I opened my mailbox yesterday afternoon to find a “Special Welcome Back Offer” from Time magazine addressed to my mother-in-law.
“If we subscribe, will Mama Honey come back?” my husband asked when he came home from work and saw the notice on the counter.
Does Time have the power to turn back time? If so, who needs a special offer? Even cover price would be small price to pay to welcome my husband’s mother back, to be wrapped in her loving embrace, enfolded by the sweet sound of her voice on the other end of the phone.
It’s been more than two years since Mama Honey left this life. More than two years since I contacted Time to cancel her subscription, writing deceased as the reason.
Every day my husband and I remember that she is no longer present, he in ways more visceral and potent than I. Memories of her float in and out of ordinary days as my husband works with tools she first gave him, as I refill the spice jars she gave me at my bridal shower, as we share stories of her at family gatherings. Visitations come to my husband in dreams as he dances with her, or cares for her again at the end of her life. Ephemeral moments evaporating into morning’s light. And no matter how powerful they are, our memories and dreams never reunite us in person with the solidity of her physical body, the sound of her voice in the room, the sweet hospitality of her spirit that drew everyone close.
Was Time’s offer a cruel trick or a welcome treat? Was it a computer glitch omitting the instruction to delete her name from the database, or the inability of an automated system to honor our loss?
Whatever it was, the special welcome back offer arrived on Halloween, and I am writing this on All Saints Day. The veil between worlds is thin in these holy days, when we do indeed welcome back the dead, bring them to life in our mind’s eye, dress like our best and worst visions and nightmares, offer sweets to those who remain to ease the ache, and visit their resting places, which may be only in our hearts.
So, thank you, Time, for the opportunity to place my welcome back order. And thank you, catalogues and insurance and random special offer profferers, who manage to slip by my cancellation requests. Because of you, I open my mailbox on occasion and see my mother-in-law’s name in bold black print. I lift the envelope and carry it into the house as if my hand is cradling something precious and rare: Her memory bequeathed to me and those who love her still.
A reflection on Luke 17:11-19
The gospel of Luke is rich with accounts of Jesus providing physical and spiritual healing to those who suffer:
In the fourth chapter, Jesus stands over Simon Peter’s mother-in-law and heals her fever. Later that day “any who were sick with various kinds of diseases brought them to him; and he laid his hands on each of them and cured them.”
Further on in Chapter 4, Jesus heals a man with an unclean spirit. In Chapter 5, Jesus heals a leper in verses 12-16. The account reads like this:
Once, when he was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, ‘Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.’ Then Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, ‘I do choose. Be made clean.’ Immediately the leprosy left him. And he ordered him to tell no one. ‘Go’, he said, ‘and show yourself to the priest, and, as Moses commanded, make an offering for your cleansing, for a testimony to them.’ But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.
Later, in Chapter 5, Jesus heals a paralyzed man who is lowered through the roof into the middle of a crowd with the words, “Your sins are forgiven you.”
In Chapter 6, we read:
He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
In Chapter 7 Jesus heals a Centurion’s servant from afar and raises a widow’s only son from the dead. He casts demons out of man and into a herd of swine that run off a cliff and drown, and heals a distraught father’s dying daughter. A woman who has been bleeding for 12 years is healed when she touches the hem of his robe. After confronting her, Jesus says, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”
In Chapter 9, a man begs for his son to be healed from a demon and it is done. In Chapter 11, Jesus casts out a demon allowing a mute man to speak. In Chapter 13, on the Sabbath, Jesus heals the woman who had been bent over for 18 years. In Chapter 14, also on the Sabbath, he heals a man who had dropsy.
And now, in Chapter 17, Jesus is traveling between Samaria and Galilee on his way to Jerusalem. As he enters a village, ten lepers approach him. Keeping their distance, they call out, saying, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!"
Here, we need to know some things about leprosy in Biblical times. The first is that the leprosy referred to in both the Old and New Testaments is not the modern day disease of leprosy.
In an article adapted by the Nepal Leprosy Trust, Dr. Jeanie Cochrane Oldman writes:
The condition described as leprosy in the Old Testament section of the Bible is NOT the same as modern leprosy or Hansen’s Disease, as it is often called. The Hebrew word sara’at [which was later translated into Greek as lepra] is a ritualistic term denoting uncleanness or defilement and covered a range of conditions that could affect people, or clothing, or even a wall. The conditions described could include boils, carbuncles, fungus infections, infections complicating a burn, impetigo, favus of the scalp, scabies, patchy eczema, phagedenic ulcer, and impetigo or vitiligo on people. On walls or clothes, it was more likely to be fungus, mold, dry rot, lichen or similar conditions.
