February 7, 2010

"Crippled" Woman Bound by Satan for Eighteen Years (Luke 13:16)

We who are called to a ministry in solidarity with people in historically marginalized groups know their/our struggles against the poison of problematic biblical texts. We are acutely aware of potential scriptural minefields. We who are called to preach a prophetic message -- to re-educate ourselves and the larger community and deconstruct what some call biblical texts of terror -- struggle with what always seems to be a hopelessly inadequate amount of space or time:
20 minutes in a pulpit
50 minutes in front of a lecture hall
650 words in a blog post
We who are called, ask, "God, I can expend 650 words in one breath. How do I say what is needed in so few words?"

We do what we can -- and sometimes we skip over those difficult lines of scripture. In the too-short time we have in the pulpit or at the front of the lecture hall, we ask ourselves difficult questions. Do we derail our positive message by bringing up the troubling text; hope people will tune in to a second sermon; or hope to fit it into a later lecture in which we will work on that distressing text?

Can we change the dominant oppressive paradigm if, when all is said and done, we "sort of skip over some of it" in our teaching and preaching?

I recently had the privilege of watching a televised sermon "Healing the Infirmity of Spirit" preached by one of our sister-colleagues Barbara Lundblad, Professor of Preaching at Union Theological Seminary, whose commitment to anti-oppression ministry is deservedly acclaimed. She preached from Luke 13:10-17 -- the story about a woman who had been bent over ("crippled") for eighteen years but who stood up straight when Jesus touched her. Watching the sermon, I admired her homiletic skills -- how she wove commentary about inclusion and accessibility with scriptural phrases to help listeners connect positive contemporary ideas with the text, and how she preached about spiritual rather than physical healing to encourage listeners to disconnect the archaic ideas of disability and miraculous cures.

There is so much that needs explaining about the ways in which disabilities are portrayed in scripture, where they are most often used as symbols to demonstrate miracles -- associating disability with sinfulness, despair, suffering (a good example is the Pool of Bethesda story in John 5:2-14) and with demon possession. In fact, in Lundblad's selected text, Jesus says that he is setting a woman free "whom Satan had bound for eighteen long years," (Luke 13:16). This was obviously not something that Lundblad wanted to include in her disability-affirming sermon -- she didn't bring up the text's Satan-and-disability link.

In a post-sermon interview, when the interviewer asked about her omission, she smiled (a bit ruefully, I thought) and replied, "I think that's a very tough part of the text. I sort of skipped over it, as preachers sometimes do." My heart resonated with her reply. I ask readers not to think that I am, in any way, being negative about Barbara Lundblad or her liberating work, yet when I heard her say that, I felt a pang. I felt that she had, perhaps, cheated the listeners of an opportunity to learn something about the way our Bible portrays people with disabilities.

No, on reflection, what I really felt was that by omitting that "very tough part of the text" she had missed an opportunity for solidarity with people with disabilities whose lives are sill affected by the poisonous bits in the Bible. Because those church-going people who encounter that "bound by Satan" line without having the tools for any sort of critical analysis, may continue to glance at the woman with a disability sitting in the next pew -- and wonder.

(628 words)

1 comment:

Alicia said...

Devorah, thanks for this reflection. I recall watching that sermon at your request and being impressed with Lundblad - and, yes I would agree with you. What message do we send when we chose to ignore tough places in the text that reinforce oppression? A resource for handling tricky and oppressive texts would be invaluable!