Eighteen years. For 18 years the woman has not been able to stand up straight. For 18 years she has been hunched over, her back so bent that all she can see is the ground around her.
For 18 years she has not seen the sun or the moon without contorting her entire body. She has not looked a single person in the eye. She has not seen a smile light up a face.
She hasn’t see the beauty of the tops of trees reaching toward the sky, or bursting with flowers or fruit. She hasn’t seen birds flying overhead or children running around with laughter.
There is so much she has not seen, so much that she has missed.
In many ways her world has shrunk to the circle of earth immediately in front of her. She sees the sandals and feet of people who hurry by, the hoofs of horses and donkeys. She sees the trash that people throw on the streets, and sometimes feels like she has also been discarded.
Just because she can’t stand up and look around doesn’t mean she is unaware of what is happening around her. She can hear the remarks that people mutter as they pass by her. She knows she is an object of ridicule, that some even speculate on what great sin she must have committed for her body to be so twisted.
She can’t remember the last time anyone spoke to her with kindness or touched her, except when they’ve pushed her aside as she shuffles down the road.
Her stooped posture has left her isolated and lonely. It has also made her weary. Her back aches all the time. She can’t remember the last time she has felt good or well or happy.
On this day she decides to go to the synagogue. She sneaks in the back where she can remain unseen. She is well aware that she is an affront to many of the people gathered there, who see her as a visible reminder of how God punishes those who sin, even though she has no idea of what sin she has committed that merits such punishment.
She has never seen the face of the rabbi, but she knows the voices of the leaders of the congregation, all male, of course. On this day there is a new voice, one that she doesn’t recognize. It is a strong voice, at the same time both gentle and commanding. She wonders what the face of the man with this voice looks like.
“What is the kingdom of heaven like?” he asks.
Suddenly she is aware of a change in the atmosphere of the room. It has fallen silent, and she can sense that people are looking around, puzzled and confused.
The man with the gentle voice is calling someone forward, an unusual event in the midst of teaching.
Then she becomes aware that she is the one the man is calling. He wants her to come to the front of the room.
She tries to shrink even further into herself. If she could run, she would be out the door. The last thing she wants is to be the focus of attention.
But even as she tries to become invisible, she is drawn by the power of that voice.
Slowly she shuffles forward, glad that she can not see the stares she feels on her, listening to the murmurings and mutterings of the people in the congregation. She feels sure that this man is going to hold her up as an example of what happens to those who sin.
Finally, she reaches the front and stands before the man who has called her. She looks at his feet and braces herself for the haranguing condemnation she knows is coming.
But instead that gentle, but commanding voice says, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” Before she can figure out what that means he lays his hands on her shoulders, the first loving touch she has felt in years.
Immediately, without even realizing it, she stands up straight. Eighteen years worth of aches and pains and burdens are gone. For the first time in 18 years she can look a person in the eyes. The face she sees is so full of love and care and concern that all she can do is shout, praising God.
She feels the excited energy in the room, that those who once ridiculed her are now in awe of what has happened.
And then a voice cuts through the excited chatter, a voice she recognizes, the leader of the congregation.
He is not amazed or impressed by what has just happened. Instead, he sounds angry, and she can see his anger in his face.
“There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath.”
But Jesus answers him, and this time his voice is not gentle.
“You hypocrites!” he shouts. “Don’t you give water to your animals on the Sabbath? And shouldn’t this woman, a daughter of Abraham, be set free from bondage on the sabbath?”
With that, the leaders are put to shame, and the people rejoiced at the miracle, as the woman stood straight, free of her burdens and shame, and looked around with delight.
This is what the kingdom of heaven is like.