The frieze above, with a clean-shaven Jesus reaching to heal a lady “crippled by a spirit“is from a mid-4th Century AD Roman sarcophagus. Here’s the story.
“On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, 11 and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, ‘Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.’ 13 Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.
14 Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, ‘There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.’
15 The Lord answered him, ‘You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? 16 Then should 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?’
17 When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing.”(Luke 13:10-17)
This wonderful story has four points of view: each part of the miraculous whole. The sarcophagus notes those viewpoints. We see the woman, beginning to straighten, and possibly kissing the hand of Jesus. We see Jesus himelf, standing n front of the bema, the architectural structure indicating authority, We see the criticism of the synagogue leader, bearded chin in hand. And we see the glad amazement of the crowd. Four characters with four valid responses to a work of healing.
1.First comes the woman. She had become used to looking at people out of the corner of her eye, and after eighteen years, could hardly remember any other way of seeing the world. Did she come to the meeting trying not to get her hopes up? That “eighteen long years” seems to suggest a life with already too many disappointments to count.
When she entered the synagogue, the place was perhaps electric with anticipation. And Jesus turned from teaching to invitation. “Come here,” he said to her. She slowly made her way to the front of the assembly.
What happened next amazed the whole congregation. “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When this man, Jesus, spoke those words and put his hands on her broken, bent body, she felt power surge through her. Without hesitation, she straightened her once crooked back. She stood tall and praised her God…
Whilst this is a story of controversy between Jesus and the synagogue leader, at its core is a healing that demonstrates Jesus’ power and his compassion. We hear the compassionate tone in Jesus’s defense for healing on the Sabbath when he argues from lesser to greater: if compassion is shown to one’s animals on the Sabbath by providing them water, “ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” (13:16).
Although Luke has not provided this woman with a name in the story, he indicates that Jesus gives her a “name,” the daughter of Abraham. This phrase does not occur elsewhere in Luke or in the rest of Scripture; though there’s an obvious parallel in Luke 19:9, where Jesus calls Zacchaeus “a son of Abraham.” This name stresses the woman’s membership in the covenant community. That is to say, she is part of the people who live under the blessing of Abraham.
2. What of the synagogue leader? It’s easy to caricature the synagogue leader as the “bad guy” (13:14), without any exploration of why he interprets Sabbath laws as he does. Don’t forget, Jesus offers the woman healing, not salvation from an oppressive socio-religious system. In all likelihood, the woman was cared for by her Jewish community of faith, the synagogue of which she was a part (she is there, after all!).
But the significance of the synagogue leader in this narrative is the link with the previous story: the gardener is coming to the figtree to inspect it for fruit! And what kind of fruit?
3. This is the perspective of Jesus himself, whose place in this story expresses the ministry outlined in Isaiah 58 and 61 (Luke 4:18-19) and the claim, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (4:21).
The freedom announced in Isaiah is actualized throughout Jesus’s kingdom ministry and certainly in this woman’s freedom from her physical bondage.
But don’t forget that the synagogue leader’s complaint is, on the surface, a faithful reading of the Torah: the seventh day was set aside by God for Israel’s rest, and work was prohibited on the Sabbath (Consider Exodus 31:14, for example).
And don’t forget too that, Jesus’s response is not a rejection of the Torah rulings about the Sabbath. Instead, he argues from legitimate allowances of restricted kinds of “work” on the Sabbath (13:15). These kinds of discussions were common in Jewish dialogue regarding the Sabbath.
Then Jesus argues for healing on the Sabbath based on the great worth of the woman as “a daughter of Abraham” and the appropriateness of healing on the Sabbath.
What better day to heal (bring freedom) than on the Sabbath?
4. The crowd endorse this perspective.
Jesus’s perspective on the Sabbath as a day for deliverance is vindicated, as Luke narrates the humiliation of Jesus’s opponents and the joy of the crowds at his wonderful (healing) deeds (13:17). Although we do not hear about the woman who has been healed at the end of the passage, the praise she offers to God (doxazo; 13:13) reverberates with the crowds’ rejoicing (chairo; 13:17).
Both themes of praise and rejoicing are emphasized by Luke as appropriate responses to God’s work in Jesus (e.g., 7:16) the one who brings the reign of God in healing power to those who most need it.
And what struck me this morning was that strong phrase “crippled by a spirit.”
For the presence of the kingdom of God means a struggle with the power of Satan.
According to Luke, Jesus’ sopponents are not only human. Jesus describes his activity as a sign of Satan’s decline (cf. 10:17-19; 11:18) and envisions the waning of Satan’s power because of it (cf. 10:18). The healing of this “daughter of Abraham” is part of that activity (cf. 13:16). When referring to illnesses, Luke usually describes the breakdown of the body as due to, as in our story, a “weak spirit” (13:11, 12; the NRSV translates the Greek as “spirit” and “ailment”) and reserves the language of “unclean spirit” (cf. 4:36; 6:18; 8:29; 9:42) or “evil spirit” (cf. 7:21; 8:2) for people who need exorcisms.
Nonetheless, in Luke’s world, some illnesses are also connected to “spirits.” So, it is no surprise when Luke describes Judas’s ultimate act of deception as an activity enhanced by Satan’s entrance into his being (cf. 22:3).
And so it is with us. We have to learn to discern who our enemy really is, when we encounter people’s problems in prayer. “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:12)
Lord, help us to see what is really going on in what is going on! Teach us to look beneath the surface and enable us to understand spiritual activity and the warfare about us.
And Lord, today, we pray for those “crippled by a spirit” and ask for liberty, wholeness and restoration in the name of Jesus.
For we too, in you, are sons and daughters of Abraham.