She doesn’t speak up for herself. Maybe she did at one point, but it was too exhausting and demoralizing to be told or shown how little she mattered to the other “faithful,” so she stopped. It’s true, it would take effort for people to look her in the eyes because of the way her back curves, but it’s not that curve that denies her dignity. It’s treating her like she is of less value than the animals, who even get watered on the sabbath. The denial that she exists, that she matters to God or the faith community is what is debilitating. Yet this faithful woman still shows up, but stays in the background. Asking for nothing. Until Jesus seeks her out, bringing her into the center. Then the fury of the faithful is unleashed.
The ones who think they belong above anyone else in that faith community, are furious to have her needs centered. They have solid, orderly justifications for why her healing, her presence that highlights their neglect, shouldn’t be in the holy times and places. Rules exist for a reason; everyone should follow them. They don’t come to the synagogue to be made to feel bad, but to be uplifted. They give the money to keep the place running.
But Jesus insists. And it feels like a rebuke, not just to them, but to us – because we probably would have overlooked her too. Yet Jesus stops his authoritative teaching and brings this unnamed, physically disabled, socially neglected woman into the center. At his own expense, he touches her twisted back. At the expense of tradition, decorum, not ticking off the church ladies, everything. But here is the revelation: in the one who has been brushed aside, ignored, and systematically excluded while we center those with more influence and louder voices: in the neglected one, Jesus reveals the power and calling of God.
Heart at the Center
Jesus calls us back to what should be at the center of our faith, especially whe we didn’t realize or really don’t want to acknowledge that we have gotten off track. We are to embody God’s love in the world, first and foremost to those who have been excluded. Handing it over with our arms, open in embrace. Whispering, singing or shouting it with our mouths: “You are already worthy, already so loved. You are made in the image of God. Yes, you.”
Anyone can tell who is really “bent out of shape” in this story. Why, it’s the religious folks who do not want their secure view of themselves to be interrupted. The presence of this woman – who doesn’t even say a word, you may notice – her very presence and healing are an affront.
It doesn’t feel good to need a course correction.
I work for Luther Seminary’s Innovation Department, called Faith+Lead, which helps churches and everyday Christians to learn and grow in this rapidly-changing world. Now “innovation” might sound threatening to people who find security in the way things are. But most of the “innovation” is returning to practices that should be at the heart of Christian community: for connecting with God, cultivating community with those who have been pushed to the margins, telling the story of faith, practicing justice. It is not “new,” but returning to the center, where Jesus stands.
Jesus wasn’t saying anything new, either. Jewish practice has always centered caring for widows and orphans, and all the vulnerable – the dignity of people over rules. That reminder of the synagogue leaders’ failure to follow their own tradition is infuriating.
It Cannot Wait
So they do what we often do: we say “Yes, but now is not the time. Just wait. We need to introduce the idea more gradually.”
Yet there is an urgency to righting the damage that the faithful have done. It is not the urgency of “Will the institution of the church still be alive in 30 years?”
It is the urgency of healing wounds before they permanently scar all of us. As they have already done. But we can at least try to prevent further damage.
When we know we are loved unconditionally, we live like it, not hurting others constantly on the way to trying to prove ourselves worthy of God’s attention, but caring for the world and each other as God desires us to do. Especially the most vulnerable. When in power, in the majority, Christans have done the opposite of prioritizing the vulnerable. Hurting people hurt others. The world would be a much different place if Christ followers would stop what we are doing, to do whatever is in our power to restore dignity to those who are ignored, or outright scorned.
Image from this document
At the ELCA churchwide assembly this month … participants took time to acknowledge the experience of American Indian and Alaskan Native people inside and outside of our church body. They highlighted a “declaration” made by the denomination in 2021, which includes a confession that begins like this: “We confess that we have not listened to the stories of Indigenous people and have not taken the time to understand history. We have devalued Indigenous religions and lifeways and have not challenged the invisibility of Indigenous people in American society.”
In the document, we make pledges of commitment to acknowledge the harm we have done and to stop doing it, so that we can work towards its opposite: healing.
The document ends this way:
“We are becoming increasingly aware of the ongoing evils of the Doctrine of Discovery, and by the actions we commit ourselves to herein, we now declare our allegiance to the work of undoing those evils, building right relationships with Native nations and Native peoples, and remaining faithful to our shared journeys toward truth and healing.”
To be like Christ in the world, we must become repairers of the breach, not those who cause it. We must put this healing work front and center, at the core of who we are, the work of confession and reparations. We confess together, as a communal act. We, together, have powerfully pushed others to the margins. In the name of Jesus. We have been like the religious leaders in this Gospel – technically right, but without the heart of God’s mission – who will not allow interruptions to the established order.
But the world needs us to instead be like Jesus. God needs us to be like Jesus, who will stop his sermon, and bring into the center of his teaching, his moment of authority, his leadership, and the community he was raised to please, the beloved children of God it is more expedient to exclude. Today. As a matter of priority.