What we have here in the 13th chapter of Luke is a healing story. One of many. There are 25 different healing stories in the gospels. Now I know you’ve read and heard these stories of Jesus healing people many times. In some ways, they’re all alike – a person with a physical or mental or spiritual defect comes to Jesus, and Jesus heals the person. It’s as if the gospel writers want to take us by the hand and say to us, “Come along with us, let us show you what Jesus did. Look over there at that man; he was blind, and Jesus gave him back his sight. And here is a little boy who had a terrible fever; his father thought he was going to die, but Jesus healed him. And there goes the fellow whose mind was so darkened that he used to run around unclothed, cutting himself with stones. Look at him, he’s been cured, made whole; he’s been given back his life. Isn’t Jesus amazing, wonderful?”
Stories of Jesus healing people, wonderful stories, each one so similar, and yet each one also unique, one of a kind. For instance, this story about Jesus healing the bent-over woman.
It begins with the statement that Jesus was teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath. Which means that there were people either sitting or standing there listening to what he had to say. How large a crowd we aren’t told, but remembering that more than 5,000 people had earlier assembled to hear him on the mountainside, we can surmise that the building was probably wall-to-wall with people.
So Jesus is teaching. And while he is teaching, he sees someone. “Well, of course,” you say. “If he’s looking at his listeners, he obviously sees them.”
But no, I don’t mean he sees in the sense of just seeing a person in front of him. I mean he notices this person. It’s a woman, and Jesus notices her.
What does it mean to be noticed? Sometimes it’s good to be noticed, isn’t it? Sometimes you want to be noticed, like when you’re in school and the teacher asks a question, and you know the answer, you’re positive you know the answer, and you raise your hand, which is your way of saying, “I know the answer, teacher! Please call on me!” You want to be noticed.
Or maybe you’re at the ball game, and the person operating the TV camera scans the crowd and the people around you all turn toward the camera. What do they do? They wave their hands. Why? I don’t know, maybe it’s just a human instinct to want to be noticed. “Don’t look over there; look over here. Look at me. Pay attention to me.” Maybe it’s all a throwback to when we were very small and we were learning to do new things, like catch a ball or swing on a swing by ourselves, and we called to our parents, “Look, Mommy. Look, Daddy. Look at me!” It’s seem to be born in us, this need to have someone whose attention we crave notice us, see us, affirm us, recognize that we are important, special, unique.
But there are other times when you and I do not want to be noticed. You’re driving to the store, let’s say, and your mind is preoccupied by something or other, and you pull out in front of another driver and make him hit the brakes hard. You’re almost afraid to look in the rear-view mirror because you’re afraid you will see an unappealing gesture directed at you, the guilty one. You wish you could disappear. Sometimes being noticed is the last thing you want.
Jesus notices this woman. She is bent over. We are told that she had been suffering from this infirmity for eighteen years. An “evil spirit” was responsible, one translation says. Another translator uses the words, “a spirit of weakness.” Can you imagine what it would be like to be unable to stand up straight for eighteen years?
In some Bible studies I’ve done, I’ve asked half the participants to get out of their chairs and to bend over at the waist and to stay bent over for several minutes, while the other half of the group remains standing upright. At first the bent-over people are laughing at themselves and at each other in this strange position. But after a minute or so, it isn’t funny anymore. After another minute or two, they start to get hostile: “enough already, let us straighten up.” Afterwards, when I ask them to describe the experience, they say things like, “It’s hard to communicate, hard to hear, hard to speak. All you can see is other people’s feet.” If nothing else, this little exercise gives them a great appreciation for something most of us take for granted – the ability to stand up straight.
Jesus sees the bent-over woman. But then he does something most of us would not do. He focuses his attention on her. You and I, if we see somebody who is obviously handicapped, do just the opposite. We look away because we don’t want to be impolite and stare. And, of course, it is rude to keep staring at somebody who looks different. We teach our children not to do it. But this quickly looking away that we do is, in its own way, terribly hurtful. It makes the one who is being looked-away-from feel not worthy of attention, not of value, almost invisible. We don’t intend that, of course. But the result is the same, whether we intend it or not.
