On the night of December 16th 1773 a small group of men banded together, boarded three merchant ships in Boston Harbour and dumped 342 chests of tea over the side. This group of men, who called themselves the Sons of Liberty, took this action because of their anger at the tax policies of the British Government.
But it’s only as we look at this act in the context of history – in other words, it’s only as we look at it against the backdrop of the big picture – that we see its true significance. The ‘Boston Tea Party’ was not just an isolated incident; rather, it was the first act of what became known as the American War of Independence. And unless we see this act against this bigger picture, we’ll never understand its true meaning and significance.
We need to see the story in today’s Gospel in the same way. What does this story mean? If we look at the small picture, this is an act of love and grace in which Jesus healed a woman who had suffered for eighteen years from some form of curvature of the spine. In itself this is wonderful enough, but Luke is inviting us to see it in terms of the big picture too. This is not just an isolated healing; rather, it’s a significant victory in Jesus’ war of liberation against the forces of evil. Jesus invites us to see this woman’s illness against the background of a larger picture, the picture of Satan’s work of binding people up. He invites us to see his healing of this woman as a sign of how the Kingdom of God works to transform the world and set people free. As we remind ourselves of the story, let’s keep this bigger picture in mind.
Jesus is teaching in a synagogue. He would be sitting at the front giving his sermon, and close beside him would be the ruler of the synagogue, the elder who was responsible for ensuring that the teaching given was sound and orthodox. As Jesus is teaching, a woman appears in the synagogue; she is bent over and unable to straighten up. We can assume that this is a small community and that the woman is known to the people in the synagogue that day; they would know that she has struggled with this disability for eighteen years. Luke, who was a doctor, describes her symptoms for us in some detail, but he also attributes them to a deeper cause; he says that she had ‘a spirit that had crippled her’ (Luke 13:11). Jesus stops in the middle of his sermon and calls her to the front. He speaks words of freedom to her, lays his hands on her, and immediately, for the first time in eighteen years, she’s able to straighten up and look someone in the eye.
The ruler of the synagogue immediately challenges Jesus, and he appeals to the people to back him up. “There are six days in which you can heal people”, he says; “come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath!” Jesus recognizes in the ruler’s words an allusion to Deuteronomy 5:13-14:
‘For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work – you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey…’
So in his reply to the ruler of the synagogue, Jesus points out that the text doesn’t just forbid work by humans; oxen and donkeys are also forbidden to work on the Sabbath! However, there isn’t a man in the synagogue that day who would think twice about setting his ox or his donkey free on the Sabbath so that they could go and get a drink! So why then should he, Jesus, not set this woman free from Satan’s bondage so that she can taste the life God planned for her from the beginning?
Okay, that’s the close-up view. Now, let’s step back and look at the big picture. Let’s start by looking at the big picture about the work of evil in the world. Doctor Luke uses language in this passage that might make some of us uncomfortable. He describes the woman’s symptoms in some detail: she ‘was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight’ (v.11). However, he seems to be more interested in the cause of her illness; he says that she had ‘a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years’ (v.11).
Is he then telling us that, in his view, an evil spirit had caused this illness? At first sight it certainly seems as if he is. But when we look a little closer we might want to think again. This story doesn’t read like other stories in the gospels in which Jesus sets people free from the power of evil spirits. Jesus doesn’t speak a word of rebuke to the evil spirit. There is no sign that the evil spirit convulsed the woman before coming out, and, most telling of all, Jesus lays hands on this woman, which he never does in stories of deliverance from demons.
Because of these details I believe that Luke is not intending us to believe that this illness is specifically caused by a demon. What I think he’s doing is to invite us to see illness in general as one of the signs of the devil’s activity in the world. God’s original plan for creation did not include diseases and illnesses. Disease is one of the ways that Satan binds us. Of course there are many other ways too – war and violence, compulsive habits, fears, injustice, oppression and so on. These are not just isolated incidents of bad luck; they are also evidence of the power of evil at work in the world.
Evil has a strange fascination for some people. C.S. Lewis, the great Christian writer, admitted that as a young man he had a fascination with the occult. However, in his twenties he had an experience with a close relative who was deeply involved with the occult and whose mind was destroyed by it; the man eventually died in an asylum. This experience opened Lewis’ eyes to the true nature of what was going on. And in the same way Jesus is opening our eyes in this passage. You see this woman? You see how she is bound up by her illness? This is what the power of evil does to human beings – it binds us, it cripples us, it wants to destroy us.
And we need to hear this message. Evil does sometimes seem exciting and fascinating, and people are drawn to it like moths to a flame. I’m reminded of the conversation between Eve and the serpent in the garden of Eden, as he argues with her that, no, it wouldn’t be a bad thing for her to eat the fruit – in fact, it would do wonderful things for her. Her eyes would be opened and she’d be able to decide for herself what’s right and wrong, without asking God. She would finally be free, like a little god herself! But of course we all know that what actually happened to the human race was a far cry from this glowing picture.
