Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost / Tenth Sunday of Luke, December 8, 2019
Ephesians 4:1-7; Luke 13:10-17
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And there was a woman who had had a spirit of infirmity for eighteen years; she was bent over and could not fully straighten herself. (Luke 13:10-11)
Jesus goes on to heal this woman, and then the ruler of that synagogue complains at Jesus that He had done work on the Sabbath, something that was forbidden to Jews at the time.
It would be easy for us to pass this reading by and just add this to our list of times Jesus healed someone and to the list of times someone complained that He had done this on the Sabbath day.
But I would like to look more closely at this Gospel and see what is going on here, because we will miss it if we just add this to our mental lists, concluding that yes, Jesus heals people, and yes, people sometimes get mad when He does it.
First, look at what St. Luke says about this woman: In our translation (RSV), it says that she had a “spirit of infirmity for eighteen years.” To our modern eyes, that looks like poetic language to say that she had been sick for eighteen years. But listen to another translation: “a woman was there who had been disabled by a spirit for eighteen years” (NET).
Now, that’s something different. Now we’re talking about an actual spirit, another being who is attacking her. It’s not just a poetic way of saying that she had been ill all this time.
And that makes far more sense, given what Jesus says later when He rebukes the ruler of the synagogue: “And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?” (Luke 13:16). Jesus says here that Satan has bound this woman for eighteen years.
I looked in the writings of some of the Church Fathers to see what they say about this, and what I found interpreted this passage the same—this is not metaphorical language. She is actually being assaulted and bound by a demon. Whether it is Satan in particular, taking Jesus’ words literally, or simply the powers of Satan, represented by a particular demon, it’s clear that the Fathers do not read this as a metaphor for ordinary illness.
One of the holy fathers, St. Theophylact of Ohrid, says this: “The woman suffered from this affliction as a result of demonic assault, as the Lord Himself says, This, woman, whom Satan hath bound, lo, these eighteen years. Perhaps God had departed from her on account of certain sins, and as a result Satan was punishing her. For Satan is in part the cause of all the hardships which afflict our bodies, when God on high permits him.”
I mention this to highlight a reality that we modern people tend to gloss over and not pay much attention to: the reality of both angels and demons. To understand what these creatures are, we have to look at the Holy Scriptures. The Bible tells us that God created the heavenly hosts, what we would normally call angels. And it also says that some of the heavenly hosts rebelled against God and thus fell from heaven, that is, they fell from their communion with God and lost their places in His Divine Council. These angels who fell we refer to as demons.
And this is also the origin of paganism, too, for some of these fallen angels began to accept worship from mankind. As the Scripture says, “The gods of the nations are demons” (Psalm 95(96):5).
The Scriptures speak of angels and demons and gods in many places, and nowhere does it ever say that these are just metaphors or made-up stories. The Church Fathers treat them exactly the same way. They don’t even bother saying that they are real, because no one in their times ever taught that they weren’t.
And what is more, these beings were understood to be interacting with the visible world all the time. So it makes total sense to St. Theophylact, when interpreting our passage, to say that “Satan is in part the cause of all the hardships which afflict our bodies.” He does not say this because he is just ignorant of medical science that “we now know” can fully explain all our ailments. It turns out that if you spend enough time around doctors, you will discover that, while medical science can describe many ailments, it cannot always explain the cause.
Furthermore, we as Christians are not materialists. We believe that reality is more than what we can detect with our physical senses. So for us to accept that anything that happens in life is entirely about material causes is essentially to depart from our Christian faith. And even hardcore atheist scientists will say that they see things happening for which there is no apparent material cause.
Now, St. Theophylact does not say that the demons are fully responsible, but rather “in part.” We are not utterly at their mercy. And he also speculates that perhaps God had departed from this woman on account of certain sins, and so then she is left without protection from the demons. So when Jesus encounters her and looses her from the demonic binding, she is healed and whole, given grace from God to protect her from this demonic assault.
