Jesus' Parables for Disciples
60. Healing the Woman with a Bent Back (Luke 13:10-17)
James J. Tissot, 'The Woman with an Infirmity of Eighteen Years' (1886-94), gouache on gray wove paper, 9.5 x 7.1 in., Brooklyn Museum, New York.
"10 On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, 11 and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, 'Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.' 13 Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God. 14 Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue ruler said to the people, 'There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.' 15 The Lord answered him, "You hypocrites! Doesn't each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? 16 Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?' 17 When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing. (Luke 13:10-17)
When I first read this story I think it is about Jesus' opposition to legalism. Then I re-read it and think it is about Jesus' victory over Satan's oppression. And then I re-read it and see it as a simple story of love. Whatever it is, I find it profoundly moving. See what you think.
"On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues. And a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all." (13:10-11)
These days the crowds are so great that Jesus teaches outside. But on this occasion, Jesus teaches in a synagogue -- we're not told where. This is the last time in Luke's Gospel that he does so.
One of the members of the congregation that day is a woman who has been "crippled by a spirit" for 18 years. Literally she "has a spirit of infirmity," Greek astheneia, "a state of debilitating illness, sickness, disease."567 Luke the Beloved Physician (Colossians 4:4) describes her as "bent over and could not straighten up at all." The Greek word for her condition is synkyptō, "bent forwards, stoop," then of a fixed bent-over position, "be bent over, bent double."568
Medically, this disease is probably what physicians today would call Ankylosing Spondylitis, or Marie-Strümpell Disease, a fusion of the spinal bones. But this time the disease has a spiritual cause rather than just an organic cause. According to The Merck Manual, Ankylosing Spondylitis is a chronic progressive form of arthritis distinguished by inflammation and stiffness -- and in some patients even ossification of joints -- especially in the lower spine. Onset is usually in people aged 10 to 30 years, usually men, though 10% of patients are women. Treatment focuses on relieving back and joint pain, and preventing or correcting spinal deformities. Even today, we don't have any medicines that can actually cure this condition.
Early in the course of the disease, sufferers often find that the pain is relieved somewhat when they lean forward. So they often go through the day leaning slightly forward, and gradually their spine begins to fuse. The more they lean in order to relieve the pain, the greater the angle, until a patient might be bent almost double, as the lady in our story.
This disease had been progressing in the lady for 18 years. What began with lower back pain has ended with a horrible, permanent deformity. Whereas she used to be able to straighten up with effort, now she is no longer able. She is bound with invisible chains, chains of calcium now hardened in her spine -- in her case the work of an evil spirit. Though we don't fully understand the demonic element in sickness, Jesus found that some who need healing also need deliverance from demonic involvement.569
"When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, 'Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.'" (13:12)
I think it's fascinating that Jesus found this lady in a synagogue. Why was she there? Was she a faithful attender, every Sabbath, year in and year out? Or was she just there occasionally, such as when a visiting rabbi was scheduled to speak? I've met people in churches who love the Lord, but are struggling with some kind of demonic oppression. A desire for God isn't necessarily driven out by evil spirits or vice versa. The demon-caused disease was doubtless due to some kind of weakness -- physical, mental, or spiritual -- that Satan took advantage of. Perhaps the lady's love for God made her a desirable target for the devil, like Job -- we just don't know.
But she is there in the synagogue, and Jesus sees her. With this deformity, bent over as she is, it is difficult not to notice her.
But why does Jesus call her? Is he trying to make a point, and she is the perfect case with which to do it? I don't think so. Jesus is not an "issues" leader, but a "people" leader. I am sure that he operates here as he has operated throughout his ministry. When he sees people in need, his heart is "moved with compassion" (Matthew 14:14; Mark 1:41 KJV) and he does whatever is in his power to help them, to heal them.
And so Jesus calls her forward, to the front of the synagogue where he is sitting teaching the congregation. I can imagine a hush as she moves to the front. Some people look anxiously at the synagogue president as this happens -- and see a frown.
