In today’s gospel, Jesus is still on his way to Jerusalem, since he ‘set his face’ to her is Luke 9:51. As he goes, he’s teaching and healing, just as he did in Galilee, and today in a synagogue again, and it’s Friday evening or Saturday, the Sabbath.
He sees a woman bent over, unable to straighten her back. Jesus calls out to her, ‘You’re set free from your ailment.’ Then he touches her and she is able to straiten up. She’s ecstatic, she’s been like this for 18 years, ‘afflicted by a spirit: ‘bound by Satan’; and now she’s free. She praises God, giving thanks for her healing.
Notice that the touching by Jesus is important; and that she hasn’t asked to be healed; but Jesus does it anyway. And notice too, that she doesn’t thank Jesus, she seems to know that, through Jesus, God has healed her.
Then, the leader of the synagogue, a lay person, not a rabbi, as is still the tradition within Judaism, and is shared by Muslims, who have a similar tradition of the lay leadership of the synagogue/mosque appointng the rabbi/imam. In Anglicanism we are more ambiguous about leadership. The leader of the synagogue chides the crowds around Jesus for coming, seeking healing; but no one has asked Jesus for healing!! Notice he doesn’t chide Jesus. Why? Perhaps he was a Sadducee, people who didn’t accept the ‘oral’ law, only the written Torah in the Hebrew Bible. Jesus is much closer to the Pharisees doctrine than the Sadducees; an important fact to remember, but more of that in a moment.
Jesus then rebukes ‘them’. Who? All of them, certainly the peasant farmers making up a large proportion of the congregation, who would take their ox or ass to be watered on the Sabbath, because it would be preserving life and health among one’s animals. Then how much more this woman, a human being, a daughter of Abraham, however ‘bent over’ she might have been.
The big problem is about the Sabbath Laws, and the preservation of human life and wellbeing – and how we understand Jesus’ relation to them. It’s the Sabbath, when work is forbidden, which would include healing, especially any actions involved: this is written in the Torah, the Law of Moses, delivered straight from God at Sinai. There are 39 ‘work’ things you can’t do on the Sabbath. Most rabbis, would be clear about there being two kinds of Law: that written in Torah, and the oral Law, how the written was interpreted by the Sages, the great leaders among the rabbis. Later, a hundred plus years after Jesus, the oral law would be written down; but in Jesus’ day’ it was still, literally, oral tradition.
In the Hebrew Bible, there are already hints of ways in which certain things would be allowed, because they preserved life and health, allowing some leeway over the written commandments. In the story of David and his soldiers in the Temple at Nob (before David’s son, Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem), which we read the other day in the daily offices, where they were starving, and were allowed to eat shewbread, only really to be eaten by the priests.
And, in the Maccabean period, about 167 BCE, when some pious ordinary Jewish soldiers were attacked on the Sabbath by the Emperor’s troops, refused to break the Sabbath commandment; and were massacred. The Jewish leader of the revolt, Mattathias, realising that if Jews continued to keep Sabbath so strictly, they would only be attacked on the Sabbath, and soon there would be no Jews left. So he decreed an oral law; that said it was OK to fight a defensive battle on a Sabbath.
In the later rabbinical writings of the second century onwards. these ‘oral’ traditions would be written down in the Mishnah – some from Jesus’ time and a little earlier. They too would argue that the preservation of human life and health could override the written laws. Jesus’ teaching about healing on the Sabbath, is within this tradition. Jesus is not refuting Judaism, oral tradition, or the Torah, he is speaking within the rabbinic tradition, as a Jewish teacher. In spite of 2000 years of Christians often denying this fact. The Sabbath after all is, as it was for God on the seventh day of Creation, a day of restorative rest for all of Creation.
Notice that Jesus ‘freed’ the woman from her ailment, because she was ‘bound’ by Satan’. Taking us back to Luke chapter 4 where Jesus, in the Nazareth synagogue, declared that he was the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy, the Kingdom of God, about
good news to the poor…. release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,
Jesus is doing that mission here in this synagogue, on behalf of this woman, a ‘daughter of Abraham’ who has been ‘bound’ by Satan.
‘… all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.
It’s important to see Jesus’ mission as entirely within Judaism. He’s not negating the Law, written or oral, or Judaism: he is entirely within that tradition.
The extraordinary things (endoxa) in which the crowd takes delight (Luke 13:17) recall the remarkable things (endoxa) performed by God in redeeming Israel (Exod 34:10; Deut 10:21; Isa 48:9). (Carroll)
These extraordinary things are part of the promised liberation Jesus spoke about in the synagogue at Nazareth back in Luke chapter 4.
This is ‘a symbolic enactment of God’s rule, active in the present in Jesus’ ministry of teaching and healing … a transforming impact, though in a manner that is hidden and indeed imperceptible to many. (Carrol quoting Bovon 2:412).
Such is Jesus’ message to us, that we can be liberated from all that binds us; and thus we share this good news with all whom we meet. And we don’t even need to ask him; he’s there waiting to free us if only we’ll let him.