Weekly Sermon (2)

Sermon – August 21, 2022

‘…her name, was Noya’

August 21, 2022

Scripture: Based very imaginatively on Luke 13:10-17

Slowly and carefully the ‘bent old woman’ picked her way over the very familiar paths towards the Temple across town.  She had left early today, partly in order to avoid the teasing and taunting of the local teenage bullies who made it their sport to bother and harass her.  They knew she could not defend herself because she could not even look up to see who it was that was bothering her, so deformed had her injury rendered her.  She was an easy target for mean-spirited young boys out to prove themselves in the presence of their peers.  But she also had another thing on her mind this morning as she made her way quietly through the still morning air.  For she had heard that the Rabbi named Jesus was coming to speak at their Sabbath services.  The old woman had heard widely varying opinions of just who this teacher actually was.  Some held out the possibility that since he appeared so close to God that perhaps he might even be the long-awaited Messiah, while others scoffed at the notion, feeling that instead he was just an upstart rabble rouser from Nazareth who was just trying to stir up trouble in the region.

         Netanel, the lead Rabbi in charge of the Temple, was of the latter opinion and had said so numerous times in the past.  However he was not one to dismiss someone without at least hearing him out and so he had sent word inviting the Nazarene to come and speak at the weekly service and today was the day.  And as Netanel opened the Temple doors in order to begin to prepare for the morning service he noticed the ‘bent old woman’ off in the distance, slowly making her way towards the Temple.  A tinge of sadness filled him momentarily as he looked at the pitiful figure laboriously picking her way, cane in hand, broken in spirit, poor and seriously unkempt.  It had not always been this way however…in fact there was a time when things were very different…that however, was before the horrible ‘accident’.

         Years before, Netanel had loved this woman deeply. Back in the age of youthful innocence when they had grown up across the street from each other and spent their youth playing together in the neighborhood.  People always smiled when they saw Netanel and Noya together for they seemed so happy and full of joy.  Their laughter drifted easily through the morning air and into the neighboring house windows bringing a lightness of spirit to those who heard it and a sense that indeed there was reason to push on and enjoy the new day.  But that was when things were different…before the ‘accident’ made everything…and everyone…different.

         Noya, as the ‘bent old woman’ was originally named and known, was the joy of her parent’s life.  Her father Dov, and her mother Hena had tried for years to start a family but it just didn’t seem as though it was meant to be.  The two loved each other and so wanted to share their love with a child of their own but just could not seem to conceive and so finally were forced to concede that they were perhaps supposed to be grandparents for all the children of the neighborhood instead. 

Dov and Hena were late middle aged when a new Rabbi moved in across the street.  Chayyim and his wife Devorah had a young son Netanel whom they cherished and adored, and as new young parents they welcomed the assistance of the older couple next door, particularly as Chayyim was so busy with his duties over at the Temple.  And in short order the two families became close friends, each giving something that was needed to the other.  There was a deeper tie than just being neighbors and friends however as Chayyim and Devorah had known hardship and heartbreak themselves as well.  Netanel was not their first-born.  He had had an older sister who was born some years before him but who had not survived her first year.  Some strange affliction had struck the region and a number of children had become very sick very quickly.  And while Chayyim and Devorah had prayed earnestly and implored God to spare their little daughter it was just not meant to be.  Broken and so deeply sorrowful they had laid their precious little girl to rest.

For her part, and as one would expect, Devorah was inconsolable, while Chayyim kept searching his soul for some reason that such calamity had been visited upon them.  He immersed himself deeply into his rabbinical studies searching for some understanding, some possible reason other than the commonly held notion that such things were often a sign of God’s displeasure.

Shortly afterwards however, Devorah conceived once more and when their young son was born they found hope and the beginnings of joy in their hearts once again.  They named their son Netanel or ‘Gift of God’ and set about trying once again to find joy and new meaning in life together as a family.  Chayyim was so thankful and felt so relieved of his burdensome fears of personal responsibility for the loss of their daughter that he immediately dedicated his young son to God and vowed that he would do all in his power to see that the young boy grew up in the service of the Lord. Determined however to avoid further heartbreak, they moved their young family out of the area, relocating to the small town in which Chayyim was offered the position of lead Rabbi.  And so the love and support their new neighbors offered them was welcome indeed and quickly they adopted the older couple as Saba and Savta, or grandma and grandpa, teaching their young son to respect them as though they were their own parents.  As such, life was beginning to offer hope to both of the couples as they found friendship and comfort in each other’s company.