When she arrives, Jesus speaks to the lady: "Woman, you are set free from your infirmity." The verb in Jesus' proclamation is apolyō, a compound word made up of the words apo- "from" and lyō "to loose." This fairly common word is used in several ways in the New Testament: 1. As a legal term "to grant acquittal, set free, release, pardon." 2. to release from a painful condition, "free." 3. "let go, send away, dismiss." and 4. "to divorce."570 Here it is in the Perfect Tense, meaning that it took place in the past and continues in effect: "You were and are set free from your infirmity." The noun is astheneia, "weakness, sickness" that we also saw in verse 11.
"Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God." (13:13)
The lady is close now, right in front of Jesus. So he reaches out and puts his hands on her. Immediately -- without any hesitation or gradually lifting up -- she straightens up instantly. I've heard people teach not to lay hands on people afflicted with spiritual oppressions, but Jesus didn't follow that rule.571 Greater is the power of the Spirit of God within Jesus than the power of the unclean spirit that has dwelt in this poor afflicted lady for 18 years. And Jesus' touch vanquishes and expels the demon. Suddenly she jerks erect. Bam! No hesitation. The spirit is gone!
Luke records, "and she praised God." You'd better believe it!
You can imagine what she says: "Praise God! Hallelujah!" and she isn't quiet about it. Throughout the synagogue goes a murmur of amazement and wonder and approval. People are grinning from ear to ear. Women are weeping for the crippled, now-healed friend. The people are deeply moved -- all except the president of the synagogue.
"Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue ruler said to the people, 'There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.'" (13:14)
I find this synagogue president a real "piece of work," though I have seen his kind in and around churches for decades. Luke describes him as "indignant." The Greek word is aganakteō, "be indignant against what is assumed to be wrong, be aroused, indignant, angry."572 And why? The Lord God Almighty has just healed in spite of his deeply held Sabbath rules.
For me this doesn't make much sense. It is clear, however, that he doesn't see Jesus' healing as an act of God, but as a natural act of healing that is considered "work" in his system of thinking. But lest we cast stones too soon, the history of the Christian church, as well as churches you and I have been members of, is replete with evidence that church people are by no means above criticizing, condemning, and excluding the moving of God's Holy Spirit. Since God doesn't feel constrained to operate by our church rules as he works with people, some stiff and proper church people can't understand that it could be God at work at all! How history repeats itself.
The Sabbath rest principle, of course, began with God's command as outlined in the Fourth Commandment:
"Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy." (Exodus 20:8-11)
God commanded Sabbath-keeping for our own good, not for his good (Mark 2:27). But by Jesus' time, Sabbath-keeping as interpreted by the rabbis was a bundle of legalisms. For example, a man was prohibited on the Sabbath from taking a journey of over 2,000 cubits (2000 x 18 inches = about 3000 feet) from his dwelling. But if, the day before, the man deposited food for two meals at the 2,000 cubit line, that was interpreted as constituting his "dwelling," and he could legally travel another 2,000 cubits.
Much of the Mishnah tractate "Sabbath" consists of precise definitions for the purpose of determining what was allowable and not allowable on the Sabbath. So in their casuistry they defined a "public space," a "private place," a "wide place." If the weight of a "dried fig" constituted a "burden" then was it permissible to carry two half figs at two different times on the Sabbath and avoid it being called "work"? And so on and on. Other tractates of the Talmud make it clear that on the Sabbath one could not climb a tree, ride, swim, clap one's hands, strike one's side, dance, or make a vow.
The Sabbath law prohibited "the application or use on the Sabbath of any remedies that would bring improvement or cure to the sick." Nevertheless, "all actual danger to life" superseded the Sabbath law, though nothing short of that.573 On the other hand, the law of circumcision superseded the law of the Sabbath, so a boy could be circumcised on the Sabbath if it fell on the eighth day after his birth.574
What had been a clear and simple Sabbath law was now confounded with a multitude of little rules that were considered to have the same strength as the simple law in the Bible.
