Image: Barbara Schwarz OP

This is a copy of a talk I gave on Sunday 21 August 2022 at the 8.30 am service at Emmanuel, Billericay and the 10.30 am service at Saint Mary the Virgin, Little Burstead. The Bible Reading was Luke 13:10-17. 


This story follows on the heels of several related discussions / confrontations. In this incident, Jesus’ opponent is the leader of the synagogue – one of the religious elite. Jesus has recently delivered a scathing denunciation of Pharisees and lawyers (11:37-54) also members of the religious elite. Then he warned his disciples of hypocrisy of the Pharisees (12:1-3). He then spoke of the need for repentance (13:5). Coming on the heels of that, this episode implicitly singles out the ‘leader of the synagogue’ (vs14) and all Jesus’ opponents (vs17) as prime examples of those who are in need of repentance.

This story is similar to the story of a man with a withered hand (6:6-11) and 14:1-6, the story of a man with dropsy. In each of these three stories, Jesus heals on the Sabbath and is opposed by religious leaders. In 6:6-11, Jesus defended his actions by asking whether it was lawful to do good on the Sabbath. In 14:1-6, he will note that it is permissible to pull an ox out of a ditch on the Sabbath – an argument similar to that in our reading today.

What does it mean to keep the Sabbath holy? It’s a BIG question. But I just to say that if the ruler of the synagogue erred by being too legalistic about the Sabbath, we are more likely to err by being too casual.

This is Jesus’ last appearance in a synagogue in this Gospel. It’s clear that opposition to him is mounting, and such opposition is intensified because of his victories over his opponents in the verbal jousting that accompany his healings.

Woman, You Are Set Free
vs 10-13

“Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath day” (vs10). It was Jesus’ custom to attend worship in the synagogue (4:16), and he was often invited to teach. By the time Luke wrote this Gospel, the temple had been destroyed, and synagogues were the heart of Jewish religious life.

Vs11a: “… a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years.” Literally, the woman has “a spirit of weakness or infirmity” In verse 16, her condition is described as bondage to Satan, although Jesus does not treat the healing as an exorcism. She has been crippled for eighteen years, half a lifetime in an age when life expectancy is short.

“She was bent over and could not straighten up at all.” (vs11b). Luke, the physician, reports a medical problem – one that he as a human physician would be unable to cure.

A posture problem of this magnitude would interfere with everyday tasks and social relationships. It would put a strain on organs of the body, affecting health in various ways. She is forced to spend life looking down at the ground rather than up at the sky. She cannot look people in the eye.

“When Jesus saw her, he called her forward” (vs12a). The woman came for worship and does not approach Jesus or request healing. There is no mention of the woman’s faith in this story. It is Jesus’ initiative – Jesus’ call to the woman, Jesus’ faith, which sets the stage for this healing.

Jesus said to her: “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” (vs12b). “Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.” (vs13). Laying on of hands is usually accompanied by prayer, but no mention is made of prayer here. Her healing is immediate. She stands straight and begins to praise God. No wonder. Her condition for the last 18 years had been solved. Healing = Peace. There was no bitterness towards God – she still attended the synagogue. It is still possible to be a Christian and trust God through the pain.

Not On The Sabbath Day
vs 14

In vs14 the synagogue leader does not rebuke Jesus or address him directly, possibly because he has heard that Jesus has outdone other religious leaders when challenged directly. When I wrote this, I couldn’t help but think on RMT leader Mick Lynch who seems to have tied in knots every political commentator who’s tried to catch him out on something or other.

It’s interesting, too, that the synagogue leader doesn’t rebuke the woman who, after all, did not request this healing. Instead, he addresses the crowd, in the process delivering an indirect rebuke both to Jesus and to the woman. Even though we understand that he was wrong, we must admire his willingness to carry out what he believed to be his Godly responsibility to uphold the Sabbath even at the risk of having to match wits with Jesus.

“There are six days for work.” (vs14b). The Fourth Commandment (Exodus 20:8-11; Deuteronomy 5:12-15) prohibits work on the Sabbath. It cites the example of God, who rested on the seventh day, and requires that the day be kept holy. Not only are Jewish people prohibited from working on the Sabbath, but they are also prohibited from working their servants or animals. Sabbath and food regulations, more than anything, help to define the Jewish people. What constitutes work on the Sabbath is an ongoing discussion among rabbis, who have codified elaborate rules for proper observation of the Sabbath.

