The work of transformation – the work of healing people, and communities, and the world. God may use us to help, but this is God’s work alone. When change happens, when transformation happens, it is God at work. When God comes to prophets like Jeremiah, a prophet too young to think he could be influential, to think he could be called or that he could do God’s work, it is God who works through him and therefore transforms those who hear Jeremiah’s words. When a woman who had been crippled for 18 years passed Jesus by, he came to her, not because she called on him, not because someone else called on him to help her, not because of her amazing faith, but because Jesus, God, is about healing and caring for all people. Jesus transformed her – not because of anything special about her, but because of something amazing about God. God chooses to transform, to bring new life, to do something creative and beautiful and good. That is who God is, and that is what God does. The difficult part of this for us is that we don’t have a lot of choice about whom God picks, and God seems to pick the most unlikely candidates to be God’s people, to serve God, to be agents of God’s action in the world, to be transformed, to demonstrate and embody God’s love and grace. God picks a child to be God’s prophet. And God picks a woman who is not even asking for help, not being cured by her faith, not someone who was able to be part of the community to demonstrate God’s love and healing and care.
But it’s not just that we have no choice over whom God calls, whom God picks for healing, for transformation, for God’s work in the world, we also have no choice over when God will do God’s work.
The Pharisees were really upset that Jesus chose to heal the woman on the Sabbath. And I think it is critical to our understanding of this passage to look at WHY Jesus did heal her that day. The laws were strict about what could and couldn’t be done on the Sabbath. And the reality is that surely Jesus could have waited one more day to heal this woman. After all, she had been crippled for 18 years. In the span of 18 years, what is one more day? But Jesus did not wait a day, or even an hour. He chose to heal her then, breaking laws to do so. And it is important to understand why.
There are two answers to this. First of all, Jesus stood by the second Old Testament understanding of Sabbath. The first understanding of Sabbath comes from Genesis 2:2-3 in which God rested on the final day. In this understanding, we are to do the same – rest, completely, as God rested from the work of creation. As Exodus 20:-8-11 puts it, “therefore the people of Israel shall not work on the Sabbath”. However, there is another Old Testament understanding of Sabbath that comes from Deuteronomy 5:12-15. In Deuteronomy 5:14, when Moses reiterates the Ten Commandments, he notes the second thing that we must remember on the Sabbath: "remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD, your God brought you forth from there with a mighty hand and with an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to observe the Sabbath day". (from a web-site on Jewish orthodoxy): What does the Exodus have to do with resting on the seventh day? It is all about freedom. In those times, leisure was confined to certain classes; slaves did not get days off. Thus, by resting on the Sabbath, we are reminded that we are free. But in a more general sense, Sabbath frees us from our weekday concerns, from our deadlines and schedules and commitments. During the week, we are slaves to our jobs, to our creditors, to our need to provide for ourselves; on Sabbath, we are freed from these concerns, much as our ancestors were freed from slavery in Egypt.”
In this understanding of Sabbath, the Sabbath practice or observance is not just about resting – it is a day of doing a holy work, and especially a holy work that is all about freedom. What could be more holy than healing, or freeing a person from their infirmity, from a crippling condition, from a life of estrangement, alienation and isolation from their communities (since they were considered “unclean” and could not be touched or enter many places, including the temple)? What could be more holy than honoring God and God’s people by transforming them from the physical slavery of infirmity into life? For Jesus this was absolutely vital, absolutely important that the healings he did BE done on the Sabbath, on that holy day, on the day when holy works and acts of freeing and freedom are to be done. Yes, he could have waited one more day. But Sabbath was the right day, the appropriate day, for him to do a holy work. Just as the Israelites were freed from slavery, in remembering that, the woman was to be freed from her affliction. As the animals of the Pharisees were freed, even on the Sabbath, to drink, this daughter off Abraham was freed in the kingdom of God to receive life. Jesus transformed Sabbath, even as he transformed the woman. Jesus focused on freedom, even as he freed the woman.
