By Pastor Suzanne Clemenz
Scripture: Luke 13:10-17
Our scripture for today tells us that the miracle that Jesus performed in healing the woman whose back was bent over for 18 years occurred on the Sabbath while he was preaching in the synagogue. Here was a woman, likely a faithful member of her community who could be found in church on any given Sabbath, suddenly and miraculously transformed in a way that was going to bless her for the rest of her life. I’m guessing that she was not expecting the events of that day to happen to her. In my imagination, she was probably toward the middle or back of the crowd, simply watching from a reasonable spot that didn’t call attention to herself. Unlike the person healed in other miracle stories in the Bible, she was not calling out to Jesus for mercy or reaching out to try to touch him. She didn’t have friends or family there trying to get Jesus’s attention on her behalf. She wasn’t trying to position herself to be seen; she may even have been like some of us who are uncomfortable when we get called out in a crowd. I don’t believe this woman was expecting to be on the receiving end of Jesus’s compassion in a way that was going to change the trajectory of her life. But that is exactly what happened.
There are a lot of ways that we can approach and understand the miracle stories of Jesus. Often in our cultural context, we can’t help interpreting these stories through a rational framework that gets us bogged down in whether or not Jesus actually performed such-and-such a miracle. However, I find it helpful to remember that at the beginning of the first century, people fully believed that there were forces operating in the world that could enable people to do things that they couldn’t do on their own. The early hearers of this story wouldn’t have understood this healing as a supernatural act; they would have understood it as an amazing example of the power of healing forces in our world. It’s us as hearers in a different time and place that are at risk of questioning the story’s authenticity and getting distracted from the truth that the story reveals.
And this miracle, like all of Jesus’s healings, show us that God’s will for the world, that his nature and his plan for us, is defined by limitless love that reveals itself in compassion. Compassion is the thread that weaves through all of Jesus’s miracles. Regardless of the gender of the person needing healing, his or her social status in the community, whether or not the person asks for healing, whether or not the person professes faith, whether or not the need for healing is physical, social, or spiritual – Jesus is moved by the suffering of others and he responds in loving, concrete acts of healing.
But let’s look closely at the woman we read about in the thirteenth chapter of Luke. What can we learn about God’s compassion from her story? First, the fact that she is a woman matters. Women were not valued members of the community in Jesus’s time. They were legally the property of men. Very few women made it into the pages of the Bible. It is significant that there are miracle stories that involve women, because this is God’s way of proclaiming that in his kingdom, all genders are included, valued, and are a crucial part of God’s redeeming of humanity. This woman would have been especially vulnerable because of her disability. Her gender and her disability combined would have meant that not only did she likely experience almost two decades of physical pain, but she likely suffered socially and economically as well. Her healing reveals that God sees every single person, and that he is on the lookout for those who are suffering. And God sees all of her suffering. So Jesus calls her out. He calls her forward to him.
The initiative that Jesus takes in this story of healing reveals that God’s compassion compels him to act when we are in need. God doesn’t wait on us to reach out when we are suffering. Often when we are in pain, when we are burdened, we don’t have the energy or the confidence to call on God or on anyone, for that matter. Imagine how this woman probably felt after 18 years of being bent over, 18 years of pain, 18 years of not being able to look others in the eye, 18 years of isolation, 18 years of a depleted spirit. She likely held little hope that her circumstances would ever change. She must have heard about the healing wonders that Jesus was performing, but she did not approach him. She did not have enough hope to speak up for herself. But that did not sway Jesus’s compassion. Jesus’ compassion compelled him to take the first step and call her over to him.
While we don’t know exactly what caused the woman’s deformity, the biblical language that she “had been crippled by a spirit” suggests both physical and spiritual suffering. In her reflection on this miracle, pastor and spiritual director Flora Wuellner suggests that the woman’s physical disability had profound emotional, social, and spiritual components. Don’t we often find in life that when we experience a burden, and it could be an illness, an addiction, a broken relationship, a mistake that haunts us – whatever it is – that the burden can lead to feelings of shame or melancholy such that we feel constricted and diminished? We start to feel inferior, and we might think that those around us see us as inferior. When Jesus tells her that she is “set free,” she is truly released from everything that has held her down. Not only is she able to stand straight physically, but she can raise her head with dignity. Jesus desires to set her free in every possible way. And to make this clear to all those who are witnessing this healing, he calls her a “daughter of Abraham.” He announces to her community that she is a beloved member of a holy family, deserving of compassion and full humanity in every way.
God does not want any of us to live bent over or constricted. God does not want us to live in pain or isolation. Jesus makes clear in his compassionate response and his healing act that God intends for us to be healed and comforted, not just in a future heavenly time but in this life, in the here and now. And it is important for us to remember that after his resurrection, Jesus tells the disciples that with the power of the Holy Spirit, they will be able to perform acts of healing and mercy just as significant as the works of compassion that they have seen him perform. (More on this point in a few paragraphs.)
