Only in Luke’s Gospel do we learn of the woman who was healed by Jesus after suffering from “a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years”, who was “bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight” (Luke 13:10–17). That’s the Gospel reading offered by the lectionary this coming Sunday.
The woman is bent over; as she encounters Jesus, he tells her that she is set free, and “immediately she stood up straight and began praising God”. This takes place “in one of the synagogues on the sabbath”—a place and a time that we often encounter Jesus in Luke’s narrative, an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us (Luke 1:1).
We find generalising statements to this effect early in Luke’s narrative; in Galilee, Jesus “began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone” (4:15) and “he continued proclaiming the message in the synagogues of Judea” (4:44; some early texts have what is more likely to have been the case, “in the synagogues of Galilee”).
There are specific instances where Jesus is in synagogues in Nazareth (4:16), in Capernaum (4:33), and somewhere else unidentified in Galilee (6:6). There is also the invitation to visit the house of the synagogue leader, also somewhere in Galilee, to heal his deceased daughter (8:41–42, 49–56), and the invitation to visit the house of the centurion, of whom the Jewish elders in Capernaum say, “he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us”, to heal his seriously ill slave (7:1–10).
Jesus, it is evident, had quite a lot to do with synagogues—the places of learning and fellowship, hospitality and prayer, within the culture of his day. He demonstrated his love for God, fidelity to the commandments, and commitment to the covenant, through this regular synagogue attendance and participation. (And not only in Luke’s Gospel; the other three Gospels also place him in synagogues at various times; see Mark 1:21, 39; 3:1; 6:2; Matt 4:23; 9:35; 12:9; 13:54; John 6:59; 18:20.)
Alongside this, there are stories relating to the activity that Jesus undertakes on the sabbath, often in a synagogue. One sabbath incident evokes a positive response from the people, after Jesus releases from his bondage a man who had been held by “the spirit of an unclean demon” (4:31–37). That positive response to Jesus from the people continues throughout his activities in Galilee (4:40, 42; 5:15, 26; 6:18–19; 7:16–17; 8:56a; 9:11, 43) and on the journey towards Jerusalem (10:17; 11:27; 12:1; 13:17; 14:25a; 15:1; 18:15, 36; 19:3, 36–38) and in Jerusalem (19:48; 21:37–38).
Later sabbath incidents involve the interpretive authorities, the Pharisees and scribes, who bring their judgemental assessment of such activity to bear when the disciples of Jesus seek to find nourishment on the sabbath (6:1–5), or when Jesus restores the withered hand of a man on the sabbath (6:6–11), or when he straightens this bent woman, again on the sabbath (13:14–17), or when he heals another man, swollen with fluid retention (dropsy) throughout his body, yet again on the sabbath (14:1–6).
In each case, these interpretive authorities declare Jesus out of order, for engaging in such activity on the sabbath. Those who had authority to interpret the law and detail its practical application in relation to the Temple in Jerusalem were the Sadducees, a group aligned with the priests; but in the towns and villages away from Jerusalem, the scribes and Pharisees undertook that role (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 18.11–13). Indeed, Josephus notes that “great disputes and differences have arisen among them [the Pharisees and the Sadducees]” (Antiquities of the Jews 13.298; this is attested at many places in the Mishnah, where Sadducees and Pharisees argue about interpretations of specific commandments).
So the presence of Pharisees and scribes in this Lukan narrative, monitoring the activities of Jesus, debating his interpretations of certain commandments and judging his actions in the synagogues and other public places, indicates how seriously they took their roles as the authorities qualified to provide definitive interpretations.
(The historical reality, many decades earlier than the time when Luke was writing, may well have been less aggressively oppositional and more a matter of discussions involving different interpretations how to interpret and apply the laws. See https://johntsquires.com/2019/10/21/in-defence-of-the-pharisees-on-humility-and-righteousness-luke-18/)
Nevertheless, we can see that Jesus maintained a consistent practice of engaging with God, and with other people, on the day set apart especially for this, the sabbath day, often in the place set apart for this, the synagogue. He kept the commandment to “love God”.
He also ensured that his devotion to God, by keeping the sabbath and attending synagogue, did not stand in the way of his relationships with other people—indeed, it is precisely on the set-apart day, the sabbath, in the set-apart place, the synagogue, that Jesus relates with, and affirmingly restores other people to health.
However, as Malina and Rohrbaugh note in their Social Scientific Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (p.363), “illness in antiquity was a social as well as a physical phenomenon”. They wisely observe that “healing required re-establishing social relationships as well as restoring physical health”. This is signalled, they say, in the response that Jesus gives to the leader of the synagogue, when he describes the woman as “a daughter of Abraham” (13:16)—a sign of her belonging to the community as “a legitimate member”.
