The doctors had diagnosed my friend Earl with pancreatic cancer. They gave him just a few months, maybe just a few weeks, to live. So I drove from St. Louis to Alabama to spend some time with him and to say a final goodbye. We sat around talking for most of a day. Finally, it was time for me to begin the trek back home.
I looked over my shoulder as I walked from his back door to my car. He stood on the stoop, holding the door ajar, smiled and waved. Our eyes met. In that look we silently acknowledged that we would not see each other again on this earth.
Had my friend received a miraculous cure, I would have been delighted for him and happy for me. I loved that man. I still do. Given how many people ask me to pray for a loved one’s healing or for recovery from addiction or for relief from chronic pain, my sense is that my joyful reaction to somebody getting a break is pretty common.
So I’m taken aback by the story of Jesus and the bent-over woman. (Luke 13:10-17) Jesus is teaching in the synagogue. He noticed a woman suffering from a condition that prevented her from standing up straight. So, being all Jesus-y and everything, he calls her over and heals her.
That’s when things started to go downhill. She was happy as a clam. The leaders of that congregation, not so much. They bitterly criticized Jesus for healing on the Sabbath.
Some readers will interpret their reaction as an example of callous legalism. From this perspective, those leaders are more concerned with following the rules—the rabbinic amplifications of the Sabbath commandment—than they are with promoting the wholeness and well-being of another human being.
This line of interpretation can lead to fruitful discussion. But Jesus’s own words and the woman’s actions are leading me in a different direction. After healing the woman, Jesus says, “Woman, you are set free.” Then, the woman stood up straight and began praising God.
In other words, Jesus’s healing was an act of liberation. And that woman claimed her own freedom. She was in the synagogue and could worship God just like everybody else.
Apparently, claiming your freedom will threaten and enrage some people.
Survivors of abusive relationships can tell you this. Their abusers used the threat of verbal and physical violence to coerce submissiveness. It takes courage for survivors to draw boundaries. To claim their own dignity and worth. To exercise the freedom that makes a human being a human being.
And that is what Jesus came to do. To fully restore our humanity. To set the captive free. He described freedom in his most famous moral formula. The Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In other words, recognize in other people the same humanity—the same freedom to choose—that you claim for yourself.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant put it this way. Treat every human being—including yourself—as an end in themselves and never as a means only. Nobody is just a tool for you to use. An object to be consumed and then discarded. Every human being has inherent, infinite worth.
The problem is that the world doesn’t operate this way. Face it, Jesus would never have to give us the Golden Rule if everybody already followed it. Instead, some people accumulate privilege, wealth, and power at the expense of the freedom and dignity others.
When bent-over women—or any economically, socially, or politically disadvantaged persons—draw their own boundaries, those who have been profiting from their diminished status will be threatened and grow enraged.
For instance, chattel slavery ended in the United States in 1865 with the defeat of the Confederacy. In that same year the KKK was established by former Confederate army officers. By 1867, chapters of the Klan could be found throughout the Deep South.
Their purpose was to maintain the subordination of now-liberated blacks. Lacking the institution of slavery as a means, they employed terror and violence. Contemporary white supremacists are heirs of this dehumanizing tradition.
When he emerged from prison, Nelson Mandela committed himself to a mind-boggling, holy goal. He realized that each of us will be truly free only when everyone is free. So, he set out to liberate not only the oppressed, but also the oppressor. To liberate them from their blindness to the humanity of others.
You see, our humanity is bound up not only with our ability to set our own boundaries and to make our own choices. Our humanity is fully actualized only when we recognize that same freedom, that same dignity, in everyone else.
In order to claim our own freedom, we must insist upon freedom for everyone.