Even an article from the Jewish Encyclopedia published back in 1906 notes that:
Ẓara'at was looked upon as a disease inflicted by God upon those who transgressed His laws, a divine visitation for evil thoughts and evil deeds. Every leper mentioned in the Old Testament was afflicted because of some transgression. "Miriam uttered disrespectful words against God's chosen servant Moses, and, therefore, was she smitten with leprosy. Joab, with his family and descendants, was cursed by David for having treacherously murdered his great rival Abner. Gehazi provoked the anger of Elisha by his mean covetousness, calculated to bring the name of Israel into disrepute among the heathen. King . . . Uzziah was smitten with incurable leprosy for his alleged usurpation of priestly privileges in burning incense on the golden altar of the Temple.”
It would have been quite natural for the people . . . to have regarded persons afflicted with ẓara'at as transgressors; they had violated the laws of God and their transgressions had been great, else they would not have been so afflicted.
One had to be clean and pure in order to come before God in worship. In that prescientific era before the understanding of viruses, bacteria, and the mechanics of how disease spreads, God gives explicit instructions about how to deal with leprosy in order to prevent the spread of sin and sin-induced diseases. The entirety of Chapter 13 in the book of Leviticus is devoted to diagnosing leprosy and other skin conditions. Anyone suspected of having this condition, needed to go to a priest for examination—and often repeated examinations, casting the priest in the role of dermatologist and judge.
If found to be infected, the law says that “the leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip [his mustache], and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.” (Leviticus 13:2-3, 45-46).
Why were lepers subject to such harsh public ostracism? The website gotquestions.org provides some rationale:
Among the 61 defilements of ancient Jewish laws, leprosy was second only to [coming into contact with] a dead body in seriousness. A leper wasn’t allowed to come within six feet of any other human, including his own family. The disease was considered so revolting that the leper wasn’t permitted to come within 150 feet of anyone when the wind was blowing. Lepers lived in a community with other lepers until they either got better or died.
The 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia says that this practice of exiling lepers gave rise to the segregation of those suffering from modern leprosy, even though the disease is not highly contagious. It also says this:
There is much reason to believe that the segregation of lepers was regarded . . . more in the light of a religious ceremonial than as a hygienic restriction.
Writers who hold the view that the exclusion of lepers had chiefly a religious significance conclude from these facts that lepers were obliged to remain outside the camp because they were regarded as likely to morally infect others.
As we return specifically to today’s scripture, I offer a few more thoughts from Dr Jeanie Cochrane Oldman and the Nepal Leprosy Trust.
Although modern leprosy had appeared in Israel by the time Christ was living there, we do not know whether the “ten lepers” that were healed by Him had modern leprosy or not. After the four Gospels at the beginning of the New Testament, there is no further mention of leprosy in the Bible.
[And as for] practical applications of this understanding:
With this background and insight, let’s revisit the scripture for a close reading and some thoughts about it:
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him.
It’s possible that this village is composed completely of lepers; of people cast out of their hometowns in both Galilee and Samaria, and together they’ve formed this community of outcasts.
Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!" (v. 12b-13)
Word of Jesus’s power to heal has spread everywhere, even in this village in no-man’s land. Throughout the gospels, people are desperate for healing and come to Jesus for a variety of reasons and in a variety of ways.
In the case of these lepers, why not ask Jesus for healing? He might say no, but having been exiled from home and family, they really have nothing left to lose. And I wonder if there were other lepers in that place who didn’t come forward, who stayed in their misery without reaching out for help when Jesus came.
Though they’ve been banished, these ten lepers are still observing the law. They keep their distance, unlike the leper earlier in this gospel who broke the law to bow at Jesus’s feet and ask to be made clean.
