Sunday, August 21, 2016

Sabbath Controversy

14th Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 16 (Year C)
Isaiah 58.9b-14; Psalm 103.1-8; Hebrews 12.18-29; Luke 13.10-17
Sunday, August 21, 2016 – St. Paul’s Emmanuel, Santa Paula

To say that Jesus was controversial is an understatement. He had a reputation for saying and doing things that made the Jewish religious authorities nervous, if not downright angry. This was because Jesus’ words and actions challenged the status quo. In some cases, what he did or said even contradicted the Law. These incidents really got the religious authorities all hot and bothered. One category of Jesus’ actions was particularly troublesome for the authorities – what is collectively referred to as the “Sabbath Controversies.” Luke records four particular incidents of Jesus breaking not just any of the 613 commandments in the Torah but one of the Ten Commandments – one of the biggies. The one about keeping the Sabbath. “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work” (Ex 20.9-10).

Today’s Gospel reading is a prime example of one of these “Sabbath Controversies.” And it is not the first time he has broken this commandment. In fact, it is the third time. Earlier in Luke we are told that some of Jesus’ disciples are hungry and pluck some grain from a field on the Sabbath (Lk 6.1-5). They are observed by some Pharisees, who lay into Jesus about “doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath” (Lk 6.2). On another occasion, Jesus heals a man with a withered hand in the synagogue on the Sabbath (Lk 6.6-11). He is observed by some scribes and Pharisees who are looking for an excuse to make accusations against him for breaking the Law. And later on, Jesus will do it again when he heals a man with dropsy on the Sabbath. (Lk 14.1-6).

But today’s installment of the “Sabbath Controversies” is a bit unique. Jesus always appeals for leniency in this commandment based on compassion, just as he does in today’s Gospel. But here, he provides a theological justification that extends beyond the immediate circumstance, reaching even into our own time, into our own experience of Sabbath.

As we heard, Jesus is in a synagogue teaching on the Sabbath and sees a woman who has been crippled for 18 years. We are told that her infirmity is so bad that she is bent over and unable to stand up straight. Moved with compassion, Jesus immediately heals her. She stands up straight for the first time in years and praises God. Imagine the ruckus this would have caused, right in the middle of the synagogue.

The leader of the synagogue is furious because Jesus broke the commandment about working on the Sabbath. The “work” that Jesus does is healing someone in need. Hardly seems right to consider this as work being prohibited on the Sabbath. But what we need to realize is that the term translated as “work” under Jewish law does not correspond to the English definition of the term. Rather, it refers to 39 categories of activities that are prohibited. It’s all very complicated and sometimes does not make much sense to the 21st century non-Jewish mind. But suffice it to say, healing any non-life threatening illness on the Sabbath was considered “work” and therefore was prohibited.

Of course, Jesus could have avoided all the fuss by simply telling the woman to come back the next day and he would take care of her infirmity then. After all, what is one more day? But then again, if he had played it safe to avoid controversy with the synagogue officials, he would not have been able to turn the healing of the woman’s infirmity into an opportunity for teaching – for the synagogue leader, for those present, and for us.

Rather than condemn Jesus, the leader chastises the woman saying, “there are six days on which work ought to be done; come those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day” (Lk 13.14). Of course, this is really a backhanded attack leveled at Jesus. He is the one who “worked” on the Sabbath, not her. She didn’t even ask Jesus to heal her. He did it on his own volition. Jesus responds by condemning the synagogue leader for his rigid interpretation of the commandment regarding Sabbath in an equally backhanded way.

He does this by noting that even on the Sabbath it is permissible for a man to untie – to release from bondage – his ox or donkey to lead it to water. After all, it’s the humane thing to do. And such an act, even if we would view it as a form of work, is permissible. Jesus’ point is that if it’s okay to perform such acts of compassion for an animal, why then is it not okay to have compassion on the woman and free her from the bondage of infirmity? What Jesus is doing is appealing to a more lenient interpretation of the commandment. And he does it in a very subtle, yet theologically significant, manner.

