Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.
When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.
But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”
But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! 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?”
When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.
I wrote a reflection on this passage for my church’s newsletter this week, and I thought I’d share a longer version of it here:
I’ve been blown away by the stories we’ve heard these last couple Sunday evenings. One of the themes I’ve heard again and again is a longing for—and a great joy when we experience—a kind of Christianity that is more concerned with love than with rules and regulations. Many of us have spent time in religious communities that were perhaps a little too caught up in their own rules. Perhaps some religious leaders made us feel like there was a certain list of things to do (or not do) in order to be right with God and respected in the community.
The synagogue ruler in our story from the gospel of Luke was one of these leaders. Jesus cures a woman from an ailment that literally, physically caused her body to be bent over for eighteen years. The appropriate communal response would be joy, delight, wonder, celebration. Throwing a big party. Praising God, as the woman does (v. 13). Rejoicing with those who rejoice (Romans 12:15, 1 Cor 12:26).
Instead, this particular religious leader is indignant (v. 14). He’s displeased. He’s angry. He’s pissed because Jesus didn’t follow the rules. He misses the wonder of a sacred moment of healing because it didn’t fit his prior expectation of what holiness looks like.
The synagogue leader, then, instead of addressing Jesus directly, speaks to the crowd. He tells them to come to be healed on the other six days, not on the Sabbath. It’s as if he’s blaming the woman who was cured, trying to make her feel ashamed for her own healing.
And she didn’t even do anything. She didn’t talk to Jesus, grab onto his cloak, shout at him, fall on her knees before him, or do any of the other things people often do in other gospel stories when they want Jesus to notice them. She was just there (v. 11). Jesus was the one who initiated with her. He saw her, called her over, and told her, you are set free (v. 12).
The rule about not working on the Sabbath is important to the religious leader. But perhaps it’s important for the wrong reasons. Perhaps in trying so hard to follow all the religious rules, he’s missing the point of them all. He’s missing the point of Sabbath—a time of restoration and healing.
On the Sabbath, as Jesus points out, even the most rule-abiding religious leaders would not hesitate to do what is necessary for the wellbeing of one of their oxen or donkeys (v. 15). Just so, Jesus does not hesitate to do what was necessary for the wellbeing of the bent-over woman. The analogy is even clearer in the Greek: the same Greek word is used for loosing or untying the ox from the manger in v. 15 and for loosing or untying the woman from her ailment in v. 16. (A related word is also used in v. 12 to say that the woman was released from her ailment.)
I like this image of loosing or untying—as a donkey is loosed so he can go take a drink, and as a woman is loosed from her bent-over-ness. The word unbound—also the title of Tarana Burke’s memoir about starting the Me Too Movement— comes to mind as well. Jesus unbound this woman. Perhaps this is one image that can help us better picture what liberation can look like.
Sometimes ideas like justice and liberation can seem a little vague. What do they actually look like? Sometimes, at least, they look like loosing, like untying. They look like people who have been bound for many long years becoming unbound. Standing up straight. Walking with the confidence of a beloved child of God, whether or not the world around them affirms this reality. Finding spaces where this reality is affirmed.
As a community, we can cultivate liberating spaces where we unbind one another. Many of us have been bent over by spirits of white supremacy, patriarchy, homophobia, materialism, greed, selfishness, narcissism, toxic individualism. The good news is that Jesus is here to untie us, to set us free.
Sometimes we wonder where God is in this world. I think God is wherever liberation is happening. Where there is curing, unbinding, healing—that’s where God is. Where there is beloved community, that’s where God is. Religious rules optional.
What does the metaphor of untying or unbinding make you think of? What other images might help us understand what liberation looks like?