Standing Straight

Standing Straight

Homily for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

August 21, 2022

Standing Straight

Homily for Sunday, August 21, 2022
Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost
Luke 13:10–17

Of the “woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years” (about whom we just heard in today’s Gospel) St. Ambrose (fourth century) wrote…

The woman is a figure of the Church experiencing the “curvature of our infirmity.”  But the Church, says Ambrose, “could be healed… by means of the Law and grace.”  Referring to the “eighteen years” the woman was bent over Ambrose then writes: “The number ten is the completion of the Law,” and “the number eight the fullness of resurrection.  So… whoever has fulfilled the Law and grace will be [healed] through the mercy of Christ.”  (Commentary on Luke)

Of this woman St. Gregory (late fifth century) preached that…

“The sinner, preoccupied with things of earth and not looking for those of Heaven, is unable to look up: for as they follow desires that carry them down, their souls, losing their straightness, curve inward, and they see only what they constantly think.”

Of this same woman Augustine (early fifth century) preached that…

The woman is a figure of humanity, for whom there have been “three times; one before the Law, the second under the Law, and the third under grace.”  And “In six days,” Augustine notes, “God finished God’s work.  Three times six are eighteen,” Augustine says.  Being subject to sin and under the Law, “the woman was bent down and could not look up.” But when she heard Jesus’ message of repentance and expressed sorrow for her sins, then says Augustine, “the Lord made her straight.”  (Sermon 60)

Maybe it’s because they lived in another era, or because they regarded the scriptures differently, or because they understood differently the task of the preacher—or maybe it’s because they were guys—what Ambrose, Gregory and Augustine fail to notice about this woman is the woman.  While ten plus eight or three times six or different eras of humanity may be interesting, I want to hear about the woman.  I wanted them to help me enter into the woman’s shoes and to imagine her story, like:

  • What was it that caused her to be bent over and unable to stand straight?
  • How old was she, and who were her family and friends?
  • What was her relationship with the townspeople?  Did they look down on her, or did they look out for her?
  • Why did she come to the synagogue that day?  Was she there every Sabbath, or did she come that day only, perhaps to see Jesus?
  • What was it like for her when Jesus “called her over?”  What did it feel like to draw near to him?  To have him lay his hands on her?  To hear him speak?
  • What happened after today’s story?  Did the woman “believe?”  Did she follow as a disciple?  Or did she return to her daily routine in the village?

I wanted Ambrose, Gregory and Augustine to put themselves in the woman’s shoes and to speak to some of these questions because I have a hunch that we all can relate to this woman.  I have a hunch that we all have been in some way “crippled” and “bent over” and perhaps for many years; I have a hunch that we all would like once again to be “set free” and to “stand up straight.”

What Ambrose, Gregory, and Augustine do with this woman and her infirmity is perhaps similar to what we might be inclined to do when faced with infirmity: which is to keep it at arm’s length.  But keeping infirmity at arm’s length does not lead to being set free and standing up straight.

In addition to this woman, there are four Biblical figures who are near to infirmity, and who along with this woman offer four stages, as it were, of what it might look like for Jesus to set us free.  (And notice that Jesus in today’s Gospel does not tell the woman that she is “healed” but that she is “set free.”)

  1. First, the Suffering Servant from Isaiah chapter 53.  The Suffering Servant did not keep infirmity at arm’s length, but was “a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity,” Isaiah writes (53:3).  “He has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases.” The Suffering Servant teaches the first step to being “set free”: to allow ourselves to become acquainted with our infirmities, and not to keep them at arm’s length.
  2. Second, blind Bartimaeus in Mark chapter 10.  Bartimaeus did not let his infirmity define him.  Never mind that Bartimaeus was blind; never mind that he was a beggar on the side of the road; never mind that there were “many who sternly ordered him to be quiet…”  Bartimaeus let none of this define him but when Jesus passed by cried out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy!” (Mark 10:6–52).  Bartimaeus teaches: that we need not let our infirmities define us.
  3. Third, St. Paul.  You may recall how Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians, speaks about having “a thorn… given to [him] in the flesh… to torment [him]” (2 Cor 12:7).  “Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me,” Paul writes, “but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:8–9).  Paul’s teaching is difficult: that sometimes God allows “thorns” in order to deepen our dependence, and to show that God’s “grace is sufficient.”
  4. Lastly, the man born blind in John chapter 9.  You may recall how the disciples asked Jesus, when they encountered the man born blind, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” replied Jesus.  “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”  Here is an advanced teaching, to be sure: by the man born blind John teaches that sometimes God allows infirmity in order “that God’s works might be revealed.”

Many of us (perhaps all of us) like the woman in today’s Gospel are in some way “bent over” and perhaps have been for many years.  Luke’s story of the bent-over woman suggests that it is possible to be, perhaps not necessarily healed but “set free” and to once again “stand up straight.”  When we, like Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, do not keep infirmity at arm’s length but “bear” and “carry” it, it is as though Jesus, as he called over the bent-over woman, is calling us over.  When we, like Bartimaeus, do not let our condition define us but cry out, “Jesus… have mercy,” it is as though Jesus says to us as he said to the bent-over woman, “You are set free.”  When we, like Paul, allow our “thorn” to let us come to know how God’s grace is sufficient, it is as though Jesus—as he laid his hands on the woman—lays his hands on us.  And when we, as in the case of the man born blind, come to understand that sometimes God allows infirmity in order “that God’s works might be revealed,” it is as though we with the woman finally can stand up straight and begin praising God.

In those places in which we may have been “bent over” and for many years and from which we would be set free, I invite us not to do as did Ambrose, Gregory and Augustine and to keep this woman and her story at arm’s length, but rather to come to know her—and perhaps also Bartimaeus and St. Paul and the man born blind.  For our infirmities and wounds, painful and difficult though they may be, need not define us.  And even could become an experience of God’s grace being sufficient for us, and a way in which God reveals God’s works in us.

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