One of the hardest things I think we may encounter in life is oppression. It’s very topical – you only need to watch the news to see reports of people living under oppression or in oppressive regimes. Oppression is something that can happen at a national level, it can happen at a local or community level, but also at a personal level. But no matter what level it may happen, the outcome is the same – we begin to see people who are dehumanised or begin to lose sight of their humanity. There is an expression you sometimes hear in America called ‘bent out of shape’. People who are oppressed become bent out of shape; if you look at this spoon, you get the point. When it is all bent out of shape it becomes very hard to use it properly.
If you want a poignant example of someone living under oppression, then we only need to turn to our Gospel reading today. This woman “had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years”; she too was bent out of shape. Note that Luke says she had been crippled by a spirit rather than simply saying she had been crippled. All the Gospel writers clearly distinguish between those who were physically & mentally ill and those who were demon possessed or oppressed by spirits.
If even oppression is something that may be rooted spiritually, it might be manifest physically, as is the case here. The woman’s twisted body was “bent over and could not straighten up at all”. The woman’s condition will have wreaked havoc on every aspect of her life: physically, emotionally, mentally, financially, spiritually, etc. We too may find ourselves in circumstances where we become bent out of shape too in some aspect of our life. The woman’s hurts and bondage in some way symbolises all of the hurts and needs that we might have too.
Have you noticed how so often today, people blame God for the brokenness of this world? But the source of brokenness and oppression is not God. God loves this world he created and he loves us. The source of oppression, the source of this woman’s pain, is Satan and the sin that follows.
Oppression can not only rob people of their dignity and humanity, but it can also rob people of hope. After 18 years of living with this terrible condition, this woman must surely have begun to lose hope. She could not straighten her body, so she could not look upwards or forwards. Physically she was unable to lift her eyes to the hills and know where her help comes from. (Psalm 121:1-2) She couldn’t even look upon Jesus, but she could hear him and acknowledge who he was even though spiritually she must have felt so battered and challenged.
But let me throw a question out to you…knowing all of this, WHY was she at the synagogue? A worldly response would be that she was crazy! How could there be a God, and if there was, He must surely have deserted her. What I find inspiring about this woman is her faith and dedication. I believe of all of the places where she could have been, she was in absolutely the right place. Somehow she persevered, year after year after year. I wonder if in the depths of her oppression her faith is somehow captured in today’s Psalm:
“Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name. Bless the LORD, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits— who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. The LORD works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed. He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel. The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”
Are we able to praise the Lord and give thanks when things are not going so well for us? Maythe words of that Psalm be our prayer when we stumble and fall, and when we have hard and testing times. We should never think that Jesus is unaware of our situation or unmoved by our tears and cries. Jesus is not indifferent to or willing to ignore our pain. We may feel far away from God at times but God is not some far off distant God. He steps into the brokenness – he always does. He isn’t hesitant in getting his hands dirty. If you want evidence for that, simply look to the cross. Jesus was not indifferent to the oppression, hurt, pain and despair this woman was going through. She did not go unnoticed by Jesus even though we are given no indication that she tried to get his attention. Jesus has an eye for the hurting. He noticed and called the woman forward, over into the centre of the synagogue, from where she had been standing. He reached out to her in the midst of her pain because He was aware and concerned with her hurts; he is aware and concerned with all of our hurts too. Jesus reaching out to her at that time and in that place was an incredibly unusual thing for a religious leader of Jesus’ time to do. In a patriarchal society, Jesus invited her into the centre of the room and responded to her need both immediately and publicly.
We may not necessarily understand many things that we go through or have to endure, the challenging times and the testing times…but we can be in no doubt that God notices and cares about our pain. Our God notices the hurting and has compassion on the bound, the burdened and the broken. Jesus bound up her brokenness and loosed her to be all that she could be in him; he restored her dignity and her humanity. He told her that she was “set free from her infirmity.” Once again, she was able to look upwards and forwards. It was not just her body that was healed, but her spirit as well. Her immediate response was to praise God.
As a body of believers, when we encounter the brokenness, the wrongness in this world, we are called to pray into these desperate situations and into the lives of the people concerned. We are all called to live with the dignity and value that being created in God’s image and likeness entails. We are all called to try and see each other through God’s eyes, and not through our own – it is all too easy for our own baggage and prejudices to get in the way. We should not be like the synagogue ruler, indifferent to the hurting or unresponsive to the sorrowful and troubled. When we gather we should take the time to give attention and sympathy toward those in need. When we pray we should care enough to genuinely pray for those who are oppressed, hurting, confused, sick or in pain. These people should not be an afterthought in our prayers or our daily lives rather they should be our first priority. In prayer and ministry we are called to bind up the brokenness and loose people to live lives of worth, dignity and value just like Jesus did all the time.
Jesus rebuked those who ignored hurting people. This synagogue ruler was more focused on religious rules and order than in showing the compassion the Hebrew Scriptures called the people of God to show. I would like to suggest that that in his own way, the synagogue ruler was also bent out of shape. Some people say that the synagogue ruler perhaps knew the letter of the law but had forgotten the spirit of the law. I don’t think he really knew the letter of the law; for him the law had become a straightjacket and means of condemnation rather than a releasing into grace. What was different between the synagogue ruler and the woman was that she seemed to recognise her poverty of spirit. When everything is stripped away, what matters first and foremost in our faith is the kind of relationship we have with God. If we have the right kind of relationship with God, we recognise our spiritual poverty and we drink deeply from the water of life. There are some people who in God’s grace and in their humility call out to God and there are some people who simply do not recognise their need for him in their lives.
Jesus argued that if you could water an animal on the Sabbath (which was allowed) then you should be able to help a woman who was ill; she needed the water of life. Jesus’ argument is that the Sabbath is a day set aside for people to praise God. If what you are doing praises God, shouldn’t it be allowed? Jesus was not alone in holding this opinion. Several other Jewish rabbis at that time taught that the Sabbath was made for people’s benefit, and should not be a burden for people. But the synagogue ruler had no joy, no praise, and no relief at this woman’s healing; there was an absence of the fruit of the Spirit. Jesus was greatly angered by this uncaring, indifferent response.
What can we take away from this?
- God notices and cares for the oppressed and the broken.
- God is powerful enough to take, transform and redeem brokenness, bringing hope to the hopeless.
We are challenged to look at how we too may sometimes find ourselves bound up by bureaucracy and red tape, and to give ourselves a spiritual health check. When we are bent out of shape, God can lead us through the wilderness to a place of blessing and new life in Christ.