Maybe this group of ten stands six feet away from Jesus, or maybe the wind is blowing and they’re shouting from 150 feet away. Either way, they’ve summoned the courage to ask for mercy. And Jesus responds:
When he saw them, he said to them, "Go and show yourselves to the priests." (v. 14a)
Jesus doesn’t touch these lepers, as he did the one begging at his feet. He doesn’t need to. This isn’t the first time Jesus has directed his healing energy without touching those who are afflicted. Sometimes they weren’t even present. From a distance, he sees their affliction and isolation in this village where they’ve been banished between two fractious regions. Jesus recognizes that they are literal outsiders.
Before the lepers are even aware that healing has begun, he sends them home, back to the priests who can give them “a clean bill of health” and restore them to home, family, religious, and community life.
“And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back…” (v. 14b-15a)
Healing, at least for the one who turned back seemed to happen soon after he walked away, in a short enough period of time that he could turn around, and still find Jesus there.
We don’t know about the others. When their physical symptoms disappeared, when they noticed, or how they reacted. But we can assume that they were also grateful. Wouldn’t each of us be?
Praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus' feet and thanked him. (v. 15b-16a)
The Samaritan is overcome with gratitude, and sets aside his objective—to go to the priest for reinstatement into the community—to offer thanks and praise to Jesus, the one who brought about healing. He is grateful for the healing in and of itself before, or even if, anything else in his life changes.
“And he was a Samaritan.” (v. 16b)
This fact is a big deal every time it comes up in the gospels. Franciscan Media provides some useful descriptions of the rift between the Jews and the Samaritans for us modern readers:
Imagine the hatred between Serbs and Muslims in modern Bosnia, the enmity between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland or the feuding between street gangs in Los Angeles or New York, and you have some idea of the feeling and its causes between Jews and Samaritans in the time of Jesus. Both politics and religion were involved.
Then Jesus asked, "Were not ten made clean?” (v. 17a)
Is this a rhetorical question, or is it possible that Jesus didn’t get close enough to really see each person clearly? The answer may not matter much.
“But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" (v. 17-18)
Those who leave and don’t return are simply doing what Jesus told them to do. They are eager to go to the priests with their newly unblemished bodies so they can be reunited with loved ones and belong again.
Perhaps the nine are all Galileans, and they’ve left together along the same road to return to their towns and villages in Galilee, having something in common besides their leprosy and ostracization.
I can imagine being one them, caught up in the anticipation, and then joy of reunification, and later wanting to seek Jesus out to thank him, only to find that he’d already left. He was, after all, on his way to Jerusalem.
The Samaritan may have been on his own, the only Samaritan among the ten, the only one from his village. Jesus implies that he was. Though he was part of this community of outcasts, now that they are healed, he doesn’t belong with them. He is still an outsider.
I don’t think the point of this scripture is to focus on the ingratitude of the nine, and I don’t think it’s meant to shame us into feeling guilty when we’re part of the 90% and caught up in the drama of the moment, the times we’ve been overwhelmed and forgotten to say “thank you” in the moment we received healing, grace, mercy, and love. And, I don’t think the purpose is to glorify being an extreme outsider, like the Samaritan leper.
Instead, I think that Jesus finds his assumptions and his own cultural beliefs challenged here. This isn’t the first time he’s been surprised by the depth of faith and the actions of those outside the Jewish community he came to minister to.
Then he said to him, "Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well." (v. 19)
What does “your faith has made you well” mean? Is there a difference between being “cured” and being “made well”?
Is there a difference between approaching Jesus out of an I’ll-try-anything desperation and approaching with a belief that he can and will heal you? Is that what distinguishes the Samaritan leper from the other nine?
That may be true. But I sense another important distinction between the nine who rushed to the priests, and the one who turned back. It seems to me the faith that made the Samaritan leper well is his trust in his own experience of healing and inclusion in God’s kin-dom; a recognition that faith and belief don’t rely on following rules to the letter and the stamp of approval of those with religious authority, but rather faith and belief come from our recognition and acceptance of God’s love freely offered.
Accepting grace seems simple enough, but remnants of legalism still plague us. Though our understanding of illness and infectious disease have shifted radically since the time of Jesus, we still struggle with the idea of illness being a consequence of sin, particularly as it pertains to addiction:
Liver failure in alcoholics and dental decay in meth addicts often seem to us like fitting consequences for sin. “They brought it upon themselves” we say of the results of destructive. We think of such suffering God’s judgment, and see it as right punishment for sin—for our inability to master our impulses and behavior and overcome our brokenness.