The synagogue president, heir of this minutiae of rules and laws, becomes indignant. The woman is rejoicing and praising God, and so are the people, but this guardian of the Sabbath is angry. And in his anger he doesn't rebuke Jesus but the people, as if it's their fault:
"'There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.' The Lord answered him, 'You hypocrites! Doesn't each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?'" (13:14-16)
Now Jesus is angry, and rebukes the synagogue president as a hypocrite -- a two-faced actor who says one thing and does another. Jesus cites one part of the Sabbath Law -- that which involves animals -- as containing the principle of untying or loosing. According to the Mishnah, cattle may go out on the Sabbath, so long as they don't carry burdens. And though the Mishnah contained a dispute about what knots could be tied or untied on a Sabbath, it was agreed that cattle could be tied up on a Sabbath lest they stray. Moreover, there were special provisions for watering cattle at wells on the Sabbath without transgressing the limits for Sabbath travel.
Jesus argues, as might a Rabbi of his day, that if animals can be untied and watered on the Sabbath to take care of their needs, then surely untying or loosing a bound woman on the Sabbath day is permissible. It is the argument from the lesser to the greater.
Oh, she could have waited another day, the legalists would argue. Without watering the animals they might die, but she could have waited. How silly! How trivial! And in his rebuke of the synagogue president, Jesus points out the foolishness of prohibiting this woman from her rightful freedom on the Sabbath day.
"Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?" (13:16)
The synagogue president is indignant that the artificial and arbitrary Sabbath rules are being broken. But now it is Jesus' turn to be indignant. Jesus is angry that because of stupid rules people will put off even one more day helping a suffering human being whom Satan has been victimizing for half her life! Not to help is callous and uncaring.
He refers to the injustice of her suffering:
"Whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years...."
What right does Satan have to oppress a child of God -- "a daughter of Abraham"? None! To set her free is the only appropriate, the only right action.
Does Satan cause sickness? Yes -- certainly he does in the instance before us. Does Satan cause all sickness? This is more difficult. Sometimes, when Jesus heals he confronts Satan's spirits directly and commands them to leave. But many times, he lays on his hands and prays to the Father. Sickness is a result of the Fall, which was triggered by Satan's temptation of Adam and Eve. In that sense, sickness is from Satan, but in another sense it is a general punishment for sin, just as death is.
If Satan doesn't cause all sickness, how then can we pray for healing with any confidence? We don't want to pray against the will of God! For the answer, we need to turn away from dusty theologians' theories and turn to the Son of God. What did he do? How did he act towards sickness?
- Jesus healed all who were sick (Matthew 4:24; 8:16; 12:15; Mark 6:56; Luke 4:40)
- Jesus healed all kinds of diseases (Matthew 4:23; 10:1)
- Jesus rebuked fevers (Luke 4:39)
- Jesus saw his ministry as one of freeing the oppressed and healing the sick (Luke 4:18-19)
- Jesus treated sickness and disease as an affront to salvation and as an enemy to be defeated.
We have no record of anyone who came to Jesus who was denied healing. True, he didn't heal all the sufferers at the Pool of Bethesda (John 5:1-19), nor did he seek out people to heal, but all who came to him were healed. To me that says volumes about what should be our attitude toward sickness. If not the direct work of the enemy, it is the result of his work. Yes, God can use it, but we are not to glorify sickness. Jesus never did -- and we are his followers.
I believe we disciples can expect to see many, many people healed through our ministry under Jesus' lordship. But not all, and in this era, even the people we see healed will die. Even Jesus' healings were temporary. But healings in the powerful Name of Jesus point us to the time, when he comes, that every tear will be wiped away, and suffering will be over. Healing today is an out-breaking of the Kingdom of God into this fallen world, a harbinger of a New Day to come.
