I think it had something to do with long hours behind the wheel on winding coastal roads, maybe in combination with sleeping on the ground, but about three days into our recent family camping trip I got a pain in the back. The muscles along the left side of my rib cage and up under my shoulder blade just kind of tightened up into a knot, and the stiffness went all the way up into my neck so that I could hardly turn my head. Fortunately, part of my wife’s vacation planning included back-to-back appointments for her and me with a massage therapist. Meg’s mother and stepfather retired to Ashland, Oregon almost 20 years ago, which was where our trip ended up, and on our visits over the years we have been back a number of times to see this particular practitioner, who offers a very subtle but powerful kind of healing touch that unwinds muscular tension in the body from within.
When I got to my feet after an hour on her table, I had not received a miraculous cure. The pain wasn’t entirely gone, but there was less of it, and I had regained much greater range of motion. I could breathe more deeply, and my body felt lighter, more open and balanced than it had, not just since before the acute back pain began, but more than it had for quite a long time before that. And as I was standing there, experiencing my relief, the massage therapist pointed out something, something I already knew. She led into it by asking me if I spend a lot of time on the computer. And I said that I did, and she said she thought so, because long hours at the computer can exacerbate a posture which is stooped, with the shoulders slumped forward, and the chin and neck kind of thrust out.
She recommended that I do what I can to prevent this from getting worse, because over time that curvature in the cervical spine might start to impinge on the nerves and lead to numbness and tingling in my arms and hands. She suggested taking frequent breaks from the computer, and getting up out of my chair to stand for a time in what she called the “Superman postures.” [Demonstrates]. Anyway, over the last couple of weeks I have added doing my Superman to yoga practice, and sitting meditation, and surfing, and the other things I have already been doing to counteract my tendency to slump. Because, as I said, it not like that massage therapist was telling me something I didn’t already know.
You see, I had this tendency long before I ever started working at a computer. My father has it, too. Maybe I inherited it in my DNA. Then again, maybe it is not so much a matter of biology, but of mental and emotional posture and way of being in the world. After all, these things that get passed down in families, too. It is common nowadays to speak about our bodies in the language of mechanics and engineering. But anyone who has ever lain down to sleep and had a dream knows that, left to itself, the natural language of the body is image and story. So it has occurred to me over the years to think of my posture not simply in physical or medical terms, but also as a symbol. Maybe I, like my father, have a tendency to take on too many burdens, to be overly conscientious and responsible, to carry, as it were, the weight of the world on my shoulders.
In any case, I’m not so much interested in talking to you about my own physical and mental problems, as in making a more general point, which is that the state of our souls affects, at least to some extent, the shape of our bodies. And recent research in fields from neurobiology to cross-cultural anthropology to clinical psychology have shown the profound connection between mental and physical patterns. But this is one of those things we don’t really need scientists to tell us is true. I think for most of us it just makes intuitive sense, and our ancestors understood it perfectly. So when the Gospel of Luke describes a woman in the synagogue who is bent over and cannot stand up to her full height, Jesus has no trouble seeing a spiritual cause for her condition. He lays his hands on her and tells her she has been set free. Which would be a strange choice of words if her stooped posture were a sign of a structural problem with her spine, or lack of core strength. But for Jesus it is bondage inflicted on her by Satan, the Spirit who accuses and oppresses human beings and denies them the full, free flourishing of their lives. After eighteen years of carrying that monkey on her back, Jesus drives it away in a moment, and this is what enables that women to stand up straight and tall.
And I think this connection between body and spirit is the key to understanding the larger context of today’s Gospel story, and why acts of healing have such a central place in the ministry of Jesus. Because this is not just a story about the miraculous healing of a woman who could not stand up straight. It is also part of the larger arc of story in the Gospel of Luke about the intensifying controversy between Jesus and the Pharisees. It is one of no fewer than three incidents in that larger story where Jesus gets into trouble for healing someone in the synagogue on the Sabbath day. And it would be easy, and even traditional, to interpret these incidents as conflicts over the Jewish law, and how rigidly scrupulous to be in observing it. But in my reading of today’s story, it is really not about that. What it is about is what Jesus is really doing when he heals people, and what that has to do with the loving and redeeming purpose of God.
When the Pharisees look at Jesus laying hands on someone and curing them, they see a person doing work. He is like a masseur or a chiropractor providing therapeutic services to a client. He may not be getting paid, but he’s receiving other benefits, such as gaining another follower and enhancing his reputation. And he is doing this work in the synagogue, on the very day when it is forbidden to practice one’s trade or do anything to advance one’s personal interest in the world. It’s a prohibition that is rooted, as you know, in the Jewish story of creation. It is a way of honoring the creator God, who, after finishing the work of making the world, rested. God gave us every seventh day to cease all striving to improve things, a day simply to be thankful for the life we already have, and to worship the one who gave it to us.
But what the Pharisees fail to understand is that when Jesus helps that woman cast off her spiritual burden and stand up straight and tall, so she can breathe freely and be fully alive, he is not merely doing a job on behalf of a particular individual. He is making a proclamation to the entire community gathered in that place, of what their Sabbath rest is really meant to be about. It is a continuation of the same proclamation he made at the very beginning of his public ministry, when he stood up in the synagogue on the Sabbath day and read from the scroll of the prophet, “the Spirit has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom to the captive, liberation to the oppressed, to announce the year of the Lord’s favor.” Jesus heals in the synagogue on the Sabbath to remind us, that the Sabbath God wants to share with us is perfect rest, perfect joy, perfect peace—and as long as there is even one person in our midst still burdened by oppression, want, loneliness, fear, or grief, God’s work is not done.
Which is not to say that we should never stop to rest, to celebrate a Sabbath. But it does give that rest a significantly different meaning. The Sabbath that Jesus proclaims is not simply the enjoyment of work completed; it is also, and maybe more importantly, anticipation of work fulfilled. The followers of Jesus gathers for worship on the first day of the week, not the last. Here we rest and give thanks for the blessings we’ve received, but we also take in nourishment, in word and sacrament, to refresh us and renew our strength for another week of carrying on Jesus’ work. Now, I say “work,” but if it’s really the work of Jesus, it’s more like play. Because it’s not our personal responsibility to fix the world—that is a burden none of us can bear. No, our work, like Jesus’, is neither more nor less than this—to tell stories, and create images, and act out symbols that proclaim what God is doing to complete the new creation of the world.