Bent: Here we Fit

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Gentle Reader,

The wind swirls mournfully around my home as I put fingers to keyboard and compose these final thoughts on our scene in Luke 13. Somehow, this feels appropriate.

Before us are three figures, frozen in time by the careful and descriptive pen of the physician. The Spirit inspired Luke to record so many events and details that are absent from the other Gospels. Lest we think this points to a degree of incredulity, we must remember that each of the four authors had a specific audience and agenda in mind when putting pen to paper. This does not detract from the historicity of the lives and events, but rather allows us to view Him and His work through four different vantage points. From these distinct angles, we a privy to a more complete portrait of the Savior than if there was merely one account of Him.

In sorting out what principles we may apply to our lives, let us first consider this howling force outside my window. All around us, in each day of our lives, places, people and experiences envelop us. Sometimes it may even feel as though we are powerless to stem the tide. Our minds yearn for a little rest from the constant task of sorting through each piece of information which enters in. Our hearts scream for a little peace. Tossed by the tide, turned by the wind, we bounce along, fumbling always for a foundation or something solid to grab hold of.

Then, in one crystalline second, everything stops. We are confronted by a truth so profound, it demands every ounce of our attention and affection. The whirl ceases to concern us. We must follow this feeling of complete and utter clarity through until the very end.

I submit to you that this is what happened the day that these three people encountered each other.

The synagogue ruler, the bent woman and Jesus.

Let us place ourselves inside the moment when the synagogue ruler and the bent woman collided head-on with the most intense experience they could possibly have.

The synagogue ruler:

What he got right –

It would be wrong for us to assume that the synagogue ruler spoke out against this woman’s healing simply because he disliked Jesus. We discussed earlier that this man would have had to have been of high standing within his community to be chosen for such a position. He would not have been a person to take his duties and responsibilities lightly. Had Pharisaic religion become a myriad of rules and regulations? Yes. It is a mistake, however, to think that these codes came to be for the sheer sake of code-making. Perhaps some got enjoyment out of causing people to suffer under the weight of such obligations, but I think that, for the most part, the Pharisees were genuinely concerned with serving God and pleasing Him. Their eyes were blinded and their ears deafened to the light and call of truth, but I would say that their hearts were in the right place.

So, when this man stood up and told the people to seek their healing during the other six days of the week, I tend to think that he was simply trying to be obedient. He was a synagogue ruler, yes, but he is not called a rabbi. He was not a teacher who would have been employed in debating the finer points of the Law all day long. He would have been a a devout Jew who wanted to serve the Lord. In this, the synagogue ruler was very right.

What he got wrong –

In obeying the letter of the law, the synagogue ruler made the very common (to their day and ours) mistake of ignoring the spirit. Is it right and excellent to take a day of rest? Had the Lord commanded it? Yes. This man simply failed to recognize that caring for others always takes precedence. There may also have been an element of fear. Jesus, by this time, was extremely famous throughout the land. The synagogue ruler may have had some sense that this Man threatened everything that he stood for, to whatever degree he understood it.

The synagogue ruler also opposed this healing because it did not come in a way in which he was accustomed. I do not think that he wished to see this woman walk around in pain; that would make him a very cruel man indeed. In his call for the people to come and be healed the rest of the week, I think this text shows us that the synagogue ruler truly did hope, pray and work for his friends and neighbors. He was simply too rigid in what he expected that to look like.

The bent woman:

What she got wrong –

We begin with the reverse in the case of the bent woman. What she got wrong in this scene is obvious: she did not go to Jesus for healing. As I mentioned before, He was, at the close of his earthly ministry, very well known throughout that corner of the world. His entrance into any town would have created quite a stir. Yet, we see her attending synagogue as usual. Luke doesn’t say that she ran up to Jesus. He does not write that she sought Him out. She was simply going about doing what she had always done.

What she got right –

This woman did not hesitate to go to Jesus the minute He called her forward. Should she have been seeking Him out? Yes. Her obedience at the sound of His voice, however, indicates to me that she was desperate for Him, even if she did not know it until that very moment. Nobody who has been in chronic, crippling pain for 18 years would pass up the chance to be freed of their affliction. Moreover, she didn’t care who saw her or what they had to say about it. She was going to go to Jesus. That was it.

