Once or twice a year I post a recent sermon. Today is one of those times. On Sunday, which was Mother’s Day, I preached from Luke 13 about a “daughter of Abraham” (v. 16).
Abraham in the Old Testament is the quintessential patriarch of our faith. God promises Abraham and his descendants that they will inherit the world and be a blessing to the nations (Gen. 12:1–3). If you grew up in the church, perhaps you sang the song “Father Abraham.” “Father Abraham,” it goes, “had many sons. And I am one of them, and so are you . . .” You probably never sang about his many daughters. But in this passage, we meet one of them. And she meets God.
You can listen to the sermon here or read a rough manuscript below.
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It’s possible to become so focused on something, so protective of something that you actually miss the thing you are trying to protect. When we had construction workers here this winter, they took various safety precautions as they went about their work. The general contractor even has a safety coordinator that goes around all their jobs just to make sure people take necessary precautions.
But what if, over the course of the job, as this safety coordinator came to Community to inspect things, he noticed how I continually increased the precautionary safety measures. At first it was just hardhat and safety glasses to be worn all the time, even from the moment a worker gets out of the car. And then it moved to not only steel-toed boots but Kevlar vests and body armor.
And then it got to the place where, before a worker could get to work, I would proceed to tape them in bubble wrap head to toe. Can you imagine me, a pastor, wrapping full grown women and men in bubble wrap? It’s absurd. It’s not even safe anymore. How could one breathe?
Lot’s could be said about this silly story but had this actually happened, I can assure you that whatever we could say, we would not be saying it in this building; we never would have moved in! No work would have been done.
That’s what happens in this passage. A focus on the letter of man’s law to the utter neglect of the spirit of the God’s law creates sinful absurdity. Let’s just read a few verses at a time, and I’ll make comments as we come to things.
The Setting, vv. 10–11
First, there is the setting in vv. 10–11. Let’s re-read them.
10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. 11 And behold, there was a woman who had had a disabling spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not fully straighten herself.
The story begins seemingly unassuming. We don’t know much about this particular synagogue, but we might picture something like a small church, a place where believers gathered each week to hear the Scripture read and taught.
But the careful reader is already cued into a potential tension in these opening lines. We read of “the synagogue” and “the Sabbath” and “[Jesus] teaching.” These three have come together several times already (4:15, 16, 33, 44; 6:6). Luke 4:16 even calls it his custom to teach in a synagogue on a Sabbath. The careful reader might as well have read in v. 11, “It was a windy afternoon, and on the horizon were giant thunderclouds, and two armies faced each other.”
Then we read of this woman, a woman who has no clue she’s just hobbled on to a battlefield. Luke certainly is drawing our attention to her. That’s one thing you need to know is particular to Luke’s gospel: Luke trains our attention on God’s love for those often shoved to the margins. In Luke’s context and many times in our own, this certainly includes women. Luke’s gospel has forty-two passages with motifs related to women, and over half of these passages are unique to his gospel, meaning they are not recorded elsewhere in the other gospels (Bock, Luke in The NIV Application Commentary Series, 373). This story in Luke 13 is one of those stories unique to his gospel.
And just look at her. We read that she “was [both] bent over and could not fully straighten herself.” Why the two descriptions? It communicates not only her default disposition (bent over) but also her inability to deviate from that default position (unable to stand up). She is hunched over all the time. If she wants to look you in the eye, she does so in a sort of sideways manner. Everything about every detail of her life is disrupted. Her walking was disrupted. Her sitting was disrupted. Her going to the bathroom was disrupted. Her rest was disrupted. Her sleep was disrupted. Her mothering was disrupted, along with intimacy with her husband, if she was married with children. But perhaps this incident happened before all that, and so no man would even court her, leaving her alone in her predicament. And all for 18 long years! This was a woman for which you’d have to whisper to your children, “Don’t stare.”
Luke tells us she had a “disabling spirit.” We don’t know exactly what that means, but later Jesus indicates that Satan was involved in this particular “binding” (v. 16). But in real-time—which is the only way we experience our pain—as this woman experienced her pain, we can only imagine the reason for her pain was as unclear to her as it is to most of us when we experience pain. Why, Lord, did this have to happen? Why, Lord, am I hurting so? Why is life so difficult? Have I done something wrong, Lord? Have you forgotten about me, Lord? How long, O Lord?
The Untying, vv. 12–13
Let’s continue reading vv. 12–13. Jesus sees her.
12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said to her, “Woman, you are freed from your disability.” 13 And he laid his hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and she glorified God.
We read that Jesus saw her, Jesus called to her, and Jesus touched her. And when he did, she was changed. She was, we might say, untied. She was loosed and set free—free to glorify God by jumping around. The Greek implies that she did not merely glorify God but that she was glorifying God, meaning it was continuous; she couldn’t stop speaking about the greatness of her God.
