Isaiah 58:9b-14+Psalm 103:1-8+Hebrews 12:18-29+Luke 13:10-17
Several years ago, Tim and I joined a group of pilgrims from Yale on a trip to Israel and Palestine, focusing primarily on the plight of Palestinian Christians who now comprise less than 2% of the population. On our last night, we were staying overnight in a hotel in Tel Aviv in rooms on one of the upper floors. On the morning of our departure, I hauled my bags into the elevator lobby and hopped on the first one to arrive that was going down. I pushed the button for the main lobby, but one floor down, the elevator car stopped. There was no one waiting there, so I assumed that whoever had called for the elevator had either gone back to their room or taken another elevator. But, this happened again on the next floor, and the next, and the next, all seventeen floors down to the lobby. It wasn’t until I reached the lobby that I learned that I had ridden on the Sabbath elevator, the one that automatically stops at each floor, going up and down continually throughout the day, so that observant Jews will not have to perform the work of pushing buttons to call and direct the elevator where to go.
I don’t believe that Jesus was contemplating Sabbath day elevators in this latest dispute with a synagogue leader, and I don’t really think this argument is really about whether or not it’s okay to heal on the sabbath. There are clear exceptions to the sabbath-rest rules, including that of saving a life, and, arguably, someone who has been suffering for eighteen years would probably consider such healing a life-saving miracle. Sure, maybe one more day would not have killed her, but Jesus saw a need and did what Jesus would do.
Many have interpreted this story, and others like it in the gospels, as some kind of proof that the Jews didn’t get it, that they had all these rules and regulations that no one could possibly keep, and our hero Jesus rides in on a white horse the set things straight. And that, friends, is not only false, it is anti-Semitic. Jesus was a Jew. Matthew has him very explicitly saying that he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). And the way Jesus – a rabbi – interprets the law was always to land on the side of mercy. This makes him very popular with those for whom mercy had been in short supply: the poor, the sick, the lame, the outcast, anyone on the margins.
The synagogue leader in our story today is concerned about that. It’s all about who gets to control the narrative and who has the power to interpret and enforce the rules. Imagine for a moment that a newcomer enters our doors and starts interpreting things a little differently than I do and then performs signs and wonders that I am not able to perform. Chances are, I’m going to question that person – who gave you the authority to do this? Where’d you go to seminary? Who ordained you? There’s a way to go about things, and part of my role is to “be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them” (Book of Common Prayer, 526) as I pledged at my own ordination.
The law is about creating order, and without it, there would be a free-for-all, with people doing whatever they want whenever they want. But what is often lost in the context of this story is that the law was not a punishment to keep people from doing bad things; it was a gift from God to protect God’s people from things like theft, murder, and adultery. The commandment about the sabbath wasn’t just because God rested on the seventh day of creation. It was a guarantee that the formerly enslaved in Egypt would never have to work their lives away with no respite. Everyone was entitled to a sabbath day.
In Jesus understanding, apparently this afflicted woman was due her sabbath day, too.
We read a portion of Isaiah this morning that was written at a time of similar circumstances for the people of Israel. It was not Rome, but Persia, that occupied Palestine in the 5th century BCE. The Babylonian exile was almost 100 years in the rear-view mirror, yet much of the city of Jerusalem still lay in ruins and the temple had yet to be rebuilt. It was a time of great disparity in wealth, enslavement of the poor by the rich, fear and distrust of outsiders and foreigners, and rampant corruption among those in authority. The end of the exile was a time of great promise, but after the passage of years, the old order of things was again the norm, and we once again have prophets calling the people to account.
Right worship is of no value if you trample the poor.
You have profaned the sabbath and abused the enslaved.
You have forgotten that you were once strangers in Egypt.
The people seemed to think that God could be manipulated by their worship and their words and their sacrifices, and when things didn’t get better for them, they railed at God: ‘Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’ (Isaiah 58:3). And this is where the prophet steps in:
remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in. (Isaiah 58:9b-12)
We can go to church every Sunday, read our bible, take our kids to Sunday School, but if we are then going into the world, reaping only for ourselves and living solely for our own benefit, then we are living as did those returned exiles, or the people Jesus calls to account in his own time.
Jesus set this woman free from her bondage, and she, and all those who witnessed it, “rejoiced at all the wonderful things he was doing” ((Luke 13:17). It’s really no wonder that the leader of the synagogue was nervous, because a crowd of rejoicing people following an itinerant preacher is going to be devastating to his congregational numbers. It threatens a precariously-balanced authority.
This is what Jesus does. He threatens our own sense of control and self-sufficiency, because you can’t really be in charge of your life when the one who calls you demands everything of you. But it is this relinquishing of control that opens the way for a life of freedom and love, where we no longer feel the need to protect what we have because we know that it all comes from God. And we can’t receive what God is offering if our hands are clenched around what we have.
These are difficult days in our world, and there is nothing so needed as faithfulness to the radical love and grace given to us in Jesus. If we are able to live in that love, we “shall be called the repairer(s) of the breach, the restorer(s) of streets to live in.” May God make it so.