Text: Luke 13:10-17
The great 16th century reformer Martin Luther characterized the human condition with the Latin phrase “homo incurvatus in se.” I never studied Latin, but this is a good one for beginners. It sounds a lot like its English equivalent. Homo – Human. incurvatus – curved in. in se – on itself. This is the predicament of our species, Luther taught, our sinful state. Humanity curved in on itself.
This can be pictured fairly easily. It’s visual. It is bodily. Rather than having one’s head up, eyes looking out, ears attentive, the body curves in on itself. Incurvatus. And we are stuck. We can’t see beyond ourselves. We can’t really reach out beyond ourselves. We are curved in on ourselves.
And if this is the broken condition, then salvation looks like this: Having one’s back straightened, one’s shoulders lifted, one’s head raised, eyes now alert, arms open. Curved in à salvation.
I’ve been assuming these two positions at random times the last few days, partly to feel the difference between them, and partly because I overworked my back one day during the stay-cation portion of our vacation and am still feeling it. The hidden cost of do it yourself house projects.
I once heard someone say that you know you’re getting older when you bend over to pick something up and you think, Now what else can I do while I’m down here. I’m not that bad off – yet.
It just so happens that this week’s gospel lectionary has to do with incurvatus and standing up straight. Jesus is teaching in the synagogue, the final time he will do this in Luke. It’s the Sabbath, the day of rest. And there was a woman there. A woman whose name we never learn, identified only by her disability. As Luke tells it, she had been disabled by a spirit for 18 years. She was bent over. She couldn’t stand up straight.
Jesus is teaching in the synagogue, but when he notices her, he interrupts his own lecture, and calls her over.
The woman comes over, up, in to the center. Everyone’s attention turns. The object of the day’s lesson is no longer a scroll. It’s no longer ancient words being parsed, text being meditated on and interpreted. All eyes are focused on this woman. The object of the day’s lesson has suddenly become a body. The bent over, crooked body of this woman.
We have been taught the skills of interpreting texts, but how do you interpret a body? What’s it saying? What does it mean? What’s the story here? Behind the obvious plain reading, what are the subtle and nuanced forces at work?
Knowing what we know about how women were treated in that world – very poorly – and keeping in mind the special attention Luke gives throughout his gospel to marginalized people, this woman becomes all the more central to what Jesus proclaimed in his first synagogue appearance in Luke, in his hometown of Nazareth. That the good news for all people had to do with proclaiming release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free.
When Luther wrote about incurvatus, he meant it primarily as being self-centered. We are narcissistic, naval gazers, and the more we are curved inward the smaller our world gets, until it is just the isolated self, pitying itself. This is certainly part of the picture, and seems to be the demon that Luther himself, a person of power and privilege, wrestled with most of his life.
There’s a good chance Luke is inviting us into an additional dimension of incurvatus in this story. Like the other gospel writers Luke is fond of linking different stories together through textual clues. Jesus will justify this Sabbath healing by arguing that people are willing to untie their ox on the Sabbath and lead it to water, so how much moreso should this woman, tied up for 18 long years, be unbound. Jesus will soon perform another Sabbath healing, this time for a man. He’ll make another ox-based argument – this time about getting an ox out of a pit. The connection invites us to pay attention to how the stories illuminate eachother.
Sabbath, Sabbath. Ox, ox. Woman, man. Healed, healed.
Another pertinent connection here is with a story right before it, and that thread in this case is that number 18. Eighteen years she had this disabling spirit. Just a few verses before, in the same chapter, Jesus recalls a recent event in which the tower of Siloam fell on a group of people, killing all of them. All 18 of them. It was common, and still is, unfortunately, to moralize such events. What did those 18 people do wrong to deserve a fate like that? Jesus flatly rejects this thinking, saying “Do you think that they were worse offenders than all others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, No” (Luke 13:4-5).
And now we are introduced to this woman, disabled by a spirit for 18 years. What, Luke might be nudging us to ask, has fallen on this woman over the course of those 18 years to cause her to be, in the words of the NRSV, “bent over and quite unable to stand up straight?” What kind of spirit is this doing the disabling?
This leaves plenty to the imagination. Lots of room for midrash, for filling in the blanks, which for preachers is almost irresistible. Was this one tragic incident 18 years ago that curved this woman back in on herself, or was this a barrage of events? An accumulation, slowly bending her over until she’s no longer recognizable, even to herself?
When does the wide eyed girl, full of life, full of herself, first learn that she is less-than? When do the shoulders first slump? When does the head first dip, ever so slightly? Is it a word, an offhand remark? Is it an unwanted touch? Is it just something in the air, long filled with the weight of such things?
How much does it take before it really starts to show? How long does she resist before it’s too much to hold? It’s wearing. Tiring. The body psychosomatically bends, curves in on itself, like a protective shell. An adaptive feature for survival in a hostile environment. If it stays there long enough, it might even start to feel normal. This is who I am, the mind starts to tell the body. Maybe she even convinces herself that it’s better this way. It’s easier not to look up and out. Stay down, stay away, try to slip into the synagogue unnoticed to hear the teacher from Nazareth everyone’s been talking about.
Well, so much for that plan.
In his final recorded synagogue appearance Jesus has set aside the text, and called her up. And there she is, with her bent body.
In his final meal with his closest companions, Jesus will put his own body front and center. He will tell them that eating the bread and drinking the cup is a participation in his own body. If they would see with eyes of faith, they would see that Jesus’ body is not just his own, but that they all share in that body. The church has always taught that to be a part of the church is to share in the same body, the crucified and risen body of Christ. We share in the sufferings, and we share in the miracle of being raised up. Resurrection.
For those perceptive listeners in the synagogue that day, they may have recognized that they too share in the body of this woman. She is not merely an unfortunate individual, but a sign of our collective reality. A sign of how we are curved in on ourselves, and a sign of how we perpetuate patterns and habits and systems that cause others and whole groups of people to be bent over. How we are all possessed by a disabling spirit. Had they been especially tuned in, they would have perceived that their own salvation was connected to the salvation of this woman, their bodies made more whole when she is able to stand up straight, as Jesus will soon enable her to do.
Not everyone will see things this way. The leader of the synagogue is not pleased. He grasps for a reason for why this can’t be right. It’s the Sabbath, come be cured on another day. It’s not really technically against the Torah, and he’ll be shamed by Jesus’ ox analogy, losing the textual argument. It’s just, you know, not how we do things around here. It’s against protocol. It messes with the order of things.
But in this story he’s a lone voice for this perspective. Luke says, “When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’ When he had laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.”
This passage ends by saying, “And the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that Jesus was doing.” The collective body is made more whole through the healing of this woman.
By the grace of God, Humanity curved in on itself, Homo incurvatus in se, is raised up. And we get a taste of the cup of salvation. And the body rejoices.