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The healing of the bent-over woman is not just another miracle. Luke has been silent about miracles since 11:14 and the Beelzebub controversy. He has not included a detailed miracle report since 9:37-43. In the meantime he has called for repentance. This miracle repeats work Jesus did earlier in his ministry (4:31-41; 6:6-11). It is a "mirror" miracle, for it repeats earlier work in the hope that perhaps Jesus' warnings have been heeded. In addition, the discussion of conflict with Satan is continued in verse 16, as is the theme of God's compassion. In many ways this scene and another like it in 14:1-6 summarize the reaction to Jesus' ministry. Since the account is unique to Luke, we can assume it is particularly important.
Once again Jesus is in a synagogue teaching. This is the last time in Luke that Jesus appears in a synagogue. As he is teaching, a woman possessed by a spirit for eighteen years is in the audience. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. The mention of the spirit is important, because the woman's opponent is not merely mortality or the natural process of aging but a spiritual agent. The age of her condition indicates how serious it is. This is not a cramp; it is an ongoing condition. Considered medically, the condition has been interpreted as a type of bone fusion or muscular paralysis (Wilkinson 1977:195-205). Unable to stand, the woman pathetically pictures the crippling effect that evil can have on us.
Jesus takes the initiative—a significant act in a culture that tended to shun women (see discussion of 8:1-3). He shows his authority when he declares, "Woman, you are set free from your infirmity." With the laying on of hands, her back is made straight and she praises God. For the first time in almost two decades she can stand up straight. She has been released and is no longer in bondage. Her praise confesses that reality.
Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue ruler speaks to the crowd. Rather than address Jesus directly, he complains to the people, "There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath." He ignores the liberation of this woman from her pain. He ignores the release of power through Jesus that has allowed this to take place. He gives no indication of compassion or of joy that God has worked.
This is too much, so Jesus responds: "You hypocrites! Doesn't each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?" It is a stinging rebuke, as well as an indication that the leadership has failed to heed any of Jesus' calls to repentance. They have learned no lessons.
Sabbath activity such as Jesus describes was often allowed. The Mishna lists rules allowing cattle to drink, along with the "forty less one" practices that were prohibited on the Sabbath (m. Sabbat 7:2; 5:1-4; 15:1-2; m. `Erubin 2:1-4). In contrast, at Qumran such aid was often denied to animals (Cairo Damascus Document 11:13-14). Jesus' point is simple: if animals can receive basic care on the sabbath, how much more human beings, especially a woman of promise, a child of Abraham! In effect, Jesus says, what more appropriate day to release her than the sabbath? What better day to reveal Satan's impotence? The synagogue leader's and Jesus' views could not be more opposed. The great division Jesus predicted is evidenced here.
Luke summarizes by noting that Jesus' opponents were put to shame by his words, at least in the eyes of the people, who were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing. Thus the passage ends by noting the choice people must make about Jesus. Will we side with the leaders or react with the people? Jesus' exercise of power and compassion requires that we choose sides. Do not ignore the sign of the times. Will you choose Jesus or take the view that Jesus acts at the wrong time and in the wrong place?