But even when we find better ways to cope with our brokenness, pain, and anxiety, turning from our sinful ways, becoming born again, and overcoming addiction doesn’t necessarily restore us to physical and mental health, as much as we hope and pray it will.
We have centuries of history showing our human tendency to look for sin, for uncleanness, for explanation and justification of the human condition so that we can attempt to control life. We formulate rules, and opt for blame and punishment when we break them, as a way to keep ourselves safe: from bad decisions, mental and physical illness, from addiction, from pain and heartbreak.
I knew a woman who built a house with her husband, and that process brought out long-buried issues in their marriage. At the same time, her husband was diagnosed with cancer. Rather than face the hard truths of their relationship, and her own part in the pain, she became convinced that the sin of her husband’s anger was the direct cause of his cancer. It was all his fault, and she was off the hook.
But the world is too complicated, and our lives too intricate and nuanced for such simplistic cause and effect.
And sometimes, contrary to what we might think, illness itself doesn’t bring despair or thoughts of sin, it returns us to belief. You have probably witnessed this in someone you know, or even in your own life.
As humans, we are all frail, we all suffer, we’re all afflicted, we’re all outsiders at one time or another, and it is faith that can restore us to a wholeness in relationship with God, even if our conditions aren’t healed.
In this gospel lesson, the ten lepers remind us to risk advocating for ourselves, to risk being told no, and to risk being told yes.
The Samaritan leper reminds us to:
•Ask for what our hearts desire even from those we think would never help us.
•Imagine possibilities beyond our present circumstances and limitations.
•Think and act beyond our own self-interest when we have the capacity to do so.
•Offer thanks and praise to God and to those who remind us of God’s goodness and presence.
•Live in gratitude.
•Trust our own experience.
And in this encounter, we learn from Jesus to offer our gifts to those outside of our own circle, our own comfort zone, our own community, and our own belief system.
May the wealth contained in this gospel lesson enrich each of our lives. And may our faith truly make us well.
A Reflection on Luke 15:1-10
Back in the summer of 1974, when I’d just turned thirteen, I attended my first major league baseball game at Angel Stadium in Anaheim not too far from our home. My mom, my stepdad, and I met up with another couple and their eight-year-old daughter, whom I often babysat.
I can’t tell you who the Angels were playing that night, or if Nolan Ryan pitched one of his no-hitters, but I can tell you that even as a Southern California kid who’d been to Disneyland at least a dozen times, I’d never seen so many people in one place at one time. Stadium capacity at the time was 43,000, and I have no idea how many people were in the stands, only that when the game was over, we all poured out of the bleachers heading down corridors elbow-to-elbow swarming toward the exit as if we were a school of tightly packed grunion headed toward the beach.
I shuffled out behind my parents’ friends and their daughter, trying not to step on her small tennis-shoed feet. I remember chatting, but not about what, as we wound our way past closed concession stands and through the concourse. As we converged with another river of people approaching the exit, I realized I ought to be with my parents, not with their friends, since we were going home, and not to their house.
I stopped walking, turned around, and was engulfed by a crowd of people streaming past me, none of whom were my parents. I scanned the faces coming toward me for a few seconds, and when I still didn’t see my mom and stepdad, I turned back around to resume walking with their friends—but they were gone. I stumbled into the crowd looking in vain for a familiar face as everyone pressed on toward the exit, taking me along with them.
As I got closer to the wall of doors, I fully expected to see my parents and their friends standing just inside or outside the doors, waiting for me to join them. But they weren’t. Since I was a kid, used to reading in the backseat on car rides and usually oblivious to directions, I had no idea where my stepdad had parked his car or how I’d ever be able to find it and my parents.
Panic and tears both began to rise as I realized I was truly lost. I guess my distress must’ve showed because soon a woman was standing in front of me asking if everything was okay. I told her I’d lost my parents.
Not far away, she spotted a man in an official jacket—an usher or a security guard; I don’t remember which now—ushered me toward him and told him my predicament.
She left when he took over, asking me to wait against a wall while he spoke into his walkie-talkie. Soon someone else in a uniform jacket appeared with a walkie-talkie clipped to his belt and I followed him through a door, down a flight of stairs to an underground level, and from there, down a long windowless corridor. He stopped and opened a door revealing half a dozen little kids, all lost like me, kept watch over by yet another uniformed adult.
