While researching today’s gospel reading I happened upon a scholarly article published sometime after 1962 in The Evangelical Quarterly, written by Dr. James Wilkinson, a Scottish minister and medical missionary in Kenya for nearly 30 years. In the article Dr. Wilkinson examines the details of the today’s passage to determine if the healing of the woman bent over should be considered an exorcism or not.
Wilkinson directs the reader’s attention to when Jesus indicates the woman is “bound”; a verb he notes is in a tense denoting an action beginning at a specific point in time and continuing on through the present. This leads him to consider whether the woman’s eighteen-year condition is the result of a progressive ailment or a traumatic injury. Given that the text states the onset of woman’s suffering was the result of a “spirit” (and some texts translate this word as “spirit of weakness”) rather than an accident, Dr. Wilkinson holds her condition begins at a definable moment not caused by an accident and has continued to progress.
He goes on to consider possible medical diagnosis that might explain a condition resulting in spinal rigidity; one path stemming from infectious diseases, the other from diseases that are degenerative. After a lengthy evaluation, he concludes the woman most likely suffers from spondylitis ankylopoietica, an infectious disease closely related to rheumatoid arthritis involving the fusion of joints, beginning in early adulthood.
Once determining this, Wilkinson goes on to compare the elements of this story with other accounts of exorcism in the gospels; making the case the details of this story do not mesh with them:
· The woman is permitted in the Synagogue – something not likely if people thought her to be possessed.
· She is not described as being unclean.
· The word spirit does not necessarily imply demon.
· Jesus speaks directly to the woman, never to an evil spirit.
· Jesus heals her by laying his hands on her, rather than by commanding a demon to leave her.
Wilkinson concludes the text suggests “spirit of weakness” does not refer to a spiritual being such as a demon, but rather to a state of mind. As such, her physical weakness is causing the woman’s spirit to suffer, a spirit is not the cause of her weakness. Wilkinson states, “The result of a long period of physical weakness was a state of profound mental depression.”
Even if the woman’s suffering is not the direct result of possession, it is worth noting Jesus states she has been “bound by Satan” for eighteen years. This express indicates that for Jesus any suffering, any affliction, anything diminishing the possibility of human flourishing stands apart from God’s desire for us. What God desires for all people is health and wholeness and soundness of spirit. Jesus’ life and ministry make the case for this as strongly as possible.
I like Wilkinson’s journal article, in part, because it spotlights the woman Jesus heals. It is her story, or at least it should be. Sadly, the focus and force of the account moves quickly from her plight and her deliverance to criticism of Jesus’ action and timing. The report, which does not even include the name of the woman, is transformed into a tale of confrontation between men as local religious leaders contend Jesus should not have done on the Sabbath what he did.
I suppose to us this seems like an arcane squabble about religious taboos we can no longer imagine or take seriously. After all, we are so far removed from the “Blue Laws” most of our younger members don’t even know what this term references. The “Thou shalt not on Sundays” is a thing of the past. But in Jesus’ day this cultural concern was every bit as energizing and contentious as burning the American flag in protest or kneeling for the National Anthem is in ours. Through the public act of extending his hands and uttering a prayer of healing Jesus knowingly puts himself in the eye of a cultural storm.
We might want to ask why. Why would Jesus do this? Was he itching for a fight? Did he come as a prophet to criticize unjust and inhumane structures? Or is there something else behind his actions?
Howard Zinn’s book A People’s History of the United States challenged the way we look at the past. Zinn contends we teach history by telling stories about leading figures – presidents and generals and the like – but he looks at the American story by gleaning first-hand accounts from the letters and journals of everyday people, such as foot soldiers and teachers. Zinn’s point is valid. While big, sweeping events and the leaders behind them merit attention, so too do the people and lives impacted by them. So, for example, you can learn something of the Episcopal Church by examining the journals of the General Convention as well as by listening in on a table conversation at our Coffee Hour after the service. One approach focuses on the big picture while the other values the individual’s experience.
This distinction helps us to understand what motivates Jesus. Did he wake one Sabbath morning and say to himself, “Today, I think I will take on the powers that be” or did he encounter the plight of a particular person and decide in that moment to bring her eighteen years of suffering to an end?
By throwing the emotional weight of the action behind the confrontation, today’s reading makes it so very tempting to think the former is the case. The way the story is told tends to make the woman’s role incidental. She could have been any person with any need just so long as it presented itself on the Sabbath in the presence of religious authorities. The gospels, as they are written, seem to be concerned with the bigger question of who exactly is Lord of the Sabbath – Jesus or tradition.
But I believe in the moment, at that time, on that particular Sabbath, in a synagogue of an unnamed town, for Jesus it was all about one particular person who had suffered much in her life. It was about her need and his desire to express something dwelling deep in the heart of God. It was about her agony and God’s empathy. It was about her weakness and God’s strength. More than anything else, Jesus wanted to bring together this woman’s condition and God’s compassion. Everything that boils over after this is ancillary.
It strikes me as worth noting the woman does not present herself to Jesus, as is the case with many of the gospels’ healing stories. Rather, Jesus notices her and calls her to come to him. She has suffered for so long it appears she no longer has hope for healing. Jesus notices her and is filled with pity and kindness. He does something for her she neither asks nor expects. For Jesus, every opportunity is a time for healing and every day is a good day for healing, especially the Sabbath.
St. Paul’s is truly blessed to have several people who are dedicated to the ministry of healing. Practically every Sunday one of them is available to pray with you during the administration of communion. They do so not because they possess magical powers, but because each senses a call from God to this ministry of compassion and care.
And I am pleased the Vestry, at its January retreat, identified enhancing our Ministry of Healing as a goal for the year. We have taken several steps, most notably adding A Service of Public Healing in the Chapel after the late service on the last Sunday of each month. The liturgy is powerful, but not off-putting. It looks and feels nothing like you may have seen from some evangelists on TV. The liturgy remembers that God cares and hears and knows our need. It is a reminder that those gathered care too. And somehow, through God’s grace, something happens to make the experience beneficial.
Each of our lives is marked by tremendous need. No one is immune. Imagine if I invited every person here to stand if you carry in your heart some kind of special burden for yourself. Imagine if I then asked to stand those who carry a burden for a member of their immediate family. How many people would be left sitting? None, I dare say, if I broadened the circle to include extended family and close friends bearing a burden.
There is not a person here this morning who does not carry personal concerns or the needs of another in his or her heart. You may think you are alone in this, but you are not. I trust through today’s service you will sense Jesus notices you and, as he did with the woman bent over, calls you to come near. Today is the Sabbath, is a good day for healing.