Additionally, after 18 years, for God, that one day mattered, that one hour mattered. Laws be put aside, or as Jesus said it, “The Sabbath was made for humans, NOT humans for the Sabbath.” Therefore, if the day of rest is not serving the needs of the people, then it is not observed in the way the Pharisees understood it needed to be. God’s timing is not our timing. God’s creative, transforming love comes every day because every day is holy for God. God’s understanding of law is always to be surpassed by God’s commitment to love. And on this particular holy day, Jesus would not and could not wait to heal this woman whom God loved.
The Pharisees hated this. They hated it for many reasons. But I want to read you a quote from one of my favorite commentaries, “Feasting on the Word” about the Pharisaic understanding in all of this.:
The desire to control Sabbath observance is critical for maintaining another social order as well. The slavocracy of the American South was in part maintained by the restriction of "doing good" on the Sabbath. Reflecting on religious practices in the slaveholding South, Frederick Douglass notes:
It was necessary to keep our religious masters at St. Michael's unacquainted with the fact that, instead of spending the Sabbath in wrestling, boxing, and drinking whisky, we were trying to learn how to read the will of God; for they had much rather see us engaged in those degrading sports, than to see us behaving like intellectual, moral, and accountable beings.
While enslaved Africans desired to worship God and to educate themselves, literally to "do good," they were prevented because their improvement represented a threat to the social system that circumscribed their lives. Although the plantation setting is clearly not a direct parallel to the situation Jesus faces, similar issues of power, control, and order are present in both cases. The control of Sabbath practice in both instances represents a convenient way of maintaining an oppressive system whereby some people are forced to endure perpetual suffering by others who are more concerned with sustaining a system that benefits them than alleviating the burdens of those it cripples.
(Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary - Feasting on the Word – Year C, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16).
For the Pharisees control of religious laws and rules was very important. But God cannot be controlled. God cannot be contained by our rules and laws and even our understanding of who God is or what God is about, who God can use, when God can use them and why. None of this can be controlled. I’m reminded of the quote from C.S. Lewis’ the lion, the witch and the wardrobe, in reference to Aslan who is the Jesus character, “He is not a TAME lion, you know. He is very good, but he is not Tame.” We want God to be tame – or rather contained. We want to be able to understand, to expect certain things and to count on them. But that is not who God is. God is not TAME. God can’t be controlled by our prayers, our thoughts, our wishes, our hopes, or even our ideas of who God really is. And the truth is that ultimately I’m not sure we would want a God who could be because that God would not be big enough for all of who we are, all of our needs, all of our hopes, and all of our lives. God’s dreams for us are bigger than our own, and that is VERY good news. Just as the woman in today’s story could not look up, hunched over for 18 years, she could only see the dirt in front of her and could not imagine a life free from her infirmity, Jesus had bigger plans for her, bigger dreams for her.
Again, from ‘Feasting on the Word,’ “We are like the woman bent over and unable to look up and see the sun. We know only the dust and dirt underneath our feet. We struggle to see the path before us by straining and twisting, because we cannot look straight ahead. To ask for healing helps us step into Jesus' invitation to mend our souls as we mend creation. There will be times when we will "know" this in ways that are too profound for words or reason. There will also be times when God
seems far off and the pathway unclear, but seek healing we must.” Yes, we must. We must seek freedom from all that binds us, whether it be physical, emotional, social, psychological or even political. But again, we have to remember that God is not a tame lion – and therefore God’s plans for us and God’s timing for those plans will remain in God’s hands, even as we are called to seek healing. The good news is, though, again, that God’s dreams are bigger than our own. And God’s call for us to find life is more insistent and immediate than we could even hope. It comes down to this…”Where Jesus is, things begin to be made right…. In the reign of God, the world will be repaired.” That is a promise we can count on. That is the good news. The challenge then for us is two fold – one to take the Sabbath seriously as both a time for rest and a time to do a holy work towards the freedom of all God’s people. And second, to trust that God is the force and power behind any transformation towards freedom. But that God will use us, no matter what our condition, our age, our situation, if we are open to God’s calling. Amen.