Each of the major translations of these verses record that, upon being healed, the woman praised God. I don’t think that she went off into some corner and shed a few happy tears into her hankie. In Acts 2, the Holy Spirit uses Peter to heal a crippled man who had been sitting outside one of the Temple gates daily. Verse 8 records that “he jumped up, stood on his feet, and began to walk! Then walking, leaping an praising God…” People of ancient times were not repressed as we are about expressing their joy (or their sorrow). I think that there is every chance that this woman, able to stand upright for the first time in years, twirled about the synagogue, looking people in the face. Do you see what He has done for me?!, she must have asked. I think she danced. I think she cried. I think she shouted. Most of all, I think that she kept coming back to Jesus. I even think that she’d be happy enough to hug Him.

Jesus:

Obviously, Jesus didn’t get anything wrong here!

What stands out is His willingness to interact with both the bent woman and the synagogue ruler. We have done ourselves a great disservice in anesthetizing Jesus to the degree that we have. He spoke. He walked. He thought. He touched. I’m bold enough to even think that He laughed at a good joke and that He enjoyed a good party. Still does! Jesus didn’t speak in monotone. He was fully God and fully Man, and both of those aspects of His personality would have led him to feel, and deeply at that.

Jesus knew that this woman wasn’t seeking Him out, but He also knew how much she needed Him. I think His heart broke over her pain, just as it must have broken over each tortured person He met. She did nothing to deserve His attention – yet He called her. He spoke into her life in a way that nobody else ever could or would. As she reveled in her new-found freedom, I think He smiled – and graciously accepted the hugs she might have lavished upon Him.

Is it any wonder, then, that He got so upset with the synagogue ruler and those who sided with him? Even in this, however, Jesus’ love and truth shine. To be called a hypocrite never feels pleasant, but Jesus did not say that all the people who were against this woman’s healing were big, fat jerks and that He was done with them. He did not storm out of the synagogue with a sweep of indignation. No. He stayed. He addressed their need just as He addressed hers. He spoke into the life of the synagogue ruler in a way that nobody else ever could or would. He stopped this man in his tracks and forced him to take a good, long look at himself.

Where we fit:

Well, none of us is Jesus. Hate to break that to you. We all have been and could be, at various times, either the bent woman or the synagogue ruler, though.

Like the synagogue ruler, have you ever been prone to dismiss someone else’s confidence and hope in the Lord, to dismiss their healing and redemption, because it doesn’t look the way you think it should? Because you have not had the same experience? Have you ever been bold enough to tell someone that they must do things your way? Are you prone to walking away from those from whom you have the most to learn? Do you dampen the enthusiasm and praise of the saved by your disapproving looks and sighs?

Like the bent woman, have you ever been in desperate need of release, but sought everything and anything other than Jesus to set you free? Have you thought that He could not possibly notice you? That you were not good enough for Him to love? If He has healed you, do you care too much about the people around you to dance and sing and shout and cry in praise?

Wherever and whichever we are today, Jesus is calling. He notices. He speaks into our lives in ways in which nobody else ever can or will.

Will we listen?

My journey to faith. (15)

 For all posts in the Bent series, go here.

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Bent: Hunchback, Ruler, Savior

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Gentle Reader,

A hunch-back.

A ruler.

A Savior.

Three people.

One got it all right.

One got one thing very right.

One got something right.

Put yourself in that scene, in their shoes. The sights, the sounds, the smells, the words, the feelings. Ponder on it. It may not mean what you think it means. Get comfortable in their shoes. Kick back in the synagogue. Don’t even try to take your eyes off Jesus. Sit there for awhile. Let it become part of your history. It’ll knock your socks off.

Application to follow soon.

My journey to faith. (15)

For all posts in the Bent series, go here.

Bent: Hypocrites and Delight

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Gentle Reader,

Let’s do a bit of a recap:

In the Gospel of Luke, chapter 13, we met a woman who had spent 18 years in a bent position, shuffling painfully through life.  Jesus encounters this woman while teaching in a synagogue one Sabbath. He draws her out of the crowd, considering the woman and her pain to be significant. He pronounces her healed of this infirmity, and lays His hands upon her. She immediately straightens up and begins to praise God in the midst of the crowd.