However when Dov’s wife Hena suddenly became pregnant, the older couple’s previous sadness melted completely away as they waited anxiously for their joy and celebrating to be complete.  And with time Hena gave birth to a beautiful baby girl.  Overjoyed, her father Dov could have sworn he saw a smile on the young child’s face when she was just born and so he named her Noya, or “Divine Beauty”.

And so it looked as though God had smiled down upon the two families who now shared much more as they raised their two young children together.  For thirteen years the families shared almost everything, their homes and hearts open to one another as they truly felt as though they were one family, giving Noya and Netanel a wonderful freedom and foundation upon which to grow and to blossom into responsible and loving children.

And then tragedy struck again as Noya’s mother Hena became terribly sick and died very suddenly.  Both families were thrown into turmoil as they searched for a way through the latest chapter of what had begun to seem like a never-ending story of bitterness and regret.  Noya had just turned thirteen when it happened and her world quickly fell apart.  Deeply saddened and depressed she looked to her father for support and comfort.  But Dov was absolutely unable to reach out to, or to help his young daughter so deep was his own sorrow.  He quickly became embittered, lashing out at the God he felt had just teased him into thinking that life could ever be happy and blessed.  Turning to drink he drowned his sorrows in a cascade of cheap wine, shutting himself off from the world and all but ignoring his young daughter.

And somehow, in a very twisted way he even began to resent Noya who had grown up looking like the mirror image of her mother.  He just could not bear to look at her and became abusive and intolerant of the young child both emotionally as well as physically.  The wine became Dov’s sole comfort and company as he more frequently lashed out before passing out in a heap on the floor, dirty and pathetic in his misery.  Noya was beside herself as she sought to help her father while at the same time trying to avoid his repeated blows and wild mood swings.

And then it happened…some said it must have been an accident…but only Noya and her father knew the truth.  Finding her father passed out on the floor one morning she tried to help him get to his feet so she could lead him once more over to his bed.  As he stood erect suddenly an unspeakable rage came over him and cursing loudly he grabbed his daughter by the hair and swung her around, throwing her fully across the room and breaking her back as she landed on the stone threshold of the house.

Immediately the old man seemed to come to his senses as he rushed over to try and help his young daughter.  Her screams of pain had brought their neighbor Devorah running, and together they carefully lifted the young girl up and placed her on her own bed…Dov sobbing and saying, “I’m sorry”, over and over again while Noya tearfully tried to tell him that it was alright and that it was her own fault.  But the damage to the young girl’s spine was so severe that there was nothing they could do and for weeks she just lay in bed, curled up into a fetal position, moaning and sobbing in pain.

For their part, Chayyim and Devorah did all they could to help their friend Dov and his young daughter.  But something had changed profoundly.  It seemed that, as Noya healed, Dov became even more despondent.  He still drank far too heavily, now so depressed at the course of events that had made his life such a totally tragic story.  And then, when Noya finally was able to get out of bed, his depression grew even deeper as he realized that her injury had healed in such a way that the young girl would never stand up straight again.  Bent almost double at the waist Noya could only shuffle forward, looking straight down at the ground.  However, standing that way was exhausting for the girl and so she was forced to start using a short cane to enable her to walk farther than just a short distance.

Dov himself began to wither away…he could not bear to watch his daughter struggle so…a constant reminder of his own weakness and failing as a father and as a man.  And even though his friends still tried to reach out and help him he only grew more despondent and depressed, losing the desire to carry on.  And so it was that one day Noya woke up to find herself  all alone in the house.  Her father had just decided to walk away from it all, away from Noya, away from Chayyim and Devorah, and away from the community entirely, as he sought to just lose himself and end his life in the unforgiving heat and dryness of the desert.  Noya blamed herself and was consumed by grief, so much so that she did not even leave the house for several days.  She knew her father was gone and would never return and somehow she felt that if she had just not tried to help him up that one last time that none of this would have happened.  Somehow she became convinced that the great joy she had brought into her parent’s lives was now gone entirely because of her inability to keep it all together.

And so, when she painfully made her way over to Devorah’s house later on that week to share her latest misfortune, it was far too late for anyone to go out searching for Dov in the desert.  Somehow everyone sensed that the old man with the long beard and angry eyes no longer wanted to live…and somehow, even though it was hard on Noya, they also felt she would be better off without him.  No one could know the depth of sadness and sorrow that had engulfed the little girl and her father…no one would probably ever know.

