Freedom from Infirmity

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In his woodcut, “Pilgrim’s Progress,” the artist Robert Hodgell depicts a man bent over, not unlike the woman in today’s scripture from Luke.

Note: This is the eighth post in a 10-part series, drawn from Connecting the Mind, Body and Spirit: Reflections on Health, produced by the Clergy Health Initiative and distributed at the 2010 United Methodist Annual Conferences in North Carolina.  Each reflection is tied to the lectionary; we will publish each reflection a week in advance of the Sunday to which it is tied.

August 22, 2010
Luke 13:10-17 • When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.


In his woodcut, “Pilgrim’s Progress,” the artist Robert Hodgell depicts a man bent over, not unlike the woman in today’s scripture from Luke. Strapped to the man’s back are large rocks, and written on them is the question, “What shall I do to be saved?” He tries to walk forward, but his burden is too great. Behind him are laughing faces, deriding him and adding to his woe.

This “pilgrim” makes little progress because he has burdened himself with the weight of his own salvation. This ill-health is deeply spiritual, marked by our human desire to save ourselves, rather than to accept the freedom that Jesus offers us.

Like the pilgrim and the ailing woman in this passage from Luke, many of us have seen the forces in life that can cripple us. We have seen parishioners burdened by the weight of grief, sadness, loss of work, economic woes, the failure of important relationships, or the inability to meet their own goals or others’ expectations. This weight can literally cripple and bend us over – we can see the pain in faces, in slumped shoulders, and in the broken rhythms of life. This ill-health taxes all of our abilities to cope, and we lose a sense of hope and promise. We cannot straighten up, and we fear we never will.

And there are those crippled by devastating diseases, diseases that make crooked our bones and leave us, as the woman in Luke, “bent over.” Those who are bent know diminished freedom and individual power. Such illness requires remarkable adaptation to the “healthy” world, a world where bones, at least for the moment, are straight and strong and allow us to move wherever we want to go. To revive us and give us health and freedom, we seek doctors, clinics, and hospitals – we seek to heal ourselves. But often, like this woman in the synagogue, health care cannot straighten us, cannot unbend us.

So this woman went to the synagogue. What a remarkable thing that preachers look out each Sunday and see a congregation of people, who, like this woman, are bent over by sin, illness, and burdens too heavy for them to bear. Why did this woman come? Did she come to synagogue as any observant Jew would, as her Sabbath right and duty? She does not appear to come asking for anything. She does not call out to Jesus – Jesus calls out to her. Wesleyans understand the wooing grace of God, a grace that comes to us before we call upon it.

And Jesus saw her. What a remarkable blessing: this woman is seen by our Savior, and in this seeing comes a call to him, a healing touch, and a response of praise. The church is the Body of Christ, and Jesus reaches out to us and calls us as well. Our opportunity, like that of Jesus, is to look about us and see. We can see those bent over and unable to stand, crippled by a spirit, and we can offer healing to them. We can announce the Good News that Christ Jesus sees and knows our burdens and illness. We can be set free, even on the Sabbath, for such work is of the Lord. We only give praise. Praise that we all are made whole in Jesus Christ. Praise that we can participate in this healing work. All of us stand before God as broken sinners, unable to straighten up. In the church we confess our human condition and create solidarity with all like us who are broken. And we celebrate that the eyes of Christ are upon us. In the fellowship of the church we are called and touched and embraced.

In this story the woman is healed; she is made straight. We know that when we see, touch, and announce freedom from the burdens that weigh us down, not all of us are cured. But as in this Gospel story, we are all set free and given wholeness, purpose, and promise through Jesus Christ.

W. Joseph Mann is executive director at Leadership Development at Duke Divinity and an ordained elder in the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.


Questions to Consider

  • There is a deep indignity in that bent-over pilgrim in Hodgell’s woodcut and in the woman in Luke 13: neither of them is able to look another human being in the face. Grace empowers us to see Christ face-to-face, but in that eye contact there is obligation. Do we cling to unhealthy aspects of ourselves because we fear the moment of being straightened and obliged to look Christ in the eye?
  • The woman in Luke’s story still comes faithfully to synagogue, despite her illness, seemingly called or driven by something. When congregants bring their woundedness to church, what are the risks to the pastor’s own health and well-being? What resources help clergy manage the risk?

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