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"He Put His Hands on Her":
The Compassion of Jesus Meets the Hypocrisy of Religion

For Sunday August 22, 2010

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)

Jeremiah 1:4–10 or Isaiah 58:9b–14

Psalm 71:1–6 or Psalm 103:1–8

Hebrews 12:18–29

Luke 13:10–17

           Back in 2005 when I was in Ethiopia, I took a day trip to the mountains that surround the capital city of Addis Ababa. At the summit our group prayed over the city, enjoyed the panoramic views, identified buildings in the distance below, and gasped for breath after walking uphill in the alpine air. That was the fun part.

           The disturbing part was our climb from the city center at 7,000 feet to the summit at 11,000 feet. As our mini-van belched clouds of light blue exhaust, the higher we went the more women and girls we passed carrying loads of firewood back down the mountain. Barefoot and bent over at the waist, these women carried seventy-five pound bundles of eucalyptus saplings, seven feet wide, down to the city center about ten miles away, all for a few pennies. The firewood carriers in Addis Ababa are a common sight, so much so that you can read about them in guidebooks like the Lonely Planet.

"My name, Amaretch, means 'the beautiful one'. I am the youngest of four children in my family. Today, I spent from 0300 to 1500 collecting the branches of eucalyptus trees which people use as firewood. I will sell this big bundle at the market for about $2. This will feed my family for a couple of days."
"My name, Amaretch, means 'the beautiful one'. I am the youngest of four children in my family. Today, I spent from 0300 to 1500 collecting the branches of eucalyptus trees which people use as firewood. I will sell this big bundle at the market for about $2. This will feed my family for a couple of days."

           Ever since then the firewood carriers of Addis Ababa have reminded me of the crippled woman in Luke's gospel for this week. Luke is the only gospel to tell this story. It's the last time in his gospel that Jesus enters a synagogue to teach. Luke writes that the woman had been "crippled by a spirit for eighteen years" and as a consequence was "bent over and could not straighten up at all" (13:10–17). In Addis Ababa I kept wishing that those women and girls who were "bent over and could not straighten up at all" could be freed from their bondage.

           Making a medical diagnosis 2,000 years after the fact is futile. Maybe the woman in Luke had a form of scoliosis. Others speculate about some type of spinal ossification or fusion. Perhaps she had suffered an injury. I wonder if she was just plain worn out from a hard life of manual labor. Like the firewood carriers in Addis Ababa, her condition reflected the complex interplay of vicious causes and consequences — medical infirmity, community indifference, social marginalization, economic injustice, oppressive gender roles, and even religious blame: "Don't complain, your suffering is punishment for your sins." Whatever her condition, her prognosis was bleak: "she was bent over and could not straighten up at all."

           Luke, a physician by training, writes that she was "crippled by a spirit." Jesus describes her as "bound by satan for eighteen long years." I can easily imagine myself as a spiritual cripple if I had physically suffered like she had. The totality of her human degradation was greater than her medical ailment. For those who dismiss that diagnosis as a pious and pre-scientific myth, I can only say that it's just the sort of thought you have when you see a barefoot ten-year-old girl beneath a seventy-five pound load of firewood like a farm animal: "She's suffering a condition of spiritual darkness and bondage; she herself is not evil, but her condition sure is. There's something here even worse than the economic exploitation."

           Interestingly enough, neither Luke's nameless woman, her family, nor any of her friends (did she have friends?) asked Jesus to heal her. She probably didn't know Jesus, and maybe had never even heard of him. I picture her going to the synagogue with her familiar routine of doing everything possible to avoid drawing attention to herself. No doubt she kept to herself and kept out of harm's way in the back of the synagogue; after eighteen years of chronic disabilities she knew her place. But Jesus did not leave her to herself.

            When Jesus saw her he called her to come forward. Watching her shuffle forward, her contorted body bent to the ground, must have felt like an excruciating eternity, like watching an accident in slow motion. I wonder what she felt and thought in the hushed silence, with all those eyes on her. In front of the crowd, Jesus did something that I'm sure no one had done to her for a long, long time, something that violated the gender taboos of the day. He "put his hands on her" and touched her. Then he said, "Woman, you are set free from your infirmity." Freed from physical and spiritual bondage, "she immediately straightened up and praised God."

Woman carrying wood on her back.

           That miracle of divine compassion provoked an outburst of religious hypocrisy. The ruler of the synagogue was indignant. Maybe he didn't like his neat and proper service upset. Maybe he had tried and failed to help this same woman in his own way, or perhaps he felt upstaged by Jesus. Whatever ignited his anger, he cloaked his feelings in terms of religious zeal. Afraid to confront Jesus directly, he complained to the crowd that Jesus had violated the fourth commandment by "working" on the sabbath (Exodus 20:9 and Deuteronomy 5:12–15). Couldn't the woman and Jesus have waited just one day, when the sabbath would be over? "Come and be healed on those days," he raged, "not on the sabbath."

           Jesus exploded at their sanctimony, their human callousness, and their theological hair-splitting: "You hypocrites!" Human compassion, healing, and wholeness are far more important than religious ritual and misplaced zeal. Besides, said Jesus, their own rabbis had determined that brute beasts depended on them for a drink of water: "Doesn't each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water?" If it's not only permissible but necessary to water an animal on the sabbath, "then must not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the sabbath day from what bound her?" No, said Jesus, divine mercy would not wait one more day to heal a fellow human being.

           Isaiah's text for this week teaches the same lesson about fasting that Luke does about sabbath-keeping. Isaiah 58 satirizes religious zealots who "seem eager to know my ways. . . . They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them" (58:2). But in this case appearances were deceiving. These believers fasted and prayed, but turned around and exploited their workers, quarreled and fought. Isaiah says that fasting is more than abstaining from food; it's not the absence of nutrition but the presence of justice:

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter —
when you see the naked, to clothe him,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? (58:6–7)

Abstaining from food profits nothing, says Isaiah, when we abstain from mercy and justice.

           When religious rituals like sabbath-keeping and fasting — or our Bible studies, sermons, church attendance, and retreats — are divorced from human health and wholeness, whenever a believer "turns away from your own flesh and blood" (Is. 58:7), then our religion has gone very bad indeed. Conversely, when you care for your neighbor like you would care for your own self, you have fulfilled the deepest purposes of all religious rituals.

For further reflection:

* What have been your experiences of sabbath-keeping and fasting?
* Have you ever known a person with a severe and chronic medical condition?
* In what ways have religious rituals usurped compassion, justice, and mercy in your own life?
* Do we still need religious rituals if we exercise compassion, justice and mercy? Why or why not?
* Meditate on Micah 6:8: "He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."

Image credits: (1) BBC News; (2) Michael Dittmar, Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, Menlo Park, California.

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