The woman in this story is bent double. She is probably suffering from what doctors now describe as ankylosing spondylitis, a chronic progressive form of inflammatory arthritis that causes fusion of the spinal bones. Even today there is no really effective cure and people continue to be bent over. As a sufferer from rheumatoid arthritis, also chronic, progressive and inflammatory, I feel a deep sympathy for her plight. She has leant forward to relieve the pain, but the more she has leant forward the more the spine has fused, so that now after eighteen years all she can see is her feet. She converses with the ants and the earth, and those speaking to her, supposing they even bother to try, talk to her bent back. In her culture she would have been a complete social outcast. Her very physical being reflects the burden she carries - a burden of exclusion, poverty, and rejection...
We don't know why the woman was in the synagogue. Perhaps she had come to the synagogue that day especially to hear Jesus, the visiting preacher and renowned healer, but perhaps she was just a regular. What we do know is that she makes no approach herself to Jesus. Rather he is moved with compassion, as so often, and calls her forward.
Notice that Jesus does not ask anything of this woman. He does not ask for her faith. He does not ask her to go and wash, or show herself to a Jewish leader. He does not ask her to confess her need of healing publicly as he does with others in the gospels. He just calls her up and tells her that she is set free from her infirmity. Then he touches her and immediately she is able to stand up straight.
Just imagine - after eighteen years of looking at the ground, of not seeing faces, the face she sees is the face of Jesus, full of light, full of tenderness and concern for her. No wonder she praises God!
But the leader of the synagogue does not have a face full of light. He has a face full of frowns. He is indignant because Jesus has healed on the sabbath - in other words has worked. But he does not actually tell Jesus off. He does not go for the powerful person, or indeed the person responsible. No, he attacks the poor, the sick and those in need. "There are six other days to come and get healed, come then and leave us to worship in peace on the sabbath day. "
If we picture the woman, bent over and forced by her sickness into a stance of humility, we can picture the leader of the synagogue as puffed up, his spine arched in arrogance, his chin lifted, his head cut off from his heart. Physically and spiritually he is just not in a position to see and respond to the woman's needs as Jesus does. It is easy to condemn him. But would we necessarily have done much better?
In his head are a whole heap of reasons to be indignant. Some of them are quite logical. He would have seen himself as keeping the fourth commandment, to honour the sabbath day and keep it holy. The sabbath was for worship, for paying attention to God, not our own needs. Surely if this woman had been sick for eighteen years she could wait another few hours till sundown and be healed then! Perhaps we too have been irritated when our time of prayer and worship has been interrupted by the needs of sick or a homeless person who has wandered into church during the service, or by the noise of a child demanding attention, or by anything that did not conform to our idea of reverent worship. Have we like the synagogue leader then allowed our arrogance, our ideas of what is right and proper, to arch us up and away from seeing the need that is right in front of us?
There is much in this story that is about perspective. The woman's perspective was badly affected by her sickness. Yet given the opportunity to stand straight she sees right away what is important, and gives praise to God accordingly. The leader of the synagogue on the other hand has had his ability to see badly skewed. His head has been filled with legalistic demands dreamt up over decades by religious leaders more intent on their own systems of power and control than the worship of God. It is a tendency from which no human grouping is immune and I am sure we can all think of instances within our churches. He sees only with his head, and ignores the compassionate cries of his heart and guts.
Jesus on the other hand truly sees this woman and restores her to fullness of life. He describes her as a 'daughter of Abraham'. Do you know that this is the only place in the whole Bible where this phrase is used? Many times the sons of Abraham are described, but this is the only time someone is described as a daughter of Abraham. It is phrase that expresses the fullness of this woman's healing, which is not just physical, but also religious and social. She is restored to her rightful place as a full and equal member of Jewish society, on a level footing with every other righteous law abiding Jew.
Each of us can ask ourselves a couple of questions in response to this story. Firstly what are the things that burden me and bend me over- maybe not physically, but emotionally and spiritually? And am I ready, after maybe eighteen, maybe eighty years to allow Jesus to set me free from them? And secondly who are the people whose needs I don't see? What are the limits I artificially set to my compassion that let me arrogantly put myself above others, neglecting their needs in favour of my supposedly superior values and behaviours?
If we ask ourselves those questions honestly, in a prayerful way with God I believe we may be surprised by some of the answers that come. And I believe that we may find ourselves standing a little straighter, and better able to gaze into the face of Jesus and see His tender love for us.
In the name of the God who loves us, and longs for us to be set free and to stand straight. Amen.
Penny Jones for Pentecost 14 Year C, Sunday 21 August 2016