August 21, 2016

One thing the gospels make very clear is that Jesus had a profound effect on people. People of all kinds who encountered him were never the same again.

The incident recorded in today’s reading in Luke is one such instance.

Earlier in the Gospel Jesus has already proclaimed himself “Lord of the Sabbath” and determined that healing on the Sabbath is actually “to do God’s will.” So we should not be surprised that Jesus again chooses to go against the religious rules of the day when he encounters someone in need in order to help them.

Jesus finds himself in what appears to his audience to be bit of a quandary. While he is teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath, there appears before him an unnamed woman “who has had a spirit of infirmity” or weakness, for eighteen years. Seeing her, Jesus has a decision to make. Will he heal her and violate the oral law pertaining to the Sabbath, or will he attend to the Sabbath restrictions and withhold the help she needs? You might recall how Jesus began his public ministry in Luke in a synagogue in his hometown where he read from the prophet 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 remarkably added, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus’ choice has already been made; he must heal her.

Luke describes the healing in two parts. Initially Jesus makes a pronouncement that this woman has been “set free” from the weakness that has crippled her. Yet the healing is not complete until Jesus lays his hands on her. This seemingly unnecessary second step distinguishes this miracle from the previous healing narratives where Jesus simply gives a command and the healing is accomplished. In this situation, Jesus two-part healing allows him to touch a woman who is unclean and thereby restore her socially as well as physically. Remember, Jesus had a habit of touching unclean people, a leper, a dead person he brings back to life, and he is touched by a woman who had been bleeding for a dozen years. All of these instances would have conveyed uncleanness to Jesus and yet he insists on touching those whom society deems untouchable.

Touching says symbolically that Jesus does not care for his own sake that those he heals are viewed as unclean and that he will not allow the threat to his own acceptance by the religious authorities keep him from healing and restoring those who have been marginalized. In each of these instances Jesus touch represents fellowship for those whose ailments have separated them from human compassion and contact. Jesus touch is their welcome back into the community.

But we know from other reports of Jesus' healing episodes that Jesus did much more than that. The report says that Jesus "saw her." My hunch is that Jesus didn't just "see" her; he looked at her, deep into her, with compassion.

This woman was so ill with her infirmity that she couldn't even stand up straight. I wonder if she could even make eye contact? One can only guess what had gone on in this woman's life to cause her to be so misshapen and that was Jesus' concern. So he looked at her in such a way as to embrace her whole life and being.

Jesus knew what modern medical science has discovered--that one's physical condition is often affected by one's emotional state. Perhaps her self-esteem was so damaged by eighteen years of being put down, undervalued, and ridiculed that she no doubt felt she didn't deserve to stand tall. After all, she didn't feel she could ask Jesus to heal her. He was the one who made the first move.

The way Jesus looked at her and put his hand on her communicated the message that Jesus spent his entire ministry to convey--that God loves exactly who she is and she is worth infinitely more than her condition had allowed her to be. That brought about a change in this woman. Her weakness was healed and "immediately she was made straight." But she was more than changed--she was transformed. She had become a person again, someone who could take her place in the community again. Someone who could be welcomed back to life!

There is a degree to which her story, I suspect, is our story. Most of us, if not all of us, have heard messages about ourselves, have endured actions and attitudes toward ourselves that hurt us badly and caused us physically and emotionally to stoop our shoulders, be disappointed in ourselves, perhaps even lose hope in our possibilities. We are in need of that same healing touch, for someone to see us for who we really are and love us in spite of ourselves.

It's because of Jesus that I know God to be a God who not only loves me beyond measure but believes in me, believes in my capacity to become the person God created me to me. And that is true of every single person here today, including you. Opening ourselves to the loving gaze and healing touch of Jesus helps that message to come through to us. No matter who we are or where we are in our lives, we need not just some changes, we need a transformation, becoming who we are meant to be, which doesn't mean becoming someone we're not, but becoming who we genuinely are.

Now it's ironic that in this gospel report the very next thing that happened, after this woman's transforming experience, is that Jesus was condemned for doing what he did. Why? Because it was the Sabbath day and that was the kind of work that should have been postponed for another day. Jesus responded quickly, noting that any of those present would surely have untied an animal and led it to water on the Sabbath, and why wasn't this woman's life of even greater value?

Jesus' objective was to call people to a new vision of the way things ought to be with themselves and with the world. He called it the Kingdom of God and he said it is "at hand," "within you," "in your midst." God’s benevolent rule is available to each of us and it is now our calling to spread that good news to everyone!

Amen.