James Tissot (1836-1902), Christian Healing an Infirm Woman on the Sabbath, Brooklyn Museum
I like rules and I hate it when people don’t follow the rules. But there are times when rules should be broken, especially when someone’s health or well-being is at risk. I remember taking a group of college students to a big event one time and there was a moveable barricade on the sidewalk, causing people to step into the street with a steady flow of busses. I moved the barricade to allow people to walk on the sidewalk and was rebuked for it by a security guard. I’d like to say I remained calm and explained the situation coolly and rationally. I didn’t. I yelled at him that he was an idiot and would get someone killed, that it was called a sidewalk for a reason, because that’s where you’re supposed to walk, and told him to get his supervisor so I could show her what an unthinking, reckless boob he was. I could have handled the situation better, but I was right and I knew it and the cause was important enough for me to risk a confrontation. He was entrusted with public safety but he was making people do something very unsafe because he was so bound up with his rules.
Jesus faced a similar situation one day when he was in the synagogue. The story of his healing an infirm woman is only found in Luke 13:10-17, and it’s the last time we read of Jesus being in the synagogue. He used this opportunity not only to cure the woman’s ailment but also to point out the hypocrisy of the rule-bound leaders of the synagogue.
Jesus healed a woman who was bent over and couldn’t straighten up for eighteen years. She didn’t ask Jesus to heal her. Nothing is said about her faith. As far as we know, she was just there minding her own business when Jesus called her, put his hands on her, and freed her from her disability.
Jesus said that Satan caused her condition. Most post-Enlightenment Christians don’t think in such terms. Satan was also blamed for Job’s misfortunes. It brings up that perennial conundrum of why bad things happen to good people. At least some tragedies can be accounted for by the presence of real, sentient evil beings. It may not fit with our modern mentality but the alternative is an irrational universe, which isn’t any easier to accept.
It’s troubling to think that God let the woman suffer for eighteen years just to prove a point when he could have healed her at any time. “Theodicy” is the attempt to justify what God does. Thorton Wilder’s classic, Pulitzer Prize-winning The Bridge of San Luis Rey explores this theme of why “acts of God” befall certain people. The novel begins, “On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.” An inquisitive friar named Brother Juniper investigates the lives of the five victims, confident that he’ll discover a divine reason for each untimely death. In the end he fails in his task and is burned as a heretic for his efforts. Questions about why bad things happen can be asked but not satisfactorily answered in this life; that’s a lesson as old as the Book of Job but still relevant today.
When rebuked for healing the woman, Jesus called his accusers hypocrites for caring more about their rules than people. He used imagery of binding and loosing to show the reasonableness of healing on the Sabbath. Who wouldn’t untie his ox or donkey and lead it to water on the Sabbath? Why shouldn’t this woman be loosed from her ailment that bound her for so long? It was a powerful argument and it put the legalists to shame.
The problem was that Jesus’ adversaries loved their rules more than they loved people. They got God’s values backward. People come first. The book of 1 John puts it like this: “For he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, cannot love God whom he hath not seen” (4:20). How do we show our love for God in the way we treat our fellow human beings?