LUKE 13:10-17. THE CONTEXT
This story follows on the heels of several related incidents. In this incident, Jesus’ opponent is the leader of the synagogue—one of the religious elite. Jesus has just recently delivered a scathing denunciation of Pharisees and lawyers (11:37-54)—also members of the religious elite. Then he warned his disciples of hypocrisy of the Pharisees (12:1-3). Then he spoke of the need for repentance, saying, “unless you repent, you will all perish” (13:5). “Coming on the heels of (that) episode…, this episode implicitly singles out the ‘leader of the synagogue’ (v. 14) and ‘all …(Jesus’) opponents’ (v. 17) as prime examples of those who stand in need of such (repentance)” (Fitzmyer, 1011).
This story is similar to 6:6-11 (Mark 3:1-6), the story of a man with a withered hand, and 14:1-6, the story of a man with dropsy. In each of these three stories, Jesus heals on the Sabbath and is opposed by religious leaders. In 6:6-11, Jesus defended his actions by asking whether it was lawful to do good on the Sabbath. In 14:1-6, he will note that it is permissible to pull an ox out of a ditch on the Sabbath—an argument similar that in our Gospel lesson.
What does it mean to keep the Sabbath holy? Christians today tend to treat the matter of holy observance casually. For most Christians today, such observance involves, at best, an hour of public worship each week. Outside that hour, we feel free to engage in work, recreation, and shopping. We would do well to recover a sense of holy time—time to honor God. Being set free from the law does not free us from responsibility. If the ruler of the synagogue erred by being too legalistic about the Sabbath, we are more likely to err by being too casual about the ways and times that we honor God.
This is Jesus’ last appearance in a synagogue in this Gospel. It is clear that opposition to him is mounting, and such opposition is intensified because of his victories over his opponents in the verbal joustings that accompany his healings.
LUKE 13:10-13. WOMAN, YOU ARE FREED
10He (Jesus) was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath day. 11Behold, there was a woman who had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years, and she was bent over, and could in no way straighten herself up. 12When Jesus saw her, he called her, and said to her, “Woman, you are freed (Greek: apolelusai—from the same root word as luei in v. 15 and luthenai in v. 16) from your infirmity.” 13He laid his hands on her, and immediately she stood up straight, and glorified God.
“He (Jesus) was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath day” (v. 10). It is Jesus’ custom to attend worship in the synagogue (4:16), and he is often invited to teach. By the time that Luke wrote this Gospel, the temple had been destroyed, and synagogues were the heart of Jewish religious life.
“Behold, there was a woman who had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years” (v. 11a). Literally, the woman has “a spirit of weakness or infirmity” (pneuma echousa astheneias). In verse 16, her condition is described as bondage to Satan, although Jesus does not treat the healing as an exorcism. She has been crippled for eighteen years, half a lifetime in an age when life expectancy is short.
“and she was bent over, and could in no way straighten herself up” (v. 11b). Luke, the physician, reports a medical problem—one that he as a human physician would be unable to cure.
A posture problem of this magnitude would interfere with everyday tasks and social relationships. It would put a strain on organs of the body, affecting health in various ways. She is forced to spend life looking down at the ground rather than up at the sky. She cannot look people in the eye.
“When Jesus saw her, he called her” (v. 12a). The woman came for worship instead of healing, and does not approach Jesus or request healing. There is no mention of the woman’s faith. It is Jesus’ initiative—Jesus’ call to the woman—Jesus’ faith—that sets the stage for this healing.
“Woman, you are freed (apolelusa) from your infirmity” (v. 12b). The Greek word, apolelusai, comes from the same root word as luei (untie) in verse 15 and luthenai (set free) in verse 16. Just as God’s creative word has power (Genesis 1:3, 6, etc.), so also Jesus’ word has power.
“He laid his hands on her, and immediately she stood up straight, and glorified God” (v. 13). Laying on of hands is usually accompanied by prayer, but no mention is made of prayer here. Her healing is immediate. She stands straight and begins to praise God.
LUKE 13:14. NOT ON THE SABBATH DAY
14The ruler of the synagogue, being indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, said to the multitude, “There are six days in which men ought (Greek: dei—a divine imperative—commanded by God) to work. Therefore come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day!”
“The ruler of the synagogue, being indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, said to the multitude” (v. 14a). The synagogue leader does not rebuke Jesus or address him directly, possibly because he has heard that Jesus has bested other religious leaders when challenged directly. Nor does the synagogue leader rebuke the woman who, after all, did not request this healing. Instead, he addresses the crowd, in the process delivering an indirect rebuke both to Jesus and to the woman. Even though we understand that he was wrong, we must admire his willingness to carry out what he believed to be his Godly responsibility to uphold the Sabbath even at the risk of having to match wits with Jesus.
“There are six days in which men ought to work” (v. 14b). The Fourth Commandment (Exodus 20:8-11; Deuteronomy 5:12-15) prohibits work on the Sabbath. It cites the example of God, who rested on the seventh day, and requires that the day be kept holy. Not only are Jewish people prohibited from working on the Sabbath, but they are also prohibited from working their servants or animals. Sabbath and food regulations, more than anything, help to define the Jewish people. What constitutes work on the Sabbath is an ongoing discussion among rabbis, who have codified elaborate rules for proper observation of the Sabbath.
