Luke 13:10-17, Do Not Trivialize God’s Grace

[August 25, 2013] With this week’s reading, we are in the midst of Luke’s unique account of Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem, a ten-chapter teaching-section that contains some material from Matthew but much that is new. One clue to Luke’s arrangement of his material in this section is to pay attention to who Jesus’ audiences are. After teaching His disciples (12:22-53), in 12:54 He began addressing the crowd again. We discussed 12:54-59 last week, and you will recall that Jesus is again calling on people—on Israel—to repent: that now is the time of their “visitation” (19:44). We are skipping over 13:1-8, but in those verses this message continues: you point out some terrible things that happened to certain people and assume that they got what they deserved, but I tell you, “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” He tells a parable: you are a fig tree that won’t bear fruit, the fruit of repentance. God will give you a little more time, but if you still bear nothing, you will be cut down. (The fig-tree is given three years in which to bear fruit, which, in Palestinian synagogues, was the length of the Torah lectionary cycle.) As I pointed out before, this theme is picked up again and brought to a temporary conclusion in 13:22-35.

So we see what the theme is. Why then, in the midst of this unit do we have the present story of the healing of a woman in a synagogue (13:10-17), followed by two parables (13:18-21) that we find originally in Matthew 13? Most commentaries seem to treat them as isolated periscopes, or only very loosely tied to the surrounding context. I cannot agree, for I have not found any of Luke’s gospel so lightly strung together (though I hope you do not find the connections I discover too farfetched).

Most of this unit is unique to Luke’s gospel. Luke 12:54-56 echoes Matthew 16:2-3 but the parallelism is weak, and Luke 12:57-59 echoes Matthew 5:25-26 but the context changes the meaning. Luke 13:1-17 has no parallels, and as I said, Luke 13:18-31 parallels Matthew 13:31-33. The text that follows in Luke 13:22-30 echoes different places in Matthew’s gospel—7:13-14; 25:10-12; 7:22-23; 8:11-12; and 20:16. Luke 13:31-33 is again unique to Luke; and then 13:34-35 is clearly parallel to Matthew 23:37-39. I will not spend any more time on Luke’s methodology here, except to point out that Luke’s composition borrows from Matthew but needs to be treated as essentially independent. What Luke is doing with these pieces from Matthew is his own thing, and so we cannot simply pick up interpretations of the passages in Matthew’s gospel and think we are done. The question is, what is Luke doing?

The Literal Interpretation

Suddenly we find Jesus teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. This is the last time we see Jesus in a synagogue in the Gospel according to Luke but that does not mean He did not continue to regularly attend. Nor does it mean He no longer taught in them. Jesus kept the observance of the Sabbath (there is no evidence that He ever violated the law of the Sabbath), and did so by attending the synagogue services for the reading of the Scriptures and the prayers. Christians should be mindful too of not neglecting our own assembling together for the reading of the Scriptures and the prayers (Hebrews 10:25). If the Jews honor the Sabbath by gathering, we honor the Lord’s Day by gathering. In the early days, the norm for believers was to also attend the synagogue service every Sabbath, and to have our own gatherings afterwards, whether that evening or the following day (the Lord’s Day began when the Sabbath ended, at sunset).

When Jesus taught in the synagogue, it would have been in the form of an exposition on the Scriptures that were read that morning. The Palestinian Jews followed a three-year lectionary cycle for the reading of the Torah followed by a reading from the Prophets (aside from readings from the Psalter and other Writings); Jesus might have expounded on either text or both.

In that particular synagogue “there was a woman [in attendance] who for eighteen years had had a sickness caused by a spirit; and she was bent double, and could not straighten up at all.” She did not seek Jesus out (she did not need to come to the synagogue to ask for healing), but presumably was a regular attendee. Even though she had this awful handicap, she came anyway for the sake of attending public worship. We do not know whether she came every Sabbath or whether hearing of Jesus motivated her to make an extra effort to attend. Even if that were the case, she came to hear Jesus (His teaching), not to be healed by Him. She wanted the blessing of His teaching, while she also got to hear the Scriptures read and to pray with the others of her community.

Now this woman was “bent together.” We say bent double, but the meaning is that she was bent over so that she could not look up; she was always facing the ground. Probably she had spondylitis ankylopoietica, which produces a fusion of spinal joints (so says J. Wilkinson, according to Joseph A. Fitzmyer in the Anchor Bible, page 1012).

