The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (13:10-17)
At times we are pulled down by the great weight of our own sins. They weigh on us. They are heavy. Perhaps when we are children we don’t experience this but as we grow and mature and gain understanding it becomes clear to us. Sometimes this manifests itself as a lack of peace or some anxiety, even depression. We go to counselors or therapists but things don’t necessarily get better. People try to find various ways to numb the pain of their sins and the weight that is placed on their souls. Some turn to alcohol or drugs as an escape. For others it is attention, affection, praise or physical comforts. Sometimes, sadly, Christians will even go in search of something elusive and study eastern mysticism or “new age” spirituality in the hopes that this will relieve the pain and will give them meaning in their lives. Others will go even further than this. They will claim that the ideas of guilt and shame and sin are just ingrained in us by a Christian upbringing and then they will pretend that none of these things are real. Instead of grasping with reality they try to escape through a life of rebellion, constantly drifting further from Christ and the truth. All of this because we refuse to acknowledge the disruptive and destructive power of sin in our own lives.
In today’s gospel reading we encounter a woman who had a spirit of infirmity for 18 years. She was hunched over and could not straighten her back. She walked and lived like this, as if a great weight had been placed on her neck and shoulders and she was powerless to lift herself up. St. Ambrose of Milan tells us that she had in actuality a sickness of soul. Her soul was bent over and dragged close to the ground. He tells us that there is symbolism here. The woman who is bent over with her eyes toward the ground is like one who has a soul that “inclined to earthly rewards and did not possess heavenly grace.” Meaning it is symbolic of our attachment to earthly pleasures. St. Ambrose says that “nothing burdens the mind more than concern for the world and lust for either wealth or power.”
This week during our introduction to Orthodoxy class we spoke about the sacrament of Holy Unction and how our spiritual and physical health are connected. The prayers of the service of Unction ask God for healing of soul and body. The two are connected because they are each an integral part of the human person. The one who looks after his physical health but neglects the health of his soul is in truly grave danger. He may not see it yet but the seeds of spiritual sickness are being planted deep within the man who neglects his life in Christ and the remedies that are offered by the Church. St. Augustine writes “The devil and his angels have bowed the souls of men and women down to the ground. He has bent them forward to be intent on temporary and earthly things and has stopped them from seeking the things that are above.”
In our weighed down state of sinfulness it is hard for us to even look up and search for Christ. This woman in the synagogue could not see the Lord Jesus. But we are refreshed with a message of hope, He sees her. What love the Son of God has for His people, the works of His hands! He sees her and although she is quite powerless to do anything, He knows her needs. But how was she healed if she could not see the Lord? She heard Him and obeyed His word. We are told that the Lord Jesus called her over to Himself. It is implied from the text that she obeyed and went to Him. She could not see Him, but she could hear His voice. She showed a small amount of faith and obedience and the Lord poured out His grace, healing and life on this poor woman who probably couldn’t remember the last time she was able to look up to the heavens.
We are not so different from this woman who was sick for 18 years. We are also sick and infirm. Sometimes with bodily sicknesses and sometimes with spiritual. We are likely to fall into despair as we try to climb out of the pit of our sins and addictions and habits and we find ourselves unable to do so and covered in filth. Yet this reading today should give us some hope. Regardless of where we are, God is watching. He sees us. He understands our needs far better than we could imagine or comprehend. To the one who simply takes a step to obey His words, to hear His voice, He declares “you are freed from your infirmity!” We should rejoice that this is offered to us and that God is generous towards us. In the life of the Church one of the ways that God is generous towards us is through the sacrament of confession. He knew that we would need this medicine. If you are weighed down by your sins, come and confess. Leave your sins at the feet of the Lord and receive healing. He will lift the weight off your shoulders and you will be able to move freely. Try to do this at least 4 times a year, because it is a form of medicine for our souls. You do your part and confess your sins without hiding anything, and the Holy Spirit will do His part and remove your sins and heal you and He will allow you to live in His presence.
Within the synagogue we see the perfection of humanity in Our Lord Jesus Christ but unfortunately we also see another side to humanity under the same roof. A side that is not so graceful and merciful, in the image of the leader of the synagogue. He is much worse than the woman with the infirmity for his sickness is hidden even to himself! As soon as he sees something that doesn’t jive with his limited, narrow understanding, he goes on the attack. He is by definition a legalist. His god is the law. His interest is in obedience to the letter of the law with absolutely zero regard for his neighbors. He is concerned with being perfect according to the letter of the law while he has no concerns for the woman who was created in the image of God. This is not a problem that is isolated to first century Judaism. This spiritual infirmity still exists today even among the Orthodox Christians. May this spirit of judgement not overtake us and may God protect us from being like this man. God calls us to go beyond merely literal meanings to a deeper spiritual reality. As St. Paul writes “the letter kills but the spirit gives life.”
We are reminded that whether we are physically healthy or sick, whether our sins are apparent or hidden, everything is open to God. We are not called to judge others and point our fingers when we don’t approve of someone else, we are called to keep our eyes towards Christ and not search out the faults of our neighbors. I have enough of my own faults, I am in need of Christ, why should I focus on the faults and shortcomings of my brother or sister in Christ? And even if I happen to see those faults, what is my proper response? It should be to pray for them and love them with an understanding that Our Lord has shown us similar mercy and with the hope that He will once again show us this mercy at the judgment.
May we live in this hope with the confidence that we will hear the Lord say to each of us “you are freed from your infirmity!”