes immediately before our reading. A fig tree has not produced. Give it some more time, the gardener says. Let me work with it. Something’s not quite right. There’s still hope for life and growth. Let’s wait and see if the right time comes along. When it does, then we’ll act with dispatch.

Thus, there is a persistent patience in the presence of Jesus. When Jesus is about, it’s liberation time. And Jesus doesn’t go away, so his release is always on offer. The key is for me to see what’s happening.

I was working in the yard yesterday morning. A squirrel was berating one of the dogs from a tree. The squirrel was not retreating, not matter how the dog (and I) encouraged it to move along. I was puzzled by the persistence. Then I saw the baby squirrel cowering on the ground, unable to climb back into the tree. I hadn’t seen the baby for several minutes, so I completely misread the situation.

I took the baby in a fully gloved hand and put it on the tree. In seconds, the mother came and comforted the little one. In a few moments more, the mother took the baby by the scruff of the neck. She carried her child (fully half her size) across the top of our wooden fence and into her tree nest. She covered about a hundred feet in the journey. Maternal rescue successful.

It’s a homely metaphor, but it works for me. When Jesus is about, it’s liberation time. Jesus is always about and persists in seeking to release us from whatever may bind us. We’re often not willing or able to see what’s really going on and where Jesus is trying to free us. We’re more concerned about keeping things familiar and stable. So, we end up resisting the release. Let’s pray for the gift of time telling so that we can see what’s really going on.

And then perhaps we can better see that Jesus comes for the liberation of all Creation – healing and wholeness, peace and justice, compassion and community. Our concern for the status quo – for our power, privilege, position, and property – gets in the way of our seeing. We will need to release what binds us in order to be released from what binds us. The woman was healed. The important question is whether the ruler of the synagogue found his own kind of liberation.

Text Study for Luke 13:10-17 (Part Two)

First, a correction to the previous post. The healing of the man with dropsy in in Luke 14, not in Luke 6. While there are parallels between the healing in Luke 6 and our text, the parallels are more pronounced in the Luke 14 text. In fact, it would appear that the healing of the woman in Luke 13 and that of the man in Luke 14 create a small inclusio.

If this is the case, then the material between the two healing stories offers some interpretive clues for both of the healing stories. And the healing stories create both framework and interpretive context for the material between them. I’m going to go with the assumption that the Lukan author has created a small framework here for the listeners.

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As the Lukan story was told aloud, it would only be a few minutes of listening from the one story to the next. Thus, the parallels would be far more obvious to those listeners than to those of us who read or hear the text piecemeal in our lectionary schedule.

The settings of the two healings are different. However, the content of the controversy is virtually the same. We see in this repetition the Lukan tendency to double stories so that we have a female lead in the one scene and a male lead in the other. The controversy is about whether healing on the Sabbath is permitted by the Torah.

While Jesus heals the woman on the Sabbath in a synagogue, he heals the man in the house of a Pharisee on a day that we can assume was not the Sabbath. In the woman’s story, the question is pressed by the ruler of the synagogue. In the man’s story, Jesus pushes the question toward his host and his host’s colleagues. In the woman’s story, the healing precedes the controversy. In the man’s story, the controversy climaxes in the healing.

These small differences give a sort of chiastic structure to the two healings when placed side by side. This is further evidence that the Lukan author intends for the one healing to lead into a sort of theological discourse, and for the other healing to lead out of it. Despite the differences, Jesus’ response to the controversy is remarkably consistent.

In each case, Jesus reasons from a lesser case to a greater case. You certainly feed or rescue your livestock (or a child), whether it is the Sabbath or not. Should you not then rescue this woman or this man as well, whether it is the Sabbath or not? In each case the opponents do not answer the question, thus rendering it rhetorical. The answer, it would seem, is obvious. Of course, we would effect the feeding or rescue, regardless of the day. And, of course, we would effect the healing, regardless of the day.

The issue is that the religious leaders know what needs to be done. Yet, they put other needs and priorities higher than the rescue and release of the suffering children of Abraham. Perhaps you noticed the label “hypocrites” jumping out from our text again this week. As I discussed previously, this accusatory naming points to the pretense of Jesus’ opponents. Don’t pretend that you are unable to tell the time, he argued last week. And don’t pretend that you are confused about what needs to be done for the suffering, he argues this week.

