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Luke 13:10-17 – Freedom on the Sabbath

Summary

In a synagogue, on the Sabbath, Jesus heals a woman with a severely crooked spine. His action sparks a debate with the synagogue leader concerning appropriate ways of honoring the Sabbath day.

Analysis

Several aspects of this scene relate to themes and ideas developed throughout Luke's Gospel. For example, the woman's deformity is characterized as bondage to Satan, the effects of "a spirit." This language does not necessarily mean that she is possessed by a demon, but the description reflects a common belief in the first century that one's physical and spiritual conditions were intricately related and never separable. The woman's posture also likely reflects her social condition: diminished and frail. Salvation for her means freedom from spiritual, physical, and social oppression, just as others in Luke find similar freedom through Jesus' activity.

No one insinuates that it was a bad idea for Jesus to heal the suffering woman. The issue is the timing, specifically the Sabbath day. The synagogue leader contends that healing on the Sabbath violates the command to observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, because healing constitutes work. When Jesus replies to the leader, he says that the issue is not about what constitutes "work." Rather, it is about the kinds of activities and aims that truly reflect the purpose of the Sabbath. Jesus notes that people rightly care for their livestock on the Sabbath. Nothing in the law forbids such basic acts of compassion. Jesus implies that his healing hardly breaks the law; instead, it upholds the foundational principles of the Sabbath laws. Healing appropriately reflects what the Sabbath is all about. The Sabbath commandment in Deuteronomy 5:12-15 roots Sabbath observance in God's commitment to bring people out of bondage. These verses emphasize giving everything in creation a Sabbath rest--including land, slaves, and livestock. The Sabbath exists, according to Deuteronomy 5, to proclaim God's commitment to renewal (what we might call wholeness) for all aspects of creation.

Jesus' point, therefore, is that if it is a good thing for a person to "untie" an ox or a donkey on the Sabbath in order to refresh it, even more so it is a good thing for him to "set free" a human being on the Sabbath in order to restore her. (The same Greek word translates as "untie" and "set free" in vv. 15-16, showing that Jesus is comparing two acts of "release" that are consistent with the Sabbath's purpose.) After all, the healed woman is a "daughter of Abraham," one with whom God has entered into a covenantal relationship. Jesus also contrasts the severity of her bondage to that of a tied-up ox or donkey. She has been bound by Satan for eighteen long years, making her circumstances even more exigent. What better day than the Sabbath, the day of renewal, to set her free at last?

Luke 13:10-17

Jesus Heals a Crippled Woman

10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’ 13When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.’ 15But the Lord answered him and said, ‘You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16And 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?’ 17When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

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10 February 2011

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