Seeing and Freeing
I hated Sundays when I was a kiddo. My father had very firm ideas about Sundays, which he happily passed on to and enforced with my brother and me. No playing or games that were loud. No roughhousing. No going to the movies. As far as my brother and I were concerned it was a no to anything-remotely-fun-day and we hated it. Church in the morning and quiet the rest of the day. Sunday was the pits at our house.
I think, in retrospect, that my father was acting out of his Roman Catholic upbringing on the one hand, and a skewed sense of Sabbath in the American cultural consciousness of his day on the other. Of course, it might also have been that he was so exhausted and bent out of shape by the incessant cares and noise and our irrepressible carryings-on of the other six days of the week that he craved a day of rest and calm and quiet on the seventh.
The biblical reasons for Sabbath were emphatically not about a series of nos, but about yeses, about possibilities and promises; it was about resting into and with the God who had been doing the enormous work of creating a universe and who had invited us into that work and into that rest.
The leader of the synagogue in today's gospel was not, by any account, a bad person. Like Jesus, he was a faithful Jew doing his best to live his life in concert with the ancient covenant and in partnership with the God who had offered that covenant. Both Jesus and the unnamed leader are keeping the Sabbath; they just differ on what keeping it means.
This gospel is above all about noticing, about seeing, about beholding, and then acting as if whatever or whomever has been noticed matters. The leader is so focused on being observant that he's fallen into the trap of believing that if he follows all the rules all the time, he's being faithful. Conversely, playing fast and loose with the rules gets you major grief. Jesus remembers his ancient catechism better. He knows that God created the universe including the concept of time and timing, which of course includes Sabbath, for the sake of people. He's noticed that the ancient precepts direct that the needs of people count, even over the Sabbath and Temple codes, that noticing people, genuinely seeing people and their needs is Rule #1 even, and perhaps especially, on the Sabbath.
So he's in the synagogue on the Sabbath as was his wont, and he notices a woman. Even the text gets this. Although it's not reflected in the English translation we just heard, the Greek says "Behold, a woman!" Or in a more modern sense, "Look! A woman!" And Jesus beholds, and sees a woman in need.
Again the translation is a little misleading; it tells us that she was "bent over". Now I think we've all seen or known people with varying forms of scoliosis, but mild forms of stooping are not what's being described here. The Greek is very specific. It tells us that she's bent double or bent together like this. [Think gymnasts at the Olympics who are agile enough to bend double. Imagine being in that position for more than ten minutes with no hope of ever standing up.] So for eighteen years, her view of the world, of people, of reality, was skewed, slant. Her view was restricted to her own feet and a few inches of ground around them. She could see others' shoes, but she wasn't able to look anyone in the eye, not able to see another human face except by peering awkwardly upward and sideways. And still, here she is faithfully in the synagogue on the Sabbath. Notice, she doesn't ask for anything. Not for healing. Not for forgiveness. Not even to be noticed.
But he notices. How does he do that? The unnamed woman in the synagogue was bent in on herself, bent double, so she was half the height of anyone around her. She's over there, in the women's section. He's presumably with the men—yet he sees her. How many others in that synagogue do? Or do they see through her? Or avoid seeing her? Is she a cause for embarrassment? For shame?
For eighteen years she's been bent double. For eighteen years she's presumably been coming week after week among them. Perhaps they're blind to her and her needs because she's such a persistent presence. Perhaps they think she's somehow brought this on herself. Perhaps they think what she has is catching. We don't know. We only know that on this day, he notices.
One day, several years ago, my nephew, then three years old, was at a mall with my parents. They'd just bought him a pair of shoes and the sales person had given him two balloons when they left the shop. As they walked up the long hall of the mall, they began to hear a distant commotion. Screaming and screeching, deafening decibels of it. The kind of disturbed and disturbing screaming that only a toddler in deep distress makes. Not the "I-just-fell-down-and-somebody-better-pay-attention-right-now" scream, but the "I'm-having-a-terrible-awful-truly-unredeemable-kind-of-day-and-I-don't-know-what-to-do-with-myself-except-scream" kind of scream.
The parents of the little girl in distress were distressed themselves but doing what they could to calm her. It wasn't working. Others, mainly adults, did what people often do: averted their eyes, pretended not to notice, disapproval etched deeply and clearly on their faces.
So the awful screaming went on...and on...and on. Until my nephew stopped, disengaged his hands from his grandparents, walked up to the wailing child and crouched in front of her so he could look up into her face. "Little girl," he said, "little girl, don't cry." And then he handed her both his balloons, took my parents' hands again, and walked away.
Jesus sees the woman and notes her unspoken need. And calls her, not by name, but by gender. "Woman," he says. I wonder if, given her posture, she even knew at first that he was calling her; she couldn't have seen him and she's only one woman among several in that synagogue. I wonder if he didn't crouch down in order to be able to look up at her face to face; that would be like him.
And then he tells her, as if the deed were a fait accompli, not that she's been healed, but that she's been loosed, that she's been freed from what had bound her. Which means not that he's about to do some magic trick or forbidden work on the Sabbath but that the God of the Sabbath has already done the loosing and Jesus' own subsequent laying on of hands is a blessing, a punctuation of the freeing that God has already done.
And then he gives her a name that is both title and ennobler, a name which has actually been hers since birth, but one that, given her infirmity, I'll bet she hasn't heard these eighteen years. "Daughter of Abraham" he calls her. Child of the covenant, member of the family in a long line stretching back to the promises first given to Abram and Sarai, all the way back to Genesis 12. Freed this day from a body that had constrained her every move, freed like her ancestors who themselves had been freed from another sort of constraint in the land of Egypt twelve or thirteen hundred years earlier. "Daughter of Abraham" he names her, and with those words, he not only restores her dignity but reclaims for her a place, good standing in her own town and clan.
It is no wonder that she then unbends, stands up straight and sticks the landing, praising God, modeling by her doing what a Sabbath's for. More than a bent spine was healed that morning.
Many of us come most weeks to a place like this and most often we come on the Christian equivalent of a Sabbath. And in many if not all our lives, there are constraints, often very constrictive ones that are not as obvious as the one binding our woman in the gospel of the day. Things like relationships gone to hell, or houses in default, or jobs lost or, well, you know the drill.
Here's the thing. This little story reminds us that we've got a God who takes notice of us. A God who stoops down to meet us whenever, however we may be—whether we're bent by the rules we've let bind us needlessly, or by the cares that weigh us down, or by some sense of unworthiness we've been taught that can crush us, or by the self-preoccupation that has us whining to others.
Our God bends down, embraces us, and calls us by a name that recalls us to ourselves, freeing us time after time, no matter how many times we let others tie us into knots, no matter how many times we bind ourselves needlessly.
God calls to each of us, "Daughter of Abraham," "Son of Abraham. You are free." And will keep on saying it and meaning it until we begin to believe it, and then, like that God in whose image we are made, we go and do likewise for somebody else.