This may come as a surprise to those of you who are not familiar with Las Vegas, but there are more Roman Catholic churches than casinos. Not surprisingly, some worshipers at the Sunday services will give casino chips rather than cash when the offering basket is passed. Since they get chips from many different casinos, the churches have devised a method to collect the offerings. The churches send all their collected chips to a nearby Franciscan monastery for sorting and then the chips are taken to the casinos of origin and cashed in. All the sorting of the different chips is done every week by the chip monks, chipmunks.
As you know, I love puns. And what makes a pun funny is that it’s unexpected. A good one catches us by surprise. And that is what happens today in our gospel reading. Jesus takes a woman, a leader, and a congregation by surprise. First let’s look at this woman, this bent-over woman. We know that this woman would be a social outcast. The reason was simple. People believed that bad things happened to a person because of their sins. And they were given infirmities because God was punishing them. And because God was punishing them, well, they deserved it and they really deserve any sympathy. And frankly nobody wants to hang around a person God is punishing—who knows—the punishment may rub off on you, like it did with Jonah’s shipmates. So we know this woman was socially an outcast. This is similar to how the Hindus think today.
Secondly, she was devout. Apparently her desire to worship God and hear God’s Word read and explained was greater than being bothered by her social ostracism. She believed in God. She did not know what she had done wrong to deserve this bent-over condition; yet, she still trusted in God and wanted to worship Him.
Thirdly, she was a tough woman. She had dealt with this crippling spirit, this sickness that caused her to be bent over for 18 years. She had dealt with the disdainful looks and the unkind remarks of her village neighbors for these 18 long years. Yet, she still came to church even though she knew she would not be welcome. She came anyway. Now she wasn’t obnoxious or anything; she stood in the back. She would not be able to see much because of her infirmity; but she would be able to hear. No doubt had heard that Jesus was going to be there that Sabbath day and she especially wanted to hear him and so she came.
Jesus had already begun teaching, so we know she had come in late, probably so that she would not have to deal with all the people. In our church when we have a special service like Easter or Christmas or when the Bishop comes, one has to get here a little early in order to make sure you get the seat you want. In the first century they didn’t have pews or anything to sit upon; they just crowded in and everyone had to stand—only the Rabbi the teacher would sit. So this woman came in a little late and the people in the back would kind of scoot away from her. She always could find a place to stand in the back.
But things didn’t go as expected for her because when she slipped in the back Jesus stopped teaching; perhaps right in the middle of the sentence. He stood up and called her to the front of the synagogue. We aren’t told how he called her. Perhaps he called her by name, or he may have said, “Lady, who just came in, come up to the front. “ As she walked to the front, everyone would step back from her, not wanting to be touched. You can imagine that she would be feeling extremely embarrassed and very self-conscious. When she gets to Jesus up in front of everyone, notice what Jesus doesn’t say. He doesn’t say, “Do you have faith? Or do you believe?” No, he simply says, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment!” And then Jesus put his hands on her—wait—he puts his hands on her. This is the woman nobody wanted to touch. He put his hands on a woman who was perceived by all the people to be a sinner and unclean because she had this infirmity. And he is a Jewish Rabbi who is expected to be very concerned about keeping ritually clean. He put his hands on a woman who was not even a relative. Proper Jewish men did not touch women who weren’t either their wives or part of their families, especially Jewish rabbis didn’t do this, but Jesus reached out and touched her! And then suddenly she could stand up straight! A “Praise God—Thank you God!” burst from her lips practically involuntarily and all the people around her were amazed and thrilled as well.
Everyone was excited; everyone was talking to each other and then, the leader of the synagogue walked to front and cleared his throat and got everyone quiet and said in a stern and disapproving voice, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day!” He was scolding the woman who had been bent over—as if she was the one who was at fault and basically blaming her for this breaking of the Sabbath. Jesus refutes what the leader has said but then Jesus goes on to say “And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” This is an incredible statement! What Jesus has said with this statement is first to take away the presumption that this woman had caused her own illness by her sin. It had not been her fault. Satan had bound her. It is a case of sometimes God allows bad things to happen to people and we don’t know the reasons. It is true that sometimes bad things happen to us because of our wrong doing. There is no question about that. It is bad if I get pulled over and given a ticket, but if I am speeding, it is my own fault. But it is also true that bad things happen to us sometimes even though we have not done something to deserve it. Look at Job and his life. Look at the man who had been born blind that Jesus cured. And there are many others. In our own lives or in the lives of those we know sometimes bad things happen and it might not be our fault. Jesus clearly says this woman’s disability had not been her fault. Secondly, Jesus calls this woman a daughter of Abraham. This is a term not found in any of the prior Jewish literature. This is extraordinary. Even though women had a respected place in the Jewish culture they were still second class citizens. But here, Jesus calls this woman a daughter of Abraham and this puts her with equal standing before God with all the men. Later the Apostle Paul says, “There is no Jew nor Greek, no slave nor free, no male nor female. We are all one in Christ.” He didn’t come up with this on his own. He got it from Jesus. Perhaps he got it from this very event.
So what is the point? This is a great story and like a great pun Jesus surprised this woman, these religious leaders, and indeed the entire congregation. But does it have any practical meaning for us today? Yes it certainly does. First we see Jesus reaching out to the outcast and restoring her to the society of God’s people. He shows love to those people that others would like to ignore. We are to be like that too. We are called to reach out and care for the outcasts. And then we can learn from this woman. It is not easy for her to come to church but she does. She wants to worship God and she comes to the assembly of God’s people hoping to hear from God. You and I also come to church hoping to hear from God and feel his presence, hoping at times to receive God’s help in our distress. God is here. He is willing to help us. This is why every service we have people in the back during communion willing and waiting to pray for you, to intercede to God on your behalf and ask God to help you or heal you. And regularly people are healed; people are helped. So let us like be like Jesus and reach out and help those who may be outcast and also let us be like this woman and turn to God even when it is not easy; let us come in faith to hear God, to feel his presence to receive His help. Amen