Where, exactly, was Jesus when this incident occurred?

Matthew 4:23 states that Jesus “traveled throughout the region of Galilee, teaching in the synagogues and announcing the Good News about the Kingdom. And He healed every kind of disease and illness.” Nazareth, His hometown, was located in this region; thus, it makes sense for a large portion of His ministry to be focused here. However, the Gospel accounts all point to Jesus ministering in locales south of Galilee,  particularly in the environs of Jerusalem. For the most part, then, the sites of Jesus’ earthly ministry can be clumped into two regions, Galilee and Judea, with a few side trips.

Before Jesus made the trek to Jerusalem for the final time, He and his disciples traveled to Ceasarea Philippi, in the province of Syria. This city was known for its intense pagan worship practices, centered around an opening in the cliffs which revealed the spring Banias or Paneas, named after the god Pan, who was closely associated with shepherds, flocks and desolate places. It was believed that this spring was an opening to the underworld. In short, Ceasarea Philippi was a dark and lonely city, filled with the raucous sounds of humanity desperately attempting to keep the capricious gods pleased and at bay.

It was here, in the region of Ceasarea Philippi (Jesus did not actually enter the city), that the Savior asked His disciples just who they thought He was.  Upon Peter’s confession that He was the Messiah, Jesus made four important pronouncements:

  • The Church, (Matt 16:18) – For the first time, Jesus announced His purpose to build an ekklesia (Church), a community of the redeemed, called out to be His Body on earth, to witness to Him while He was absent.
  • The Keys of the Kingdom, (Matt 16:19) – The keys refer to authority in the ekklesia. This power would also be shared by the other apostles (Matt 18:18; John 20:20-23). This authority was given to the apostles to enable them to lead the first generation of believers after Pentecost until the epistles were written, that revealed Jesus’ standards and provisions for His ekklesia.
  • Jesus’ coming death and resurrection, (Matt 16:21-23) – Jesus announced His death and resurrection, the events that would provide the redemption essential for the Church to come into existence.
  • Jesus’ call to discipleship, (Matt 16:24-27) – Jesus used the example of His own obedience to the Father, even to death, as He taught His followers this basic definition of a disciple. After His return to the Father, Jesus’ Body on earth would be composed of those who would deny themselves and follow Him.

Jesus had thus set the stage for the culmination of His earthly ministry while in Ceasarea Philippi, then turned His face resolutely toward Jerusalem and the end. The Gospels record, however, several stops and miraculous incidences.  The scene that we are considering is the last time that Jesus is recorded as teaching in a synagogue. Based on this and the information recorded in Mark 10:1, which states that Jesus spent some time east of the Jordan before going into Jericho and on to the Triumphal Entry, and also on a couple of Pharisees warning Jesus to get out of the area because Herod Antipas wanted Him dead in Luke 13:31, I believe that the healing of the bent woman took place in the region of Perea, part of Herod’s tetrarchy, east of the Jordan.

Perea, meaning “the country beyond,” was a lush, green place, occupied by the tribes Reuben, Gad and Manasseh (see Judges 15:15-33).  Jesus would minister in this area and its immediate environs until He was anointed by Mary in Bethany in preparation for His death and burial (see Matthew 26). While religious fervor during the days of Jesus’ earthly ministry ran particularly high, as one ventured closer to Jerusalem, the more sophisticated and fractious it became. The further South Jesus went, the more intense his confrontations with religious authorities became.

This leads us to (finally!, you are thinking) consider the rest of the scene recorded in Luke:

Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue ruler said to the people, ‘There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.” – Luke 13:14 (NKJV)

The ruler of the synagogue was an official appointed by the minyan (a quorum of 10 men needed to establish a synagogue), responsible for the general upkeep of the building, its contents and arrangement for worship. We might think of him as the curator or the custodian of the building, rather than a pastor or preacher. He would have been a man of high religious devotion and morality, strictly observing every aspect of the Law. (The traditions of the Pharisees had proliferated throughout Israel, connecting with the common people, whereas the traditions of the Sadducees were largely limited to wealthy, Greek-speaking Jews).

