Summary: As Christians, part of being hospitable is participating in this healing work of Christ. Our task is not to change people, but simply to extend the healing hand of Christ into a hurting world.
A family from a remote area was making their first visit to a big city. They checked into a grand hotel and stood in amazement at the impressive sight. Leaving the reception desk they came to the elevator entrance. They’d never seen an elevator before, and just stared at it, unable to figure out what it was for. An old lady hobbled towards the elevator and went inside.
The door closed. About a minute later, the door opened and out came a stunningly good-looking young woman. Dad couldn’t stop staring. Without turning his head he patted his son’s arm and said, "Go get your mother, son."
I think it’s fair to say that a lot of us would love to “get a makeover;” to step into an elevator and step back out a new person – younger, thinner, happier, more beautiful or handsome. The bent-over woman in today’s reading was probably feeling the same way. But quite often, there is more to being bent over than a simple physical affliction. Jesus recognizes this, and so his healing work in the synagogue on that Sabbath day did more than just straighten the back of this woman who had been bent-over for 18 years; he healed the infirmity of her spirit. And I think we all know there are a lot of things that can bend our spirit!
Anne O’Brien Prince and Jeremy Prince moved from Ireland to Massachusetts with their five kids last year, in part, so that their children could “experience America.” One of the Prince children was 15-year-old Phoebe, to whom, it seems, America did not give a very kind welcome. Prosecutors say that witness accounts paint an “intolerable” campaign of insults, humiliation and, in the final days of Phoebe’s life—threats. Witnesses say that Phoebe was so terrified she went to school administrators because “she was scared and wanted to go home,” but later told a friend that no action would be taken on her behalf. Court papers describe what investigators indicate was a pattern of abusive taunts, text messages, Facebook postings, threats, and efforts to corner Phoebe, whose reactions are described as fearful, panicked and distraught. Phoebe is quoted as telling a friend on January 13th of this year, one day before she committed suicide, that “school has been close to intolerable lately.” The day Phoebe killed herself one student allegedly threw an energy drink at her from a moving car, calling her names and laughing. This apparently was the last straw for Phoebe, because her younger sister found her hanging in the stairwell of her home later that day. I think it’s safe to say that young Phoebe Prince was a “bent over woman.” Although her principal described her as “smart and charming,” the taunts from her peers bent her and bent her until she finally broke.
I fear there are a lot of us who are walking through this life “bent over.” Perhaps we are bent because of some physical ailment, but it may be something more like what Phoebe experienced. Or maybe it’s extra stress on the job, or trouble at home, or a particularly heavy financial burden. We can’t fathom all the different burdens of this world that would bend our spirits, and we don’t know what caused this woman in our Gospel lesson to have a bowed back. All we know is that it was severe and she had it for 18 years! For 18 years she had a very, unpleasant – shall we say? – perspective on life. She had been walking around looking at passing feet. She couldn’t see the smiles on the faces of strangers passing her by. She couldn’t see the green trees in the meadow.
One Sabbath day she entered the synagogue, and in all likelihood, she was doing nothing whatsoever to attract attention to herself. She probably slipped in through the side door, quietly, unobtrusively. Jesus was teaching the people, and then he looked off to one side, or up in the balcony and saw that woman come in with her peculiar, crippled, bent-over walk. Jesus interrupted his lesson, then and there, and invited the woman to come over to him. This must have come as quite a surprise to the woman; after-all, no one, perhaps, had paid her much attention for a long time. “Could it be?” she may have asked herself. “Is he really speaking to me?” So, she scurries forward in response to Jesus’ command—what else is she to do? Then Jesus’ voice rings out with a note of authority that no one could miss: “‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’ [And w]hen he put his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.”
Jesus didn’t think twice about what he was doing. He saw a woman who was bent over, and he made her well. It’s sad that, after Jesus heals the woman, the leader of the synagogue is indignant. His face turns red, his jowls begin to quake, and playing to the crowd he has a few choice words for Jesus. “It is the Sabbath! No one is supposed to work on the Sabbath!” And Jesus’ response? One translation puts it like this: “You bunch of hypocrites!’ replied Jesus. ‘You would all be quite happy to untie an ox or a donkey from its stall on the Sabbath day and lead it out for a drink! And isn’t it right that this daughter of Abraham, tied up by Satan for eighteen years, should be untied from her chains on a Sabbath day?” And of course, we are told that Jesus’ “opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.”