The text: “When Jesus laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.” Luke 13:13
The prophet Hosea (11:4) describes God as one who “bends down … to feed, to lift up and to hold.”Strength and flexibility are both necessary in the act of bending. We have a God who is willing to bend on our behalf and who invites us to bend on behalf of one another. In Luke, chapter 13, we see the strength and flexibility of our reliable God in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. The One who was willing to bend down and join us in our humanity takes the time on this Sabbath to heal a woman who has been bent over for eighteen years.
Eighteen years is a long time to be bent over — it is the time it takes a newborn to unfold into adulthood and is the coming of age in many societies. Luke, the physician, attributes her chronic condition to “a spirit of weakness.” The word for “weakness” can simply mean “illness;” however, her condition can also be indicative of her diminished status within the culture at that time, a culture that continues today in many parts of the world. She is bound up by the limitations and the burdens placed upon her through the customs and the laws.
As the story unfolds, we learn that what is almost as important as the healing itself is the fact that Jesus heals on the Sabbath, bending the rabbinic law. In this valiant act Jesus announces that the suffering of a fellow human being takes precedence over obligations related to keeping the Sabbath. The same law that limited healing on the Sabbath allowed for the loosening of tethered animals so that they could drink water.
The synagogue ruler is “bent out of shape” over this healing! A religious observation intended to honor the liberation of God’s people has become a means of social control and oppression. By healing a person held captive on the Sabbath, Jesus offers wholeness in the unfolding of this woman’s life and gives the religious leaders an opportunity to see the absurdity and cruelty of unbending laws.
During Westminster’s Steadfast Neighbor Week this June, my brother Barry who came to serve with us, my husband Peter, and I rewatched the 1999 movie "Cider House Rules," based on John Irving’s 1985 novel. The Supreme Court ruling to reverse Roe vs. Wade had just been announced, and we were feeling a need to revisit this thoughtful story which highlights the intricacies and complications around unplanned pregnancies.
The setting of the story is a Maine orphanage during the 1940s which is run by Dr. Wilbur Larch, a skilled physician who delivers the babies of single women that come and go quickly, passing through the night. He and his team then lovingly care for the children left behind. Conditions at the orphanage are sparse, yet the children are loved, given respect, lifted up, and become an extended family. Each night after reading to and praying with the boys, Dr. Larch leaves them with these words, "Goodnight you Princes of Maine, you Kings of New England." Like Jesus’ affirmation of the bound-up woman, Dr. Larch affirms and blesses these orphaned boys, reminding them they, too, are beloved children of God.
Dr. Larch also ends pregnancies in secret for the women who request it because he has seen the tragic consequences that can unfold when people do not have options. “Cider House Rules” reminds us how complicated life can be and gives us pause about rigid, morality-based rules which, like the first century sabbath laws, are often unbending, oppressive and unjust.
To those of us who are bound up and bent over in whatever our circumstances may be, Jesus offers freedom, blessings and wholeness. To those of us who are in positions of authority, Jesus calls us into accountability and invites us to bend and to create communities where people’s lives can unfold into wholeness. The wisdom articulated in this gospel story is especially relevant in these times of polarization within our own government, where the give and take, the strength and flexibility, the bending and stretching of democracy is lacking. These attributes are essential in the governing of our communities and the unfolding of our lives.
May God give each of us the strength and flexibility in the unfolding of our lives, to bend without breaking in the challenges before us, the wisdom to live with humility and reverence, and the courage to create just laws in our care for one another.
The Rev. Dr. Blythe Denham Kieffer is pastor and head of staff at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Springfield.
This article originally appeared on State Journal-Register: Rev. Dr. Blythe Denham Kieffer: Unfolding lives