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The Politics of Scripture

Bound to Be Loosed from Bondage

Luke’s wordplay allows us to see this story as something larger than a particular Jesus event with a particular woman in a particular synagogue on a particular Sabbath. A one-off, straightforward healing event can be described without such wordplay. Through the creativity of his storytelling, Luke makes this moment a signal event, about a Daughter of Abraham and the work of the Christ. 

10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’ 13When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.’ 15But the Lord answered him and said, ‘You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?’ 17When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

Luke 13:10-17

The story of Jesus and the Daughter of Abraham who was bent double in Luke 13:10-17 may well have really happened exactly as Luke describes it, but it is so creatively written that it begs for both exegetical attention and reader response. Anyone interested in a verse-by-verse approach to the text can find one example here. For this essay, I will simply point out one of the creative aspects of Luke’s story and explore the implications that it has for those who are actively engaged in political theology today. 

First, a word of caution: Healing stories often run the risk of implying that persons with disabilities are somehow not in God’s highest favor, have a second-rate life, or are responsible for their own condition because their faith is too small. Luke’s wordplay allows us to see this story as something larger than a particular Jesus event with a particular woman in a particular synagogue on a particular Sabbath. A one-off, straightforward healing event can be described without such wordplay. In fact, it is questionable whether this is even a “healing story” in any classic form, since it becomes a dispute between Jesus and a ruler of the synagogue. As I will show below, through the creativity of his storytelling, Luke makes this moment a signal event, about a Daughter of Abraham and the work of the Christ. 

The creativity of Luke’s story hinges on the interplay between various forms of the words “binding” and “loosing.” When Jesus sees the Daughter of Abraham, his words in v.12 are not, “You are healed,” but “You have been loosed (ἀπο/λύω) from your infirmity.” It is the root of this term, λύω, that will be in play in opposition to the term for to bind, δέω and its related term, δεῖ.(1)   The terms, δέω and λύω, are the same verbs found in contrasting form in Matthew 16:19, where Jesus says to Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” And, δέω is the same term that Jesus uses in texts like Luke 9:22 and parallels when disclosing the necessity of his forthcoming suffering and death. Our story begins when the Daughter of Abraham is loosed from a “spirit of infirmity” that had bent her over for 18 years. 

The next use of these terms is when the ruler of the synagogue protests Jesus’ action as a violation of the Sabbath, saying, “There are six days in which it is binding to work; therefore come to be healed on them and not on the day of the Sabbath.” While the leader is indignant that Jesus would heal on the Sabbath, his criticism actually seems directed at the woman for having the audacity of being healed from a long-term crippling infirmity on the Sabbath. His accusation is curious, so I have translated it as literally as possible. It is “binding” to work for six days, but not on the Sabbath. Jesus’ response is to the leader of the synagogue and others like him, since Jesus starts with the plural form of “Hypocrites!” It may be “binding” to work for six days, but they “loose” their ox or ass from the feeding trough on the Sabbath to make sure they are properly fed and watered. It is incisive criticism using wordplay. 

The interplay between δέω and λύω comes to complete fruition in v.16. After showing the hypocrisy of those who loose their ox to feed and drink on the Sabbath, Jesus asks, “Yet this being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan bound (δέω) behold eighteen years, was she not bound (δέω) to be loosed (λύω) from this binding (δεσμοῦ) on the day of the Sabbath?” The Daughter of Abraham was bound by Satan for eighteen years and bound to be loosed (by God, presumably) on that Sabbath day. “Bound to be loosed” is an effective way of bringing the word “bound,” which can indicate oppression and torment, into another, more positive form. To use more expansive possibilities of the terms, the Daughter of Abraham was destined for liberation.

Preachers everywhere may use this text to encourage compassion over religious rules. Fair enough. The leader of the synagogue emits such an unctuous and callous response to a woman who is finally freed from her oppressive malady that he deserves all the shade that the word “Hypocrite!” implies. But there’s something here for those who are not uptight and rule driven as well. It lies in the question that Jesus asks, “Was she not bound to be loosed from this binding on the day of the Sabbath?” With these intersecting uses of “bind” and “loose” Luke seems to be offering an end run around the whole philosophical opposition between “freedom” and ‘necessity by replacing it with a paradox. She is bound, yes. But she is bound to be loosed. There is necessity here: What is necessary is for her to be free. The paradox of this question might open ways for people of faith to offer a better response to others in the world who have spent many years in semi-anonymity, their lives distorted by a “spirit of infirmity,” their daily activities built around accommodating some kind of binding. 

I would caution preachers not to approach this text as “just another healing story.” It doesn’t fit the pattern: There is no request, no conversation about faith, and almost complete passivity on behalf of the Daughter of Abraham until after she is upright and begins to praise God. Despite the ruler of the synagogue’s accusation, she did not come to the synagogue on the Sabbath in order to be cured. And, in the end, what pleases the crowd is not a miracle, but the shame Jesus brought to the religious rulers over the question of what is proper to do on the Sabbath. The Daughter of Abraham’s passivity indicates that the spirit of infirmity that has bound her has simply become her “normal,” perhaps accepted with the sigh, “It is what it is.” That is the language of “realism” that we use when we talk about fate, destiny, or necessity today. We use accommodating statements like, “Boys will be boys” to accommodate sexual violence; “Nations have always been at war” to accommodate the atrocities of death and destruction; “The poor you have with you always” to accommodate poverty and inequality; or “Shit happens” to accommodate anything else. This is our non-philosophical language of fatalism, a belief that we are bound to be bound, so Christianity becomes the means by which we cope with or excuse such a world. 

Jesus believes in fate as well, namely, that the one who is bound is bound to be loosed. Rather than accepting her bent posture, or even politely looking the other way, Jesus says to the woman even as she is doubled over, “You are loosed.” Then he places his hands on her. Then she stands upright. In that order. Jesus speaks truth to power; he puts his words into action; something liberatively wonderful happens. All of it driven by the presumed answer to Jesus’ question, “Was she not bound to be loosed from this binding on the day of the Sabbath?” It is the same philosophical power behind Jesus’ proclamation of the words of Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).

(1) While not every lexicon makes a clear connection between δέω and δεῖ, others do. See Bullinger (entry 1163), Zondervan’s Analytical Greek Lexicon (p.85), Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (p.126), and Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon (p.372).

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