There appeared, before Jesus, a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.
I love this story for many reasons. Firstly because it tells me that God, through Jesus, cares about those who struggle and those who are afflicted. And when I think of struggle and affliction, I think first of all of those who are crippled or disabled, those who are treated by the rest of the human race as somewhat less than human because they are in a wheelchair, or because they talk differently, or because their behaviour is disturbing to us. From this story I hear that Jesus treated each person he encountered as special, an individual loved by God as unique and lovely as any part of God’s creation. Those who are different from us are loved by God as much as we are, and just as Jesus respected their own unique story and circumstances, then so should we. I could talk about the labels with which we bind each other, the way in which we put people into neat categories which bind them and cripple them. Drug addicts or criminals or single parents or delinquents or paraplegics - it is the labels that bind more cruelly than the addiction or the crime or the injury. I rejoice that Jesus called this woman “a daughter of Abraham” and not “a cripple”. When Jesus said to her, “Woman, you are free from your ailment” she was set free from the physical condition and from the stigma attached to being crippled.
And this is the second reason for which I love this story - it is the freedom which Jesus brings. This woman had been “bound by Satan for eighteen long years” - a terrible prison sentence, condemning her to be bent over, physically, mentally and spiritually bound by a spirit of infirmity - and Jesus said, “You are free from your ailment.” He did not say, “Your faith has healed you” for there is no mention of the faith of the woman in the story. Jesus simply said, “You are free.” The whole language of the story is about releasing people from the things which bind them. It is set on the Sabbath day, when Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, and the response by the leader of the synagogue is to accuse Jesus of breaking the rules. “There are six days on which work ought to be done, come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.” Jesus came to declare freedom to the people, and the leader of the synagogue wanted to bind them tight again. In fact, Jesus rebukes the leader from his own behaviour - if an ox or an ass was able to be set free to drink on the Sabbath, then why not a woman. I think that the people of the world today could learn a great deal if they rediscovered freedom. I don’t mean the freedom that allows any person to any thing they like - that is licence - what I do mean is the freedom for people to discover who they are in relationship with God. Our world places many expectations on people - we are expected to conform to more than just the road rules - fashion, behaviour, the way we look and the way we think - even the way we see ourselves - we are all under tremendous pressure to fit in to the mould shaped for us by our neighbours, by our friends, by our selves, by our churches and by our television sets. Jesus sets us free from all these to be who we really are with God. Some years ago the Anglican Primate of the USA wanted to rediscover the freedom of being himself with God, so he dressed in ordinary clothes and attended mass at a nearby Roman Catholic Church. But Satan was busy at work. He was recognised and the story got into the papers and reached the leaders of the church - so that the bishop as well as the Roman Catholic priest were soon in trouble for breaking their particular bonds - bonds as hypocritical as those which the synagogue leader tried to apply to Jesus and the woman.
Which brings me to the third reason why I love this story. It is a story which affirms women. It is striking that Jesus referred to this woman as a daughter of Abraham - elsewhere we hear about the sons of Abraham or the children of Abraham, only in this story do we hear that women are descendants of Abraham in their own right - they are not defined by their husbands or their fathers but by themselves and their own relationship to Abraham and to God. Jesus is affirming that all relationships begin with God, and that if our relationship with God is right, then our relationship with each other will be right, too. Our righteousness is not defined by who our husbands or wives, mothers or fathers are, our righteousness is defined by the way we relate to God. And this is particularly important for women, who for so long have been defined in terms of others. Jesus is not trying to make men and women the same or denying the woman her gender - he does call her “Woman” and “Daughter” - but he is affirming her freedom to stand upright, as herself, in the sight of God.
This story is only one story out of many in the bible told about Jesus and about God. The reading from Jeremiah that we heard today is another which takes up the same themes. One theme is of God’s particular care for each person - Jeremiah, the psalmist, St Paul (or whoever it was who wrote the letter to the Hebrews), as well as Jesus, the woman who was set free. They were all loved by God, uniquely and individually, and each had their own unique, authentic and precious experience of the love of God. Neither age, nor employment, nor gender, nor ancestry is any barrier to God’s love, and if, as we claim, God’s love dwells in us, then there should be no barriers to our love.
The next theme is freedom. God set Jeremiah free from his anxieties about being too young to speak God’s word, God set St Paul free from his spiritual blindness as well as from the physical blindness which cam so dramatically to him on the Damascus Road, God set the woman free from the spirit of infirmity which had plagued her for eighteen years - and we are the heirs of that freedom, free to love God and our neighbour and free to set others free as well. We are warned not to bind others in bonds of our own devising, but to set them free to discover their life in God.
And the last theme I identify is that God affirms each one of us in our humanity, in who we are as a person and as an individual. God did not require Jeremiah to be anybody else but Jeremiah. Paul remained Paul the woman was affirmed as herself and Jesus remained Jesus - indeed, Jesus remains, to this day, Jesus. In the same way God wants us to be ourselves and affirms us as ourselves. It is important to realise what is our true self and what is part of the bindings with which we are bound - and that is not always easy to do - it may take eighteen years, or even longer, but in the end Jesus can set us free.
And when this happens, if I may paraphrase the last verse of today’s gospel, “all our opponents will be put to shame; and the entire creation will rejoice at all the wonderful things that God has done.”