And He was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And, behold, there was a woman which had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years, and was bowed together, and could in no wise lift up herself. And when Jesus saw her, He called her to Him, and said unto her, Woman, thou art loosed from thine infirmity. And He laid His hands on her: and immediately she was made straight, and glorified God. And the ruler of the synagogue answered with indignation, because that Jesus had healed on the sabbath day, and said unto the people, There are six days in which men ought to work: in them therefore come and be healed, and not on the sabbath day. The Lord then answered him, and said, Thou hypocrite, doth not each one of you on the sabbath loose his ox or his ass from the stall, and lead him away to watering? And ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan hath bound, lo, these eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the sabbath day? And when He had said these things, all His adversaries were ashamed: and all the people rejoiced for all the glorious things that were done by Him (Lk. 13:10-17).
The word of God reminds us of the necessity of prayer. As was His custom, Christ entered the synagogue on the Sabbath to pray. Although He prays in the desert, in secluded spots, He goes to the synagogue together with believers—not because He has need of it, but to show us how we should act. Every Sunday and feast day we must necessarily be in church. It’s a commandment, along with the most ancient ones, placing limits on the disintegration of human life—it is the same as “do not kill,” “do not steal,” “do not fornicate.”
Today’s Gospel is about this. The Lord heals the woman of a grievous illness. She was possessed by a spirit of infirmity, she was bound by Satan, bent towards the Earth for eighteen years. She had trouble moving, but she came to the church of God all the same. How we had to marvel in the past, when it was mainly grandmothers in church—feeble, infirm, walking with difficulty, but they didn’t miss a single service!—morning and evening, because the soul is drawn to where the Lord is, where true life is revealed. No infirmity is any obstacle for them. All the moreso should it be a shame for us when God has not taken away our health, and yet we blatantly violate one of His core commandments—to miss a feast day or Sunday service.
The Lord performs a miracle on this woman for the sake of her fidelity to the commandment of God. Although she no longer has any hope, she is ready to bear the yoke of her infirmity unto death. But for her it was important to go where the word of the Lord is proclaimed, where they provide the most important things for man. In an instant, this woman is healed and straightened, and she sends up praise to God.
Her condition truly was terrible. Bent to the Earth, she was nearly walking on all fours. From afar you could think it was some animal moving along. Such is the spiritual condition of man after his falling away from God. He cannot straighten himself, cannot lift his face to Heaven, cannot see the face of another. He is nourished and inspired only by that which is below. All his joy is in what the earth provides. That which is above, eternal life, Heavenly joy—it’s unapproachable for him—like a man who has become an animal, doubled over, although, physically he can sometimes lift his head very high.
St. Nikolai (Velimirović), a Serbian saint, glorified by the Church in 2003, says that, looking at this miracle, we can understand the absurdity of the teaching of the materialists who argue that man came from an ape-like creature, walking for thousands of years on all fours, and then gradually straightened. The Lord straightens this woman bent to the Earth in an instant; and in an instant, He makes man as he should be in order to participate in the life created for him by the Lord.
Everyone sees how this woman straightens and sends up praise to the Lord. And we see, besides the appearance of light, the appearance of darkness—how the head of the synagogue—the guardian of the law of God!—is darkened. Fearing to rebuke Christ Himself (because he cannot find the internal strength for it), he turns to the people: “There are six days in which it’s possible to heal, but the seventh is a day of rest, the Sabbath day, and no one can violate it.”
Look at what’s happening. The light of this miracle blinds this teacher of the faith, and he wants to hide it from others. Who is not clear that it’s God Himself acting here? But the head of the synagogue wants to turn a miracle of God into something ordinary, a completely insignificant event. External observance of the rules is for him more valuable than anything else in the world, and he is ready to forbid God Himself from performing works of mercy on the Sabbath.
This woman didn’t hope in anything anymore. But the Lord Himself called her. And even before she turned to Him, He Himself performed the miracle. If the Lord does not come to us, we will die in our sins. “Verily I say unto you,” He says, “if you do not know that it is Me, that My grace, My power, My love is active in these signs and wonders, you will die in your sins.”
Piety and love are one and the same thing. The meaning of piety lies in love, in compassion for others. The Lord says, “If any of you has any kind of livestock, a donkey or an ox, will you really not loose it on the Sabbath to take it for a drink?” Everyone does it: It would be savage and cruel to the animal not to give it a drink. Is it really wrong to loose this daughter of Abraham, bound by Satan and already tormented for eighteen years, from her suffering? Is that not what the Sabbath rest exists for? The mystery of God’s mercy, eternal life—that’s what this “rest” is. And only through compassion, through genuine piety can we enter into it.
The Lord rebukes the sin of hypocrisy. Of all the sins it is the most disgusting. Recall with what anger the Lord often repeats, Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! He doesn’t say these words, “Woe unto you,” to any simple people—only to the Pharisees, because “outer appearances with inner emptiness” is the “mystery of iniquity” in the Church. Hear the word of the Lord, warns the prophet Isaiah, Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them. And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood. Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow (Is. 1:14-17). And then the mercy of the Lord appears, and a miracle is performed. God is fire, says St. Seraphim, not rites, not fasting, or prayer, not good deeds, but the fire hidden within them—not our outer presence at a feast, but the presence of the feast within us.
The mystery of the miracle, says the righteous St. John of Kronstadt, lies in sincere, heartfelt prayer. When they asked him, “Why has the Lord given you such a wonderful gift?” he answered, “It is the mercy of God. I only try to always sincerely pray from my whole heart, and not allow a single drop of hypocrisy in my relationship with God and with people.” Where there is directness in these relationships, there is the light of Christ, there is revealed the miracle of the love of God, there are straightened those souls bent to the earth by sin.
The woman, receiving the gift of healing, thanks the Lord, and all the people marvel at what the Lord has done. Man, having received healing by the mercy of God, cannot but thank God. It is natural for him, and it is a sign of his healing, because no one is able to bring praise to the Lord until his ailing soul has been healed. The grace of Christ can straighten everything that sin has twisted in our lives.