“Therefore come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day” (v. 14c). The synagogue leader’s complaint is rooted in the chronic nature of this woman’s illness. She has been suffering for eighteen years, is not acutely ill, and is in no danger of dying. Sabbath laws prohibit travel on the Sabbath, so she and Jesus will be in town when the Sabbath ends. The purpose of the Sabbath is to honor God, so why can’t Jesus honor God by keeping the Sabbath holy (free from work) and heal the woman once the Sabbath is ended? Good question! If the healing were to be delayed for a few hours, the Sabbath would be honored and the woman would be healed—two for the price of one!
We have become so accustomed to this story that we too easily dismiss the honest, if misguided, concerns of the synagogue leader. If this man were a fool or a knave, the story would lose force. But he holds a responsible position, and is trying to uphold what he understands to be holy. What he fails to understand is that acts of compassion are holy. It is as if the Torah, intended to reveal God’s will, has become a veil over his eyes.
Jesus has sharp words for this man, but he also has sharp words for Martha (10:41-42), Peter (Matthew 16:23), and his own mother (Luke 2:49; 8:21; John 2:4). The fact that Jesus rebukes a person does not necessarily mean that the person is a scoundrel.
Every person in a position of authority struggles with appropriate limits and enforcement of standards. Where do you draw the line? What exceptions do you allow? What consequences do you impose for failure to meet standards? Parents, teachers, employers, supervisors, law enforcement officials and religious leaders struggle with such issues. In this story, Jesus calls us not to hew to the rules to the extent that we lose sight of the person in need. It is a Godly thing to help such a person. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).
LUKE 13:15-16. OUGHT NOT THIS DAUGHTER OF ABRAHAM BE FREED
15Therefore the Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! (Greek: hupokritai—pretenders) Doesn’t each one of you free (Greek: luei—free—from the same root as apolelusai in v. 12 and luthenai in v. 16) his ox or his donkey from the stall on the Sabbath, and lead him away to water? 16Ought not (Greek: ouk edei—is it not necessary—is it not God’s will) this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan had bound eighteen long years, be freed (Greek: luthenai) from this bondage on the Sabbath day?”
“You hypocrites! Doesn’t each one of you free his ox or his donkey from the stall on the Sabbath, and lead him away to water?” (v. 15). The word “hypocrites” is plural, so Jesus is speaking to this man and those who share his mindset. The synagogue leader addressed his criticism to the crowd rather than to Jesus, but Jesus responds directly to him and his kind. If the synagogue leader intended to establish his authority by addressing the crowd, Jesus quickly establishes that it is he rather than the synagogue leader who is in charge.
The hypocrisy of the synagogue leader has to do with his inconsistency:
• The leader believes that the Torah permits helping animals on the Sabbath—but not humans.
• The leader believes that it is acceptable on the Sabbath to free (luei) an animal that has been confined for a few hours but unacceptable to free (luthenai—from the same root word as luei) a woman who has been bound for eighteen years. We should note that the animal would not die if deprived of water for a day. We should also note that it would be possible to fill a trough with water prior to the Sabbath and to tie animals so that they have access to it. Water for the animal is no more a life-and-death issue than this woman’s bent back. Nevertheless, this synagogue leader would permit the loosing of an animal on the Sabbath to lessen its discomfort, but criticizes Jesus for extending similar compassion to this woman. We should not imagine that this is discrimination against the woman because of her gender. In the next chapter, Luke will relate a similar controversy when Jesus heals a man who has dropsy (14:1-6).
• The leader presumably believes that it is holy to “love kindness” (Micah 6:8), but not on the holy Sabbath.
• The leader believes that it violates Torah law to free a woman from Satan’s bondage on the Sabbath.
“Ought (edei—from dei—a divine imperative reflecting God’s will) not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan had bound eighteen long years, be freed from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” (v. 16). Rather than violating Sabbath law, freeing this woman is consistent with Sabbath intention and enhances rather than diminishes Sabbath observance.
“a daughter of Abraham” (v. 16). This phrase occurs only here in the Old and New Testaments, but the phrase, “son of Abraham,” occurs several times, including once in this Gospel (19:9) when Jesus restores Zacchaeus as a son of Abraham. Earlier, Jesus warned people not to think that they could neglect repentance because they were children of Abraham. He warned, “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (3:8). This does not mean that it is inconsequential to be a son or daughter of Abraham, but that true sonship/daughtership involves more than physical lineage.
Jesus argues from the lesser to the greater. If it is right to loose an ox or donkey on the Sabbath, it must be right to loose a daughter of Abraham whom Satan has bound. It is holy work to show compassion on the Sabbath. It is holy work to defeat Satan on the Sabbath.
LUKE 13:17. AND ALL THE MULTITUDE REJOICED
17As he said these things, all his adversaries were disappointed, and all the multitude rejoiced for all the glorious things that were done by him.
“As he said these things, all his adversaries were disappointed” (v. 17a). Jesus wins this round. His opponents are shamed, and “all the multitude” is glad. The crowd is made up of ordinary people who know what it means to suffer. They can easily identify with the woman who has suffered so long. They rejoice at her release from crippling disease—and also at the synagogue leader’s discomfiture. Ordinary people often suffer at the hands of rigid authority, and they have surely felt the sting of this man’s pronouncements-from-on-high. They are delighted at seeing him put in his place.
Jesus only recently said, “I came to throw fire on the earth. I wish it were already kindled. But I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how distressed I am until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to give peace in the earth? I tell you, no, but rather division” (12:49-51). Now we see that principle demonstrated. This division will persist throughout Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem.
We can imagine the smoldering anger of Jesus’ opponents, who will not forget this public humiliation. At the moment, they are helpless to retaliate, but their time will come.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2004, 2010, 2012, Richard Niell Donovan