By restoring the woman to a healthy place within the community, Jesus demonstrates that he knows also to “love neighbour”. Love of God did not preclude love of neighbour—indeed, love of God impelled him to exercise compassionate love towards his neighbours (see 10:27–28). So he once again heals on the sabbath.
Some of these sabbath stories conclude with emotionally-laden responses from those authorities, after their efforts to trap or condemn Jesus are foiled. After Jesus restored the withered hand of a man in one synagogue, “they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus” (6:11).
After Jesus straightens the bent woman in another synagogue, “all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing” (13:17). A third time, after Jesus healed a man with dropsy whilst at a dinner party in the house of one of those Pharisees, we hear that “they were silent …. they could not reply to this” (14:4, 6).
The reason for the fury expressed in the first of these scenes (6:11) is explained by the narrative comment after the encounter with the woman; his healing of her and besting of the synagogue leader and his associates (“all his opponents”) was understood to be a public shaming (6:11). Malina and Rohrbaugh rightly note that this was a process of challenge and riposte, in which “a challenge … that seeks to undermine the honour of another person” must be met with “a response that answers in equal measure or ups the ante and thereby challenges in return … to avoid a serious loss of face” (Social Scientific Commentary, p.307). Jesus bests the authorities with his responses; he maintains his place of honour within society.
The scene with the bent over woman, then, is part of a pattern we find repeated a number of times in the narrative of the orderly account that we attribute to Luke: a person in need, in a religious setting, reaching out to Jesus, met with grace and compassion, rejoicing that their need has been met; surrounded by figures invested with interpretive authority, debating and disputing the validity of the grace-filled offer that Jesus extends; and a resolution in which these authority figures find that their status is shamed, their reasoning is rejected, their objection is overruled.
It exemplifies the essential story of Jesus: human beings, enmeshed in systems and structures, engaging in interactions and relationships, can find themselves caught in binds that bend them over, disfiguring and disabling them, making them unable to function effectively within the community to which they belong. The physical ailments evident in these stories—a tortured mind, a withered hand, a swollen body, a bent body—reflect the reality that these differences have led to an inability to function effectively and happily, within daily life, and within the community of the particular individual.
Malina and Rorhrbaugh distinguish disease from illness; the former is “a biomedical malfunction”, whereas the latter is “a disvalued state of being in which social networks have been disrupted and meaning lost” (Social Scientific Commentary, p.315). Further, they note, “illness is a matter of deviance from cultural norms and values”. The ill people whom Jesus encounters are disrupted and in a state of irregularity within their social networks. Jesus meets them and restores them to a valued place in their society.
There are other instances where Jesus engages with people, not in the synagogue, not on the sabbath, but where he extends gracious compassion to a person in need, to a person constrained by whatever reason so as to be unable to function effectively: a woman with a fever (4:38–39), a man with a skin disease (5:12–16), a paralysed man (5:17–26), a grieving widow (7:11-17), a woman labelled “sinner” (7:36–50), a man tortured by multiple pressures (8:26–39), an epileptic boy (9:37–43), a person unable to speak (11:14–23), and then a group of people with diseased skin (17:11–19).
And in the midst of this string of encounters in which Jesus offers compassionate grace—and for which he is criticised by the interpretive authorities—Jesus speaks a word of stinging invective against those whose narrow minds perpetuate greed and wickedness, demonstrate lack of love and justice, impose burden after burden, and remove “the key of knowledge” which thereby hinders those who were seeking to enter God’s realm (11:37–52).
There has been no dogmatic prerequisite, no moralising judgement, exercised by Jesus in any of these encounters, unlike what he has observed and experienced from the interpretive authorities. Jesus has simply met people as they are, with no preconditions extended. In that meeting, he offers his welcoming embrace, his healing touch, his restorative presence.
This outburst leads the scribes and the Pharisees “to be very hostile toward him and to cross-examine him about many things, lying in wait for him, to catch him in something he might say” (11:53–54). It continues the opposition flagged earlier in the narrative (4:28–30; 5:21–24; 6:11; 7:39) and leads in the direction that comes to an inexorable climax in the plot to kill Jesus (13:31; 19:47–48; 22:1–6). This inevitability is echoed by the fate of the son in the parable which Jesus tells 20:9–16, which also feeds into this trajectory (20:19).
Continued resistance to the open-hearted, graciously accepting, welcoming compassion that Jesus demonstrated, results in this terrible fate: “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (9:22). The clash has been one that reaches to the depths of status within the society, for the opponents of Jesus, and for Jesus himself. In the end, he is bowed and brought down by their scheming. But this Sunday, we hear of how he enabled a bent woman to stand, to stand straight, to take her place in her community.