Growing ever more depressed and reclusive, Noya turned inward, shutting herself off as much as possible from everyone and everything.  She began to age much more quickly than her young years deserved, broken and battered as she was, both within and without.  And eventually even Devorah and Chayyim began to avoid her as they were scared to death of bringing any further tragedy into their own lives. That stubborn belief that hardship or trouble was a sign of God’s displeasure still simmered beneath the surface of the whole town’s consciousness and as a result Noya was pushed away, her story far too depressing for people to dwell upon. Noya began to lose her sense of self as she was abandoned and left all alone.  In time she truly became the ‘bent old woman’ as so many young boys mercilessly teased her.  And eventually even the adults in town forgot much of her story as the older folks passed on and the younger folks only ever knew or heard her referred to simply as the ‘bent old woman’.  Truly the beautiful and joy-filled girl Noya was gone…the happiness and joy of her youth…the deepest of friendships with Netanel…the comfort of family and friends and the support of her community were all gone…and seemingly forever.  Noya had become the ‘bent old woman’.

Now, some eighteen long years later, convinced of her own worthlessness and inability to bring anything of any worth to anybody, the ‘bent old woman’ slowly picked her way over towards the Temple.  Her long lost friend and playmate Netanel had indeed grown up to fulfill his father’s wishes.  As a devout student of the Law, Netanel had worked hard and excelled in all his studies.  He was a natural leader and so it was no surprise that when his father Chayyim decided to retire that his son should succeed him as head Rabbi. He was so proud of the day when he was able to hand over the keys to the Temple to his son…some six months or so before he too went on to be with the ancestors. 

Netanel was a very conservative Rabbi and felt that the Law was absolutely critical in maintaining order and stability within society. And he cherished the Sabbath, rightly teaching that God had gifted the Hebrew people with a day of rest to remind them all of their ancient captivity in Egypt when they had been forced to work seven days a week for years on end.  For Netanel there was nothing more sacred than the Law and nothing to be honored or revered more deeply than the Sabbath.

And so, as the ‘bent old woman’ made her way slowly over towards the Temple steps, Netanel was inside, making preparations for worship as he fretted over the wisdom of his decision to welcome this Rabbi named Jesus whom he had heard was a devout Jew, but on occasion somewhat less than respectful of the Sabbath.  He hoped the visiting Rabbi would behave, but he braced himself for confrontation just in case.

Pushing his concerns out of his mind Netanel watched as the Temple filled up with worshipers. Far more than usual came out as they all had heard that Jesus was coming to speak.  And when the Rabbi began to speak Netanel was even more comforted, as the young rabbi spoke words of love and compassion, opening up all their hearts and minds to the goodness and grace of God.  Everyone seemed hungry for every word Jesus spoke as though they were drinking from some long lost fountain of grace. At first, Netanel was a bit jealous of the other Rabbi’s style and delivery, but as Jesus continued to speak even he began to enjoy this renewed call to find and to reveal the promised kingdom of God right there in their midst.

As the services drew to a close, everyone stood as one to applaud the newcomer, shouting praise and glory to God for this wondrous gift in the form of this stunning new prophet and teacher. And as the applause quieted down Jesus motioned for them all to sit back down. There was an air of quiet expectancy in the room, for everyone knew that there had been amazing stories passed along of this man’s ability to do wondrous works that only a man of God could perform. And as Jesus stood there quietly it seemed as if he was looking for someone.  Scanning from right to left he even moved a bit in order to see everyone who was there.  And then he spoke three words.  Three words that made no sense to anyone except for two of them who were there in the congregation.  Jesus said simply, “Noya, come here”.

For her part the words were like an electric shock that raced through the body of the ‘bent old woman’.  No one had called her by her given name for eighteen years. In fact, very few ever knew or remembered that that was in fact the old woman’s name.  Natanel’s heart jumped as well, as he painfully recalled the various tragedies that had so convulsed his own young life.  And while he hoped that Jesus could do something for Noya, he was deathly afraid that the Rabbi might break the Sabbath Law…putting him into the greatest of conflicts within.

At first, the ‘bent old woman’ could not respond.  Hoping that Jesus was in fact calling her, but too afraid to believe that it was really true she just sat there looking down at the floor as she had done for so long.  But no one else moved, no one else stirred, and the room seemed to grow even more tense as everyone waited to see just what Jesus was up to and just who this person named ‘Noya’ might be.

And then everyone gasped as the ‘bent old woman’ slowly and painfully stood to her feet.  Shuffling forward she made her way towards the front of the Temple, her cane’s tap-tapping the only sound in the room.  Some were fascinated by the development, anxiously waiting to see what Jesus might do for the old woman.  Others however turned away and averted their eyes.  They were the ones who over the years had so mercilessly teased and abused the old woman, making her the object of their perverse and heartless sport.

