The gospel of Luke records a poignant story about a woman who came to the synagogue one Sabbath, bent over from the waist, crippled in this way for 18 long years. Jesus calls her over and lays his hands on her. As she is healed and stands up straight, she begins to rejoice and praise God. But instead of rejoicing with her, the leader of the synagogue rebukes Jesus for healing on the Sabbath - the day on which no work at all was to be done.
Always honest and forthright, Jesus says, "You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for 18 long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?" The Pharisees were put to shame, and the entire crowd rejoiced with Jesus.
Scripture doesn't give us an exact diagnosis. She could have been bent over from years of hard work; she could have had osteoporosis, or scoliosis, or a lot of different things. She was without hope. And I expect her spirit, her heart, were in just as much pain as her back.
How hard that walk to Jesus' side must have been for this poor woman! She'd been called out, and all eyes were on her. Bent over, shuffling along, in pain, terribly embarrassed, maybe even afraid ... maybe, for all she knew, Jesus was another one of those self-righteous hypocrites who told her that her suffering was a punishment for her sin.
Jesus did four things. He saw her. He called her over. He set her free. He laid his hands on her. And for that, the synagogue leaders took out after him.
As happens so often, the compassion of Jesus ... offends the hypocrisy of religion. And if we're not careful, we can act like modern-day Pharisees ourselves. Every single one of us, in one way or another, knows how it feels to be bent over ... to be ashamed, to need forgiveness, to feel paralyzed by fear and resentment.
Our need for spiritual healing is often MUCH greater than our need for physical healing. And too often, we're unwilling to make that painful, humble walk to Jesus to receive his healing and deliverance. Humbling ourselves is really difficult. And even though we ARE bent over and struggling, we'd rather criticize each other's weaknesses than deal honestly with our own.
Let me give you a slightly different picture of that day in the synagogue. Just suppose ... as Jesus is teaching, the bent-over woman appears. The people in the synagogue approach her lovingly, speak gently to her, and help her make her way over to Jesus. They can do that because they, too, know all about being bent over. They know what it is to be in pain, to have problems, to make that humbling walk to Jesus. They've found some healing. And they don't care if it's the Sabbath or not - they have nothing but compassion for this poor woman, who had been staring at the ground, unable to stand straight for 18 years.
Isn't that a good picture of what CHURCH ought to be ... what it could be?
Many of us have taken that painful, bent-over walk to Jesus, and received the spiritual or physical healing we needed. Our job? Help others to find healing, too ... without judgment or blame, with only compassion and a clear acknowledgement of our own need for Jesus' grace and forgiveness.
This is the transforming love of Jesus. We all know there are cripples in our midst ... and sometimes WE are the ones desperately in need of healing. Some of us are crippled by physical problems ... some by resentment ... some by fear ... all of us by SOMETHING. Can we complain that the "rules" are being broken? Can we pass judgment on each other? Can we criticize or condemn?
Of course not! How can one cripple criticize another? We're here to make that walk to Jesus together, helping and encouraging each other. It's what Christ's grace is all about. And ... it's what the church needs to be about.
No matter what ... remember Jesus' compassion. He offers that compassion to us. And it's our privilege to offer it to others.
Rev. Susan Bennett is pastor of Stockbridge Presbyterian Church. She and her husband live in Stockbridge with two giant Rottweilers and a 15-pound rescue dog who is the boss of everybody.