Luke 13:10-17


Problem 4 – Rules above Mercy

The following story may have served as an illustration of the unwillingness of the leadership to bear fruit. More likely, however, it served to show how Jesus was fulfilling what he had earlier described as his mission: to let the oppressed go free [4:18]. For the modern reader it illustrates both. That the person cured was a woman was probably deliberate. In patriarchal Israel women were among those most oppressed.

It would be the last time Luke would refer to Jesus’ presence in a synagogue.

Luke 13:10-17  -  Jesus Heals a Crippled Woman

10 He was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath.

The synagogues had become a major focal point of the power of the Pharisees. Synagogues were gathering places in the towns where people came together to pray and to be taught by the rabbis. The rabbis, generally, were Pharisees, for whom the Sabbath was particularly important. Luke’s concern was not centred specifically on the Pharisees, however, so much as on the two symbols of popular religious practice and power: synagogue and Sabbath.

11 There was a woman there
afflicted by a spirit of infirmity for eighteen years.
She was bent over and quite unable to stand up straight.

Any physically deformed person would not have been permitted entry into the temple in Jerusalem. Women were permitted only into the forecourts, but could not enter the Court of Israel, accessible only to males. This woman was doubly excluded from there, though evidently she frequented the local synagogue.

If the number eighteen had any symbolic meaning, the symbolism is not obvious.

12 Jesus saw her and called out to her, saying,
“Woman, you are set free from your infirmity”,
13 and laid his hands on her.
Immediately she stood up straight,
and praised God. 

In the honour-dominated culture of the time, praise of the patron was the expected response to unmerited favours: thanks were rarely expressed.

14 Annoyed that Jesus had healed on the Sabbath,
the synagogue ruler said to the crowd,
“There are six days for working,
so come for healing on those days, not on the Sabbath.” 

The ruler of the synagogue may not have had the courage to confront Jesus directly, so turned instead towards those assembled and complained about Jesus to them.

15 Responding to him, the Lord said,
“You play-actors, which of you on a Sabbath
does not untie his ox or donkey from the feed-trough
and lead it away to drink?
16 Was it not essential on the Sabbath day
to set free from her burden this daughter of Abraham
whom Satan had bound for eighteen years?”

Untie and set free are the same word in the original Greek.

Jesus was quick to seize the opportunity. The response of the leader so typically represented the tendency of degraded religion to focus on law at the expense of meaning. The original meaning of Sabbath, in each of the accounts of the Decalogue, was as a celebration of life and of freedom. In the Exodus account, the Sabbath was connected to God’s resting after the work of creation had finished. In Deuteronomy, the Sabbath was to celebrate the Hebrews’ liberation from the slavery of Egypt. The special day had become over time a rigid and lifeless observance. The leader’s objection was an objection both to liberation and to life.

In referring to the woman as a daughter of Abraham, Jesus coined a phrase that was virtually non-existent in Hebrew literature. Jesus put her on equal footing with the sons of Abraham, a familiar reference to Jewish males. Sons of Abraham were fully Jewish. Women were commonly regarded as belonging to the nation only through their relationship to a male, either father or husband.

Jesus did not simply free a woman from the oppression of her deformity but effectively freed her and all women from the oppression of religiously justified gender-based exclusion. In doing so he reclaimed the true purpose of Sabbath: the celebration of liberation.

17 When he spoke in this way
all his critics were disgraced,
and the whole crowd were filled with joy
at the wonderful things he was doing.

Though the whole crowd rejoiced, it did not take long for the message to be lost, not just among the contemporaries of Jesus but in the Christian community as a whole.

Next >> Luke 13:18-21