Listening for God: The Eagle and the Bent Woman (Lk 13)

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“Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 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. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.” (Luke 13:10–13 NRSV)

The Eagle

A man found an eagle’s egg and put it in a nest of a barnyard hen. The eaglet hatched with the brood of chicks and grew up with them. All his life the eagle did what the barnyard chicks did, thinking he was a barnyard chicken. He scratched the earth for worms and insects. He clucked and cackled. And he would thrash his wings and fly a few feet into the air.

 Years passed and the eagle grew very old. One day he saw a magnificent bird above him in the cloudless sky. It glided in graceful majesty among the powerful wind currents, with scarcely a beat on his strong golden wings. The old eagle looked up in awe. “Who’s that?” he asked. “That’s the eagle, the king of the birds,” said his neighbour. “He belongs to the sky. We belong to the earth – we’re chickens.” So the eagle lived and died a chicken, for that’s what he thought he was (Story by Anthony de Mello).

What is significant about this story – besides that fact that if you’re a chicken you might be slightly insulted?

The eagle is bound up in an identity that is not his own. He is living out a life that doesn’t actually reflect the nature of who he really is. The eagle is unfree and unable to live into who he really is meant to be.

The Golden Eagle who is seen flying high above the earth might represent God, whose perspective is high above our own. Who truly “sees” where we only think we see. The presence of the Golden Eagle offers a crack or crevice in the earth bound eagle’s perspective that was until then oblivious to his situation. It is like a flash of light that speaks to the inward parts of his being. The presence of the Golden Eagle raises more questions than answers for his fellow companion. The tragic moment in this story is when the eagle rather listens to the chickens surrounding him, rather than the curiosity and promptings of his own heart.

In this story, the eagle is bound to the earth because he listens to the voices around him and accepts that their reasoning, their perspective, their answers, their laws are right. Because he is fixed on what they say, he is unable to truly “see.”

The Bent Woman – Why is this a helpful story for thinking about freedom?

The story of the bent woman is a story that is very similar to the story of the eagle because she too was bound up, and there are nay-saying “chickens” who wish to keep her bound up and unfree in her situation.

She is bound up with the reputation of being a sickly and crippled.

She is bound up with the emotional baggage that comes along with being someone who is mistreated and misunderstood for most of her life.

She is bound up with being thought of as a sinner as was true in those days for people who had infirmities. Jesus says “You’re set free from your ailment.”

She is bound up as someone who couldn’t take care of herself. Maybe people saw her as always looking for a handout, always needing some help, always being seen as someone who was a taker and not a giver.

Whatever the things she carried with her she was literally doubled over.

She was someone who was laid bare before her whole community, noticeably disadvantaged, and accustomed to being a person who was physically in a subservient position, rather than having the dignity to make eye contact with others.

It is only Jesus who truly “sees” her for who she is.

For this woman who is unfree, it is the presence of Jesus in the synagogue that morning that creates a crevice of hope in her life. Jesus is the moment of grace for her.

And as the story goes: Jesus not only sees her, but he lays hands on her and, liberates her. Unbinds her from, heals her, unloads the weight that bends her over.

In a moment she is shown to be her true self, no longer any of those things that people put on her, no longer bound to a false identity.

She is a child of God and that’s how Jesus treats here.

What doubles us over? Chickens and the crowd

But there are some chickens in the crowd and they are unhappy about seeing this woman made free. There are some people who are always unhappy about other people being made free and quite frankly there are some people who themselves never really want to be free, even when they say they do.

It is part of our rivalry with each other, that is why we want to keep some people in their place. It’s the crab bucket syndrome where the crab that tries to get out of the bucket is always being pulled back down into the bucket by the other crabs.

The pharisee, in keeping up his role as the chicken in the barnyard, is unable to rejoice in the freedom and healing of this woman because his view of God is too restrictive.

God is always bigger than the boxes we build for God, so do not waste too much time protecting the boxes. -Richard Rohr

His speech about sabbath is trying to protect certain boxes about what is appropriate and right. But before we demonize him too much, we need to recognize we all have those things, those moments where we get tangled up in too much law and not enough grace and freedom.

I mean, in a way – he is right. What Jesus was doing was is actually stretching the law, he is revealing that God’s work is about human dignity and liberation. And in fact, that’s exactly the true meaning and heart of sabbath.

This leader is someone who cares deeply about things being done right, handled properly, following the rules.

Maybe we don’t get all hung up on Sabbath – maybe we should a little more?!, but maybe our issue is a political stance that is deeply engrained, or maybe it’s refusing to eat anything that’s not local or organic, or maybe it is how we recycle, or it could be gun issues, or maybe it’s marriage equality, or maybe it has something to do with gender roles, or how we think about and interact with people who are poor, maybe it is just about how view people who believe differently than us, maybe it’s how we raise our kids. Whatever our issue is, we have boxes that we really don’t want anybody, whether it’s Jesus, or just a friend messing with.

But the real problem is that Jesus reveals that these “boxes” that we hold onto can actually come to a point where they have the consequence of denying freedom and human dignity to others.

And what this reveals is that while this guy is the leader of the synagogue, someone whose been in church his whole life, he too is bound up and unfree. He is blind and lives an illusion. This is why Jesus calls him a hypocrite. That means a person who lives an illusion, someone who lives a double-standard. The pharisee in the gospel story, and the chickens in our opening story both need to be healed, they both need to be liberated from their bound-up perspectives.

Are we able to Stand Upright and soar?

So what restricts us? What are we bound too? When the crack or crevice of Christ’s light shines on us what is our response? Whose voice do we listen for when it comes to discernment and guidance?

The loads we carry on our backs that keep us bound and unfree are either of our own choices or the choices of others, and often it’s not real clear cut where the lines are on this.

Jesus is able to unbind the woman who is bent. But the man chooses to remain within the illusion of his own world and listens to the wrong voices, he refuses his own freedom.

What both stories reveal is that you don’t actually have to carry those loads that have been heaped upon you.

You can choose to remain bound up and unfree like the chickens and the leader of the synagogue if you want to. But you can be free to soar like the eagle. You can be free to stand up straight and experience your own God-given self-worth. Jesus desires to heal you of the loads you carry and bring you back into the full dignity of who you are as children of God.

The point of both stories is that “We are better than we know” and that God wishes to see us soar like the Golden Eagle and the bent woman.

Will we choose to listen to the voices of the chickens in the barnyard or the truly liberating voice of Jesus?