“Jesus saw her” (do we see people who are overlooked by others?); she did not call attention to herself, nor did she ask for anything of Him. When Jesus saw her, “He called her over” and she made her way to Him. Then He said to her, ‘Woman, you are freed from your sickness,” and He laid His hands on her. She immediately straightened up—the first time in eighteen years—and began glorifying God. Not only, then, was there an affect on her body, but inwardly she turned to God and began openly praising God aloud—in the synagogue in the midst of the men present. It is important to notice this, for among some of the Jews, “the women are to keep silent in the assemblies [=synagogues]; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just the ‘law’ also says” (quoted by Paul in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35). We see this custom also practiced by some Muslims. Luke reports that this woman publicly praised God in the midst of the men in the synagogue as something positive, showing the affect on her spirit and soul (“My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior,” Luke 1:45). For Luke, all was in good order.

Perhaps the president of the synagogue was bothered by this woman’s speaking. Certainly he was bothered by Jesus healing on the Sabbath. He made light of the miracle and, instead of addressing Jesus directly, he spoke to the people in the synagogue: “There are six days in which work should be done; so come during them and get healed, and not on the Sabbath day.” The woman, however, did not come to be healed; she came to worship, and to be taught. It was Jesus who took the initiative, and therefore the man’s words were meant for the Lord. His concern, however, was not about the Sabbath. It was antagonism against Jesus. His slighting of the miracle as if it were a common thing might have been a reaction against what he perceived as “enthusiasm,” for there were other miracle workers and, like tent preachers, they appealed to the crowds for a moment, and got them all worked up, but did not stay around to nurture and care for them when the emotional surge receded. This is the resentment of the faithful pastor toward the traveling street evangelist.

Jesus knew that the man was cloaking his real prejudice toward Jesus behind a display of zeal for the Sabbath, but He chose to respond to the man’s words. As the man addressed the crowd, Jesus says to the man (in the plural, though, thereby including those who would agree with the man), “You hypocrites!” The argument that Jesus gives to justify Himself is the same that Rabbi Hillel would give, and therefore was a sound argument from the Pharisaic camp, though a position that the Pharisaic school of Shammai would have contended against. The common practice of the Jews was to water their cattle on the Sabbath. To not do so would have been terrible—they could eat from the manger (the “stall”) but to not untie them and lead them away to the water would have been to deprive them of necessary water! To enforce rest on the farmer or even the cattle would have been cruel. According to the Torah, life always takes priority.

Jesus applies this to the woman whom He healed. Some might argue that her case did not constitute an emergency and she could just as easily have waited until the next day (after all, she had already waited eighteen years!). Jesus, however, says that she is a “daughter of Abraham” (Jesus called Zaccheus in 19:9 a “son of Abraham”), a member of God’s elect. If it is right to show compassion to cattle on the Sabbath by loosing them from the stall to which they are bound that they might drink, is it not right to show compassion to one of God’s elect by loosing her from the bond of Satan? Jesus’ presence was an opportunity at the present moment. Should she not avail herself of it? The point about the cattle then is not that an emergency situation existed but that one is free to show compassion to them (meaning, one is always free to show compassion, whether or not it is the Sabbath). The Sabbath does not restrict one from showing compassion, or from chesed, from showing mercy and doing good.

This is all beside the fact that it is God who acts in the miracle; it is God who is showing His steadfast love to His elect, not the Healer who is only instrumental, and certainly not the one who is healed.

The reaction is twofold. On the one hand, Jesus’ opponents are humiliated (ashamed). They are not persuaded; they are only angered further. On the other hand, everyone else rejoices “over all the glorious things being done by Him.”

Probing a Little Deeper

In Luke 6:6-11 when Jesus healed the man with the withered hand, the act of healing was the same as here. There the opposition came not from the president of the synagogue but from the “scribes and Pharisees” who were ‘watching Him closely to see if He healed on the Sabbath, so that they might find reason to accuse Him,” that is, to draw Him into the debate between the two schools of Pharisees. In that first story, Jesus did not give an example as He does in Luke 13:15 (about watering the cattle), He simply asks, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save a life or to destroy it?” In the first story Jesus did not touch the man. The man stretched out his hand (when Jesus asked him to) and it was spontaneously restored. In 6:11 the reaction that Luke reports was entirely negative: they were “filled with rage, and discussed together what they might do to Jesus.” Basically, though, these two stories are very much alike.

