Bent Over

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Bent Over” Luke 13:10-17

It was the best sermon I had ever heard.  Shall I start with the voice?  Rich and melodic, captivating.  Within moments, I felt as if I had known him all my life.  He read the Torah with such love, as if he were feasting on every word.  And when he opened the scriptures to us, they came alive.  I could feel the compassion and mercy of God in ways that I had never felt before, as if even I were a beloved child of God.  The synagogue at Capernaum was quiet. Every ear strained to hear every sound.  When Rivka’s baby began to fuss, we all said, “Shhhh!” not wanting to miss a word.

But then it stopped.  Without warning or “Amen,” there were simply no more words.  Worshippers began to buzz and turn restlessly in their seats.  Slowly things got louder, like a wave of sound rising from the best seats at the front of the sanctuary and rolling back to where I stood, mostly hidden, in the doorway.  My husband Moshe placed a hand upon my back and cursed under his breath.  “Lord, help us! It’s you, Mahalath. He sees you.  I knew we never should have come.”

I should tell you about my back.  It started the year our second child was born, a sweet and ruddy boy to join an older brother.  I was still hale and strong.  With one child bouncing on my hip and another sleeping in a sling at my breast, I worked alongside Moshe. We brought in the barley harvest and shook olive branches to rain down a harvest of ripe fruit. I milked the goats, fed chickens, ground grain at the wheel, and spun wool into yarn.  Young and able with the handsome Moshe at my side and our beautiful boys, I was the envy of many, and that may have been part of the problem.  You know the ways of jealousy and the dangers of the evil eye.

One day, I bent to lift the bread from the oven, and I couldn’t stand up.  My back writhed like it was being squeezed in a vice, and my whole body seized in pain.  I couldn’t breathe.  I couldn’t move.  I dropped to my knees, sending the loaves into the fire.  The world grew dim and then went black.

I’m not sure how long I was in darkness.  I awoke to the sound of my children crying.  Moshe hovered over me, looking worried.  A Greek physician from Sepphoris had been brought to attend me. 

“Ah!  You are awake!” the doctor said matter-of-factly.  He dribbled a vile tasting liquid into the corner of my mouth.  “Drink it all, dear,” he said with kindness. “It will help with the pain.”  I gagged it down, blinking back tears, and slipped into a sleep troubled by dreams of fire, serpents, and burned bread.

When I awoke, Moshe was sitting at my side, holding my hand.  Our boys had climbed into the bed with me.  Their small hands clutched the folds of my tunic. Their cheeks were red with worry and weeping.  “Ugh!” I moaned.

Moshe leaned in, “Mahalath, stay still.  The Greek says that you have been possessed by the spirit of the python.  You must save your strength to fight.”

Now, I had heard that in Delphi, on the far side of the Great Sea, the Greeks worship the sun god.  Poseidon speaks through priestesses possessed by the spirit of the python.  Twisted, bent, and rigid, they prophesy all day long.  For the right price, they might even tell you of a bright future.  But that had nothing to do with me. I loved Yahweh.  I was a beloved daughter of Israel, or so I thought.

I did fight.  I found my feet again.  I learned to live with pain.  I tended my children.  I did my best to keep our home and fields, but I never stood up straight again. Our neighbors said that I was “bent over,” as if I were a broken reed or a tree snapped by a windstorm. With every year, my back bent more noticeably, and as my shoulders rounded and my spine folded in on itself, my perspective grew small, narrow, and limited. 

My affliction made me unwelcome at the synagogue, for only someone cursed by Yahweh could look as I did.  But each week, I would wait at the back, hovering in the doorway, hoping for the smallest crumb of blessing.  Our neighbors stopped including us, uncomfortable with my woe and believing the worst.  One day, the neighborhood children began to call me names. At first, they did so behind my back; eventually, they did so to my face.  In time, most people just called me “Bent Over Woman,” as if I didn’t even have a real name.  I prayed always, hoping that if I could find the right words, I might be set free from this prison that my body had become.

So, while I could tell you that he preached the best sermon I had ever heard, and I could tell you that Rivka’s baby fussed, and I could tell you that the preaching stopped and the sound of whispering and unrest rolled to me like a restless wave, I could not tell you what he looked like, or why Rivka’s baby fussed, or why the rabbi stopped speaking, or why the sound of my restless neighbors rolled toward me.  Because the only thing that I could see was what I always see: my feet.

Moshe reached a protective arm around my back and held my hand.  “Mahalath,” he whispered, “He’s waving to you!  He wants you to come forward.”

I tried to turn and leave, but Moshe held me fast.  “Mahalath,” he urged, “What have we got to lose?” 

What did we have to lose?  It doesn’t get much worse than living in constant pain, shunned by your neighbors, and excluded from your church.  It doesn’t get much worse than being called Bent Over Woman.  My life had become an agony of loneliness and suffering.  With Moshe at my side, I walked to the front.

If it was quiet when the rabbi spoke, it was deathly still as I stood before him.  Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on me.  Every breath was held.  Even Rivka’s baby was silent. 

Then, this rabbi did a most unusual thing.  He squatted down on his haunches, down into my limited field of vision, and he looked up into my face.  He was sun-browned, as if he worked in the fields.  Fine lines creased the corners of his eyes, which were a deep, bottomless brown.  He smiled and his kind eyes sparkled with interest and concern. Next, he said the most ridiculous thing that I had ever heard, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”  Didn’t he see what everyone else saw: my hideous bent-over back?  Someone snickered. Moshe took a protective step closer.

What happened next is still being talked about in Capernaum.  The rabbi stood up and placed his two broad, strong hands on my poor crippled back.  What I noticed first was warmth, like the sun on a winter day bringing a blessing to your upturned face.  Slowly it flowed out from his hands, spreading down to the tips of my toes and reaching up to the top of my head.  It was then that I realized that my pain was gone.  The spirit of the python that had held me tight in its grip had departed!  I took a deep breath and then another. Then, for the first time in eighteen years, I stood up.  I gasped and shouted bold cries of “Alleluia!” and “Thanks be to the Holy One of Israel!” I hugged Moshe, then I hugged the rabbi as my neighbors watched in shocked silence.

Not everyone was happy.  The synagogue leader was scandalized that I had entered the sanctuary, and the rabbi had healed on the sabbath.  But the rabbi would hear none of it, for surely, even one such as I deserved the mercy that is shown to an ox or mule. 

With a wink, the rabbi turned to me. “Mahalath,” he called me by name. “Mahalath, I think I just finished my sermon for today.”

I practically danced toward the door of the synagogue, followed by the rabbi and Moshe.  Out they went, but before I left, I turned to my neighbors, the ones who for eighteen years had ignored me, gossiped about me, called me names, and failed to show me the courtesy one might extend to a barnyard animal.  I looked them in the eyes and said, “By the way, my name is not Bent-Over-Woman.  My name is Mahallath. You are welcome to come break your fast with us today.”

The synagogue erupted in cheers and praise.  That sabbath evening, Jesus dined with us, and so did all of Capernaum. The pot never emptied, the bread seemed to multiply, and the wine never failed. But that is a miracle to tell on another day.  I rejoiced—and so did the whole village with me—in the wonderful things that Jesus was doing.


Luke 13:10-17

10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. 11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured and not on the Sabbath day.” 15 But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it to water? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” 17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame, and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things being done by him.


James Tissot, “The Woman with an Infirmity of Eighteen Years” (La femme malade depuis dix-huit ans), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons, in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum.