Jesus placed her need at the center
by LeeAnn Pomrenke
SHE DOESN’T SPEAK UP FOR HERSELF. Maybe she did at one point, but it was too exhausting and demoralizing to be told or shown how little she mattered to the other “faithful.” So, she stopped.
It’s true: It would take effort for people to look her in the eyes because of the way her back curves. But that curve is not what denies her dignity. What denies her dignity is when people treat her as if she is of less value than the animals. Even the animals get watered on the sabbath. What is debilitating is the denial that she exists, that she matters to God and to the faith community. Yet in Luke 13:10-17, we see that this faithful woman still shows up, staying in the background, asking for nothing, until Jesus seeks her out and brings her into the center.
Then the fury of the faithful is unleashed. The ones who think they belong, above anyone else in that faith community, do not want her needs at the center.
They have solid, orderly justifications for why her healing and her presence (a presence that highlights their neglect) don’t belong in holy times and places. Rules exist for a reason; everyone should follow them. They don’t come to the synagogue to be made to feel bad, but to be uplifted. They give the money to keep the place running, after all.
But Jesus insists, which feels like a rebuke. Not just to them, but to us, because we probably would have overlooked her too. Jesus stops his authoritative teaching and brings this unnamed, physically disabled, socially neglected woman into the center of things. He touches her twisted back at the expense of tradition, decorum, not ticking off the church ladies, everything. And in this neglected one—this woman who has been brushed aside, ignored and systematically excluded while their community centered around those with more influence and louder voices, Jesus reveals the power and calling of God.
HEART AT THE CENTER
Even when we don’t realize or want to acknowledge how offtrack we are, Jesus calls us back to the center of our faith. Jesus calls us to embody God’s love in this world—first and foremost to those who have been excluded.
We are to hand that love over, our arms opening and embracing, our mouths whispering, singing or shouting: “You are already worthy, already so loved. You are made in the image of God. Yes, you.”
It’s easy to see who is really “bent out of shape” in this scriptural passage: religious folks who did not want their secure view of themselves to be interrupted. To them, the healing and the very presence of this woman, who never says a word, are an affront.
It doesn’t feel good to need a course correction.
I work for Luther Seminary’s Faith+Lead, an innovation department that helps congregations and individuals to learn and grow in our rapidly changing world. “Innovation” might sound threatening to people who find security in the way things are.
But most of the “innovation” is a restoration of practices that are at the heart of Christian community.
These innovative practices help us to connect with God, cultivate community with those who have been pushed to the margins, tell the story of faith, and live out justice.
So these innovations are not “new,” but a return to the center, the place where Jesus stands.
Jesus wasn’t really saying anything new to people at that time either. Jewish practice has always centered around caring for widows, orphans and all those who are vulnerable, placing the dignity of people over rules. Jesus’ action is infuriating because it is a reminder of the synagogue leaders’ failure to follow their own tradition. They do what we often do. We say: “Yes, but now is not the time. Just wait.
We need to introduce the idea more gradually.”
IT CANNOT WAIT.
Yet there is an urgency to righting the damage that the faithful have done. It is not the urgency of asking: “Will the institution of the church still be alive in 30 years?” It is the urgency of healing wounds before they permanently scar all of us, even more than they already have. It is the urgency of working to prevent further damage.
When we know that we are loved unconditionally, we live like it. We don’t hurt others constantly on the way to try to prove ourselves worthy of God’s attention. When we live like we’re loved, without reservation, we care for the world and each other in the ways God desires. We care especially for the most vulnerable. Yet when Christians have been in power, in the majority, we’ve often done the opposite of prioritizing the vulnerable. As the saying goes, hurting people hurt people. What a different place the world would be, if we who are Christ followers would stop and do everything in our power to restore dignity to those who are ignored or outright scorned.
Last year, at the 2022 ELCA Churchwide Assembly, participants took time to acknowledge the experience of American Indian and Alaskan Native people inside and outside of our church body. They highlighted a “declaration” made by the denomination in 2021, which includes a confession that begins like this: “We confess that we have not listened to the stories of Indigenous people and have not taken the time to understand history. We have devalued Indigenous religions and lifeways and have not challenged the invisibility of Indigenous people in American society.” In the document, which is available online at www.elca.org/Repudiation, we as a church commit to acknowledge and stop the harm we have done, so that we can work toward healing. The declaration ends this way:
We are becoming increasingly aware of the ongoing evils of the Doctrine of Discovery, and by the actions we commit ourselves to herein, we now declare our allegiance to the work of undoing those evils, building right relationships with Native nations and Native peoples, and remaining faithful to our shared journeys toward truth and healing.
To be like Christ in the world, we must become repairers of the breach—not those who cause it. In this healing work, confession and reparations must be front and center, at the core of who we are. Together we confess that we have powerfully pushed others to the margins, sometimes in the name of Jesus. Like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, we have not allowed interruptions to the established order. Although at times we have been technically right, we have missed the heart of God’s mission and what God needs from us.
God needs us to be like Jesus—Jesus who stops his own sermon because this takes priority. Jesus brings the beloved children of God, the ones it is more expedient to exclude, into the very center of his teaching, his moment of authority, his leadership and the community he was raised to please. Jesus shows us that God’s excluded, beloved children are at the heart of his teaching and our calling. Not tomorrow. Today. As a matter of priority.
THE REV. LEE ANN POMRENKE an ELCA pastor, serves as digital editor for Working Preacher, The Faith+Leader and Enter the Bible. She is the author of Embodied: Clergy Women and the Solidarity of a Mothering God (Church Publishing 2020).