The person on watch explained that there were too many people outside right then to go looking for our parents. We would wait until the stadium emptied out and then they’d take us to find our parents. So, I sat on a bench, like the other kids and waited in silence, trying not to cry.
Though I was relieved to be safe, I was also embarrassed. In any other circumstance, I’d be babysitting these kids, reading them bedtime stories and tucking them in and watching TV in their living rooms until their parents came home from the ballgame. I was at least twice their age, and almost five feet tall. I could see faces in the crowd when I’d been looking for my parents. These kids were probably staring at belts and waistbands; no wonder they’d gotten separated from their parents.
What excuse did I have? None. I should’ve known better than to get lost. I felt stupid, thoroughly humiliated, and convinced my error was going to put me in so much trouble once I was finally reunited with my parents.
The minutes dragged on until finally our supervisor opened the door and ushered us onto a waiting motorized cart with bench seats. The driver cruised through the building and out toward the parking lot, which ringed the entire arena.
He told us not to worry, that he’d approach each lingering vehicle, and eventually we’d all find our parents. “Believe me,” he said, “they’re waiting for you.”
As we turned into the first parking area, there were still dozens of cars in the lot, many more cars than lost children, but I could see that some vehicles had their emergency flashers on, headlights blinking in the dark summer night, beckoning us.
I don’t remember where I was in the lineup of reunification, but I do remember the driver commenting on how helpful the flashing headlights were when he pulled up next to my stepdad’s car. The driver said parents didn’t usually think to do that, and my stepdad responded that he’d circled the entire parking lot looking for me, and as he stopped to talk to other parents of lost kids, he’d told each of them to turn on their flashers.
As the driver and my stepdad thanked each other, I stepped down from the electric cart and into my mother’s warm embrace. Then, as the cart continued on its mission, I climbed into the backseat, waiting for the dreaded reprimand, surprised that it never came.
All these years later, I’m still anxious about being separated in large crowds. Every time I leave an arena, my experience at Angel Stadium surfaces, and I hold tight to the hand of whoever I’m with, afraid I’ll get lost again.
Encountering this scripture passage brought the incident and my anxiety to the foreground of my thoughts. And for that, I find myself unexpectedly grateful.
The process of immersing myself in Luke’s words allowed me to see the situation from other perspectives, not only as the sheep or coin or young teenager who was lost, but as the shepherd and the woman who cleaned her house, and the kind woman, security team, and stepdad who all helped in the search to find that which was lost.
It’s likely that you, like me, have been lost in a situation that still sticks with you many years later. Maybe it happened while visiting a new place, or driving with bad directions, or out on a hike. Or maybe it was less of a geographical situation and more of an emotional one—feeling lost and unmoored after an unexpected move, or unsure of what comes next after the children left home, or after the death of a loved one.
Whatever the particulars, each of us in our own lives and in our own ways has been lost—to ourselves, or to those we love, or to our faith in God. And perhaps you, like me, have approached being lost with judgment about yourself, with feelings of failure or inadequacy that lingered long after you were found or found yourself.
Reading Jesus’ parables about the lost sheep and lost coin, and applying them to my own life, I find good news for those of us who are lost:
First: There are people looking for us, even when we don’t about it and can’t see them. The shepherd leaves his flock—hopefully in a safe place—to search for the lost one. The woman tears her house apart, cleaning from top to bottom to find the coin. I don’t know when my parents realized I wasn’t with them, and even though they weren’t where I hoped or expected them to be, they were out looking for me, sending out SOS signals with flashing headlights, even helping others to find their lost children.
Second: Things and people get lost. Getting lost isn’t an intellectual, moral, or spiritual failure. It’s reality, and when people see that reality, they respond. The shepherd retraces the paths he’s led the sheep on, the woman sweeps and looks in every place her coins could possibly be, strangers see lost children and young teens and offer help, the baseball stadium staff have protocols to reunite lost children with parents, parents turn on flashing beacons.
None of them just sit there saying, “Oh well, it’s lost,” or, “Oh, well, she’s lost. There’s nothing we can do about it,” or “It’s her own fault she got lost, let her find herself by herself,” or “Oh well, I didn’t need that sheep, or coin, or kid anyway,” or “Oh well, I’ll get a new sheep, a new coin, a new child.”
When we who are lost feel powerless to change our circumstances, there are people and forces greater than ourselves working on our behalf. Help is available in our distress, even if we don’t know how to ask for it, and even if we don’t recognize our need.
And perhaps most importantly, especially for those of us who are prone to punishing ourselves for making mistakes: Joy is the proper response once we’re found, no matter what circumstances led to our being lost.
The shepherd didn’t banish the wayward sheep for wandering away.
The woman didn’t give away all her coins; she didn’t decide that in losing one coin she was too careless to be responsible for any coins.
The stranger who asked if I was okay didn’t say that it was ridiculous for a teen to get lost in the crowd.
The security staff didn’t lecture us kids to be more careful or responsible while they waited to return us to our parents.
My parents didn’t shame or scold or punish me once I was found. They shared some responsibility, wishing they’d been more attentive and hadn’t lost track of me. But they didn’t wallow in self-recrimination and decide we could never go anywhere again because we might get separated.
The shepherd, the woman with her coins, my parents: they all were happy to have that which was lost restored to them. Each celebrated.
In the gospel, the shepherd and the woman invited their friends and neighbors and threw a party. My parents hugged me. I’d like to say that we went out for ice cream with their friends who’d waited to see that I was returned safely; but I don’t remember if the friends stayed or what happened next.
What I do know is that in our finding, we are recipients of grace, of unconditional love, of welcome and celebration. A point that Jesus makes abundantly clear to those who are judging him about the company he keeps.
He reminds the righteous that the welfare of each person, whether we “approve” of them or not, is important to all of us. And he asks us to consider the impact in our own lives when we have lost something or someone important to us.
“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them,” Jesus says. He doesn’t ask us to suppose we are the sheep or the coin, but that’s often our first instinct.
What is our modern day sheep? A missing pet? A family member struggling with addiction? A friend suffering from depression? A child caught in a custody battle between acrimonious parents? A fellow parishioner who has stopped coming to worship?
What is our modern day coin? A wedding ring? A family heirloom? A vehicle registration?
Who are our modern day sinners and tax collectors? Telemarketers? Internet scammers? Sex Workers? Drug dealers? People in the political party we’re not?
Whatever form the sheep or coin takes for us, whoever the sinners and tax collectors are, Jesus calls us to seek that which has been lost to us, to include those who have been excluded—and further calls us to rejoice at the reunification.
Celebration sounds wonderful, but can be so difficult when what or who we’ve lost has hurt us.
Words that wound our pride. Spouses who break our hearts. Addictions that poison relationships. Bosses who fire us. Churches that drill in sinfulness to the exclusion of grace. And Sons who beg for their inheritance early and run away to squander it—as happens in the next verses of Luke’s gospel.
It’s difficult when these lost things are restored to believe that they’ll remain found.
It’s hard to welcome them wholeheartedly and take the risk of losing them again and being hurt again and not having life work out the way we want. It seems safer to be wary, to require assurances through scripted behaviors, specific beliefs, court orders, drug tests, or some other external proof that the restoration is real, that promises will be kept, that things will be different this time around.
But if God doesn’t require us to swear oaths and sign promises in order to welcome us into relationship, if God doesn’t need anything more than us as we are to celebrate our belonging and love us unconditionally, then our rules about belonging simply don’t hold up.
Most of those who judged Jesus genuinely believed their reasons for exclusion were justified. His ideas were so radical, his words and actions threatened their religious practices and their very identities.
For us, Jesus words may be simple to embrace, but living them out is much more difficult.
Be like the shepherd who seeks the lost sheep until it’s found.
Be like the woman who cleans her house until she recovers her lost coin.
Be like the father welcomes the prodigal son with no questions asked.
Be generous; Be merciful.
May Jesus’ words open our eyes, our minds, and our hearts.
May his words remind us that to be human is to be lost
to be human is to be found, to be human is to seek,
to be human is to find
to be human is to forgive others and ourselves,
to be human is to celebrate inclusion
to be human is to live and love in the manner of the one who gave his life in love for us.
My most recent sermon based on Luke 13:10-17, the healing of the bent over woman.
There is so much richness in this relatively short scripture passage, so many themes we could explore about the nature of the Sabbath, about our human tendency to put rules and regulations around our humanity, about Jesus’ ministry and his words and actions that illuminate the differences between the spirit of the law and the letter of it, so that we might learn to choose the law of love above any other.