It is no wonder, then, that he was offended at Jesus’ healing of the woman. Healing was part of a doctor’s profession, and one was not allowed to practice one’s profession on the Sabbath. What Jesus says next implies that there was quite the stir in the synagogue, between the woman and those who rejoiced with her and those who sided with the synagogue ruler:

The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites” – Luke 13:15a (NKJV)

Is there a word that stings more than being called a hypocrite, a fake, a liar? Most people pride themselves on being genuine. It is, indeed, considered the mark of illness, of sociopathy, to be false without considering the ramifications. To be called a hypocrite is to be called to the carpet. It is to be exposed, whether truly or falsely, as being something other than what you seem. In this case, however, Jesus’ denouncement of the synagogue ruler and those who sided with him was nothing short of spot-on.

“Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?” – Luke 13:15b-16 (NKJV)

Here was a case of sticking to the letter of the Law while ignoring the spirit. Their hearts were hardened. They were concerned only with appearances. It was acceptable to give your animals rest and attention, but it was not right to free this woman from her chains. When did the priorities get shifted? When did an animal become of more importance than a human being? In God’s economy, though we are to treat animals with kindness, this was never meant to be the case.

Now, I happen to be a fan of the Sabbath. I think that we lose something when we do not set aside a day to rest and to reflect on all that the Lord has done for us. This does not mean, however, that we should become so consumed with what we should or shouldn’t do on the Sabbath (whatever day you deem it to be) that we ignore people who need help. Whether it is a friend who needs to chat, a family member in the hospital, or your own self who needs to get out for some fresh air, Jesus is saying here that it’s important to address needs as they arise, on whatever day of the week it is. We cannot get so legalistic in our practices and observances that we allow anyone to be hurt by them.

This is the reality which sunk in to the minds of the synagogue ruler and those who stood with him:

When He said this, all His opponents were humiliated. – Luke 113:17a (NKJV)

Jesus nailed them. He got them right where they were at and exposed their fraudulent thinking. He, as Lord of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:8), was the only One who had any right to say what could and couldn’t be done. He was the only One who had the correct view of  “six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the plowing season and harvest you must rest.” (Exodus 34:21) While debates about when and what the Sabbath is rage, I think that the best interpretation, based on the whole of Scripture, is to simply say that God knows we need a break, and we’d do well to take Him at His word – but that doesn’t mean we can drop off the face of the planet or force people to rest as we interpret rest to mean.

This scene ends with:

…but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things He was doing. – Luke 13:17b (NKJV)

Delighted.

How strange to think that, in a matter of weeks, this delight would devolve into the shouts of “crucify Him!”

What did the healed woman think as this confrontation took place? Did she even care? Did the synagogue ruler go home that day and ponder what Jesus said and all of its implications? What were the disciples impressions of this event? These and other questions are left to our imagination, but one thing is certain: there’s a whole heap of application for us in these verses. I leave you to ponder the completion of this scene, and we’ll talk more about this another day.

My journey to faith. (15)

For all posts in the Bent series, go here.

Bent: He Called Her Forward

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Gentle Reader,

Lately I have been spending a lot of my time at work hunched over. A new library is joining our district, and, in this process of consolidation, my department has seen a lot of upheaval, some of it good, some of it downright annoying. Such is the case with my current project. In an effort to both have consistent packaging of audio/visual materials between the various collections of the soon-to-be 8 branches and to aid in patron/staff location of said materials, I have been employed in the task of placing author and/or title initials on all of the DVD’s, VHS and digital book items.

A tedious process, to say the least. I can go on quite happily for a couple of hours before I begin to feel the ache between my shoulder blades. No matter how I twist, turn or adjust, that ache is guaranteed to travel up my spine and invade my neck and shoulders, sending shooting pains up through the base of my head. I’ve come home with a headache the last three days I’ve come home from work. I have not yet stumbled upon a posture in which to avoid this nuisance altogther.