“So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath” (vs14c). The synagogue leader’s complaint is rooted in the chronic nature of this woman’s illness. She has been suffering for eighteen years, is not acutely ill, and is in no danger of dying. Sabbath laws prohibit travel on the Sabbath, so she and Jesus will be in town when the Sabbath ends. The purpose of the Sabbath is to honour God, so why can’t Jesus honour God by keeping the Sabbath holy (free from work) and heal the woman once the Sabbath is ended? Good question! If the healing were to be delayed for a few hours, the Sabbath would be honoured, and the woman would be healed – two for the price of one!

We have become so accustomed to this story that we too easily dismiss the honest, if misguided, concerns of the synagogue leader. If this man wasn’t the leader of the synagogue, this story would lose force. But he holds a responsible position and is trying to uphold what he understands to be holy. What he fails to understand is that acts of compassion are holy. It is as if the Torah, intended to reveal God’s will, has become a veil over his eyes.

Jesus has sharp words for this man, but he also has sharp words for Martha (10:41-42), Peter (Matthew 16:23), and his own mother (Luke 2:49; 8:21; John 2:4). The fact that Jesus rebukes a person does not necessarily mean that the person is mistaken.

Every person in a position of authority struggles with appropriate limits and enforcement of standards. Where do you draw the line?

What exceptions do you allow? What consequences do you impose for failure to meet standards? Parents, teachers, employers, supervisors, police, and religious leaders struggle with such issues. In this story, Jesus calls us not to cling to the rules to the extent that we lose sight of the person in need.

It is a Godly thing to help such a person. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).

Should Not This Woman Be Set Free?
vs 15-16

“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?” (vs 15). The word “hypocrites” is plural, so Jesus is speaking to this man and those who share his mindset. The synagogue leader addressed his criticism to the crowd rather than to Jesus, but Jesus responds directly to him and his kind. If the synagogue leader intended to establish his authority by addressing the crowd, Jesus quickly establishes that it is he rather than the synagogue leader who is in charge. The hypocrisy of the synagogue leader has to do with his inconsistency:

  • The leader believes that the Torah permits helping animals on the Sabbath – but not humans.
  • The leader believes that it is acceptable on the Sabbath to free an animal that has been confined for a few hours but unacceptable to free a woman who has been bound for eighteen years.
  • The leader presumably believes that it is holy to “love kindness” (Micah 6:8), but not on the holy Sabbath.
  • The leader believes that it violates Torah law to free a woman from Satan’s bondage on the Sabbath.

“… 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?” (vs16). Jesus doesn’t dwell on the fact that Satan has caused the women to have this affliction. Sometimes God allows Satan to harm his people so that he can refine their characters. The prime example is of Job who suffers greatly at the hands of Satan. But Rather than violating Sabbath law, freeing this woman is consistent with Sabbath intention and enhances rather than diminishes Sabbath observance.

Earlier, Jesus warned people not to think that they could neglect repentance because they were children of Abraham. He warned, “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (3:8). This does not mean that it is inconsequential to be a son or daughter of Abraham, but that true sonship/daughter ship involves more than physical lineage.

Jesus argues from the lesser to the greater. If it is right to free an ox or donkey on the Sabbath, it must be right to free a daughter of Abraham whom Satan has bound. It is holy work to show compassion on the Sabbath. It is holy work to defeat Satan on the Sabbath.

And All The People Rejoiced
vs 17

“When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated,” (v17a). Jesus wins this round. His opponents are shamed  “but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing.” The crowd is made up of ordinary people who know what it means to suffer. They can easily identify with the woman who has suffered so long. They rejoice at her release from crippling disease – and also at the synagogue leader’s uneasiness. Ordinary people often suffer at the hands of rigid authority, and they have surely felt the sting of this man’s pronouncements from-on-high. They are delighted at seeing him put in his place.

Last week we heard how Jesus said: “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.” (12:49-51). Now we see that principle demonstrated and this division will persist throughout Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem.

We can imagine the smouldering anger of Jesus’ opponents, who will not forget this public humiliation. At the moment, they are helpless to retaliate, but their time will come.

During a time of personal suffering human beings need the support of other people. We live in a messed-up world and at some point, in our lives it is very likely each one of us will suffer pain. It may be physical pain or emotional pain – or it may be both. Pain-free living is very rare. Who can you support at this time who is going through a difficult time and needs the faith that you have to see them through?

A Prayer

Lord if we had a small part of the faith you have in us, our world would be

Lord if we showed a fraction of the love that you show to us, our world would be

Lord if we possessed a part of the patience that you give to us then this world would
be transformed.

Lord if we shared just a portion of the blessings that we receive from you then this
world would be transformed.

Lord if we showed as much trust in others as you have shown in us then this world
would be transformed.

Lord if we claimed just a fraction of the power you promised to your Church then this
world would be transformed.

Transform us first, Lord, that we might transform this world.

(The Salvation Army)