To be people of faith should be to be people who are awed by the amazing things God has done: to see beauty and the presence of Love surrounding us in every moment, to be in wonder about the life we have been given and the many lives that we have touched, to search for and to find the Divine in everyone around us. However, the reality is that people of faith often instead find themselves caught in a piety, in doctrine, in a religiosity. To quote Rabbi Abraham Heschel, too often, “faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline and love by habit….religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion.” In other words, we are a people who tend towards legalism, a following of rules and practices, despite the fact that scripture, and Jesus in particular, avidly opposes this practice.
Let me point this out again. The scriptures, and Jesus in particular opposes legalism at every turn. Today’s passage is just one more example when Jesus was breaking the religious laws, laws you can find in the Old Testament, in the name of love. Jesus had them pick grain on the Sabbath - against the law. He touched and allowed himself to be touched by those the laws declared unclean – against the law. He confronted the Old Testament passage of “an eye for an eye” saying, “You have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’, But I say to you, do not resist an evil doer but when your cheek is slapped, turn also the other cheek.” He stated again and again that all the law and prophets rests solely on two commandments – loving God and loving neighbor as self. He also said that the laws were made for us, NOT us made for the laws when he said, “the Sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath.”
And yet, how many people in the name of Christ continue to stand on laws that oppress and harm other people? That are not loving? That are not “Good News” but instead are judging, condemning, confining, and not inviting people to live in the radical freedom of the love of Christ? I’m not saying there aren’t important reasons for the guidance given us in scriptures. But we are called to follow the invitations to action that scripture gives us because God loves us enough to want wholeness for us. The rules in scripture are meant to give us life, freedom, meaning. That means, however, that when a law is NOT bringing wholeness, we are called to look at it differently, to re-envision it, to interpret it differently - for example, the law that denied healing on the Sabbath. In today’s passage Jesus broke that rule. He healed on the Sabbath. And those who believed they were following God most closely by abiding rules such as this were outraged. They couldn’t see that the health and well-being of the woman in front of Jesus, this child of God who was suffering and in pain, was more important than a rule about resting on the Sabbath.
To say it again, the Pharisees, the religious leaders of that day, 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 the law 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 the first creation story in Genesis 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. Exodus 20:8-11 backs this up “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". In other words, Sabbath day is about remembering freedom and remembering that God brought about that freedom. This was remembered through rest because in those times especially leisure or rest was confined to certain classes; slaves did not get days off. Thus, by resting on the Sabbath, we are reminded that we are free, not slaves like they had been in Egypt. For today then, 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 those worries in the same way the Israelites 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 of 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, over and above “rest”.
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 creating freedom and love and healing for all people, then it should not be 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 for many reasons, one of which had to do with social control.
The desire to control Sabbath observance is critical for maintaining another social order as well. For example, when slavery was rampant, Frederick Douglass talked about how important it was that the slave holders not see the slaves praying or reading scripture or learning on the Sabbath. They wanted to see the slaves “wrestling, boxing, and drinking whisky” because if they were learning, reading, praying, that showed them to be intellectual, moral, and accountable beings, which was intolerable in keeping up an illusion of the slaves being inferior. They were told what they could do on the Sabbath, and were, therefore, forbidden from studying, praying, reading because it was very threatening to the social system.
While the South and Israel during Jesus time are not the same, the issues of power and control were present in both as rules were made and maintained concerning the Sabbath. Both rules and insistence upon those rules helped to create a system where specific people had power and others did not. In this case, if Jesus had followed the rule, it would have literally kept a woman crippled.
For the Pharisees, control of religious laws and rules was very important. But God cannot be controlled. God cannot be contained or by our rules and laws or even by our understanding of God’s rules, who God is or what God is about, who God can use, when God can use them and why. God cannot be contained by any of this. And none of this can be controlled, no matter how tightly we try to control it with rules, laws, “piety”. 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.
From a favorite commentary, ‘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.” 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 and wholeness. 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. 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.
I think the idea that the Sabbath is made for us, rather than us being made for the Sabbath or for the rules, or for the doctrines – this is a hard idea for us. We want clarity, we want things cut and dried. We want things spelled out. We all want to know what we are to do, with absolute certainty. And because of that, I think even the most “fluid” of us have certain scriptural passages that we see as absolute, beyond nuance, just as the Pharisees saw the Sabbath rule as beyond nuance. I want to invite you to think about that. What are the scriptures that get under your skin as unbreakable, as un-nuanceable, that even if it hurts someone else you would insist on it?
I’ll tell you for myself, one that really gets under my skin is when Jesus said, “the one without sin cast the first stone.” I stand on this and it gets so firmly into me that I feel that this is a firm and fast declaration from Jesus that has no bending.” And that is where I, too, get into trouble. Because what if what the person is doing that I’m saying we shouldn’t judge is, in fact, harming somebody else? Then don’t we have a responsibility to judge it enough to prevent others being hurt? The same with the “turn the other cheek” business. I can become self-righteous about not choosing harm to others, even when they are harming us. But what if, again, the person being harmed is a person without power? Shouldn’t that person be defended?
What are some that you might be getting stuck in?
Connie Schultz, a Cleveland columnist, said this – “I learned that those who are most secure in their faith feel no need to hammer others with their certainty. The walk of faith begins and ends with the journey within, and that’s a path fraught with mystery and best guesses. My own faith makes me neither right nor righteous because it demands so much of me that I am still trying to find. Empathy, forgiveness, compassion – I never have enough. Mom would say that’s okay. She taught me that being a Christian meant fixing ourselves and helping others, not the other way around.”
But I think all of this can actually be summed up best by scripture itself. In Romans 4:16-17 Paul said this, “The Law brings about wrath. But when there isn’t any law, there isn’t any violation of the law. That’s why the inheritance comes through faith, so that it will be on the basis of God’s grace.”
Jesus showed that grace by breaking the law so he could heal the woman, not waiting one more day, but bringing her healing right then. Grace brings love. Grace brings hope. Grace brings life. Grace should be what guides us and leads us to faith. To end where I started, it isn’t the laws that will bring us true faith. They never will. Instead, it is grace that creates that awe and joy within us. Grace that is “amazing” and grace that will lead us home.