Isaiah 58:9b-14 Psalms 103:1-8 Hebrews 12: 18 - 29 Luke 13:10-17
The priest asked the children to join her up front for the sermon. Once they had settled down, she asked who knew the story of Jonah and the whale. A sea of hands flew into the air. “Good for you!” she smiled. “But, I have a harder question. Who knows the whale’s side of the story?” There was silence for a moment then Ranger raised his hand. “I know, I know!” he said. The priest invited him up to come forward to share with everyone. The priest took Ranger up to the pulpit and set him on a chair so everyone could see him. She pulled the microphone down to his level so he could be heard. “Now, Ranger, tell us how the whale would tell the story of Jonah.” Ranger smiled out at the congregation, leaned in as close as he could to the microphone, then he let out a prolonged, noisy burp that echoed throughout the sanctuary. Stunned silence. No one had ever burped in that great mahogany pulpit before. Ranger let out a squeal of laughter in celebration of his great coup. The other children and the entire congregation joined in.
The crippled woman had nothing to celebrate. She came to the synagogue out of duty. She had lived with a spirit for eighteen years and wasn’t able to stand up straight. She doesn’t expect healing. She doesn’t ask for healing. Jesus calls to her and sets her free from her ailment by laying hands on her. Her response is to stand up straight and begin praising God. It is striking that she doesn’t ask for healing and no one seeks healing for her. Over the years, she has become accustomed to her long and serious illness, which is attributed to Satan.
Jesus was an observant Jew. He accepted entirely that one should observe the Sabbath. However, his issue was that one should always observe the Sabbath in such a way that is liberating and not oppressive. The Jewish community was accustomed to debate about the parameters of Sabbath observance, a point Jesus makes as he draws attention to the practice of untying an ox or donkey for water. If this is okay, then why not a healing?
Jesus is teaching in the synagogue. Here is a healing opportunity, where Jesus spots a woman. Being bent double for eighteen years is a long time (in the first century, the age lifespan was thirty to thirty-five years). So Jesus calls her over, lays his hands on her and frees her from her ailments. Naturally, she celebrates and so does the crowd.
In response to the leaders of the synagogue, Jesus offers an interpretation of the Sabbath observance that always includes liberation. Interestingly, he links the illness of the woman to the work of Satan. It is not punishment by God, nor is it a case that Satan causes the illness. But Jesus is making the important point that ultimately, God does not intend anyone to be sick and, ultimately, all of us will indeed be whole. God’s desire for all of us is healing and wholeness.
For eighteen years, this unnamed woman must strain to see the sun, the sky, and the stars. For eighteen years she has looked downward or just slightly ahead of herself. She had never looked upward without immense struggle. For eighteen years, her world has been one of turning from side to side to see what those who stand upright can see with ease. She is used to this and no one questions her situation.
The miraculous healing described in this story is met with indignation by the “leader of the synagogue.” The leader of the synagogue gets offended that Jesus would heal on the Sabbath. There are rules and there are regulations. Leadership is supposed to care about the rules. To be in a position of leadership requires bearing the responsibility for really understanding the rules and interpreting them to others. Any leader of an organization knows how some folks can push the envelope, how they always want exceptions to the rules. How there’s is always a special case. It can get very complicated. So, perhaps it is better to just stick to the rules.
The Torah teaches that someone might break the Sabbath to save the life of a Jew, but not a Gentile, except under particular circumstances. This understanding of the Torah underlines just how seriously observant Jews take the Sabbath. Even if the Sabbath may be broken to save a life, the logic of this view doesn’t permit breaking it to heal something not life-threatening.
She had lived with her affliction for eighteen years. How could one more day matter? She is not in mortal danger. It is not unthinkable to imagine that she could wait another day, or even another week. The woman finds herself in quite a different place from the synagogue leader. It is easy to counsel someone else to be patient. Rules seem more reasonable when they don’t affect the rule enforcer. Jesus identifies with the woman rather than the synagogue leader. It seems as though her disfigurement was his own or even his mother’s.
