Healing of the Infirm Woman
Sermon preached by Dn. James Wilcox on Sunday, December 5, 2021
Homily for December 5th, Healing of the Infirm Woman
Today’s Gospel lesson from Luke is a curious story. It’s a passage not shared by any other Gospel writer, in fact. Neither Matthew, Mark, nor John have a record of this account of the woman with the ‘spirit of infirmity.’ So, one might ask what was so important in this specific story that Luke chose to include it.
As we heard in the passage, this woman who was present in the Synagogue was unable to stand upright, and for what is recorded as “10 and 8 years” in the original Greek (rather than “eighteen years” as we heard it today). Doubtless, there is some significance to it being recoded as “10 and 8 years”, because everywhere else in his Gospel Luke simply writes “18”. There some are writers in our tradition who see this “10” a spiritual allegory to the 10 commandments, and the “8” being symbolic of the “eighth day.” In early Jewish and Christian thought, the “eighth day” was seen as the day when the Lord will come, and create anew. For in six days God created the universe, then God rested on the seventh day; on the eighth day He will come and create again! Clearly, Luke is using this “8” to refer to the Messiah’s arrival in this moment at the Synagogue where we see the infirm woman stand upright — Christ is in their midst, and he creates anew in this moment by restoring her!
Now today we understand this “eighth day” to be Sunday, or what is sometimes called the “Lord’s Day.” For we celebrate our Divine Liturgy on this, the “Lord’s Day,” commemorating his resurrection from the dead each Sunday, for we as the body of Christ recognize the work of God as a continual renewal in our lives, and in the work of the Church. Still, it’s important that we recognize the notion of “spiritual infirmity” as mentioned in the story.
Now, Luke clearly understood this eschatological idea of the “eighth day” and he encapsulated its meaning through the action of the woman’s being restored anew — and through the One who is the fulfillment of the Law. But she is also healed on the Sabbath day itself — the day of prescribed rest in Jewish Law, when no works are supposed to take place. This is not the first time we see Jesus heal on the Sabbath, of course. Luke includes four such instances in his Gospel, and each time to the dismay of the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law.
And I have to say, I’ve always wondered why the Religious leaders got so bent out of shape when Christ does something miraculous on the Sabbath — something so good and beneficial for the sake of humanity. What is it about the Sabbath day that causes them to react so irrationally to a very obvious good — regardless of which day of the week it is? As I’ve learned from Father Antony on more than one occasion, irrational actions often proceed from irrational fears.
And fear, when acted out, is usually done in the absence of love. For as our Scriptures tell us “true love casts out all fear.” So when we act out of our fears, we are often acting in the absence of love.
Over the years I’ve come to learn, personally, that when I make a decision based out of fear, the result is usually … not so good. “But if someone just understood where I’m coming from, everything would be fine, right?” Unfortunately, regardless of whether that person actually understands where I’m coming from, the result is usually, still … not so good. But more importantly… my need to feel understood in that moment, won’t bring the healing necessary to free me from from my fear. In this sense I’m stuck in my own “infirmity.”
Now on the other hand, I’ve found that if I turn this process on its head, and stop trying to get others to understand ME, while taking the time to try and understand THEM… things usually go a little bit better.
In the spiritual tradition of the Eastern Fathers and Mothers, this is the simple process of learning how to be compassionate with one another. And one exercise I’ve found helpful, is to try and put myself in another person’s shoes, to gain better clarity, and ultimately, compassion for a person’s situation when I might not have understood it otherwise. This can also serve a way of identifying with their suﬀering. Now when we as a Church, collectively pray the words “Holy God visit and heal our infirmities for Thy Namesake” this is the very same Greek word Luke is using to describe the “infirm” woman in today’s Gospel reading. So in a sense, we as a body, are literally asking the Lord to help us stand aright, and heal us anew!
Now in the case of the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law, and their indignant attitude toward healings performed on the Sabbath, it’s probably safe to say that their actions in this case, are rooted in some form of fear. So I want to take a brief moment to put ourselves in the shoes of Israel’s teachers, and go back a few centuries prior to Luke’s Gospel.
In the years following the destruction of the Temple in the 6th Century BC, the Jews were dispersed throughout the Babylonian Empire (modern day Iraq). And the destruction of the Temple for them, was a cataclysmic event. Their central place of worship was lost, and for the Jewish people this was utterly devastating. But in a more personal sense, the Jewish people themselves were ravaged by war. And, as I hope we understand by now, any victim of war is a victim to immense suﬀering. And this suﬀering can take various forms, many of which can include physical, mental, and psychological duress. More diﬃcult still, may be a type of mental and psychological suﬀering we don’t immediately consider. For, central to the Jewish belief at this time, was the idea that Israel’s destruction and their captivity was God’s punishment for their disobedience to the Law of the Lord.
Now, suﬃce it to say that God does not kill the people we love in order to punish us for something we’ve done in our past — this is not the image of the Father that Jesus demonstrates for us in the Gospels. But I’m guessing that each of us has entertained a certain form of this from time to time …: “God must be punishing me for something I’ve done (or failed to do properly)” Regardless how we interact with these type of thoughts… does putting ourselves in the shoes of the Jewish people at that time, help give us a clearer picture of their suﬀering?
Now to shorten the remainder of the story — because of their belief that their exile was a punishment, the Jewish people made certain to devote themselves even more rigorously to the Law of Moses, so nothing of this nature would happen to them again. For this reason they appointed a new set of religious leaders to oversee, examine and interpret the texts of the Law and the Prophets. This new religious order was known as the “Scribes.” These Scribes would ultimately “build a fence around the Law”1 and thereafter placed a very strict sense of guardianship over their texts. As a result very little grace was shown to any who would violate the Law's precepts. Over time a certain oral tradition of interpretation emerged through the work of Israel's leadership (later to be recorded into what was called the Talmud), and over time some of these oral sayings would be considered an actual part of the Law itself. It was out of this tradition, that the Hasidic movement and the party of the Pharisees rose to power. Which brings us back to today's Gospel reading.
1 See Williston Walker, “A History of the Christian Church,” p14
Somewhere in these oral traditions created by Israel's Teachers, was a rote definition of what it meant to keep the Sabbath. Now according to this oral tradition of the Jewish law, it was not permissible to untie an animal to take it out for ordinary labor. But it was permissible to untie the animal to be fed and watered. This was seen as a means of preventing the animal from suffering - which, by Jewish Law was entirely permissible. When the indignant Ruler objects to the healing of the woman, Christ points out the obvious here... "If you're permitted to unbind animals in order to prevent their suffering, how much more should this woman be unbound from her suffering on this day of Sabbath rest! For as we were reminded in our Epistle reading from Galatians - Against such there is no law! For if God's people had always acted in the Spirit, from the very beginning - embracing love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; -the Law would never have been necessary to begin with. And with Christ in our midst, any imposition of Law thereafter, is an imposition of suffering.
I'd like to close with quote from the Philokalia - St John of Karpathos writes:
In fact the great Physician of the sick is here beside us. He that bore our infirmities, that healed and still heals us by His wounds (cf. Isa. 53:5):
He is here beside us and even now administers the medicine of salvation.