Homily preached by Fr. James Hademenos at Assumption of the Virgin Mary Orthodox Church, San Angelo, Texas Sunday December 6, 2010
At that time, Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And there was a woman who had a spirit of infirmity for eighteen years; she was bent over and could not fully straighten herself. And when Jesus saw her, he called her and said to her, “Woman, you are freed from your infirmity.” And he laid his hands upon her, and immediately she was made straight, and she praised God. But the ruler of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the sabbath, said to the people, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be healed, and not on the sabbath day.” Then the Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the sabbath day?” As he said this, all his adversaries were put to shame; and all the people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him. – The Gospel According to St. Luke 13: 10-17
There are few things in life more difficult to bear than a prolonged illness or permanent debilitating condition. In our gospel today, we meet a woman who probably expected a lifetime of struggle. For eighteen years she had been dominated by her malady. There was no reason to believe her situation would change. She was bent over at the waist – she had a most abnormal crease in the middle of her body. She couldn’t straighten up. In a kind of forced humiliation, she saw life from the level of half her stature. Bent double, she had to look at the people she met at a strange and unnatural angle. Her life had become a forced bow.
It’s easy to envision how others reacted to her on the street. Those afflicted with a visible handicap, such as cerebral palsy, would understand it well. Many undoubtedly quickly looked away when her sideways glance met their stares. We can readily hear in our own ears the innocent questions of the children: “Mommy, why is that lady bent over like that?”
There were probably those who were even cruel enough to tease and torment her. Hers was a sad condition indeed. Sadder yet, she had no reason to believe it would ever be better. Bent as this lady was, however, we might notice that her priorities were a lot straighter than those of many who walk erect. Did you notice where her healing occurred? Luke tells us that it happened in one of the Synagogues on the Sabbath.
Let’s take a moment and consider this question: “What was this lady doing in the synagogue?” Well, obviously, she was there to worship. She was there because it was important for her to be there. Here body may have been bent, but her priorities were straight. God came first. She didn’t care if it hurt. She didn’t mind if it was humiliating. Or maybe she did care and she did mind. But she didn’t let it stop her. Her example certainly points out the utter lameness of so many of the excuses people use for not practicing their faith. If it’s important to you to be here, you’ll be here as long as you’re physically able. Most people usually figure out a way to do the things they really want to do. We all have our priorities. So in spite the raw deal life had handed her, this woman had hers: God would be honored first. So, she was there.
Now I want you to notice another feature of this story: her healing was the result of her presence in the synagogue that day, not the cause of it. There is no indication in the text that she came looking for healing. She just came to the assembly where God’s people were gathered. Jesus saw her and called out to her. She didn’t see Him and call to Him. She was simply there being faithful to God in worship. So we can see that because she was there, she was available. She was available to receiving the healing grace that Jesus offered that day. Had she just stayed home that Saturday, her back would have remained just as bent as it was on Friday.
A couple of weeks ago, we considered the example of the woman with the issue of blood – the one who reached out, touched Jesus and was healed. It was clear in that account that she took the initiative. Had she not reached out, Jesus just would have passed on by.
But this story is different. The bent woman did not reach out. Unlike so many others we meet in the gospels, she does not beg for, or even ask for her healing. Jesus simply fixed his gaze on her, and once he saw her condition, her healing was underway. The only condition for her healing was that she was available for Jesus to do his work.
A most basic condition for the grace of God to act powerfully in our lives is that we be available to God. Our Orthodox tradition teaches us to make ourselves available to God, and offers us many ways how to do so: In addition to prayer & sacraments generally, in particular, one might also visit monasteries, make pilgrimages to holy sites, observe the fasts and feasts of Orthodoxy, and much else. All these have the purpose of rendering us available to God. When we consider it, the true Orthodox way of life is the cultivation of heightened availability to God; it leads us to place ourselves in those settings and locations where His power is greatly manifested.
The bent over woman in our Gospel had no special claim to the mercy and grace of God. God simply was a priority in her life; so much so, that she was willing to endure pain, suffering, and discomfort to be faithful to him, and in that process of putting God first, she found the solution to her life’s biggest problem. When the mercy and salvation of God entered that synagogue on that day, she was there. She didn’t have to plead for anything from God; but she was available. And so the abundance of God’s goodness was poured out on her. One can’t help but recall Jesus’ statement: “…seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness; and all these things shall be given to you.”
Let us take those words to heart. Seek first the kingdom of God; be there; make yourself available to God; and may his great mercy be poured out on you.