Do you still want to go to heaven if Luke is right about it?

“The incredible shrinking woman”—how Luke’s imaginative fiction
is meant to help us understand an un-commonsense Kingdom of God

(Luke 13:10-17, the Gospel for Sunday, August 26, 2007, with Luke 13:18-19, 20-21, 24, and 30.)

A MEDITATION BY BOB CRAMER

[First, an autobiographical note: Some eight years ago, longing for weekly Communion and an opportunity to report current scholars’ historical-critical studies of gospel lectionary texts, I began leading a small group where I’ve done just that. What a privilege! And many of my reflections have been shared globally in my weblogs (www.rfcnews.com; “Boblog” on Ecunet.org).

In the meantime, our congregation has begun a full-fledged weekly communion service at “my” 8:30 time. I had discovered long ago that shaping my reflections to serve a devotional purpose often got in the way of actually teaching what scholars are saying—and vice versa. A communion liturgy remains, led by the pastor. What I now offer is adult study sharing new perspectives from leading-edge scholarship. This a pastor cannot fully do from the pulpit.

This is my third week of meditations that are less devotional, more fearlessly honest with regard to the actual nature of scripture—what it is, and is not, according to my teachers in the Jesus Seminar and the Society of Biblical Literature, and scholarly Websites.]

. . .
One of the things much scripture definitely is not … is historically reliable factual reporting. The Gospel of Luke is a great example of that. The author/editor employs a lot of poetic license in describing Holy Land geography, for instance, and in today’s gospel lesson, he or she writes page after page of material attributed to Jesus … but these are words Jesus almost certainly did not say, according to the Jesus Seminar, and they reflect religion and society in Judea and Galilee at the end of the first century, not two or three generations earlier, that is, in Jesus’ actual time. One can say the Bible is “true,” but it’s literature, not factual history.

What the story of a woman, “bent over” for 18 years, is … is Luke’s imaginative lead-in to some of Jesus’ most surprising—jaw-dropping—”good news” about the nature of the true Realm of God. Jesus’ view of God’s Kingdom was not only totally topsy-turvy—it was the farthest thing possible from Good News for happy, healthy humans. As our contemporary liberation-theology teachers have explained, God exhibits a preferential option for the poor, dispossessed, and hopeless; children, ill or well; and spiritually shrinking, bent-over women.

“Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath,” Luke writes—even though most scholars believe Jesus did very little of that, partly because there is very little evidence of there having been a synagogue in any typical village of Jesus’ place and time.

“A woman showed up who for eighteen years had been afflicted by a spirit; she was bent over and unable to straighten up even a little. When Jesus noticed her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are freed from your affliction’. He laid hands on her, and immediately she stood up straight and began to praise God.

“The leader of the synagogue was indignant, however, because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath. He lectured the crowd: ‘There are six days which we devote to work; so come on one of those days and be healed, but not on the sabbath’.

“But the Lord answered him, ‘You phonies! Every last one of you unties your ox or your donkey from the feeding trough on the Sabbath and leads it off to water, don’t you? This woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan has kept in bondage for eighteen long years—should she not be released from these bonds just because it is the Sabbath?’ As he said this, all his adversaries were put to shame, but most folks rejoiced at all the wonderful things he was doing.” Good story; good reflection of how Jesus surely spoke and acted; but the story relates to the world of the 90s, not Jesus’ time. The words are Luke’s, teaching and preaching in his day, imagining, not reporting.

Those who become scripture scholars, and teach in today’s western universities and seminaries, ask students to consider what had happened in Israel in the year 70 of the current (Common) era. The whole unique foundation of Judaism had been destroyed. By the time Luke was writing, the concern of Jewish leaders was to tighten and maintain cultic purity. So Luke’s gospel attracted new-age Christians: “Good for you, Jesus! We needed a change!”

It’s intriguing to think about Jesus healing, not rejecting, people that society views as somehow not-people. In his time, as in Luke’s, most people had little status in anyone’s eyes. Brian Stoffregen tells about a woman in one of his congregations. She called herself “the incredible shrinking woman”—her marriage was on the rocks; the family business was failing; one child had learning disabilities and the other two made their demands on her as well. She was seeing her life disappear. “She no longer knew who she was (if she ever did know). Could this be partially the plight of the ‘bent-over’ woman in our text? Was she a ‘shrinking woman’? Did she ever have any status?” Stoffregen asks.

Pastor Stoffregen, an A-plus text student, says the Greek text literally calls the women’s ailment “a spirit of weakness,” where “weakness” can also be translated as “incapacitated.” And the word that Luke attributes to Jesus, “You are freed,” in Greek is usually not associated with physical healing. Its general meaning is “to release” or “send away.” The woman is free to let go of her weakness, whether just physical or psychosomatic.

I’m strongly attracted to the idea that being set free from affliction doesn’t have to mean a sudden, amazing absence of the affliction(s). The Realm of God which Jesus, and his followers like Luke, seem to have glimpsed, was already coming into being “on earth, as in heaven.” The Kingdom, coming and yet to come, was where a woman, condemned by her gender to have little status, would recognize herself as a child of Abraham just as men were. Crippled folks, too—maybe even more so. One’s change of self-worth might not be visible to an unseeing public at large; but what really matters is how one sees oneself. Jesus taught:

“And remember, those who will be first are last, and those who will be last are first” (Luke 13:30).

Again, about the Kingdom: “Struggle to get in through the narrow door; I’m telling you, many will try to get in, but won’t be able” (Luke 13:24). Surely this isn’t good news to the healthy and wealthy.

“What is God’s imperial rule like? What does it remind me of? It is like a mustard seed which a man took and tossed into his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds of the sky roosted in its branches” (Luke 13:18-19).

“What does God’s imperial rule remind me of? It is like leaven” (did you know leaven was considered totally impure and spiritually poisonous in Jesus’ day?) “which a woman took and concealed in fifty pounds of flour until it was all leavened” (Luke 13:20-21).

Heaven as home for the poor, the impure … could it be true?