All of us are bound tightly by whatever we call them – spirits, passions, vices – and God in Christ has come to set us free.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 21 C
Text: Luke 13:10-17
Beloved in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
This poor woman suffered for 18 years, bent over double.
But she didn’t come to the synagogue for healing. That was Jesus’ idea, unlike many of his healings. He called her over and said she was set free from her ailment.
After 18 years, this woman probably didn’t ever expect or hope to be better. She just thought, “this is how I will always be, hurting, struggling to breathe, to move.” Today would be just like every other day.
But this day, she was set free. For the first time in two decades, her Sabbath was restful, peaceful, joy.
This physical healing was her great gift. But not for us.
In Jesus’ wonderful healings we don’t really know where we fit in the story. When we, or others we love, are ill, suffering, we pray for healing. We hope for healing. We even demand it at times.
But we also know it’s not as simple as that. Sometimes God has healed loved ones of physical and mental disease. Sometimes the healing given isn’t what we asked for. So centering our worship with these stories, as the Gospel of the Day, is a practical problem. How do they apply to us?
But this story is different. Because Jesus uses language in this episode that opens a door for us to enter this healing. Oddly enough, it’s language we sometimes are too sophisticated and modern to take seriously.
Ancient people often attributed illness to evil spirits, and Jesus’ day did, too.
This woman has painful scoliosis, caused by who knows what. But Luke says she had a “spirit of disease” for 18 years, that’s why she was bent over double. And Jesus goes with this. He doesn’t say, “Be healed.” He says, “you are set free.” The same word describing freeing a prisoner from a cell, or freeing someone from crushing debt.
When the synagogue leader protests this Sabbath healing, Jesus keeps the image. He defeats his fellow rabbi in a classic Jewish debate, declaring that if the lesser thing – untying an ox on the Sabbath for water (one who had only been tied up over night) – is permitted in Torah, then clearly the greater thing – setting free a woman kept in bondage by Satan (one who had been tied up for 18 years) – is also permitted. The rabbi lost, and he and his friends know it. They’re “put to shame,” Luke says. The crowd of common folk hoot and holler at Jesus’ Jewish wisdom and skill.
But here’s your open door: Jesus, God’s Son, has the compassion and power to set free God’s children who are bound. What Jesus did, even if it uses the language of evil spirits, that’s the hope. Because if you can be set free of something you’ve come to believe will always bind you, wouldn’t that be life?
What ties you up, holds your life, and has done for so long you really believe this is the way you will always be?
The ancient Christian desert fathers and mothers shared the same belief in the presence of evil spirits. But they also had a wisdom that could be a great blessing to us.
They developed an understanding of nine spirits of temptation that afflicted people. They believed these spirits could bind us, hold us in their grasp. A few centuries later, Pope Gregory I codified a list of seven of them, unfortunately mislabelling them deadly sins. But the wisdom isn’t about sin that needs punishing. The wisdom is recognizing forces that trap us and shape us.
The list varied, but mostly it was anger, pride, deceit, envy, avarice, fear, gluttony, lust, and disengagement (sometimes called sloth.) Any of us at any time can be bound up by these evils, our forebears taught. They can hold our hearts and minds, affect our behavior, cripple our spirits, break our will.
Now, some of us in this room, in our community, have physical and mental ailments they’d like to be freed from, but not all of us. But everyone in this room, in our community, has at least one of these spirits.
And today Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, can set you free.
If “evil spirits” sounds a bit superstitious, think of them as controlling passions.
Is anger always lurking behind your heart, resentment at hand, ready to burst out and make a mess of your life, or to hurt others?
Are you trapped by needing to think pridefully of yourself, ready to manipulate things so you come out on top?
Does your vanity bind you, so you lie not only to others but even to yourself, to make yourself look better?
Does the melancholy you feel about your life lead you to envy what others have and who they are?
Is your need for security such that you cling tightly to things, unable to share, greedy for more?
Are you so afraid of life, so anxious, that you live a life of doubt, sometimes unable to move?
Or is something of a good thing never enough, you never feel fulfilled, needing more and more and more?
Do you see others as objects, trying to control them and the world, finding yourself using others?
Or is the world so fractured, so complex, you see no point in acting, no point in engaging, but fall into the boredom of being and doing nothing?
These are the passions that can bind us all, and everyone finds themselves trapped somewhere in these. That’s the wisdom of our forebears.
But God has come in Christ to set you free. Whether you ever thought it possible or not. Whether you came here looking for it or not. Just because God loves you.
That’s your hope: you don’t have to be bound by these.
Naming what binds you, watching for it, so that you know how and what to pray, that’s a good beginning. Once you know your captor’s name, you can learn new ways of thinking and being that lead to wholeness and life, not the bondage of these afflictive passions.
But beginning, middle, and end of it all is asking your God to free you in Christ. Recognizing you have no more power over the passion that binds you than over physical disease, ask God to set you free. To lead you to serenity instead of anger, humility instead of pride, truthfulness instead of deceit, emotional health instead of envy, non-attachment instead of greed, courage instead of fear, sobriety instead of gluttony, vulnerability instead of dominance, and action instead of disengagement.
The Triune God has sent you the Holy Spirit to live in you and give you life, to break any chains that bind you, trap you, block you from the abundant life God intends you to know. Nothing can separate you from God’s love in Christ, not even that thing that has held you so long.
That’s the joy the leader missed seeing.
Keeping Sabbath pales in comparison to God freeing someone from what binds and holds them. Rather than being indignant, he could have rejoiced with this woman, with the crowds, that God had done such a glorious thing.
And so can you. You can not only ask God to set you free, every day. You can also be one who sets others free, rather than binding them. Give an ox a drink, or a cup of water to someone thirsty. Call an old woman over to love her in Christ. Look out for the ones who are bound and find a way to give them hope, or, if you can, untie them. You can bear God’s freeing grace in your actions, your words, your love, and your witness to what it’s like to be freed.
Unlike this woman, being set free from these things takes a lot of time. A lifetime. We’re all in the state of being freed, and all in the business of helping others find the freeing touch of God in Christ. Until all, oxen and humans, are set free: to live, and drink water, and stand up straight, and praise God’s goodness together.
In the name of Jesus. Amen