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)
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.
For all posts in the Bent series, go here.