by Ellen Sims
Sometimes a single word will beckon me into a Gospel story. Because of my recent participation in Bent Broadway, the four-letter word “bent” gave me a fresh entranceway into today’s Gospel account of the woman whom Jesus healed from her bent over condition.
In the musical review that raised funds for Prism United and Rainbow Mobile, the word “bent” seems to have a playful, ironic connotation and suggests that the songs were being twisted/reshaped/reworked/bent so the audience could rethink notions about gender. Or maybe “bent” in Bent Broadway was just a straightforward use of British slang which, I learned only this week, is the equivalent of the word “gay.” Or maybe “bent” hints at the unfortunate way cultures oppress some groups of people by forceably bending them into conformity.
Of course, “bent” in Luke’s story is used literally to describe the posture or skeletal condition of a woman seeking Jesus’s healing–though “bent” here also holds metaphorical possibilities. This woman for eighteen years was unable to stand up straight. But her physical position also in this case might correspond to a victim of oppression. Her stooped posture might suggest servility as would her downturned face, inability to look another in the eye, and limited mobility. We’re told she was a woman with a spirit that crippled her, as if a general hostile Spirit of the Times and Culture was pressing down upon her, restricting her bearing, constricting her capabilities.
I remember the strong impression this story had on me as a child. We called it “The Story of Jesus Healing the Crippled Woman,” unaware then of the harm in labeling people with disabilities by their particular condition or disability, unaware then about the importance of referring to people HAVING a particular illness or condition rather than BEING that illness or condition.
Probably I first heard the story of the woman who could not stand up straight when I was a young child in Sunday school. I think a teacher invited us to imagine what the woman must have felt like by inviting us to try walking around a few paces while bent over. Yes, a problematic “game” for children, but her intention was to cultivate empathy, not to make light of someone’s disability by making a game of it. I remember that I first didn’t consider the woman’s plight to be very severe. I knew stories of Jesus healing people who couldn’t see or hear or speak or walk. To me, the woman who couldn’t stand up all the way didn’t seem to me to be as needful of Jesus . . . until I tried bending over and walking. At first it was easy, but soon I was uncomfortable and then I realized I kept cheating in order to see where I was going and soon it started hurting to stay stooped and I could then imagine how hard it would be to play games with other children in that position. It even entered my mind that others might tease me. The woman’s plight became more serious to me. Perhaps the beginning of empathy is the ability to recognize that someone else is experiencing life differently than you are but has feelings just as you do.
It was Jesus’s boundless empathy and compassion that supported his powers of healing. It is humanity’s capacity for empathy and compassion that will be key in saving this planet from every instrument or process of destruction. Let’s consider Jesus’s compassionate response to this unnamed woman while he was in the middle of his sabbath sermon in the synagogue. We’ll note especially the narrator’s verbs:
First, Jesus SEES her. Although focused on what he’s trying to teach those assembled, he takes in her situation. She is not able to see him well in her condition. But he truly sees her. He turns from his responsibility to the larger group and zeroes in on her. Luke doesn’t tell us what Jesus had been preaching on. We don’t even get a snippet of Jesus’s topic. Luke cares only about what Jesus said and did with regard to the woman bent low.
Next Jesus CALLS to the woman to come to him, declaring she is free of her infirmity.
Finally, he LAYS HANDS on her and she is immediately healed.
She STANDS. She stands up straight. She straightens up. Was there a creaking of joints, a groan or sigh escaping from within her as muscles, joints, and bones moved in ways they hadn’t moved in years? Did her body involuntarily and immediately move into a straight posture? What is important is that she stood at Jesus’s command. She “stood up straight,” says the text, to emphasize that the change in her posture was dramatic and permanent, not a result of her own straining.
Surely she began imagining and exploring what her body now permitted. Once again, she might have anticipated, she would be able to speak to her neighbor eye-to-eye, noticing a kind smile that had been implicit in so many of the words they exchanged for so many years. With a little extra mobility, her whole world would expand along with her confidence and capabilities. With relief from pain would come . . . well, who can measure the gift of being pain-free for the first time in eighteen years? And along with the physical impact, she might have anticipated regaining some measure of respect, even in a culture where women were subservient to men.
But immediately she PRAISED God. With words? With a silent prayer? With tears of joy? I like to imagine that she DANCED her praise with that restored freedom of movement.
In contrast, Luke shares next the leader of the synagogue’s response. He was indignant and cited Jesus for the infraction of healing on the sabbath. The text says the leader kept on saying these things, repeating his charges against Jesus. The morality police like to do that, you know.
He addressed EVERYONE, not just the synagogue leader, and he called them all hypocrites. (Remember the synagogue leader stands in for leaders of ALL religious faiths who are narrow in their compassion and rigid in their rules. Jesus was a faithful Jew speaking in-house here. It’s the same old story you and I have seen in our day and in our religious tradition.) Jesus recognized, as we do, that those who keep score of others’ religious infractions seem oblivious of their own. He ridiculed the ultra-scrupulous sabbath observers for charging HIM with the technicality of working on the sabbath–if indeed it was “work” to heal the woman–when others in the synagogue regularly “worked” on the sabbath by feeding and watering their livestock. Jesus didn’t keep score like that, but he was judging them on their own terms. His wry defense was based on a widely used exemption from Sabbath observance that permitted untying a donkey or ox in order to provide for their physical necessities. Jesus compared his healing action of “unbinding” the impaired woman from Satan’s bondage on a Sabbath to the common practice of unbinding animals in order to lead them to water and food. Why couldn’t this exception to Sabbath rules also be invoked to release a human being from Satan’s bonds?
Jesus then lifted up the woman, naming her a “daughter of Abraham.” Her status was not merely equal to that of a donkey or ox, he implied with this allusion. Jesus reminded her and those in the synagogue that she, a child of Abraham and sister to those gathered, must be restored her family. She and her community, and we, too, are children of Abraham. “This daughter of Abraham is in our family,” Jesus reminded those in the synagogue by pointing to their mutual ancestor.
Healing is relational as well as physical. We, too, should be helping those who have been marginalized to return home: those released from bonds of prison, of illness, of addictions, of all manner of past mistakes and current challenges and limitations.
Jesus brought the woman back into the family of Abraham, and with his excoriation of the synagogue leaders and other worshipers, Jesus seemed to be doing what Bent Broadway also did: lifting up and honoring and celebrating those on the margins—and lampooning the bigots. It’s not just that Jesus healed the woman and it’s not just that the Gospel writer used her as a foil to contrast the cluelessness of the religious authorities with her insight. This story offers us a startling picture of a Gospel that gets told through the lives of the rejects. I can almost see the circus performers/social outcasts from the musical The Greatest Showman lining up behind the woman Jesus healed. I can almost hear young Finn shout at the end of our Bent Broadway production: “We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it!”
While you and I in our “synagogue” need and expect from our worship life a spirit of orderliness, calm, and quiet, let’s also remain open for the unexpected–from God, or from the new person who walks in off the street, or from God in the form of the new person who walks in off the street. Jesus spoke jarringly in his worship space. Let us aim for peace and thoughtfulness with regard for the needs of those around us. But let us also recognize that sometimes the unexpected may intrude into the quiet, and that clamoring intrusion might be announcing the presence of the Spirit.
In the presence of the Spirit among us, let’s close with some moments of reflection:
If Jesus were here this morning in the flesh and you approached him as did the woman who was bent over, what would Jesus reach out and heal in your life? How would you “stand up straight” (but still remain fully YOU, dear queer friends) and move forward with your life after that encounter?