Another important detail of Jesus’s compassion toward this woman is that he heals her on the spot. It’s notable that at least half of the passage we read concerns the leader of the synagogue who is upset with Jesus for healing the woman on the Sabbath. Jewish law forbid work on the Sabbath, and Jesus’s healing act was considered a form of labor. Jesus is quite direct with the leader, and he doesn’t hesitate to call him a hypocrite. Jesus was always getting in trouble with the Jewish leaders for healing on the Sabbath. He tells the leader in front of the whole crowd, certainly you fetch water for your cattle on the Sabbath, don’t you? If you would meet the needs of an animal, then shouldn’t you certainly meet the need of a woman who has been suffering for 18 years? Why would you wait even one day? Jesus is making a powerful statement about God’s kingdom, and his actions are intended to show everyone watching that compassion occupies a central place in God’s law. Yes, there have been legitimate concerns in the past, like observing the Sabbath, but compassion for those in need takes precedence in the application of religious law. Jesus is showing us that God does not want his people to be in distress even one day longer if it can be helped. God’s preference is to have compassion and to attend to those who are suffering immediately.
While Jesus’s acts of compassion and healing clearly reveal a God who cares deeply for all people, and demonstrate that he has a special concern for those who are suffering, there are some who look at the state of the world and the extent of human suffering today and wonder where God is in all of this. The fact is, as Father Scott Lewis writes in a recent homily, that God has given us the blueprint for how to remake the world. And we do that foremost through compassion – through feelings and actions that have the power to heal our world. God wants us to grow in compassion and to choose to care about each other. We always have a choice. But God’s desire for us is that we become compassionate people who want everyone to have the security of a roof over their heads, who want everyone to have income sufficient for their needs, who want everyone to have access to treatment if they are sick, who want everyone to be able to move and breathe freely and without fear for their safety.
So much depends on how we understand how compassion is cultivated in us. If we envision it as a tank that is constantly at risk of running empty, and if we think that it’s all on us to keep replenishing the tank, then we are likely to find ourselves overwhelmed and depleted. And let’s face it – the opportunity to both extend compassion and be overwhelmed by the cries for compassion in our world is unparalleled right now. In a forum I watched with others on racial justice this past week, Rev. Dr. William Barber remarked that never before in our lifetime have we faced as much turbulence as we do right now. As a nation we are weathering a pandemic, an economic downturn, and massive moral outrage, all at the same time. The need for compassion is staggering. If we could live into our calling to be compassionate and be the church that God wants us to be in this moment – what a difference could be made in our world. Yet we are called to do this with care and wisdom.
We are limited in our capacity to be compassionate. It is our relationship and dependence on God that enables God’s compassion to flow through us to others in our attentiveness and in our caring, responsible action. This requires good spiritual habits in our lives, habits that help us discern well and make decisions for the wellbeing of ourselves and others. Moral theologian Richard Gula uses the notion “habits of the heart” to describe how we have to connect our heads, our heart, and our hands so that we become integrated, dynamic beings who rely on the power of the Holy Spirit to guide us in love and compassion. And when we are integrated in this way and trust in the ways of God, we are able to recognize in any given situation or encounter what is needed: What is the compassionate response that is required? We will be able to respond compassionately because this is who we have become by listening to God, by spending a lot of time with God, and having faith in God’s ways.
Compassion is then a habit that we have to cultivate. It involves both our minds and our hearts. As God’s loving power shapes us into people who are defined by compassion, we see and respond to the world, including the individual people we encounter on any given day. But more than that, our compassionate operating system enables us to see beyond individual experiences of suffering to look for underlying causes of suffering. We not only want to sooth the hunger pangs of our neighbor who is food insecure, but we are motivated to determine the cause of our neighbor’s hunger and do what we can to address the barrier that keeps our neighbor from having the food she needs. As Jesus shows us, acts of immediate compassion are absolutely necessary. And we are also called to examine and correct arrangements that lead to people’s suffering. I can assure you that without a compassionate “habit of the heart,” such challenging work is unlikely to be sustained or successful.
I am so grateful to my congregation at Trinity, as well as our conference superintendent Lore Blinn Gibson, for calling me to Trinity and for giving me the privilege of leading Trinity’s Caring Ministry. As I am getting to know you all and connecting with our neighbors, I see so many opportunities God is giving us to extend compassion. And I am inspired and humbled by the compassion that is alive in this church, by the ways in which you all respond to those in need. Many of you do the holy work of listening to friends who don’t need someone to give advice or solve problems, but just need a kind and caring presence and a nonjudgmental ear. Several at Trinity have opened their homes to people who have needed a place to land, a place to live. You have provided food and warm clothing for folks in their time of need. Many of you provide needed transportation. Out of your own hardships, some of you reach out to mentor and provide encouragement to others who are going through struggles that you know something about. And you all understand that we can be receivers of compassion and givers at the same time. Compassion begets compassion. We learn compassion through experiencing the compassionate acts of others, and we also experience God’s grace and blessing when we respond in compassion to another’s need.
Living compassionately in the way of Jesus is risky. We will feel others’ hurts. And we have to take care not to burnout. Compassion fatigue is real. This requires establishing healthy boundaries and taking care of our selves. We remember that God is the source of compassion, not us. This reliance also frees us from thinking we will ever do the work of compassion perfectly. That’s not our job.
As the prophet Isaiah reassures, “The Lord will always lead you, satisfy you in a parched land, and strengthen your bones. You will be like a watered garden and like a spring whose water never runs dry” (Isaiah 58:11). God’s compassion is infinite; it never ends; and it does not delay. Be encouraged today to receive God’s compassion and to be a caring and active force of compassion toward everyone God sends your way.
Wuellner, Flora Slosson. Miracle: When Christ Touches Our Deepest Need. Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2008.
Ruffing, Janet K. “Cultivating Compassion: Developing a Habit of Mercy and Recognizing Its Interruptions.” Human Development Magazine. Vol. 36 (Fall 2015): 36-47.
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