Sabbath For Whom?
First Lesson: Isaiah 58:9b-14
Second Lesson: Luke 13:10-17
At first glance the arc of this story seems fairly straightforward and perhaps even familiar. Jesus is in the synagogue on the Sabbath and he again does what he just can’t seem not to do on the Sabbath which is heal someone. He sees a woman who we learn has been afflicted for 18 years, unable to stand up straight and calls her over and lays hands on her and in doing so frees her of this ailment, at which she understandably bursts into spontaneous praise of God. Amen and amen.
And like each of these stories of Jesus healing on the sabbath, that could have been it. We forget this sometimes when reading the Bible, almost expecting that the good religious folk would take issue with someone being healed among them—but it occurred to me upon reading this story again this week that we need to remember there was another way! There’s always another way! They could have all just celebrated what God had done among them and joined this woman in praise—this was an option! But it’s not the option chosen by the “leader of the synagogue”—not a priest or a rabbi but likely a kind of administrator or manager, someone in charge of keeping the synagogue open and running and orderly. He says to the crowd—not to Jesus, mind you, and certainly not to the woman, but to the crowd—Hey folks, just a reminder of official synagogue policy: There are six perfectly good days when you can come to be healed, but this is the sabbath day, and, unfortunately, this sort of thing is not allowed. So in the future, please come on another day—great, thanks.
You can almost feel the passive aggressiveness, here.
Now, the “policy,” if you will, he’s citing is the Jewish practice of not performing “work” on the Sabbath. The Sabbath, as we know, is to be set aside as a day of rest—no work allowed. It says so very clearly in Exodus and Deuteronomy and other places in the Hebrew texts: no work on the Sabbath. But it’s actually not that simple. You see, Scripture doesn’t define what constitutes “work,” and so throughout the generations and even today this is left up to interpretation. Which is why you’ll see a variety of practices among Jewish communities on the Sabbath. Some won’t drive a car and will walk to the temple, others see no problem driving, especially if it’s to go to temple services. Some cook, others won’t. Some won’t even flip light switches while for others this is not a problem. It’s not as simple as saying some people follow the law more strictly than others, but more the case that the law as given in Scripture is open-ended, and so it’s simply interpreted differently. This is not a modern phenomenon but was the case even in Jesus’ day.
But regardless of all of this, at no point in Jewish history would this kind of interpretation have been the norm—that would think it wrong or against God’s law for someone who is suffering to be healed on the sabbath—in fact, as we’ll see, it doesn’t even seem to be a popular interpretation among the crowd gathered there in the synagogue that day. And that’s because not only does this kind of heartless, misguided reading of the law fly in the face of everything Judaism is about—after all, when Jesus said, “love your neighbor as yourself,” he was quoting from Leviticus—it flies in the face of everything the Sabbath is supposed to be about, too.
The case for keeping the Sabbath is made in two places in the Torah, first in Exodus, where the Israelites are told to keep the Sabbath as they make their way to the Promised Land because that’s what God did at creation. We worship a God of rest and so we’re to rest, too. We’re to rest and enjoy and reflect upon the fruits and blessings and wonder of creation. Sabbath, we’re told, is a celebration of attentiveness to the wholeness of creation—what better time to offer healing and care and concern! Of course this woman must be healed!
And the other place the Sabbath is described is Deuteronomy, which in arguing for the Sabbath reaches back not to the story of creation but to the Exodus. And here it names all the many different people who are to be allowed to keep Sabbath too: your sons and daughters, your male and female slave, the foreigner in your land—even livestock are to be allowed to rest. Wrapped up in keeping the Sabbath for ourselves is the practice of making sure that the vulnerable people among us are allowed to rest, too, it reminds us, because you were once a slave in Egypt. Keeping Sabbath is a practice of remembering and reliving God’s liberating power, by tending to the needs and concerns of others. So of course this woman must be healed—must be freed, Luke actually puts it.
And we need to linger here for a moment on a detail that could be rushed past or brushed aside as immaterial but is in fact illuminating, which is that the person whose pain brings all this to bear is a woman. Luke is very clear and precise in the ways women appear in his gospel, and so we must assume he knew the symbolic weight of this woman with “a spirit” that had “afflicted” her for eighteen years—an odd way of putting it in the gospels; it’s ambiguous, almost asking us to hear it symbolically. This spirit had kept her down. It had left her unable to stand up straight. It had weakened her, belittled her, kept her to be something less than her potential. Jesus sees this woman who has been held down for so many years by hidden, demonic forces outside of her and says, “Woman,” you are set free.” And then he lays hands on her, it says. Meaning this was not just a healing, but as others have noted, this was a blessing. A blessing that says, I see you. God sees you.
And of course, it’s at this point that the leader objects: That’s not how we do things. I have a daughter too, but there’s a process to these things. Have her come back tomorrow.