This incident is critical to our understanding of what Jesus’ ministry is about. We often see Him healing people, but we perhaps do not always take note that many of these healings are exorcisms. Why would Jesus spend so much time on exorcism? It is because He has come to earth to set things right, since He is the Righteous One.
As we said earlier, many angels fell from God into rebellion, becoming demons. But before that fall, they were part of the heavenly hosts, assisting God in His dominion over the creation. But now these principalities, powers and rulers—as St. Paul calls them in Ephesians 6:12—are abusing the position given them by God. Instead of participating in the life that He gives, they afflict the creation with death and suffering.
So Jesus is sent from God the Father as His emissary to restore God’s kingdom on this earth. And that means He is driving out the rebellious rulers who are harming His creation rather than caring for it. This is why He so often drives out demons. This is not an incidental act. It is core to His mission. He is in the process of setting things right, of restoring God’s kingdom.
It is for this reason that He gave the authority of exorcism to His Apostles and also to the Church, as we can see in the baptismal service. This is not only for the sake of the person being healed but as part of the big picture project, which is to go about driving out demons from the creation and reclaiming it for God.
That is why this Gospel passage ends as it does: “As Jesus said this, all His adversaries were put to shame; and all the people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by Him.” Now, listen closely here. It says that Jesus’ adversaries were put to shame. Note that it does not say adversary but rather adversaries in the plural. But isn’t it just one man, the ruler of the synagogue, who is opposing Jesus here? There is no indication that any other human being was saying anything bad about this. So why the plural?
Adversaries is used because the ruler of the synagogue had teamed up with the demons against Jesus. That’s what St. Luke is saying. And so when Jesus drives this demon away from this woman, healing her and loosing her from being bound, He is proving that the demons are not in charge, that their power is really nothing in comparison with His.
And do you know what the word Satan means in its Hebrew and Aramaic origin? It means adversary. Luke is driving home the point here that this synagogue ruler, by opposing Jesus’s exorcism mission, has joined Team Satan.
So what is our takeaway here? First, this incident is a testament to the spiritual reality that surrounds us and affects us all the time. I am not saying that every time you catch a cold that that means you are being assaulted by demons. But we should be reminded that the purpose of Christ’s coming is not to make people feel better but rather to expel demons and establish the kingdom of God.
Second, what that means is that, if we wish to be part of the kingdom of God—and that is what it means to be saved—then we have to do as He did. We also have to strive against the demonic powers. How do we do that? We purify ourselves with repentance and then keep ourselves pure with vigilance, with good works, with generosity, with sacrifice in worship. These practices, if done with the whole heart in loyalty and faithfulness to God, will keep us in His kingdom and will drive away the dark powers. That is what it means to be the faithful, to be believers.
And finally, we should realize that we have to have help in this warfare against the demons. I am sure that this woman who had been bent over by demonic powers did not want that for herself. And if she had opened herself up to it by some sin, as St. Theophylact speculates, then clearly only God’s grace could help her. We also need help. We are not capable of expelling demonic activity from ourselves by our own power. Only God can do that.
And He has also sent each baptized Christian a guardian angel to accompany him in this life. There is right now a bright, shining angel standing next to you, a member of the heavenly hosts, to ward off demons and to protect you from their influence. But he will not fight against you if you fight against him by welcoming sin into your life. But if you struggle against sin by repenting and keeping vigil over your soul, his flaming sword will turn the demons away from you.
And we also have our patron saints to help us, too, human beings who have been brought into the Divine Council, into the hosts of heaven to take the places of the demons who fell away from it. They, too, keep watch over us and will fight for us against the dragons—the demonic powers—who lurk all around us.
This world has many dimensions that we do not see. And they would be frightening if the Lord opened our eyes fully to their reality. But so long as we remain in Christ, worshiping Christ, loyal and faithful to Christ, repenting whenever we fall away from Christ, then we do not have to be afraid. And there will therefore be rejoicing at the glorious things done in us by the Lord.
To the One sent from God to drive out the demons and establish peace, the Son of God Jesus Christ, with His unoriginate Father and His all-holy, good, and life-giving Spirit, be all glory, honor and worship, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.