But it is the bent over woman herself who draws me most deeply into this gospel reading and sparks my curiosity:
Who is this bent over woman?
How old is she?
Is she married, widowed?
Who is she living with?
What is her role in the household and community?
What happened to her body, and how did her physical ailment impact her spirit with each passing year?
Given the time period, did her family and community think her condition was a result of her sin?
Did they care for her, or ostracize her, or perhaps both?
Did she fight against her body’s limitations in the beginning?
Did she injure herself more by refusing to admit to her limitations?
If she’d fought against this new reality, when did she stop fighting?
And what sort of “giving up” was it? Resignation or acceptance?
Had anyone tried to help her? Had she sought out cures?
Did she come to the synagogue faithfully, or did she come that day just to see Jesus?
Had she planned to ask him for healing?
How had he noticed her?
Why had he chosen to heal her and not someone else?
What happened to the woman after the commotion of her healing died down?
How did the people in her life and synagogue treat her after her healing?
How did her daily life change?
Was it Jesus’ words or his touch, or both that brought about her healing?
In what ways did the healing of her body return her to her former life?
And in what ways did it close her off to her former life yet open up to a new one?
In what ways did this healing impact her body, mind and spirit?
Does healing have to come in one dramatic moment, or can it be gradual?
Most of my questions can’t be answered. But I want to understand the story of the woman in Luke’s gospel and learn about healing from it because I have both been a bent over woman myself, and I love and have cared for a bent over woman.
The bent over woman I love and have cared for has been bound by physical, emotional, and spiritual pain for decades, a crippling that wouldn’t be a stretch to attribute to Satan, as does Jesus in this gospel. The experience of being in relationship with her has impacted me deeply.
I have seen the loss of physical abilities and the insufficiency of treatment or cures. I’ve seen a person stripped of dignity, trapped in dependency, robbed of happiness, and beset by hopelessness and despair. There are moments, despite my love for her, and despite my own faith, when I do not think I can bear another moment of her suffering. I want Jesus to heal my bent over woman. I want him to say as he did to the daughter of Abraham: “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” And I want him to do it now—or to have done it already, years ago.
Each of us has been bent low in some way, crippled by illness or disease, by infirmity or job loss or natural disaster or divorce or grief or violence or any number of human experiences that derail our plans and identities. And our healing, and how, or when, or if it comes in this lifetime, can be unexpected and mysterious.
I became a literal bent over woman in January 2016. I was crawling under bushes to dig out Himalayan blackberries by the roots when I felt a sharp twinge in my back. I hobbled into the house for a dose of ibuprofen and ice, but within a few days I couldn’t put weight on my right leg without crumpling.
My husband drove me to Urgent Care that evening, and to the ER the next as the pain got worse. I was given a shot, prescription anti-inflammatory, painkillers, muscle relaxer, a pair of crutches, and told to rest.
I spent weeks mostly laying on one side in a near-fetal position, unable move freely. Pain made me tired, grumpy, weepy, and narrowed my world. Sometimes my consciousness extended no further than my body as I sought a pain-free breath.
I was completely dependent on my husband for dressing, bathing, meals, transportation, shopping, laundry, and housework. Though I was grateful for his uncomplaining generosity, it humbled me not to be able to contribute to our household, and to accept so much help.
A month after the injury, I felt worse and not better. My doctor thought the initial diagnosis of a sprained iliac ligament and inflamed sciatic nerve, might be a herniated lumbar disk, and recommended an MRI, which my insurance wouldn’t pay for, saying I hadn’t suffered long or severely enough.
I certainly felt I’d suffered long and severely enough so my husband and I, who were strapped for cash at the time, decided to charge the MRI to our credit card. I shared a prayer request on Facebook with my family and friends, and within an hour of scheduling the appointment, a loved one called and offered to pay for the procedure, though I hadn’t asked.
I hadn’t recognized until that moment that there had already been some gifts in my suffering: In pain and illness, the trivial and irrelevant had been stripped away. Though I spent much of each day zoning out watching HGTV, I also appreciated daily life with a heightened awareness and gratitude: the beauty of sunrise and sunset, the melody rain on the roof, the many ways my body had so often done what I asked without protest.