Let’s talk for a moment about the language of seeing and touching. In our day a religious man seeing a woman and then laying hands on her is jarring because of how many women are abused by men in positions of authority, which is especially troubling when it’s done by those in positions of religious authority.
So I pause. And I ask: Men, when you see a woman, what do you see? With what lens do you look at women? Do you look at them the way God sees them or the way a pornified culture sees them? Do you see women made in the image of God and as those who ought to be the source of your love and sacrifice, or do you see women as those who are made to be sacrificed for you?
And I pause. And I ask: Women, how do you see yourself? Do you see yourself as God sees you or as the world tells you that you are to be seen? Do you see yourself as fearfully and wonderfully made by the almighty Creator of the Universe, or do you see your worth and value in what size dress you can wear and how well you can delay the expansion of wrinkles?
O that we had the eyes of Jesus! O that we—men and women—could see the way he sees. What love, what compassion, what vision of the way things ought to be and will be someday, even someday soon.
Well, next we come to the disagreement about the Sabbath and work. But I would just mention before we read the reaction to this healing, that while a grand and glorious liberation to a captive has taken place (cf. Luke 4:18), it really didn’t take that much “work.” He saw, he spoke, he touched, he healed. Done.
Here’s an encouragement to us. If your eyesight is off, meaning you do not see with the eyes of God and the lens of Scripture, this morning—and this is good news—God can straighten you up with just a touch and a word. Done.
The Ruler’s Reaction, v. 14
Look at v. 14 to see the reaction.
14 But the ruler of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, said to the people, “There are six days in which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day.”
What a contrasting picture. On the one hand, a crippled woman is now healed. And on the other hand, a powerful, healthy man now shows his deep heartsickness. The woman glorifies God, and the man is berating God. And he won’t even look at Jesus as he does it. Notice the passage points out that the coward says whatever he has to say to the people, not Jesus. He’s like someone who runs to social media to rant: There are six days in which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day. #KeepSabbathHoly. Is God closed for business on the Sabbath?
This ruler’s words are absurd, aren’t they? Jesus thinks so. But we’d be helped by trying to put ourselves in this ruler’s shoes. To do that, we’d have to go back in time.
When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, he came down with two tablets inscribed by the finger of God. He came down with the Ten Commandments. The fourth commandment is, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). That’s going back some 1,400 years before Jesus. And it turns out that Gods people weren’t so great at keeping this commandment or any of the other commandments either.
For this reason the prophets began to warn of the severe punishment that God was storing up because of the way his people profaned the Sabbath. In Jeremiah 17:27 we read,
27 But if you do not listen to me, to keep the Sabbath day holy, and not to bear a burden and enter by the gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath day, then I will kindle a fire in its gates, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem and shall not be quenched.’”
Eventually the punishment comes; the fire comes. God picked up a flamethrower called Babylon and pointed it at Jerusalem. Babylon laid siege to Zion, crippling her food supply. In a series of assaults over several years King Nebuchadnezzar led most of Israel away as captives.
While Israel is in Babylon for seventy years, all the while prophets like Ezekiel explain that a chief reason—among the many reasons—they went into exile was because they neglected the Sabbath. Ezekiel, speaking for God, says,
You have despised my holy things and profaned my Sabbaths. (22:8)
And many such things God says through him (e.g., 20:10–26; 22:26; 23:38).
When God’s people are released from their exile, the governor Nehemiah makes a huge deal of the Sabbath. He says,
15 In those days I saw in Judah people treading winepresses on the Sabbath, and bringing in heaps of grain and loading them on donkeys, and also wine, grapes, figs, and all kinds of loads, which they brought into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day. And I warned them on the day when they sold food. . . . 18 Did not your fathers act in this way, and did not our God bring all this disaster on us and on this city? Now you are bringing more wrath on Israel by profaning the Sabbath.” (13:15, 18)
When the merchants end up hanging outside the city wall, Nehemiah tells them, “If you do so again, I will lay hands on you” (13:21).
And then 500 years go by between Nehemiah and Jesus. What happens during that time is that the leaders, in a desire to never repeat the exile, they build laws on top of regulations and commandments on top of stipulations. These manmade rules were recorded in places like the Mishnah, a collection of rabbinic teachings during this time. In some places in the Mishnah there are provisions made for watering and feeding animals, but in one place in the Mishnah we read a list of 39 things prohibited on the Sabbath, things such as,
Sowing, plowing, reaping, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, sorting, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking, shearing wool, whitening it, combing it, dyeing it, spinning, weaving, making two loops, weaving two threads, separating two threads, tying [a knot], untying [a knot], sewing two stitches, tearing for the purpose of sewing two stitches, hunting a deer, slaughtering it, skinning it, salting it, curing its hide, scraping it, cutting it, writing two letters, erasing for the purpose of writing two letters, building, demolishing, extinguishing a flame, lighting a flame, striking with a hammer, carrying from one domain to another. (Taken from Shabbat 7.2 here.)