"When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing." (13:17)
When Jesus corrects us we can sometimes feel humiliated, Greek kataischynō, "put to shame, humiliated."575 The synagogue president and his cohorts have set themselves up against Jesus as opponents, from the verb antikeimai meaning "be opposed to someone, be in opposition to."576 This is a compound word, from anti- "over against, opposite to," and keimai, "to lie." Those who place themselves on a different path than Jesus, those who hold a different philosophy of life than the Master, make themselves his opponents. They are constantly in his way. My friend, we can unwittingly find ourselves as Jesus' opponents. Sometimes we can set our will to do something completely contrary to Jesus' spirit and direction. Then we are his adversaries, and deserving of whatever correction and humiliation that comes with our stubbornness.
The crowd, on the other hand is rejoicing, Greek chairō, "to be in a state of happiness and well-being, rejoice, be glad."577 Rather than seeing in Jesus' actions an affront to their rules, they see deeds described with the Greek endoxos, "glorious, splendid."578
For me, one of the most touching parts of this story is Jesus' words affirming the woman who has just been healed. He refers to her as "a daughter of Abraham." How very much this must have meant to her.
She has been broken and beaten down with pain and physical deformity. Children would make fun of her. Her husband may have rejected her, we don't know. When this goes on month after month, year after year, sometimes we begin to think less of ourselves. Sometimes we see ourselves as hopeless, as failures, as cripples, as defeated, as small in our own eyes and in the eyes of others. And then to hear Jesus call you, "My son," "my daughter," "daughter of Abraham," "child of God," can be so overwhelming and encouraging. Maybe I am a real person after all! If Jesus loves me, then I can be someone to be proud of. I can change. I can leave the past behind. If God is for me, then who can be against me? "Daughter of Abraham," you've been bent over too long. Stand up, hold your head up and your healed back erect, for you are a child of God!
Father, when I read a story like this, I realize afresh that Jesus is motivated by love -- nothing else. And he lets nothing and no one stand in the way of his love. He loves a deformed woman and she straightens up immediately. He calls her "Daughter of Abraham" and she knows restoration. Lord, I need that love, too. I need that assurance. Maybe it's a sign of my own weakness and insecurity, but I think it is more a sign of my own love for you and need for you. Thank you so much for challenging Satan's hold on me and setting me free. In the glorious name of Jesus, I pray. Amen and Amen!
"Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?" (Luke 13:16)
Click on the link below to discuss on the forum one or more of the questions
that follow -- your choice.
- Describe the woman Jesus sees in the synagogue, using the text as well as your imagination. What did she look like? How old do you think she was? How do you think she felt? How did people in her community feel about her?
- What effect did Jesus' proclamation in verse 12 have on the woman's healing? Why do you think Jesus laid his hands upon her?
- What was the synagogue president's position? How could he be so utterly blind to what was really going on? Is his blindness credible, or is he just a foil in the storytelling?
- Trace the logic of Jesus' justification of healing this woman on the Sabbath. Why did he use untying a donkey as his illustration?
- Extra Credit. Does Satan have any "rights" to afflict us with disease? Are there any just grounds for this? Or is he a complete usurper?
- How is it significant that Jesus calls the lady "a daughter of Abraham"? Have you ever had God speak words of assurance to your heart?
Lessons compiled in 805-page book in paperback, Kindle, & PDF.
 Astheneia, BDAG 142-143.
 Synkyptō, BDAG 953.
 See more in my article in Appendix 2, "Demonization and Deliverance in Jesus' Ministry."
 Apolyō, BDAG 117-118.
 Aganakteō, BDAG 5.
 Most of this section is taken from Appendix XVII on "The Ordinances and Law of the Sabbath as Laid Down in the Mishnah and the Jewish Talmud" in Edersheim, Life and Times 2:778-787. Also George Foot Moore, Judaism (Hendrickson, 1997, reprint of 1927 edition), vol. 2, chapter 2.
 Moore, vol. 2, p. 19.
 Kataischynō, BDAG 517.
 Antikeimai, BDAG 88.
 Chairō, BDAG 1074.
 Endoxos, BDAG 332-33.
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