On the Sabbath, Jesus sets free a woman who was crippled for eighteen years by Satan. On the Sabbath, Jesus says to her, “Woman, you are loosed.” You are free. You are enslaved to your infirmity no longer. Jesus unties the knots in her back so she again can stand up straight in his presence. He sets her free from bondage. And he sets us free from bondage.
This is what Jesus does. He sets his people free. “The truth will set you free” and Jesus is the truth – “the way, the truth, and the life” – the word incarnate, truth himself (John 14:6).
And the truth is, it is sin and death, passions and suffering, addictions and illnesses, powers and principalities that enslave us. It is Jesus who sets us free.
He does not “come into the world to condemn the world but to save the world” (). As we prepare for his coming into the world at Christmas, remember what Gabriel says to Mary: “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus,” for he will save his people from their sins. The name Jesus means “the Lord saves” and it’s related to the Hebrew for “deliverance.”
But some mischaracterize Jesus as the one who binds us – as an enslaver rather than a liberator. They say this because we Christians preach the commandments of him whom we love. And they say this because they do not know what freedom is.
Some think of freedom as the license to do as they please. They regard the very idea of sin as judgmentalism. But the truth is that we who are sinners are enslaved to sin. We quickly discover this when we try and fail by our own power to live sinlessly. It is possible only by the grace of God to live sinlessly. Of course, if we don’t try at all, we might think we’re free because we’re doing just as we like. But we’re really only free if we can make the choice to sin no more. And that is only possible in Jesus Christ.
This fasting that we’re doing until Christmas is meant to help free us from our enslavement to sin. Fasting reveals to us how enslaved to our passions we really are. Once we start to practice self-control, we quickly learn how out of control we are – how badly we need to rely on the Lord for strength. Fasting without prayer is worthless. Whatever it is we have freely chosen to fast from will doubtlessly allure us at some point during our fast, unless we are fasting from something we don’t want anyway, (in which case, we should add to our fast something we do want, because fasting should train us to resist temptation). “By training the Christian to abstain from sin, [fasting] leads to interior freedom and true joy.”[i] But how quickly and easily we look for ways to justify breaking our fast. How clear it is at times that we are enslaved to our desires. We seek freedom from this enslavement and we find it only in Christ.
There are two kinds of freedom: bodily freedom and spiritual freedom. And there are two figures in today’s gospel who illustrate these two kinds of freedom: the bent over woman and the ruler of the synagogue.
Behold the woman. She is enslaved in body until Christ frees her. But even though a spirit of infirmity afflicts her body, it does not afflict her spirit. Behold how faithful she is. She freely attends synagogue on the Sabbath., despite having suffered for so long – for eighteen long years. This has not crushed her spirit. Her body is bowed down, but even so she bows down to the Lord. How frustrating she must be to Satan. He crushes the bones of her back thinking he can thereby crush her spirit. But no. She has a freedom he cannot touch, even as he afflicts her body. And her freedom to be faithful to God, to go anyway to synagogue, despite the pain it obviously causes her, results in her being in the presence of Jesus, which results in her healing, and her freedom even in body. Jesus takes away even the little power that Satan had over her. He frees her totally. He restores totally her true and free nature.
Because really we are made for freedom in both body and spirit. God makes us like himself: unique, relational, and free – but by our sins we have clouded this likeness. When we sin, we surrender our freedom.
And what likeness to God we have lost through sin, suffering, and death, Christ comes to restore through his incarnation. Just as Jesus restores the bent over woman to her true nature, so he is restoring us.
In the meantime, the bent over woman in the synagogue teaches us that suffering does not actually keep us from the freedom to which God calls us.
But then there is the ruler of the synagogue. He is free in body, free to speak to all those gathered there, and in a position to remonstrate with them loftily. But he is enslaved in spirit. His bondage is worse than hers. The crippling of her body did not shackle her mind or heart, but he, whose body is well, is unlovingly indignant about the Lord’s deliverance of the woman.[ii] His passionate regard for the letter of the law only distracts him from the true spirit of the law, as he criticizes the people there for seeking healings on the Sabbath. He has forgotten what the Sabbath really is and what it is for. He has made it more like a rope around the neck than a hand untying that rope. The Sabbath rest is not meant to burden God’s people. The Sabbath is a day of freedom – freedom from the drudgery and toil to which we’ve been enslaved by sin since Adam. It was made to be a day of rest – “that is, a time of liberation.”[iii] Rest from extortion and from enslaving others. As Ambrose says, “The Sabbath is… a day of rest from evil deeds.”[iv] It’s not a day of rest from mercy. Nor are we to rest from giving drink to the thirsty or from delivering the afflicted children of God. More than once, Jesus heals on the Sabbath for this reason. That is what the Sabbath is all about.
Remember the Jubilee year, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, the year after seven sets of seven years when all debts were forgiven and all slaves were freed. This is what Jesus is doing on the Sabbath. He is freeing slaves. Those enslaved to illnesses and infirmities of body he heals. Those enslaved to demons he delivers. He is our healer, our deliverer, our liberator.
And he is come to free us today – here and now. True freedom is really available to us in the present moment – in the here and the now. Though we often think it is only possible in the future, or even in the hereafter, we have it all wrong. The bent over woman was already free in the most important way, even though she and we have to wait for the coming of the Lord for our total liberation, there was a consoling measure of freedom available to her even in the midst of her enslavement – a freedom of mind and heart, that all of us can share.
The Lord grants access to this freedom if we will open ourselves to his presence in our lives as through repentance, prayer, fasting, and giving to all.
[i] Ukrainian Catechism, 220
[ii] Commentary by Warren Wiersbe
[iii] Sacra Pagina
[iv] Exposition of the Gospel of Luke 7.174-75