Yes, the commandment is indeed as the leader quoted. However, regarding this commandment, Deuteronomy (5:12-15) notes that the people were once in slavery in Egypt, but that God brought them out of bondage. Keeping the Sabbath day is a way of remembering and celebrating the freedom they now have. Jesus plays off this theme of freedom from bondage. He invokes the idea of freedom from bondage in the image of untying – really, “unbinding” – the donkey or ox to lead it to water. He then equates the woman’s infirmity with bondage. And from there, goes on to equate healing of the woman with providing freedom from bondage. If the Sabbath is about celebrating freedom from bondage, it is certainly appropriate that this woman be freed from the bondage of her infirmity on the Sabbath.

Jesus is really leveling an indictment against the religious authorities. The Sabbath, what is meant to be a remembrance and honoring of liberation, has become a means of control and oppression by the religious authorities. They are more concerned with maintaining a system that benefits them than alleviating the burdens of those it binds and cripples. Our religious practices are meant to honor God. But how do we truly honor God? For Jesus, it was not so much about religious practices as it was about care for others. This was what the Law was really supposed to be about. This is what living the Gospel is really about. It is the care of others that is itself a religious virtue that takes precedence over religious rituals and the systems of the Church. This is precisely the point that we hear in the reading from Isaiah – written some five or six hundred years before Jesus – where the prophet conveys God’s thoughts on worship and keeping the Sabbath: “if you offer your good to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,” (Is 58.10) then you are in right relationship with God and are honoring him appropriately.

The leader of the synagogue gets the message. He doesn’t like it, but he gets it, and is dumbfounded. He is at a loss for an adequate response. Those witnessing the event also get it, and rejoice at the good news Jesus is proclaiming.

So what does this mean for us? We certainly don’t have the same understanding of the commandment not to work on the Sabbath. Yes, we are still to follow that commandment and to set aside a day free from work for the purpose of worshiping God. But we also recognize that some work must necessarily be done even on the Sabbath. At the same time recognizing Sabbath as having an important place in our wellbeing.

Maybe not physically, but metaphorically, we are like the woman who is bent over in infirmity. We have our own issues that weigh upon us, causing us to hunch over with the weight of their pressures. We may have our own health issues which take so much of our strength and energy. We may have financial concerns that weight on us. We may have issues at work that consume our thoughts. We may have problems at home that burden us. We may have problems with a relationship that causes us pain. We may have concerns about local, national, or international issues that cause us anxiety. Any number of things that cause us to be like the woman, to be crippled by what binds us, bent over so that we cannot see what is around us. We only see the ground beneath our feet. We struggle to see the path we’re on, because we cannot, for the burdens we carry, see what is ahead. We may not be able to see where God is in the midst of our burdened journey. And so we struggle to experience the blessings and wholeness that God intends for us.

By Jesus choosing to heal the woman there in the synagogue on the Sabbath, the woman becomes a symbol of that which oppresses us, binds us, and keeps us from experiencing the fullness of life God desires for us. In her healing, particularly her healing in the synagogue on the Sabbath, we are shown that there is something more to our own experience of Sabbath. For Christians, the Sabbath – like for the Jews – is a celebration of freedom from bondage. Through Christ’s death and resurrection, we have been freed from the bondage of sin and death. Our sins are forgiven. We have been reconciled with God. We have been healed and given new life – eternal life.

In light of this hope and promise of eternal life, we are able to see that God through Christ provides in the Church a place of healing and respite. A place where, even for an hour, our burdens are lifted from us. And that the Church is a place where we can reconnect with the God who desires our wholeness, who gives us strength, and who provides us with the spiritual resources we need to go back into our day-to-day lives and better cope with that which seems to hold us in bondage. We are inheritors of the gift of healing the woman receives. The Sabbath is our opportunity, like the woman Jesus heals on the Sabbath, to claim the release from bondage God desires for us, and that Christ secured for us on the cross. The Sabbath is our time to stand up straight and praise God for this marvelous gift of liberation.

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