Accepting that I couldn’t cook or clean or even wash my hair and being vulnerable enough to ask for and receive help was part of my healing. As was accepting money for the MRI. It was gift I couldn’t repay. A gift given in love by someone who wanted to relieve my suffering and couldn’t; but could do this.
I’d never had an MRI before, and I didn’t know I was claustrophobic until I was confined in that coffinlike tube with magnets banging like a jet turbine rattling my teeth and nerves. To quell panic, I brought hymns to mind, but my favorites, like “Morning Has Broken,” and “All Things Bright and Beautiful” were too happy for the circumstances. It was early February and Lent. I needed a hymn of lament and “O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” floated into consciousness where I repeated the lyrics in my mind like a mantra.
I latched onto Jesus and the words of his wounding, for who and what else could be present with me there? Not the technician who was only a disembodied voice speaking via microphone between scans. Not my husband in the waiting room. Not even my wedding ring stashed in a locker with my clothes.
In the middle of that MRI, clinging to Jesus, I knew that I would be healed no matter what images the machine generated, no matter what sort of treatment I would or wouldn’t receive. I knew because people I love had suffered much worse, and were whole despite diagnosis, disease, disability. God did not take the cup from them or from Jesus—though each asked to be spared.
I can’t say if my doctor saw Jesus lurking between vertebrae when she read the MRI report, but I felt him—and the knowledge that God will not forsake us penetrated me bone deep. There was nothing more to resist. Somehow, in that blaring machine I was cradled and blessed.
Feeling that blessing, I wondered if anyone had blessed the machine and the room, the technicians, physicians, and janitors who worked here, those who came here like me, under extreme circumstances, and our friends and families, at home, in the lobby, waiting, hoping, fearing, and I cobbled a silent prayer in the final minutes: “May this machine be used for the highest and best good by all who come in contact with it. May those entrusted to operate this equipment do so with great skill and compassion. May all who enter here be comforted.”
Jesus spoke healing to the bent over daughter of Abraham, laid hands on her, and she stood up straight for the first time in eighteen years praising him. Two thousand years later on the far side of the resurrection, as I was bent over in pain, he healed me, and I praise him.
Will Jesus heal the bent over woman I love and so many in our midst who are bound by illness, injury, addiction, trauma, abuse, who are crippled under the weight of so much they cannot bear to carry?
I do not know, but I believe he is able and willing to heal us and waiting for us to come near, like the woman in scripture.
I believe Jesus waits for us to surrender whatever it is that we cling to that stands between us and him.
For some, like the bent over woman who suffered for eighteen years, that thing might well be her pain. If your pain is all that defines you, the only thing that has remained with you when everything and everyone else has deserted you, who are you without it? How can you possibly let it go and live when you have no idea what will happen? Where can you find that courage?
Where do any of us find the courage when we’re bent low? Perhaps in the words of scripture. Perhaps through prayer. Perhaps by opening our eyes and our hearts and listening deeply to the experience of others who have found their way to healing. Perhaps all of these can lead us to take the first steps toward healing.
I have been part of a faith community for the past year, lifting each other up in prayer every Sunday as we worship, kneeling at the altar together as we feed on the bread of life. I look at the faces of those who have become dear, and I know they know what it is to be bent over. And I know they know what it is to be healed.
Among us, we know what it is to draw near Jesus and to surrender what we can’t control. I see faith in the midst of pain and suffering. I see wholeness and healing. I hear praise as we lift our voices in song.
In a world where so much seems broken, where so many strive after a false illusion of happiness, where so many are bent over, I hear the hurting clamoring for reason to hope, looking for something to believe in.
The daughter of Abraham Jesus set free immediately stood up and praised God, and I want to think that she told her story again and again over the years, to anyone who hadn’t heard it, and to those who had, but needed a reminder of God’s healing power. I want to imagine that she became a disciple in her own place in her own way.
May we be like the daughter of Abraham. May we stand and speak. May we be emboldened to offer a glimmer of hope to those who are hurting, sharing not doctrine or theology, but the truth of our lives, the stories of our own pain and suffering, and the ways in which we risked opening ourselves to God’s presence to be healed by an outpouring of grace and love.
I began blogging about "This or Something Better" in 2011 when my husband and I were discerning what came next in our lives, which turned out to be relocating to Puget Sound from our Native California. My older posts can be found here.