I was working up a pretty good “sorry for myself” mood, bemoaning this wretched ache quite eloquently, until I read the following passage in the Gospel of Luke yesterday:

On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years.  She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. – 13:10-11 (NKJV)

Imagine that. While the author doesn’t tell his audience exactly what this woman looked like, I think it’s safe to say that she walked around with a little more than a minor headache. I picture her bent from the waist, her shoulders hunched over and curled in upon her chest. Any raising of her head would have required tremendous effort, if she could raise it at all. Most likely, she spent her life staring and the ground. She was probably poor, like the woman written about earlier in Luke’s account, who suffered from 12 years of constant bleeding, and who had visited every possible doctor she could. (8:43)

It was common in those days to assume that someone had sinned if such a physical ailment were upon them. The Gospel of John records Jesus’ own disciples asking Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (9:2) Illness or disfigurement thereby carried with it an aura of the tainted. What had she done, this woman, to deserve being stricken? In a time when the Jews had perhaps never been more obsessed with ritual purity, she may well have been utterly rejected by her family and community. This would have been harsh enough treatment for a man, but for a woman, who amounted to little more than property (in the eyes of men, NOT God), this was nothing short of complete ruin and disaster.

Think about what this rejection would have meant. The woman who bled for 12 years would not have been touched, because, according to the Law handed down by God to Moses and the Israelites at Sinai, a menstruating woman was unclean. What about this woman, then? My mind can’t even wrap around the idea of being untouched for 18 long years, and I don’t even consider myself to be a particularly touchy-feely person. No friendly hugs. No tender kisses from a spouse. No cradling a weary child. No clasping another’s hands in prayer.

That is a monumental aloneness, transcending her physical state and touching the very core of her being. I have no doubt that she, too, wondered what she had done to be rejected by God in such a way. If an entire nation of people viewed her as a piteous outcast, something subhuman, how much moreso must the Lord? Bone- and spirit-crushing hopelessness must have been her constant companions.

One more routine Sabbath came along. She went to the synagogue. Perhaps she sat, uncomfortably,  in her usual place, a little ways off from the fellowship of the other women. Was her heart hardened, or did she still shed a tear or two? Little did she know that this day, seemingly utterly indistinct from all others, would be so exceptionally different.

When Jesus saw her, He called her forward… – Luke 13:12a (NKJV)

Jesus, the Infinite Lord wrapped in human flesh, was winding His way to Jerusalem to accomplish the great task of salvation. Surely many things occupied His mind and heart as He traveled that one-way road to His certain death. There would have been many things He wanted – needed – to teach the disciples. As His time on earth came to a crashing close, more and more people came to Him in desperate need of so many things.  So many demands on His time, His attention. Yet, this woman, who does not ask, as so many did, for healing, catches His eye.

What must she have felt? Could she sense His eyes upon her, even if she could not meet His gaze? Did she have any inkling that this was the Lord who formed her and knew her in her mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13), who knew the exact number of hairs on her head? (Luke 12:7) What ferocious anxiety she must have felt as the famous Teacher called her forward! What could He possibly want with someone like her?

…and [He] said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” – Luke 13:12b (NKJV)

Words that must have shot like lightening through her very soul. Who was this man, that He had authority to say something so wonderful, so terribly frightening. Was it really true? Could He set her free? In that moment, the whole place came to a halt. Nobody dared breathe or move. They all knew this woman of whom they had whispered and wondered. Was she really deserving of a miracle?

Then He put his hands on her… – 13:13a (NKJV)

After 18 years, Someone finally touched her. The hands of a Carpenter, rough and thick with callouses, beaten by the elements. The hands of God, heart-shatteringly tender. The hands of the Savior, soon to be pierced in order to complete a healing beyond anyone’s imagining. She, this bent woman, was privileged to receive a taste of what was to come.

…and immediately she straightened up and praised God. – 13:13b (NKJV)

Did you catch that? Immediately. Then and there, her aching, stiff back straightened as if it had never been hurt. Her eyes, meeting those of anyone around her for the first time in so long, must have shone with the wonder and thankfulness at such a precious gift. I have no trouble imagining that she did a little leaping and dancing, just as another cripple would do upon receiving healing. (Acts 3:8) Jesus had made her well!

I want to stop here for now, awash in the glow of this wonderful, intimate scene of an outcast woman and her Glorious God. There are other players on the stage, however, waiting to make their appearance and put this healing to the ultimate test.  I’ll address the rest of this remarkable scene in another post. For right now, be thinking on your own life. Have you been or are you bent over? Are your eyes weary of taking in the same worn ground? What is pressing in on you and weighing you down?

He calls you, dearly loved one.

My journey to faith. (15)

 For all posts in the Bent series, go here.