Feast Day: Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Isaiah 58:9b-14; Psalm 103:1-8; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17
When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”
In our gospel reading this morning we meet a woman who had been bound by Satan and bent over for 18 years until one day our blessed Lord called her to himself, touched her, and straightened her out.
A number of years ago I went to see an exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario featuring the work of Chinese artist and activist Ai WeiWei. One piece in particular that struck me was entitled Straight. It was composed of 38 tons of rebar. The rebar was stacked one upon the other at varying heights in a space roughly 20‘x40’. It gave the effect of a rolling landscape only the two sides were off-set so that the landscape was fractured.
It is a piece of art that was created in response to the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, China that caused major devastation including nearly 90,000 fatalities, 5,000 of which were children who died when their schools collapsed. A fact that the Chinese government tried to conceal because of the substandard building codes for schools in particular.
What makes Straight so moving is that the rebar it is composed of was recovered by the artist from the very schoolhouses that collapsed in the earthquake. WeiWei had every piece of mangled rebar straightened through a painstakingly laborious process that served as a memorial to each earthquake victim.
So it’s the sabbath and Jesus is teaching in one of the synagogues when suddenly a woman appeared. She was bent over to the ground unable to stand up straight and she had been this way for eighteen years. Such a long time. Whatever her life had been before this was her ordinary experience now including the social exclusion that attended it. But it’s clear that this isn’t just a physical deformity. There is a spiritual dynamic. She has been bound by Satan, Jesus says.
In the fourth century Gregory of Nyssa, in On the Making of the Human Being, wondered what it is that distinguishes human beings from animals. The first thing he noted is that humans stand upright while animals walk on all fours. He pressed the question further, why is the human form upright? So that the human may look upwards towards heaven and stand above all other created beings as the crown of creation. The human is upright as a mark of her sovereignty and dignity he reasoned.
Yet here is this poor woman bound by Satan and bent over. If we were to interpret this passage spiritually what might we say? Sin is a power that dehumanizes us, makes us like the animals, robs us of the dignity of being a human made in the image of God. We are made to look upwards to heaven but sin drags us down into the earth. And this is a burden.
Apart from Christ we all, like the woman in our story, are bent out of shape and bound by the power of sin. As St Augustine wrote, “The devil and his angels have bowed the souls of men and women down to the ground. He has bent them forward to be intent on temporary and earthly things and has stopped them from seeking the things that are above.” You were made to stand up tall and seek the things that are above. You were made for communion with God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. That is your dignity as a human being. But the power of sin bends us down to the earth.
What we need is to be set free, unbound, made whole, so that we can stand up straight and live a life of praise and thanksgiving to God. “Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?” Jesus asks the leader of the synagogue. “And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan has bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” The sabbath is for setting free.
That is why our blessed Lord has come. This is the work he has come to do for us and in us. He has come to liberate those who are bound by the power of sin. He says this himself earlier in Luke’s gospel when he quotes the prophet Isaiah, again while teaching in a synagogue: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,” (4:18-19).
How does he do this? By coming near to us, by stooping down, by becoming like us so that we might become like him. Elsewhere in the New Testament St Paul says that though Jesus Christ is God he “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross,” (Phil 2:7-8).
In his flesh our Lord identifies with us fully and on the Cross he is totally disfigured and bent out of shape by the power of sin. On the Cross he finds himself at the very bottom of the pile of rubble. From there he overthrows sin, death, and destruction. From there he straightens himself out in the Resurrection and us with him. Jesus Christ re-forms human beings out of the rubble of sin and death.
So, on that sabbath day in the synagogue when the gaze of our blessed Lord fell upon this poor woman he was filled with compassion. He loves her. He wills her good. He calls her to himself. He speaks a word. He touches her. And immediately she is released from her bondage and she stood up straight and began praising God.
And here is the beauty of the gospel. What he does for this woman our Lord will do for each one of us. Yes, our Lord loves everyone but he also loves each one. He loves you. Which means that he wills your good.
Is there some part of your life over which sin still holds dominion? Is there some power, some habit, some vice that you are struggling to get out from under? Are you bent down towards the ground unable to look towards heaven with thanksgiving? This very morning our Lord sees you and is filled with compassion. He is calling you to himself. Draw near to him. Do not delay. Do not conceal. Only come to him, and he himself will speak a word, and lay his hand upon you, and straighten you out, and stand you up, and make you whole, and fill you with joy everlasting.