Homily for October 24th, 2016: Luke 13:10-17.
“Woman, you are set free . . . ” Jesus tells a nameless woman, unable to stand erect, whom he encounters in a synagogue on a Sabbath day. “He laid his hands on her, and she at once stood up straight and glorified God,” Luke tells us. There is no indication that the woman asked to be healed. Moreover, men and women sat separately in synagogues – as they still do today in Orthodox synagogues. “When Jesus saw her, he called to her,” Luke writes. The healing was entirely his initiative.
It is one of countless examples in the gospels of Jesus’ compassion. More importantly, it is an example Jesus’ rejection of the second-class status of women in his society. Another is Jesus’ lengthy conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well in chapter 4 of John’s gospel. The social laws of the day forbade all but the most superficial public contact with a woman not related to a man. Moreover, as a Samaritan the woman belonged to people whom Jews in Jesus’ day hated. Jesus also rejected the second-class status of women when he praised Mary of Bethany for sitting at his feet, listening to his teaching, while her sister Martha toiled in the kitchen. Again, the laws of the day said that was where Mary too belonged.
The fourth Commandment told God’s people to rest from work on the Sabbath because God had rested on the seventh day, after finishing his work of creation. (cf. Exod. 20:11) The Sabbath rest was thus a weekly reminder that God must have the central place in his people’s lives.
When the synagogue leader complains that the healing Jesus has performed violates the Sabbath rest, Jesus responds by telling the man that he would not hesitate to untie and lead to water a domestic animal on the Sabbath. Was this “daughter of Abraham,” as Jesus calls her, less worthy of compassion than an animal? Ought she not to have been set free on the Sabbath, Jesus asks. By framing what he has done in terms of liberation, Jesus reminds us of his central and most important work: setting us free from our heaviest burden: sin and guilt. Jesus never grows tired of doing this, our wonderful Pope Francis reminds us. It is we who too often grow tired of asking for forgiveness.