Jesus is teaching, remember? And right in the middle of his teaching, when he sees the bent-over woman, he interrupts his lesson and calls her over to him. That’s what the text says, which means that he not only sees her, he focuses his attention on her, right there in front of everyone.
Now, I don’t know how she felt when he did that, but I wonder if it didn’t make her very nervous. I wonder if she wanted to be noticed. She was used to being invisible. She was a woman with no name. When the people in her town saw her coming down the street, all bent over, neck craned upwards trying to see, they didn’t say, “Here comes Martha or Elizabeth.” They said, “Here comes that poor woman who is all bent over.” That’s how she is known – not by her vocation or her family. She is known as the crippled woman, the handicapped woman, the one who looks different from other people, the one whose identity is so wrapped up her in condition that she has no other name except “bent-over woman.” 1
Which, let’s face it, is how you and I identify some people – the retarded, the disfigured, the drunk, the ex-convict. We give them a name which is not really a name but a label.
And, to get more a bit more personal, what is your name, what label do people stick on you? How do people identify you: kid, teenager, single, divorcee, step-parent, widow, retired, old person? And what is it that is bending you over: your job, your studies, worries about your health, trying to keep your marriage together, trying to cope with loneliness, trying to be a parent and still maintain your sanity? There are so many ways life has of bending us down, breaking us down.
Jesus sees the bent-over woman. He calls her to him, and he says to her, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” He places his hands on her. And she stands up straight and begins praising God.
And when the big cheese of the synagogue gets all bent out of shape about how inappropriate it is that this healing should take place on the sabbath, for heaven’s sake, our Lord won’t stand for it. He has no patience with those who are more concerned about legal niceties than they are about relieving human suffering. “You hypocrites!” he says. “You give water to your work animals on the sabbath. 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?”
Did you hear the name Jesus gives to the bent-over woman? He calls her “a daughter of Abraham.” She’s the only person in the whole Bible to be called by that name. Abraham, of course, was the great father of faith. He was the one who, many years before, received God’s promise that a great nation would be created out of his descendants, a people through whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed. This woman, says Jesus, is a daughter of Abraham, no less. She isn’t the crippled woman, she isn’t a nobody. She shall not be shunted aside, given a label to keep her in her place. No, she is a beloved child of Abraham. She is part of God’s great plan of salvation and blessing for the whole world.
Isn’t this Jesus just too much? Love just pours out of him, almost as if he can’t help it. He can’t help noticing the invisible ones, can’t help loving them, can’t help healing them. In the case of the bent-over woman, Jesus reaches out to heal without even being asked. He sees her, sees not just the obvious thing – that she cannot stand up straight. He sees whatever spirit has been keeping her life bent. He sees the totality of her suffering: the humiliation of her ailment, the way it has set her apart into a prison of loneliness. He sees how other people look away when she comes into their line of vision. He sees the emotional as well as the physical pain she suffers. He sees the whole picture, sees that she is too timid or too afraid or too hopeless to ask for healing.
Just as he sees the same things about each of us, sees deep into our need, sees what sometimes we cannot even see ourselves, that our anger at other people is so often really anger at ourselves, that we’re often afraid to look inside ourselves because we know there’s a lot of garbage there that we’d rather not deal with. He sees that the good front we sometimes put on when we’re out in public, even here in church, is often a cover-up for the hurts we have suffered over the years – the rejections, the disappointments, the betrayals, the failures, the losses, the fears. He sees the ugly stuff inside us – ugly things others have done to us, ugly things we have done to ourselves, ugly things we have done to others, ugly things that were nobody’s fault, but just happened.
He sees it all and, just as he did to the bent-over woman, he calls us over to him. He says to us, “Come here to me. Let me put my hands on you and heal you. Let me take all that is bent and crooked in your life and make it straight and strong. Let me wipe away all the ugliness inside you. You are a child of Abraham, you are God’s child, you are loved without limit, without reservation, without condition.
“I love you,” Jesus says. “I love you. I love you. I love you.”
Kenneth L. Gibble is a writer and instructor in preaching and worship for the Susquehanna Vally Satellite of Bethany Theological Seminary.
1. See William Willimon, Pulpit Resource, Vol. 26, No. 3, 32.