For the forty-some years I’ve known my mother-in-law, she hasn’t been able to stand up straight. She has scoliosis, which makes her hips uneven. Scoliosis can cause numbness and pain in the back and legs, but it’s never seemed to slow her down at all. I don’t know whether that’s because she hasn’t experienced those symptoms or simply because she’s determined to do all that she possibly can do, even now that she’s turned ninety. But it did affect her life in some ways that I know of. Buying clothes was always a challenge because she had to look for things that could accommodate the s-shaped curve in her spine.
The woman who showed up in the synagogue on that sabbath day so long ago couldn’t stand up straight, either. But, she had a different problem. Unlike my mother-in-law, the woman in the synagogue was bent over from front to back, so that she was facing the ground. She’d been like that for eighteen years.
Her condition would have affected every part of her life. It must have been hard to swallow, without the help of gravity to move food down her throat. And how in the world could she have taken a drink? Did they have straws in ancient times? My father-in-law once told me that a cure for hiccups was to bend over and drink some water out of the far side of the glass, which of course is impossible to do without pouring water all down your front. He thought that was a pretty funny joke. But getting enough to drink would have been no joke for that poor woman. Even getting enough air into her lungs would have been hard.
We don’t know how old she was when she developed this problem. We don’t know whether she was married or had children or had a family to support her. But we do know that mental and physical illness and disability carried with them the risk of being ostracized, as they still do to some extent today. A suitable marriage might have been hard to arrange if her condition had begun when she was a young girl. Work would have been hard to come by.
She wouldn’t have been able to see the faces around her—to see the smiles she would want to share, or tears she’d want to wipe away, or fear she would want to dispel. Imagine the loneliness she must have felt when someone said, “Oh, look at that sunset!” or “What a beautiful bird in the top of that tree!” or “What a magnificent building!” As everyone else oohed and ahhed, she would have seen only the dirt at her feet or whatever was in her peripheral vison as she turned her head.
Maybe she had an experience like that on that fateful sabbath day. The crowds following Jesus had been growing, so he must have caused some excitement when he arrived in her town. Maybe she heard someone say, “Look, it’s Jesus!” As he passed by, all she would have seen were indistinguishable legs and feet—no different from the legs and feet she’d been looking at for the past eighteen years.
But maybe she also heard them talking about others Jesus had healed—a paralytic, a man with a demon, a Roman’s ailing servant. Maybe she heard that Jesus cared about women—that he had restored a little girl to life and healed a woman who had been bleeding for twelve years. In fact, maybe they were women’s voices that she was hearing—the women who travelled with Jesus as his friends and supporters. Maybe all that ignited a spark of hope in her—that here was someone who could help her out of the crippling condition she had suffered from for so long.
She went to the synagogue where he was teaching. I wonder if she’d been in that synagogue many times before. Maybe she was a regular worshiper there, but no one paid any attention to her—a woman whose disability led people to assume that she was as disabled in mind and spirit as she was in body and so not worth an investment of time and attention. Maybe she tried to avoid the notice of others, reluctant to endure their pity or scorn, their curiosity or disapproval.
Our translation says that she “appeared” there. But the way Luke writes it is more emphatic. “Look!” he says. “Look at that woman! Pay attention to her.” And so, we all turn our attention toward her as Jesus does. He calls her to him, and he says those memorable words: “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” Like a prisoner whose jail cell door has been flung open, she is free to go. Then, having announced her freedom, Jesus lays his hands on her and blesses what has happened. Freed and blessed, the woman stands up straight and begins praising the God who was standing right in front of her and was probably the first face she saw when she stood up straight for the first time in eighteen years.
When I was a young girl, my mother had the most annoying habit. I’d be sitting at the kitchen table, or just standing where she might be passing by, and she would put her hands on my shoulders and yank them back, and she’d say, “Pull your shoulders back! Don’t slouch! Sit up straight! Stand up straight!” And if that wasn’t bad enough, she had her best friend Jackie doing it, too! It was like they were on this mission to make me the poster child for good posture. Oh, I hated it when they did that.
But it turns out, they were doing me a real favor. Because, there’s a condition called kyphosis. There really is a condition that, in its most severe forms, can bend a sufferer nearly in half. In its less severe forms, the shoulders and neck are rounded, and the sufferer’s face points downward. This condition can have medical causes, but it can also be caused by the years of poor posture—from years of slouching or carrying a too-heavy burden.
We don’t know what led to the woman’s kyphosis. It may have had a medical cause. But Luke tells us that it was a spirit that had crippled her all those years. So, I’m going to go out on a limb here with a diagnosis. I suggest to you that years of poor posture had led to her complete inability to stand up straight. But, what caused this poor posture—the shoulders curved protectively toward her chest, the head bent downward? What kept her from lifting her head and standing erect? I imagine they were the same reasons we have for our own drooping shoulders and hanging heads.
She may have had a spirit of low self-esteem—brought on by years of being told she wasn’t good enough, that she wasn’t lovable, that she wasn’t pretty or talented or smart. She may have felt like an outsider—that she didn’t fit in—even before her back began to curve, for any number of reasons. Maybe she had done things in her life she wished she hadn’t, or was embarrassed by her own shortcomings, adding guilt and shame to the mix. Looking at the floor was preferable to looking her detractors in the eye, and the more she avoided their gaze, the less she was able to stand up straight before them.
