This Sunday’s Gospel message seems to be at first glance a much easier one to deal with than the one we were faced with last Sunday. Jesus seems to have settled down. He is no longer ranting about bringing fire and division and turning people one against another. He is, at least initially, back to doing what is expected, teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath. Oh, but wait a minute. It is the SABBATH and this is Jesus we are seeing here. There have been struggles between the religious leaders and Jesus over proper Sabbath observance since almost the beginning of his ministry. Jesus preached his first upsetting sermon on a Sabbath. Remember, the one that got him almost pushed off the mountain? It was also on a Sabbath that Jesus was confronted for letting his disciples pick and eat grain. But one of the things that Jesus gets into the greatest trouble for however is daring to HEAL on the Sabbath. The man with a shriveled hand? The man by the pool? The man with dropsy? Every single time on the Sabbath. Every single time upsetting to the status quo.
The law was important to the Jews of Jesus day. It was how they knew who they were and what they stood for. It helped them make sense of life. It kept life moving in an orderly fashion, and helped them understand themselves in relationship to themselves, the world and even to Yahweh. Sabbath-keeping was an important part of this. As followers of the Mosaic law they observed it as one of the commandments: “Remember” in Exodus or “observe” in Deuteronomy, the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Traditionally this “remembering” aspect was performed by declaring the greatness of the day, having festive meals and by engaging in Torah study and pleasurable activity. The aspect of “observance” was performed by abstaining from certain creating or producing activities or labors which later were codified into law. Many rabbinical scholars have pointed out that these labors have something in common – they prohibit any activity that exercises control or dominion over one's environment.
So suddenly, Jesus is back in the midst of division and struggle again. Because he dared, on the Sabbath, to engage in an act of healing, setting a woman free from an ailment that had kept her captive to her own body for eighteen years, “bent over and quite unable to stand up straight.” She stands up and begins praising God, as I imagine did many others around her. But suddenly, the leader of the synagogue steps forward, “indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath.” Whoops. Jesus has done it again. Once again He has made the point that the Law does not exist for its own sake, it is not more important than people, suffering can’t wait, compassion can’t wait, courage can’t wait for the opportune time. Jesus knew the significance of the Sabbath as He knew the other Law. He was first of all a Jew. He had read the same reading we read this morning in Isaiah, he knew the commandments and the Torah. But He had a bigger picture. Perhaps THE big picture? The one of the wholeness, or holiness that all of humankind, all of us are called to by God.
“Honor the Sabbath and keep it holy.” What does that mean for us? First of all what does it mean to keep something holy? I’ve been mulling that around in my head this week. One thing the dictionary says is that: “Holy refers to the divine, that which has its sanctity directly from God or is connected with Him.” The word “holy” itself, is derived from the same roots as the words health, happiness, and wholeness.
Keep the Sabbath holy…. Declare the greatness of this day that God has created, have a festive meal and engage in the study of God’s word. This sounds a bit like liturgy to me. And obviously we are all here, so we get that part. But then what? How do we “keep” the Sabbath when we leave this place? And what is it that is expected of us?
Sometimes it is interesting how things in the ancient laws have a kind of wisdom for us that sometimes gets misplaced. Over time the law becomes codified, becomes law for its own sake, things get lost in translation. But something that struck me this week was that bit about the activities prohibited the Jews on Shabbat – how so many were those that were about not exercising control or dominion over one’s environment, about, in my mind, not letting God be God, about continuing to act and fret and worry and stew as if I am in control and in charge of it all and don’t quite trust God to take care of things. We each have our own variations on this theme. We must… work more hours, be perfect, look better, earn more, win approval, never stop, never say no,…. and somehow we think it is in our control and up to us. It is, we tell ourselves all about our doing, and we should, we must do always just a bit more, harder, better, faster, longer….. Perhaps a worthy Sabbath activity would be to ask God to set us free from that. Because you know it really is a kind of bondage. It does bend us over and keep us from being able to stand up quite straight. And when we are not freely standing and seeing straight we cannot be about the work of the kingdom, the work that God is calling us to do.
It keeps us yoked, and in the pain of that affliction, it often has much to do, I think with the “pointing of the finger and the speaking of evil.” It also has, I think, much to do with our lack of holiness in the sense of “wholeness” with ourselves and by extension, with those we encounter. If I am caught up in me it is so much easier not to see the one in need. I heard an interesting interview on MPR in which the individual being interviewed made the point that, in his opinion, much of the angst that modern humans feel is caused by our doing things to avoid seeing others’ pain, and that we then in turn do all sorts of things and acquire all kinds of “stuff” to further keep us away from knowing what it is we are refusing to see. (Radical American philanthropist Zell Kravinsky talks to Steve Evans on The Interview-BBC) His particular, and rather radical answer has been to keep giving things, including most of his money, and one of his kidneys, away to strangers. Keeping Sabbath?
Isaiah tells us if we keep the Sabbath holy by letting God be God, by removing the yoke there will be rewards in store for us. Like the woman Jesus healed we will find our bones strong and our parched places satisfied; our ruined selves will be rebuilt so that we might be strong foundations, repairers and restorers, so that like her we can stand up tall and strong and offer praise to God.
This Gospel offers us more than one character to identify with, and as is so often true, I find a bit of myself in each of them. I want to be the woman who is healed, grateful and praising. But honesty compels me to admit, there might be a little temple leader in me, too, that need for control, for compliance, for doing what is right and proper, I could just as easily be the one who is saying “But Jesus, you’re disrupting the service….” Held in bondage to the law, or custom as strongly as she was held in bondage to her ailments.
So whomever it is we identify with today, my hope and prayer is that we can come before God to be healed and set free from whatever bondage holds each of us on this Sabbath day.