Jesus is pointing to this bent up woman and saying, this is what evil does to us: it binds us up and devours us. This is the big picture of the devil’s work in the world.
But of course there’s another big picture God wants us to see: the big picture about Jesus’ work. Remember our illustration of the Boston Tea Party in 1773; its true significance was not just as an isolated event, but as the opening act of a war which led to the founding of the United States of America. And in the same way, the story of the healing of this woman is not just about her life; rather, it’s part of the story of how the kingdom of God triumphs over the power of evil. That’s why Jesus adds an explanation at the end, after today’s reading, in verses 18-21:
He said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches”. And again he said, “To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened”.
Jesus saw the kingdom of God working in a gradual way to transform the world. It starts with a small seed, which gradually grows until it is a tree big enough for birds to nest in. It starts with a handful of yeast, which works gradually in the flour until the whole lump has been leavened.
In this gradual process, every healing is a small victory for the kingdom of God. Every healing is evidence that the power of evil is being broken as it comes face to face with the power of the Son of God. This gradual growth does not mean that God is impotent. Far from it! The day of complete deliverance will certainly come, the day when the tree will be fully grown, when the lump is fully leavened. On that day the world, and the humans in it, will be completely free from all that binds us, and we will experience life as God dreamed of it in the first place.
God’s laws were given to help us in this process of growing into freedom. One of the things that bind us as humans is our addiction to work, our unwillingness to rest and trust God, and our addiction to the good things we can buy as a result of our compulsive overworking. And so God gives us the Sabbath commandment: we’re to work for six days, then take a day when we can rest from economic activity and focus on God. This commandment is a priceless gift that helps us grow into true freedom.
But legalism abuses this commandment. Instead of focusing on freedom, it focuses on the details of what can and can’t be done on the Sabbath. What does this man think he’s doing, healing people on the Sabbath – that’s work! But once the goal of the Sabbath is recognised – the goal of helping us to grow into the freedom God wants for us – then all problems of Jesus healing on the Sabbath disappear. Jesus isn’t a businessman who is so addicted to work and materialism that he can’t even take one day in seven to turn of his Blackberry and rest, and focus on the things that really matter. Jesus is focusing on the things that really matter; he is healing people, so that they may know the freedom which is God’s dream for them.
Now, how does this story apply to our lives today? What insights can we gain from it about the way God works?
This woman was bound by a disease that caused her spine to curve so that she could not stand upright. This was the form of bondage the Devil used to cheat her out of the life God wanted for her. But there are other forms of bondage too, which are not so obvious. What binds you? What binds me? What prevents us from standing up straight in a spiritual sense, as free human beings able to enjoy life as God planned it for us?
Let me give you one suggestion. As you know, Jesus has a lot to say about forgiveness, about loving our enemies and turning the other cheek and so on. And as I look at the world situation today, I have to say that I think Jesus’ point has been proved over and over again. Retaliation always seems to lead to further retaliation. Wars to end all wars never actually end all wars – they just make people angry and stoke up the flames for the next conflict.
But I want to focus this on the individual level. I have known people, and I’m sure you have as well, who just do not seem to be able to let go of a particular resentment. Someone has done something to them, something so bad that they just refuse to forgive. And as I watch them, it’s very clear to me that the one who refuses to forgive is the one who is suffering the most from this. It’s shriveling up their spirit, turning them into a cold and angry and resentful human being. It’s binding them up and hindering them from becoming all that God wants them to be.
Well, this is a fairly common form of spiritual bondage, and for some people, it’s been with them for a lot longer than eighteen years. And if that’s you or me, then I know that Jesus is asking us today if we want to be free. Of course, part of us won’t want to let go of this bondage, but Jesus is inviting us to have faith in him, to trust that he really does love us and wants the best for us.
And of course the big picture is that this is not just about you or me as individuals. Every little victory for God’s kingdom in my life is also a victory in the great war of liberation against evil. Every step each of us can take into freedom increases our effectiveness as Christians and helps us to play our part in that struggle.
Well, of course, I don’t know what particular kind of bondage each of us may be struggling with at this point in our Christian lives. Whatever it is, Jesus wants to help us grow into freedom from it. As surely as his power was able to set this woman free, so his power can set us free too. It might not happen in an instant, as it did with this woman. It might be more like a seed growing into a tree, or a tiny bit of yeast gradually leavening a handful of flour. Whether it happens gradually or suddenly, it can happen for you and me - even in that dark area of our life where we’ve given up hoping that God can ever do anything.
So as we come to God in prayer today, let’s bring our own particular forms of bondage to Jesus. He is present with us here, just as he promised. As we know his presence in our hearts, let’s ask him to continue the work of setting us free from all that binds us, so that, like this woman, we can stand up straight and tall and walk out into God’s world as free people, enjoying the life that God planned for us on the day when he created us in the first place.