Have you noticed how people’s tenacity about rules tends to become more flexible when the rule hits closer to home? We can begin to see injustice and even cruelty in a rule we might ordinarily support. This is true in issues debated in churches these days. The issues of homosexuality, or racism, or immigration are easy to dismiss, if you don’t know anybody in those categories. It is when you are able to put a face, a heart, love to the issue, that it becomes more about the people and less about the rules. We experienced that in the night class as we read Brian Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy. Most of us were not African American, but we were able to see their plight and walk with them. Jesus understood that – that it was more about compassion for the woman’s pain than the rules.
In recent years, Sabbath keeping has become more important for many Christians. Jesus gave us the example of setting aside time to be with God. Some folks have given up shopping on their designated day of rest or they turn off phones and ignore e-mails for a day. Barbara Brown Taylor shares her efforts on Sabbath keeping. She tells of a time when she committed to setting aside all work or work related reading for one day. It was a gorgeous sunny day, so she took her folding chair out into the yard. She sat there looking at magazines for about an hour. Then she thought she would go stark-raving crazy with boredom. Unfortunately, many of us face the same peril.
Sabbath keeping is setting aside time for God. Sabbath keeping values our ability to rest, not merely our ability to work. In keeping Sabbath, we measure ourselves by a different yardstick: we try to see how much delight we can celebrate in the world, not how much we can get “done.” When we keep Sabbath, we pay attention to God’s invitation – to the quiet, to nature, to songs of praise. We separate time into parts precisely to hold time together. Sacred time is not when we get our work done, but all time, in which we keep and honor Sabbath living.
Our lives become cluttered with our accomplishments, our chores, our need to prepare for the next thing. Good things pile on top of other good things. We get cluttered by the good and forget where our air comes from. We forget that our breath comes from God’s breath, that our buoyancy and generosity come from God. Keeping Sabbath pauses us. It pauses us before we go out to work. It refreshes us. On Sundays, at worship we remember the source of our air. We breathe together and dedicate our talents to God.
However, the practice of observing Sabbath on one particular day challenges our busy lives. If God says that both work and play are good, and human beings know how to turn even what is good into idolatry and legalism, how do we set aside time for God? We become desperate for rest in a culture that seems to reward only work. We understand ourselves as overworked, but in a way, we are proud of our productivity, our exhaustion and our failure to honor the Sabbath.
But in Sabbath-keeping we recognize the wisdom in honoring a day of rest and reflection, and we acknowledge the personal discipline needed to keep it. Is it possible to respect and honor a rule without permitting exceptions? Is it possible that considering the weight of each exception is paramount? We must first take into account the virtues of the rule and the divine compassion Jesus shows the woman.
Some of us have no problem with scriptural texts about miracles, while others find them irrelevant or embarrassing. None of us has the power to understand the text to be able to judge about what happened. The bigger issue is to decide how the story functions within the text. What purpose is served by Luke’s story about Jesus’ healing of a woman who has been disfigured by some affliction, some form or arthritis? The heart of the story is theological.
As a theological statement, the story says something about Jesus’ identity and authority and about the character of God revealed in what Jesus does. Jesus does not pray for the woman, as you and I might, but he simply calls her over and declares, “Woman, you are free from your ailment.” When he lays hands on her, she is immediately liberated from her crippling ailment. Her healing does not depend on her faith or the faith of others.
Luke leaves us to decide whose authority permits him to do it, despite the fact that it requires the suspension of a perfectly good rule.
The story of the afflicted woman provides a picture of what the ultimate reign of God will be like. Where Jesus is, the kingdom is. Where Jesus is, things begin to be made right. His ministry provides a foretaste of the coming kingdom. In the reign of God, the world will be repaired. There will be no blindness or loss of hearing, no one broken or disfigured. In the reign of God, there will be no conflicts between what is good for all. If this is the ultimate future God is preparing for us, how can we contribute to God’s kingdom wherever we are? We can respond - with rules or with compassion. We can respond with love or law.
Surely, we can make time for God, for God to clarify things for us. Remember God’s freeing power in Christ. God wants us healed and whole. I have shared before that one of the first messages I received in Centering Prayer was - God will fill the space that I make for him. We need to set aside time for God, to build relationship, to build hope, to strengthen our faith, to receive grace and mercy. God will fill the space that we make for him. Take some Sabbath time. Spend some time with Jesus. Amen.