There are several vantage points from which to view the scene in today’s Gospel (Luke 13:10-17). The first is through the eyes of the temple authorities, those who are charged with maintaining order and the good functioning of society. Theirs is an important job, have no doubt. They ensure the well-being of the whole. They dole out favor at specific times and in reasonable doses. They preserve standards and expectations so that the world can turn in predictable ways.
The second vantage point is from a ninety degree angle, looking up. It is the view of a woman who is bent over and quite unable to stand up straight, who has been stooped for years by a burden left unidentified. She is accustomed to seeing the world as one who has been doubled over by its weight. There is no indication that she has any expectation that she will ever be able to straighten her back and raise her eyes to the sun.
And then there is the third vantage point. It is the outlook of the one who enters the scene from elsewhere, from a realm that is governed by another set of rules entirely, sent from One whose standards and expectations are very different from our own. He looks at this scene, and he knows immediately what must be done. Jesus calls out to the woman. He lays his hands upon her and says, “Be well and be free.”
How do the people around Jesus react to his words and actions? Some are filled with hope; some are indignant. Some beam, while others bristle. But Jesus recognizes that all who witness these things—the temple authorities, the bent woman, the crowd—all are in bondage. The only difference between them is that those who hope realize their bondage and see freedom in Jesus’ actions, while those who fume and bluster fail even to recognize that they, too, are in chains.
Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who served New York City for twelve years in the 1930s and 40s, had a habit of upending people’s expectations.[i] He was barely five feet tall and was nicknamed “Little Flower,” but when he entered a room with his trademark carnation in his lapel, everyone noticed. Tiny LaGuardia would raid speakeasies alongside the police. He’d treat entire orphanages to Major League baseball games.
One dark winter’s night in the middle of the Great Depression, the mayor showed up unannounced at night court in a bad part of town. He relieved the magistrate and took the bench himself, banging the gavel with abandon. Before long, an elderly, stooped woman showed up on the docket, charged with stealing food from a corner grocery. The woman explained that her daughter’s husband had deserted the family, leaving grandchildren who were destitute and hungry. The old woman had stolen bread to feed her family, but the grocer would not drop the charges. “This is a bad neighborhood, Your Honor,” he told the mayor, “She’s got to be punished to teach other people around here a lesson.”
Mayor LaGuardia paused in thought, then sighed and said to the defendant, “I’ve got to punish you. The law makes no exceptions—ten dollars or ten days in jail.”
A hush fell across the courtroom as Mayor LaGuardia sentenced this ragged, frail woman to incarceration (since she hadn’t a dime to pay the fine). She was condemned, and rightly so according to the ways of the world. But then Fiorello LaGuardia took his own billfold from his coat pocket and said, “Here is the ten dollar fine, which I now remit; and furthermore I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat. Mr. Bailiff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant.”
Brennan Manning, who tells this story, goes on to say, “The following day the New York City newspapers reported that $47.50 was turned over to a bewildered old lady who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren, fifty cents of that amount being contributed by the red-faced grocery store owner.”
How do we respond to this story? Does it fill us with hope, or are we indignant? Do we beam, or do we bristle, red-faced like the grocer? Our response depends upon the vantage point from which we view the scene. And either emotional response reveals that we, too, are in bondage.
Much of the time in our world, we are the ones with the vested interest in maintaining standards, of ensuring the way the world turns. We are the temple authorities; we are the grocer. And the world spins on its axis most smoothly when our expectations of the way things should work are preserved. It is best, we think, when the wicked are punished, and the broken-backed stay conveniently out of sight, when even our own internal struggles are suppressed far beneath the surface and kept from the light of day and from the view of other people.
It is not that we’re against grace. But sometimes we prefer that it be dosed out in manageable and reasonable bits, in appropriate places and at appropriate times. And yet, we fail to see, when we operate in this mode, that our very outlook is a kind of bondage all its own. It is a bondage that denies our solidarity with others of God’s children. It fails to see that the same image of God exists in them as in us. It fails to recognize how desperately we are in need of grace.
It does these things, that is, right up until some crushing blow breaks us. The blow can come in innumerable ways. There is illness; there is family debacle; there is financial disaster; there is emotional or mental breakdown. Some broken backs are more noticeable than others, but for any who cannot raise their eyes to the sun, the effect is the same. The bend in our backs can sap our hope. It can keep our eyes cast downward. That’s the more obvious form of bondage.
Where, then, is freedom? To see that, we have to remember the third vantage point from the Gospel story. On the Sabbath day, Jesus walks into the midst of the synagogue. He sees the bent woman who is without hope. He sees the temple authorities, whose backs are so bowed up that they don’t realize they, too, are in bondage.
And with a view that takes in both, Jesus upends the expectations of both. He denies the propriety of the authorities, and he denies the hopelessness of the woman. Like Fiorello LaGuardia marching in and taking over the night court, Jesus disregards all the rules, and he reaches out to heal her. His touch restores her hope, her dignity, her acceptance. It reminds her that she is beloved, and she stands up straight.
God’s grace enters into our world and operates by God’s rules rather than our own, and it will not be boxed in. Grace won’t observe our expectations or preserve our vested interests. Rather than ensure the earth’s smooth spinning, grace will rock the world on its axis. Grace will seek out—at any time, in any place, under any circumstance—those whose backs the world has broken. Grace will free all from bondage. And thank God it will, since those in bondage are us.
When we are confronted face-to-face with grace, we have two options. We can bristle or we can beam. We can get red-faced in indignation and anger, or we can stand tall with hope. We can keep the world spinning smoothly—as it grinding wheels crush so many in its path—or we can become the one who reaches out a healing hand, who raises up the broken-backed, no matter what the time or circumstance. In short, we can remain in chains, or we can be freed from bondage.
The ending of Brennan Manning’s story about Fiorello LaGuardia is the best part. He reveals the final scene in the courtroom by saying, “Some seventy petty criminals, people with traffic violations, and New York City policemen, each of whom had just paid fifty cents for the privilege of doing so, gave the mayor a standing ovation.”
Luke’s Gospel tells us, “And the entire crowd rejoiced at all the wonderful things Jesus was doing.”
So, how do we see this story? It depends upon our vantage point. Who will be set free from bondage on this very Sabbath day?”