This is a story of liberation. But can I say that and not have people misunderstand? It might be best if I first say what this story is not about.
It is not and cannot be twisted into some kind of liberation theology. There is no group salvation here. It is not anti-authority and pro-disenfranchised people. This is not a matter of social justice, whatever that is. It is not even anti-Sabbath. If you show up on Sunday morning and hear things slip off in any of these directions, you can be sure they have slipped off the text.
Nevertheless, this is a liberating story. It is about individual liberation, by proclamation and implication, and it is about liberation for the entire human race, by proclamation and implication. That is 4 liberating notes by my count. So let’s see:
1. Liberating Individuals by proclamation. Jesus said it was right to free this woman from the devil that bound her for 18 years. So, what is binding you? More importantly, what is binding your neighbor? Lack of confidence, low self-esteem, depression. It might not be something physical or obvious; but here we have permission to do good. It is right to set people free from whatever evil thing binds them. Isn’t that good news? Hey! I didn’t say it was all selfish liberation. Look at your neighbor. And I don’t want to hear one word about “It sounds like work.” Maybe it is. It might even be a long term commitment. Better to get started right away. Set people free.
Ah! But then someone asks, what kind of people? What kind of woman was this, anyway? The truth is we don’t know. Sure, lots of people think of Jesus and they automatically think the poor and powerless. But you know, she might just as easily have been the rich woman in the church. (Churches have them, you know)
“Oh, I feel sorry for that poor, bent over woman.”
“Poor!? She is filthy rich.”
“You know what I mean…”
2. Liberating Individuals by implication. Jesus healed the woman. God cared about her. God cares about you. Remember, WE DON”T KNOW anything about this woman. She was simply a type. Rich or poor, young or old, male or female, black or white, or whatever other distinction your mind might be tempted to make. Forget it. God loves us all. He cares and he heals. Bottom line.
Yes, she was a cripple for 18 years. You might be “crippled” in some way for 18 (25? 10?) years; but you might just as well get up in the morning and say, “Thank you God for healing me.” You might say that every morning, because it is true. This is not wish fulfillment or positive thinking or anything of the kind. It is God to whom you belong and God cares and God heals. Go ahead, get all gushy and pastoral about it.
3. Liberating all people by proclamation. Jesus speaks out here against hypocrisy, and his words are powerful to correct errant thinking. Now, I am sure someone can go off here on people in power (left or right, take your pick, toss a coin) and how they rule it over the powerless people. But that would really be stretching it. Jesus, here, merely points out that the rule makers, under certain circumstances, do not keep their own rules. Then he says it is okay to do good on the Sabbath, or on any other day, we may suppose.
Notice. Please pay close attention. He says nothing against keeping the Sabbath. We can be sure he was the supreme Sabbath keeper. He also says nothing against rules. This is not permission either to ignore the Sabbath or to do just as we please. He also says nothing against rule makers apart from point out their hypocrisy on this one matter. The world needs rule-makers, I suppose.
But no, what Jesus does here is give us a standard by which the rules that govern our lives are to be judged. They must be free enough so people can do the good they wish to do. True, some will use that freedom for license and all sorts of abuse, but the answer is not to make the rule more restrictive. We have God’s permission to do good. All we need is enough freedom to do it… and frankly, I would recommend doing good whether we are allowed to do it or not. If some pinhead wants to sue me for being a good Samaritan, so be it.
4. Liberating all people by implication. Besides, it isn’t mostly the “People in Power” who make rules that keep us down. It is ourselves. We make all sorts of rules for ourselves and our lives according to our lifestyles, our worldview, our pleasures. You know the confession: Forgive me for what I have done AND for what I did not do that I ought to have done. The devil doesn’t need to bind us much when we bind ourselves. But here, we have permission to do good, day or night or on the Sabbath. Do good, and don’t let any rules made by others or by you get in the way. Rules are meant to be broken, for goodness sake.