In 14:1-6 Jesus is in “the house of one of the leaders of the Pharisees on the Sabbath to eat bread, and they were watching Him closely.” It is after the synagogue service at a Pharisee’s house, and like the first story, “they” are watching Him closely. Apparently there is a crowd there too. A man suffering from dropsy (fluid filling the body’s cavities) is in front of Jesus, but other Pharisees and lawyers (experts on Halakah) are also there. So Jesus asks, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” almost the same as Luke 6:9. They refuse to answer, waiting to see what He does. Jesus then takes hold of the sick man and heals him and sends him away. Then, like in 13:15, He gives an argument: “Which one of you will have a son or an ox fall into a well, and will not immediately pull him out on a Sabbath day?” They again, refuse to answer him (“they could make no reply to this”).

So the third story has similarities to both of the previous stories. All three are very much alike. What is different about the second story is that it is a woman who is healed. And of the three who are healed, it is only said of her that she glorified God. Also, only in this story is the criticism about Jesus healing on the Sabbath actually voiced. In the other two Luke only says that they are watching Him to see what He will do.

Of these three stories, only the first one (Luke 6:6-11) has a parallel in another gospel (Matthew 12:9-14, repeated in Mark 3:1-7). One of the things we want to consider is whether these stories in Luke are isolated incidents that are very similar or whether they are related in some way. It seems to me that the story in 6:6-11 establishes a particular theme and that this theme is brought into the context of 12:54—13:35 by the second story and thematically introduces a new unit in 14:1-6. Let us explore this.

When in Luke 6:5 Jesus calls Himself the “Lord of the Sabbath,” it is in the context of Isaiah 61:2. As the Messiah, the “Servant of YHWH,” He is essentially the Lord of the Jubilee, the One Who will liberate Israel from all its bondage. A sabbatical year is every seven years. The Jubilee is the Sabbath of Sabbaths, occurring on the year following every seven weeks of years (the “day” following the Sabbath as it were, the day of resurrection). After Jesus’ announcement in Nazareth, He went to Capernaum and liberated the town (the synagogue of its demoniac, Peter’s mother-in-law and his household, and the diseases and demons holding the people of the town in their grip), then He liberated Peter from his preoccupation with work, the leper from his uncleanness, the paralytic from his sin and immobility (inability), and Levi from his sin and shame. He is the Bridegroom come for His bride and is doing something new in Israel. This “newness” on the basis of His bringing Jubilee to people is the context for the two stories that follow in which Jesus “liberates” the Sabbath to become a sign of the Jubilee. In the first story the Sabbath is given back to the poor, and in doing so, the creation is given back to the poor. In the second, He heals a man on the Sabbath, giving the Sabbath back to him, thus restoring the creation so that this crippled man (who could not work because of his handicap) could enjoy the rest of the Sabbath. In both cases, we are brought back to the original meaning of the Sabbath in Genesis, not only a cessation of work, but an enjoyment of God’s work on the six days, an entering into God’s rest, God’s satisfaction with His own works. This is Who Jesus is—as the Lord of Jubilee He is the One Who liberates and restores the creation from its bondage under sin.

Now we can reconsider the context of Luke 13. Jesus is calling on Israel to repent. If we look further back to the end of chapter 12, we see that this is Israel’s opportune time to repent. “Why do you not analyze this present time?” (12:56); and on your way to appear before the magistrate, make an effort to settle with your opponent while you have a chance, before you get to court (12:56-59). The opportunity that Israel has is the presence of the “Servant of YHWH” (the Messiah) in their midst. This is the same opportunity that we have today whenever we hear the Gospel. He is present again with us.

So when Jesus heals the woman who is bent over double and does it on the Sabbath, it is a “sign” to them reminding them that the Lord of the Jubilee is in their midst. Instead of resisting Him they ought to recognize Him that He might grant them the repentance that they so badly—that we all so badly—need.

This is the significance of the woman being bent over facing the ground, unable to lift herself up. She is a picture of us all. She is looking down into the ground and is unable to look up into heaven. She is a picture of someone who sees only the “earth” and not also “heaven,” who sees the visible but not the invisible, who sees the “flesh” and not the “spirit,” who sees matter and energy but not consciousness (or who sees the content of consciousness but not consciousness itself), who sees space and time but not ubiquity and eternity.

Moreover, she is unable to lift herself up. We can ask ourselves to repent all we want; we can demand it; we can make ourselves perfectly miserable about it. However, if we are locked into this particular frame, if the “world” of our minds that we live in is hermetically sealed off from reality, how do we get the leverage to break through from the inside, or how do we get outside to a larger, more liberating perspective? With most introspective techniques one part of ourselves is looking at another part, but it is all from the same level. It is the soul looking at itself; it is not the spirit looking at the soul, and so we get nowhere. We rearrange the furniture in the room, or on the same floor; we have no way to get upstairs or downstairs. Without God’s grace, without that which transcends us, that transcends our souls, we are incapable of lifting ourselves up and repenting.