After what seemed like an eternity, the ‘bent old woman’ made it down to the front where she remained bent over in front of Jesus.  The air was absolutely charged as the crowd waited to see what would happen next.  Looking down at her Jesus said softly, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”  And then reaching over he laid his hands upon her head and spine.  Almost immediately Noya stood up straight and tall, her previous affliction completely gone and her body miraculously transformed into health and beauty right before their eyes.  Everyone was astounded as the woman named Noya shouted and smiled, dancing around and giving praise to God.  Running up to Jesus she enveloped him in a huge embrace as the congregation began once again to applaud at the amazing thing they had just witnessed.  In fact Noya’s praise and the crowd’s joy stopped only when Netanel stood suddenly and thundered down at them, seeming to direct his words to Noya herself saying, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day!”

Everyone was stunned and shocked at the Temple leader’s response, but sobered as well, for they knew that Jesus had broken the Law by his actions.  And as happy as they were at the ‘bent old woman’s’ seeming good fortune, they knew that this was a moment to watch.  After a few moments’ silence, Jesus spoke up saying to Netanel, “My friend, you are being a hypocrite!  Does not each one of you here untie his ox or his donkey from the manger on the Sabbath in order to lead it away and give it water?  And ought not this woman, who is every bit as much as you a daughter of Abraham, whom the accuser has held bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this terrible bondage on the Sabbath day?”

Netanel and all the other leaders in the Temple did not know what to say in response, for Jesus had surely embarrassed them deeply in front of the crowd.  All of them were indignant and upset for Jesus had not only violated the Law but had ridiculed and demeaned them in front of those they were supposed to lead.  All of them except…Netanel…for as much as he felt he had to stand up for the Law and to honor the Sabbath, secretly he was overjoyed for Noya.  Yes, Noya, the same one he had long loved and so remembered as joyful and full of life.  The one who his parents kept reminding him was truly divine and beautiful.  Somewhere deep within the young Rabbi’s heart a flame long silent and long dampened down began to flicker once again as he watched the object of his long-lost affection dancing and praising God in the midst of an adoring crowd as they made their way out of the Temple.

And as they drew close to the rear door suddenly there was a major disturbance.  An old and very scruffy man had run up to Noya and grabbed her around the waist.  No one knew what to make of it, for this old man had long been a fixture on the very outskirts of the town, going through the garbage and begging at the side of the road.  He was extremely old and quite weathered by the sun, his face a mass of wrinkles, his hair almost down to his waist and his beard untrimmed and unkempt as well.  He was known simply as that ‘crazy old man’ by the folks in town and almost everyone feared him for his mean spirit and frequent outbursts of anger directed at whoever was the closest to him.

Most people just dismissed him however, and taught their children to stay away from him.  But now, as it seemed as though he was attacking the one who had just been healed, several of the men stepped forward and attempted to separate him from his vise-like grasp upon Noya.  But Noya seemed unconcerned as she laughed and held on tightly to the strange old man.  And all the people could hear was the old man saying over and over, “I’m so sorry Noya, I’m so sorry”.  But all seemed to be forgiven as Noya joyously held her father even tighter saying, “It’s alright papa, I’m fine now, it’s alright.”

And indeed it was all right once again as the crowd, realizing what had just happened began to rejoice all over again.  And as they made their way down the steps of the Temple, suddenly Noya looked back at Netanel who was still standing in the Temple doorway.  Winking at him the young Rabbi’s heart melted as he knew in his heart of heart’s that there was even more to this story yet to unfold.

And then suddenly his own father came back to mind as he remembered words he had spoken to him when he had first begun his studies.  His father had said to him, “Netanel my son, the Law will stand tall and strong as a cedar of Lebanon forever, but on occasion…even it must bow to compassion, mercy, and love”.  And somehow Netanel knew that all of that was true as he made his way down the steps and over towards the home of his closest neighbors as a child, there to join in with the celebration he knew would continue on for a long, long time.

And so my friends, if you are one who has forgotten who you are, if you are one who has somehow become convinced that what others think of you fully defines who you are, if you have lost all hope and feel fully consumed by, and ‘bent over’ under the weight of all that troubles you in life…then know this…our Lord Jesus is a God of mercy and love, and you are most precious in his sight.  Never doubt for even a second his love for you and his desire to see you joy-filled and free…

…and may you always find the courage and the will to reach out towards him that he might receive you unto himself…for you too are one of his own…


It would be so wrong for me not to thank both David Lose and Linda Fabian Pepe for their insightful commentaries on Texrtweek.com on this week’s scripture reading.  Their words and thoughts laid the groundwork for this story which could never have been written without them.         

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