And Jesus responds—You hypocrites!Would you show more concern for your ox or your mule—the animals you depend on for your own work, your own vocation, your own sense of worth and fulfillment—than you would for this beloved daughter of Abraham, who’s suffered all these years? Does she not deserve more?
The only thing missing here is the voice of the woman. I’d like to hear what she has to say. It’s still just men talking with other men about the women’s condition, and even more, what to do with her body.
Of course, at this, his opponent is stunned and quieted, and shamed, as well he should have been. But it’s this little note at the end that really caught my eye and my heart this week. Luke tells us, after the man in charge of the synagogue had been put in his place, “the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that we [were] doing.”
Did you see this? The crowd was on his side! They knew what was right! They knew what needed to be done. They knew what we all know, which is that if you see someone hurting and you have the capacity to ease their suffering, you do it—who cares what day it is? Of course they knew this, and so they, too, rejoiced at all the wonderful things he was doing.
Of course they did.
As I mentioned in my column last week, I’ve been reading a wonderful new book of essays written by the poet, Ross Gay, called The Book of Delights, which is the inspiration for our Wednesday night program this fall. Starting on his birthday, the author committed to writing, everyday, a short essayette, as he calls them, on something that delights him—some flash or moment or memory of delight or joy or warmth or what have you. Something good and lovely and small that points us to something big. And so this book is a collection of a year’s worth of delights—it’s beautiful.
But I read one of these essayettes this past Thursday that I haven’t been able to shake. He’s writing while on an Amtrak Train from Manhattan to Syracuse, New York for a poetry reading, and he notices how people on trains will leave their bags unattended for long periods of time—or at least periods of time that feel long, there in a public space. Laptops out, bags open, and folks just moving about the train, he writes, with this “flaunting of security, also known as trust.” “Nearly everyone participates in this practice of trust,” he writes, “and without recruiting a neighbor across the aisle to ‘keep an eye on my stuff while I use the restroom,’ which seems to be a coffee shop phenomenon.”
In reflecting on this, he writes, “I suppose I could spend time theorizing how it is that people are not bad to each other, but that’s not really the point. The point is that in almost every instance of our lives, our social lives, we are, if we pay attention, in the midst of an almost constant, if subtle, caretaking. Holding open doors. Offering elbows at crosswalks. Letting someone else go first. Helping with the heavy bags. Reaching what’s too high, or what’s been dropped. Pulling someone back to their feet. Stopping at the car wreck, at the struck dog…This caretaking is our default mode and it’s always a lie that convinces us to act or believe otherwise. Always.”
Isn’t this true? God, I want it to be true. Aren’t we always, in ways we don’t often notice or assume or rush past or downgrade against the significantly fewer times when we’re not tended to—aren’t we always being cared for? And when we think about it: aren’t we, ourselves, always caring for others? Isn’t this our “default mode” and isn’t it always a lie that convinces us to act or believe otherwise?
I think what has been so painful about this current season in our county, in the world, is that the lie seems to be winning. The lie that tells us that people are worthy of anything less than compassion and that we’re called to anything less than offering it. The lie that tells us people are anything less than human, with flaws, yes, many, but with passions and loves and parents. How sad this is.
And how sad is it that instead of being known as the “repairers of the breach,” or the “restorers of the streets to live in” as the prophet Isaiah put it when he railed so long ago about this same tragedy—Christians are more closely associated with the forces that would tear us apart. Or at best, the ones who are content to stand on the sidelines while the vulnerable are once again left to fend for themselves. For many, we are bearers of the lie.
The real tragedy that Jesus seems to lift up here is that age old one of how religion, when it gets too comfortable with the way things are, has a way of baptizing this lie that we are not first meant to care for each other. It clutters it with abstractions and misplaced priorities and sometimes just bad theology. We all know the ways this is still true today.
And depending on how you look at it, the fact that this has always been a reality within Christianity and Judaism before it and surely every other religion that has known any sort of power or privilege, is either deflating to the point of being paralyzing or comforting with the chance of being hopeful.
But this morning I’ve decided I’m choosing to fall on the side of comfort and hope.
Because I remember that no matter how far the kingdom of Israel had fallen, God sent the prophet Isaiah to offer a different vision of what was possible.
And whatever the people at the top of the synagogue were saying that day when Jesus strolled in and distilled this vision into the freeing of this one blessed woman, everyone else gathered there knew what was right.
And I’m comforted because this is still true. There are still these people out there in the world.
I’m comforted because some of them are even in this room.
 The Jewish Annotated New Testament, ed. Amy-Jill Levine. Notes, Luke 6:1-11
 Once again grateful for the SALT commentary on this passage, https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2019/8/19/unbound-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-eleventh-week-after-pentecost
 R. Alan Culpepper, The Gospel of Luke, The New Interpreter’s Commentary, 274
 From “The Sanctity of Trains,” in The Book of Delights, Ross Gay, 135