When Luke tells us that this woman has been bent double for eighteen years, it is not a mere coincidence that the number eighteen is mentioned in verse 4: “Do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? I tell you, no …” Those eighteen were not worse culprits than the rest of you. Likewise, this woman who had a sickness caused by a spirit so that she was bent double and could not straighten up at all is not worse than the rest of you. She is the same! You are all bent over and unable to look up.

Eighteen is a number for oppression: Israel was oppressed by Moab for eighteen years (Judges 3:14); they were oppressed by the Philistines and the Ammonites for eighteen years (Judges 10:8). Perhaps too much should not be made of this, for the number eighteen appears in a number of different contexts in the Old Testament (not in the New). Nevertheless, there is this connection.

Verse 18 follows from what has just happened. The president of the synagogue has trivialized the miracle, the act of God in liberating this woman. Any ol’ miracle-worker (faith-healer) can do this sort of thing! Besides, the woman on whom it has been done is an insignificant person who has contributed nothing to society for the past eighteen years, not even as a mere woman. Yet Jesus says she is a daughter of Abraham, making her equal to any other son or daughter, but also reminding His listeners that she is a child of God’s promise to Abraham. In terms of the promise, not even the high priest is more privileged than she is. No person is a “mere” anyone in the sight of God. When Jesus liberated her, released her from the bond of Satan, the kingdom of God had come into the midst of that synagogue.

Literally Luke says, “And behold a woman having a spirit of astheneia (weakness or infirmity) eighteen years.” It is not the same as those people who are demonized from whom Jesus casts out the demon, for He does nothing like that here. He simply pronounces her free from her asthenia, and then He lays His hands on her and she is healed. Nevertheless, Jesus does say that Satan has bound (deō) her for eighteen long years and that her healing has released (luō) her from this bond (desmos: fetter, chain). He compares this to loosing (luō) an ox or ass from the manger or stall (phatnē). It was necessary (dei), Jesus say, that is, He was bound to loose her (perhaps His choice of words was in response to the president of the synagogue who said that there are six days in which it is necessary, that is, in which we are bound—dei—to work, that is, bound by sin to earn our bread by the sweat of our brow).

In 11:20 Jesus told His opponents, ‘If I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” When Jesus describes the woman as one “whom Satan has bound for eighteen long years,” He is making an equivalency. Jesus has released her by the finger of God. Surely the kingdom of God has come upon those in the synagogue on that Sabbath. So Jesus says in verse 18, “What is the kingdom of God like, and to what shall I compare it?” The context has not changed. As far as we know, we are still in the synagogue. Verse 18 begins with the word “accordingly” (oun in Greek).

“It is like a mustard seed,” He says, and again in verse 21, “It is like leaven.” In the first case, the seed is too small for people to pay attention. In the second case the leaven is hidden. In both cases, the effect is great. In the present realm of heaven (the invisible), and in the world to come (the not yet), the effect is far greater than what is manifest here and now. It is a great mistake to trivialize the work of God because it seems so insignificant in the broad scheme of things, for what is most important is invisible to the eye.

Jesus is calling Israel to repent, and they are trivializing His message because it is only words—there are so many voices in the world today, why should we pay attention to one more—and they are trivializing His acts because others do more impressive acts. Kings and armies and big bucks—these are the things that change the world. Healing a crippled woman makes no difference. “Jesus, Who do You think You are? What difference do You make? Why should we listen more to You than to all these others who are clamoring for our attention?”

What do we say? The mind, the impression on the emotions, the impact on our wallets or bodies—these are not the means by which we can discern His worth. The heart is deceitful, since many things can sway our hearts, and not all of those things are good. The spirit can discern Him. This is what we have to pay attention to. If He is revealed to us (by God’s grace, through the words of Scripture), He resonates with our spirit. In perceiving Who He is, we see something original in ourselves, our own ground; we perceive reality. This is precognitive and trans-emotional (the effects on cognition and emotions are secondary). Hebrews 4:12 speaks of distinguishing between soul and spirit: this is what it means. The same thing is meant in 1 Corinthians 2:14 when Paul says that “a soulish man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.”

Let us strive, then, to be those who perceive things spiritually so that we do not end up trivializing what is the only thing that matters simply because we are blind to it, only seeing projections of our own thoughts (and the thoughts of everyone else). The kingdom of God coming upon us is when there is an opportunity for us to see through our own muck and mire to the brilliance of reality itself, creation resplendent with the glory of God. Let not our cynical be a wall of defense against God.

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