Sabbath for the bent and the bound

Many of us have watched the athletes. We saw Simone Biles jumping, flipping, landing, stretching and bending to accomplish great feats on the floor and up in the air. We saw Usain Bolt charging down the track like lightning, turning to the crowd with a beautiful smile, and then pointing up and bending back for his signature pose. We saw Ryan Lochte in the pool, gliding through the water like one who was born to swim, and then we witnessed him bending the truth into an embarrassing fabrication of lies. It wasn’t difficult these past few days to hear echoes of “bending” on the news, stories of bodies bending to accomplish greatness, stories of the truth being bent to escape accountability, stories of the rules not being bent for the sake of fairness. On Thursday the Department of Justice announced that the use of private prisons in the federal prison system would be phased out. I was surprised and very glad and I said to a friend, “If only the states would follow suit …,” and he responded, “the arc of the moral universe is long…,” inviting me to complete the sentence, “… but it bends towards justice.”[1]

I had the woman from Luke’s story on my mind, a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years; a woman who was bent over by powers that rendered her quite unable to stand up straight. “Bound by Satan,” Jesus called it, careful not to name her that way, but rather all the things and forces that kept her from being who she was, namely a daughter of Abraham, a member of the covenant community, a child of the promise, an heir of the kingdom. “Bound by Satan” may still bring up images of a horned fellow with a tail, but they are easy to dismiss as mythical, pre-rational attempts to explain evil in the world. To me the image is not meant to explain, but to give a name to those things and experiences that render us less alive in body, mind and soul than we are meant to be and want to be. When I think about these crippling forces, I continue to return to a room at a nice conference center, where many years ago we had gathered for a weekend workshop. We were colleagues – pastors, chaplains, counselors and therapists – sitting in a circle, all of us facing to the middle, where a young woman was sitting alone on a chair. The workshop leader had asked us to name the spirits that cripple human beings, to name the powers that bend human beings, to name the forces under whose oppressive weight we struggle to maintain a sense of agency and freedom and hope. And she challenged us not to list the big abstracts we’re all too familiar with, names like “poverty,” “racism,” or “sexism.” Instead, we were to recall words and phrases we had heard over the years, images we had seen, scenes we had observed or lived through; we were to recall the seemingly small, daily things that cast shadows on our identity as creatures made in the image of God. There were a couple of baskets with scarfs and shawls, and every time one of us recalled a scene and named a power that bends human beings, he or she placed a shawl over the young woman’s head. The shawls were light as gossamer, almost weightless, but there were many. Layer upon layer covered her head, her arms and shoulders, and soon she began to bend under the weight, unable to see, struggling to breathe. She disappeared. We could barely hear her voice from behind the thick veil. She was no longer present as a person, but merely as a barely visible body, bent by crippling spirits, bound by Satan.

The woman who appeared in the synagogue where Jesus taught on that Sabbath had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. We don’t know how old she was, if she was in her 20’s or 40’s. We don’t know if she was married or not, if she had children or not, if she came from a wealthy home or if she had to beg for food. All we know about her is that for eighteen years she was bent over and quite unable to stand up straight. She could not walk upright. She could only see so far; her horizon had narrowed. She could direct her gaze only to the ground below. I wonder if her neighbors had gotten used to her being bent; if they took notice of her or if she always stayed below their line of sight. I wonder what nicknames the children may have made up for her; did they tease her from across the street or whisper behind her back? I wonder if she was in constant pain. Eighteen years of this must have redefined normal for her, perhaps she could not even imagine anymore any other way of seeing or being in the world. But Jesus could and did.

When she appeared in the synagogue he saw her and called her over. I believe he called her to make sure everybody in the room took notice. It was customary for the teacher giving the sabbath talk to sit in a chair at the front. I believe he called her over instead of getting up and walking over to her because her appearance was not an interruption of his teaching; she was part of his sabbath proclamation and possibly the most important part of it. “Woman, you are set free from your ailment,” he said to her and laid his hands on her. That’s all he did, proclaim her freedom and touch her. And she rose, slowly, I imagine, like a leaf uncurling in the morning sun, until she stood upright with her head held high, words of wonder and praise pouring from her lips. What a joyous moment it was! Only joy had to wait.

The synagogue leader was indignant; he too was bent, contorted by questions and the complexities of wanting to live faithfully in a complicated world:

There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.

Couldn’t she wait till tomorrow? Isn’t healing on God’s holy sabbath blasphemy? The seventh day was set aside by God for rest, and keeping it holy meant refraining from work. For one day each week, God’s people were to live not by the work of their hands, but solely by the gifts of God. For one day each week, God’s people were to experience the freedom of complete dependence on God. This synagogue leader wasn’t just a joyless rule enforcer; he had the holiness of God’s word and the holiness of God’s people on his mind and in his heart. Healing on the sabbath was a difficult topic. The common understanding of the sabbath commandment was that medical emergencies could be and even had to be attended, but that chronic illnesses were a different matter. Non-emergencies could wait. In the leader’s mind, Jesus could have said, “Woman, come and see me tomorrow.” After eighteen years, what’s one more day?

But Jesus didn’t wait. Who wouldn’t untie their ox or donkey from the manger on the sabbath in order to lead them away to give them water? Untying farm animals and leading them to the water on the sabbath was common practice, and not only was it considered permissible but necessary for the animals’ well-being. If we can see the need to untie a thirsty animal, Jesus argued, how can we not see the need for a human being to be unbound and released to her full humanity?

Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?

At the beginning of his ministry, on a sabbath in his hometown synagogue, Jesus read from Isaiah, “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 favor.” And then he sat down to teach, and he said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:18-21). Today, he said. It was time for every child of Abraham to taste the sweetness of sabbath. It was time for every son and daughter of Abraham to be set free from bondage: releasing the captives didn’t compromise the holiness of the sabbath day – on the contrary, it finally brought the peace and joy of sabbath to the bent and the bound. Yes, the sabbath is a day of rest for the weary and a day of remembrance for the forgetful, but the sabbath is also a promise, a foretaste of that seventh day when humanity and all of creation are at peace with God and with each other.

And Jesus said, today, not someday. Today it begins, he said in his first sabbath sermon. Healing the bent woman was not a sabbath violation but its fulfillment for her, and for the rest of us, it is the announcement of what has begun: the redemption of creation, the liberation of humanity from all that cripples, binds, and diminishes us.

The way we see her stand erect today, the praise of God pouring from her lips like water from spring, all will stand and raise up their heads and sing. Yes, we still struggle, but we sing of hope. Yes, there’s much that weighs us down in this world bent by unbending ways, but we sing of courage and mercy. We sing of the One who bends towards us with great tenderness and the power to make whole. We sing of the One who is making all things new.


[1] Famously and appropriately attributed to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; the metaphor goes back to New England pastor and abolitionist, Theodore Parker (1810-1860), “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

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