And perhaps without even realizing it, they continually increased precautionary safety measures to the point that keeping the Sabbath holy meant wearing bubble wrap. Their focus on the letter of man’s law to the utter neglect of the spirit of God’s law created sinful absurdity: one of God’s leaders, a ruler of a local synagogue, berating God for doing on the Sabbath that for which the Sabbath was made, namely, healing and joy and pushing back the curse wherever it’s found.
This is what sin always does. When it is full grown, it creates absurdities (cf., James 1:15). No man who begins with pornography wants to end up addicted. No woman who wants to look beautiful intends to end up anorexic. But that’s where things can go. I can remember in college running my self absolutely ragged trying to keep up my test scores. It was an act of false worship. And even today, I sometimes marvel at how slow my Christian maturity has developed when I find myself running myself ragged trying to be the pastor I think everyone wants me to be, coveting lofty opinions from you. O, we need grace, don’t we, church?
The Lord’s Response, vv. 15–16
And while the synagogue ruler would not take his complaint directly do Jesus, Jesus certainly takes his complaint directly to him and every other leader who sided with him. Look at vv. 15–16.
15 Then the Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to water it? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?”
There are seven recorded miracles that Jesus performs on a Sabbath day (See this helpful chart here), which leads me to believe controversy over the Sabbath wasn’t a battle Jesus fell into by accident. No, Jesus saw the religious leaders draw a line in the sand, and he walked across it with loving fire in his eyes.
Jesus makes one statement (“you hypocrites”), and he asks two questions. These questions, in case it isn’t apparent, are rhetorical. You’re not supposed to answer them out loud. You’re supposed to sit in them. Or better, they sit on us, holding us down until we come to our senses.
Jesus, as he so often does, argues from the lesser to the greater (cf. 11:11–13 and 12:6–7). If it’s okay for an animal to be untied on the Sabbath and be led to water, how much more on a Sabbath is it necessary to untie this woman, this daughter of Abraham? (By the way, that’s the only place this phrase is used in the Bible.) This daughter of Abraham is an heir of the world through the promise of God, and the religious leaders were essentially saying through their actions that this woman was less than a donkey.
If we widen out a bit away from this woman specifically, it might be helpful to ask what you think the Sabbath is for? On this ordinary Sabbath something extraordinary happened. Just like it does in every ordinary church, with ordinary pastors, preaching ordinary sermons—God sees fit to show up. But you’d have to be there to see it.
I actually don’t think in the New Covenant era, the time after Jesus’s death and resurrection, that we are required to keep the Sabbath in the same way it was kept in the Old Testament, but I do think we are not helped by our general neglect of Sabbath rest. I’ve been convicted of this lately. I’ve read four books loosely around the topic of busyness and contentment and Sabbath rest. One author, a pastor in Boston, writes in his new book The Art of Rest,
If you’re concerned that by embracing regular Sabbath rest you’re in danger of coming under some harsh legalism, simply ask yourself how not observing the Sabbath rest is going for you. It’s not rest that threatens to oppress you, but your refusal to. (Adam Mabry, The Art of Rest, 48)
I guess I’m arguing things both ways because I see the passage do that very thing. There is a danger to adding rules to the Sabbath to make something absurd. But on the other hand, many of us have gone so far the other way that we are missing the joy and healing that are offered on the Sabbath. Build rhythms of rest into your life. Build into your life relaxed and unhurried time in the presence of God. Build into your life relaxed and unhurried fellowship with God’s people.
The Polarization, v. 17
Let’s wrap this up by reading the final verse.
17 As he said these things, all his adversaries were put to shame, and all the people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him.
This story in Luke 13 is the last time recorded in the gospels that Jesus teaches in a synagogue. You can see why. A polarization takes place around the person of Jesus.
We read that “all his adversaries were put to shame, and all the people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him.” All and all. Sadly, their shame, it would seem, does not lead them to repentance. In a few weeks we’ll come to chapter 14 where Jesus heals again on the Sabbath (vv. 1–6) and says similar things. He repeats himself because they didn’t get it. The grace of God displayed before them made their hearts of stone harder.
I think this widening out is an accurate historical summary of what took place. But also, in part, this widening out in v. 17 has the rhetorical effect of pressing us to deal with Jesus. What do you think of him? Where do you stand? Will you be content with your manmade ladders to heaven, or will you let Jesus touch you, heal you, and make you whole again.
As I said earlier, Luke’s gospel highlights God’s special compassion for those who society, even religious society, does not value, which often includes women and mothers. If on this Sabbath Lord’s Day you feel exhausted, beat down, and lonely, take heart. Jesus sees you. Jesus loves you.