She may have been carrying heavy spiritual, emotional, or physical burdens, and her spirit was one of exhaustion. A sick family member, the death of a loved one, a struggling child, an alcoholic husband, financial insecurity, cherished dreams for the future denied—any of the situations we might find ourselves in. All of these weigh us down and curve our bodies and our spirits, like the children we see walking to school, bent under the weight of enormous and overly-full backpacks.
Like us, she lived in a world full of conflict. There was conflict between religious factions. There was political conflict. There was a large gap between rich and poor. There was hostility between ethnic groups. Perhaps these big problems weighed her down like bad news about local, national, and international problems can weigh us down with a spirit of discouragement or helplessness. There’s a reason we sometimes say we feel like we’re carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders. Sometimes we are, and that weight can burden our spirits.
The woman walks into the synagogue with a spirit that keeps her from standing up straight, just as we may walk into this place with spirits that cause our shoulders to droop and our heads to hang, emotionally or spiritually if not physically. Jesus calls her to him and speaks a healing word to her. And the good news is that Jesus has the same healing word for each of us.
When we place ourselves in Jesus’ presence, he sees all the spirits that keep us from standing up straight, and he has the antidote for those spirits. For the spirits of fear and discouragement and the insecurity that make us fear rejection, he offers us his love and acceptance. For the spirit of worry that keeps us up at night and the grinding demands that leave us too tired to stand up straight during the day, he promises that he will always be with us, yoked with us, lightening the weight of our burdens by sharing them with us. To the spirits that beat us down, wear us down, and tear us down, he offers us the confidence we need to stand up straight—the confidence that comes with his assurance that through our faith in him, we are nothing less than children of God. In Jesus we can find the healing that allows us to stand up straight—healing that should lead us directly to praising God whom we see in Jesus as we stand before him, looking straight into his face.
But, as we rightfully join in the woman in praising God for the gift of healing, we also need to remember that the healing of the woman is only half of the story Luke tells. The other half is about the Pharisees who are looking on. Sadly, the Pharisees, who were so indignant at Jesus’ healing the woman on the Sabbath, were unable to see that they, too, needed healing. They, too, were bent over, burdened by rules and traditions and expectations that made it impossible for them to see the face of God in the one who was standing right in from of them. They were so used to their own bent-over-ness that they weren’t able to see or accept the healing that Jesus was willing to give, to them or to others.
Speaking for the Pharisees, the leader of the synagogue chastises Jesus for healing the woman on the Sabbath. He doesn’t criticize the healing itself. But the timing’s not right, in his opinion. There are other, more appropriate times to take care of what ails this woman—times when her healing won’t stir things up, when it won’t upset expectations or the accepted ways of doing things.
We need to pay attention to this part of the story, too. Because, as often as we may rejoice in our own healing, we may be the cause of someone else’s bent-over spirit. Just as the Pharisees were busy laying heavy burdens on others, as Luke tells us earlier in the gospel, we may be laying heavy burdens on others. We may be the ones whose attitudes, if not our words and actions, are causing someone else’s shoulders to curve and head to droop. We may be the ones piling on the weight of disapproval, exclusion, or unreasonable expectations.
Out of our desire to maintain a status quo that works for us, we may be the modern-day Pharisees who react to someone else’s attempts to stand up straight the same way the ancient Pharisees did. Think about the politicians whose response after every mass shooting is “it’s too soon to talk about gun control.” Think about the outraged responses to the NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem to protest racism: it’s not appropriate at a football game. Think about the responses to the disabled who want access to jobs and buildings: it’s too expensive and too inconvenient.
Think of your response to any person or group of people whose efforts to stand up straight may require you to change how you think or act. Do you cheer them on, praising God for their healing as you do for your own? Or, would Jesus respond to you as he did to the indignant leader of the synagogue: “You hypocrites, who are willing to break the rules to care for an animal on the sabbath . . . ought not this person—this group of people—be set free from this bondage, even if it’s not how and when you think is right?” Jesus offers all of us the healing we need so that we can stand up straight, and he challenges us to accept his healing of others on his terms, not ours.
As I think back to how my mom enlisted her friend Jackie to help her with her good posture project, I’ve realized that Jesus did the same thing in his mission to help the world stand up straight. He got his friends involved, too. The gospel writers gave us Jesus’ healing words. Paul and the other epistle writers gave us letters full of the reasons we have to stand tall: our belovedness in God’s eyes, our status as heirs with Jesus of the kingdom of God, our value as treasured members of Christ’s own body. And, their letters are full of instructions on how to live a standing-up-straight life—lives of dignity and confidence and strength.
And, Jesus didn’t stop with those ancient friends. He calls and empowers each of us, who have been healed through his love and grace, to help others stand up straight. We are to do for others what Mom and Jackie did for me—have a genuine desire that each person stand tall and proud in Jesus’ healing strength, and do what we can to help them. Remembering Paul’s words to the Galatians, we bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
So, pull those shoulders back! Stand up straight! Look right into the face of Jesus, who offers healing and blessing. Praise God for the healing you have experienced. Then, look around for those who are still bent over, ease the load from their backs, and tell them of the love of Jesus that heals and blesses. As we do, his opponents will be put to shame, and the entire world will rejoice in all the wonderful things that he is doing. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young