By Ched Myers, on Luke 13:10-17, for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost
Note: This is part of a series of weekly comments on the Lukan gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary during year C, 2016.
This part of Luke’s gospel offers two symbolic stories about the healing of “political bodies” that signify pathology in the body politic: the “bent over” woman (13:10-17) and the “too big” man (14:1-6). Sadly, the second of these is (literally) skipped over by the lectionary. These intimately related healings bracket a series of Jesus’ sayings concerning the Kingdom as surprise and mystery (13:18-21), the “narrow Way” (13:22-30) and the cost of prophetic discipleship (13:31-35).
To make sense of the symbolic and even political character of these two Lukan healings, a bit of background is needed. Our modern worldview assumes that the gospel healing stories relate “supernatural” cures of medical disorders. The ancient Mediterranean world, however, like many other non-modern cultures, was not bio-medical in its approach to illness, but symbolic. While certainly traditional medicine (herbal, somatic and spiritual) was practiced to address physiological symptoms, serious or chronic illness was perceived primarily as a “socially disvalued state,” an aberrant or defective condition that threatened communal integrity. The job of the healer, then, was to restore the subject back to the community.
Human societies (then and now) seek to order themselves by regulating and socializing bodies within the body politic, defining what is pure or impure, safe or threatening to the social norm. Cultural anthropologist Mary Douglas reflects on this phenomenon in a seminal essay entitled “Two Bodies” (1973):
The physical body can have universal meaning only as a system which responds to the social system, expressing it as a system. What it symbolized naturally is the relations of parts of an organism to the whole. Natural symbols can express the relation of an individual to his society at that general systemic level. The two bodies are the self and society.
The body politic (the imperatives, symbols and hierarchies of the dominant socio-political order) is reproduced by how, where, and when we present our political bodies (what Douglas understands as the “socialized self,” including the consciousness, physical body, personal habits, and socio-political practices of the individual). Douglas continues:
The social body constrains the way the physical body is perceived. The physical experience of the body, always modified by the social categories through which it is known, sustains a particular view of society. There is a continual exchange of meanings between the two kinds of bodily experience so that each reinforces the categories of the other.
The notion of the political body as a mirror of the body politic is common to most traditional cultures, which do not make the radical distinctions between self and society that moderns do; it was certainly characteristic of first-century Palestine. This explains why the Jesus of the gospels pays as much attention to healing and exorcising individuals as he does to what we might recognize as “political” engagement. Jesus heals those who are physically impaired because they are also socially “dis-membered” according to the dominant Debt and Purity systems. He also enters into conflict because of how he places his body within the accepted/expected proprieties of social space, crossing boundaries of power and prestige. The political character of such gospel symbolic action was intelligible (and thus subversive) within its original cultural context, but is missed by us, having disappeared beneath our literalizing, spiritualizing, and privatizing reading strategies.
In Luke 13:10, the scene is a synagogue on the Sabbath, symbolizing sacred time and space. The phrase “just then,” or “and behold” (Gk kai idou) seems to suggest some essential correlation between the synagogue space and this woman and her condition. She is described as having labored under a spirit of “weakness” (13:11; Gk asthenia, literally lack of strength) for 18 years, which has caused her to become “bent over” (Gk sugkuptō, a verb appearing only here in N.T.). This detail concerning duration could allude to one chapter in the deep history of subjugation suffered by biblical people: “Eglon the Moabite king and the Philistines… oppressed the Israelites for 18 years” (see Judges 3:12-14, 10:7-8). Such an allusion would suffice to reframe condition of this woman’s political body in terms of an oppressive body politic.
Natalie K. Houghtby-Haddon, in her Changed Imagination, Changed Obedience: Social Change, Social Imagination, and the Bent-Over Woman in the Gospel of Luke (2011), argues that “this story is a key interpretive text for seeing Luke’s social vision for his community at work.” Indeed, this is a curious episode in Luke—a sort of combination of call, healing, controversy and exorcism stories. Jesus summons the woman over (the same verb as the call of disciples), but only later addresses the synagogue leader (13:12), defying gender conventions. Moreover, he first announces her “release,” and then lays hands on her (13:13), suggesting that the issue here is not disease but bondage. Only here in Luke’s gospel does Jesus say: “You have been set free” (the perfect passive form of apoluo represents the “divine passive”). This verb, a legal term (it means to “pardon” in Luke 6:37 and 23:16-25), is also used in the parallel healing of the man with dropsy (14:4).
The synagogue leader objects to Jesus’ intervention on the basis of Sabbath rest (13:14), but Jesus’ riposte invokes Deuteronomy 5:12-15, which enjoins Sabbath rest for whole household, including beasts of burden. Indeed, Sabbath rest is for purposes of continuing the liberation struggle: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt” (Dt 12:15). If animals are to be liberated, Jesus reasons, how much more should a “daughter of Abraham” (Lk 13:16, a phrase unique in the N.T., anticipating its counterpart in 19:9) be released from “bondage.” The Greek term desmos refers to the chains holding the demoniac in Lk 8:29, and imprisoning Paul in Acts 26:29; Luke may be alluding to how daughters were to be redeemed during the Sabbath year from debt slavery (Ex 21:7-9).
Richard Lowery summarizes this logic in Sabbath and Jubilee (2000): “The connection centers on the imagery of ‘binding’ and ‘releasing’ the ox and the donkey… The root meaning of shemittah in the Sabbath-year passage refers to loosening a yoke and letting it drop from the shoulders. With shoulders now unbound, the one released can stand completely erect. By the very nature of her debilitating ailment, the woman is a living embodiment of the standard metaphor for indebtedness and oppression.”
What had this woman’s political body “doubled over,” in other words, was the oppression of debt bondage structured into the body politic, the inevitable result of an unjust socioeconomic system of disparity. How relevant this story is to our economic realities today! After all, we routinely talk about “crippling debt,” and how individuals and even whole nations groan under debt “burdens”! This is why contemporary groups are resisting the debt economy both at the personal (e.g. the “Rolling Jubilee” movement) and political levels (e.g. the Jubilee Debt Campaign), and why we work intensively in Sabbath Economics education and organizing.
It is hardly surprising that the release proclaimed unilaterally by Jesus earns the immediate ire of the authorities. Or that such opposition to his liberation mission recurs in the “twin” healing of Luke 14:1-7, in which a “man with dropsy” signifies the disease of “Affluenza” that afflicts the ruling class. (There is a long list of ancient writers who specifically associated “dropsy” with the pathology of being too rich.) Jesus again “releases” a political body, this time representing the opposite side of the body politic’s social divide from that of the woman, with a similar appeal to Sabbath rest for animals (14:5; see also the parallel to Lk 6:6-11).
But also unsurprising is the fact that the crowd is with Jesus in this work: our episode concludes with everyone “rejoicing at the glorious things Jesus was doing” (13:17), doubtlessly alluding to the “signs and wonders” of the God of Exodus. True celebration has been restored to this synagogue.
Yet this will be the last time Jesus teaches or heals in this space in Luke’s story. In the initial episode back in the Nazareth synagogue (4:16ff), Jesus proclaimed release to those captive (Is 61:1) and oppressed (Is 58:6). At the conclusion of that inaugural sermon, Jesus declared: “Today these Scriptures are fulfilled in your hearing” (4:21). As Houghtby-Haddon suggests, the liberation of the Bent-Over woman in this Sunday’s gospel story is indeed the embodiment of that Nazareth promise. And an invitation for us to do the same for all crippled by debt today.