That’s the hypocrisy that receives criticism throughout this part of the Lukan account. Jesus’ accusation is heightened in our text this week. It is perhaps subtle, but the difference is there. In Luke 13:15a, we read, “But the Lord answered him and said, ‘Hypocrites!” Up until that verse, our text refers to “Jesus” in the narrative. But the accusation of hypocrisy comes from “the Lord.” That raises the stakes of what’s happening here. I suspect that the Lukan author would like us to think about the words of Luke 6:5 where Jesus tells his opponents that “the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

I’m not sure we should judge the ruler of the synagogue too harshly. Rather, I suspect that the Lukan author wishes for us to identify, at least to a degree, with that character. I think the character is legitimately concerned about faithful practice and good order in the life of the synagogue.

It is, after all, only a few hours until sundown. Can’t the whole matter wait that long? If so, then there is no controversy. But throughout this section of the Lukan account, Jesus’ point is that matters of the Kin(g)dom of God will not wait and must not be put off for any reason. The ruler of the synagogue perhaps wishes to be more cautious, to slow down and take all the details into consideration before acting with such haste.

I have made many of the worst mistakes of my life, in church and out, by acting in haste and without due consideration. I have spent hours in meetings with church councils, especially in conflict situations, encouraging everyone to take a breath, to sleep on it, to give it some thought, to spend time in prayer, to reflect and discern – to just slow down, for God’s sake! If only I had taken my own counsel on numerous occasions. There are times when the best advice is, “Don’t just do something; sit there!”

Yet, that’s not the case here. When we actually know what needs doing for the sake of the Kin(g)dom, the best advice, it would seem, is “Don’t just sit there; do something!” Well, more to the point, “Do the right thing!” That’s easier when the “right thing” is a clear and unambiguous choice.

Our anti-racism book group continues to read Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? She has a massively informative chapter on affirmative action. The chapter deals not only with the history and structure of affirmative action programs in the United States. She details studies that explore how and when employment discrimination is most likely to happen within process-based affirmative action programs.

Process-based affirmative action programs, where the emphasis is on “equal opportunity,” tend not to produce any improvements in equal outcomes. We White people should be clear that we cannot be “color-blind” or “non-racist” in our interactions with people of color. Even those most firmly committed to cultural values of fairness and justice for all still act based on unconscious bias. If you’ve never taken one of Harvard University’s “Implicit Association Tests,” take ten minutes and find out the deep truth of unconscious bias.

Tatum describes studies with interesting conclusions. “When the norms for appropriate, non-discriminatory behavior are clear and unambiguous,” Tatum writes, people committed to racial equality “’do the right thing,’ because to behave otherwise would threaten the nonprejudiced self-image they hold.” But when the “right thing is not so clear and unambiguous,” Tatum continues, “or if an action can be justified on the basis of some factor other than race, racial bias will reveal itself” (page 221).

This is why we White people have to be so alert to efforts to “change the subject” in conversations about race. If “the issue” is something other than race – class, economics, ethnicity, politics, etc. – then we will likely succumb to the temptation to make choices based on our (largely unconscious, I hope) bias. And we will feel justified in those choices because we have reasonable bases that happen to suit our preference for White privilege. “Social science research is also conclusive,” Tatum writes, “that, while explicit bias is infrequent, implicit bias (automatic race preference) is pervasive and contributes to the racial discrimination against Black Americans” (page 225).

I don’t think the ruler of the synagogue hated disabled women. Instead, he may well have had what were in his mind legitimate conflicting interests. Given that ambiguity, the ruler of the synagogue went with what suited his interests and agendas – maintaining the status quo and supporting what was, for him, the traditional understanding of how to apply Sabbath Torah.

We (church people) can find all sorts of rationales to maintain our own status quo and sustain our own privilege and power. We can dither and delay all day in order to maintain our own comfort and the niceness of our privileged communities. Most of us do that, not in order to be cruel, but rather in order (we think) “to do the right thing.” In what we experience as ambiguous situations, we choose what is safe and selfish.

Jesus declares that there is no ambiguity or uncertainty. The suffering woman is the priority. The man with dropsy is the priority. That’s how the values of the Kin(g)dom work. If our discernment is in line with the Lord’s priorities, we are less likely to make unconsciously biased choices. If our discernment is not clear in that regard, we are more likely to cooperate in the bondage to Satan that describes the lives of many of our human siblings.

Text Study for Luke 13:10-17 (Part One)

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.

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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).