Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; Hebrews 12: 18-29; Luke 13:10-17
I was wondering when you last thought of Sunday as a real Sabbath, a shalom, a day of transformation, peace and healing.
Sundays – when I was a child at boarding school – were days of endless boredom, punctuated by three church services, wearing smart Sunday school uniform and regularly instructed to keep quiet, read the bible and ordered to take enforced rest in the dormitories without talking. Smuggled radios were worth their weight in gold.
For my own children there was a time when Sundays were days filled with sporting obligations, cricket and football matches, swimming, tennis and my husband and I ferrying sons to different locations and we’d meet at supper where one of us had to find the energy to prepare the meal and be thinking about the week ahead.
Church was not a welcoming place generally with children frowned upon when they rustled and I was glared at frequently for clearly not being able to keep my children in order – consequently I avoided church for about 10 years and only really came back when they were older and able to ‘behave’.
There were all these Sunday Rules that were imposed and were meaningless, unhelpful, the reasons long forgotten and spirit of the rule completely ignored.
This particular Gospel story of this bent and disabled women being healed by Jesus in the synagogue on the Sabbath, is found only in Luke.
Its placement in the text is interesting – it comes after a discussion about some Jews who have been killed by Pilate in the Temple, ‘mingling their blood with the sacrifice’, and another group of Jews reportedly killed by a collapsing wall near the seat of judgement by the city gates.
There was speculation among those around Jesus and probably as general market gossip, that these Jews were perhaps somehow worse sinners and their deaths were God’s judgement which Jesus refutes categorically.
He reminded his listeners we are all sinners and unless we pay attention, it is us that are in danger rather than those who are being killed, deliberately or accidentally.
And then after this Healing story, there are two very short descriptions about the Kingdom of God being like a mustard seed, and like yeast – both needing to be sown or mixed before they can grow and flourish and be productive as God intended.
So what’s happening here in this story about the woman who has been bent over for 18 years who is healed on the Sabbath in a synagogue?
There are three aspects to the story I want to discuss here…
Jesus is doing what he always does, preaching and teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath. It’s how he started out his ministry and it’s a practice he is maintaining. People are gathering in the synagogue because it is the Sabbath; they are attending because that’s what they do according to the law, and I suspect on this occasion, many will have come to this synagogue because Jesus will be there.
And so I go back to my opening question, do we understand the Sabbath as life giving and life changing?
In the busyness of our lives, stopping, slowing down, paying attention to God and our relationships, uncluttering the days with distractions, shopping, getting chores done, perhaps even having to go to work, do we find a day which we can call Sabbath?
What does God intend for us with a day of rest and worship? We work hard so a day of rest is essential. The Sabbath is a day to remember who we are and why we were made.
On this particular Sabbath, Jesus heals a crippled woman, a woman so bent, she’s not able to look up, or look forward and whose life must have been incredibly difficult physically, socially, economically and religiously. She doesn’t even come asking Jesus for healing, but she has come to the synagogue to pray and learn.
And symbolically, what does this woman represent for us as a community, weighted down, bent over, like this for 18 years? Is this an opportunity for us to reflect on what burdens we carry, perhaps have carried for so long we have become used to them, and have distorted the way we see the world to match our bent backs.
Jesus talks about healing and liberation for this woman, freedom from enslavement, thereby fulfilling Mary’s ‘Magnificent’ vision of God’s ‘lifting up the lowly’ (1:52) and Jesus’ messianic mission ‘to proclaim release to the captives…to let the oppressed go free’ (4:18). This is a real jubilee moment. These are big words and they are big ideas. No wonder he gets into trouble with the authorities.
And then what happens, the leader of the synagogue starts complaining, not to Jesus, but to those around him. Jesus is breaking the rules. There should be no healing on a Sunday, it’s a day of rest.
The leader is an expert in Jewish law, he’s an administrator whose job is to patrol the laws and policies and make sure there’s no exception. The leader is indignant, to heal is to work. It is unlikely the leader is a callous man, but he believes there is a bigger principle at stake here, nothing less than the rule of biblical law.
The law in questions is one of the 10 commandments in the Torah. You can hear the leader say it, can’t you, the disabled woman has suffered for 18 years, one more day wouldn’t hurt her.
Jesus rejects this logic, not because he rejects the law, but because of how he interprets it. He points to what the laws say about animals and then asks, how could a daughter of Abraham be considered to be of less worth, ‘must not this daughter be set free from her oppression without further delay (v.16). And in fact, what better day than on the life-giving and freedom-affirming Sabbath to release her burden, set her free and restore her to health.
The leader is like a stuck record as he says to the crowd, this should not be done on the Sabbath, there are six other days… he is more concerned with the letter of the law than with the purpose of God’s intention for the Sabbath.
And I’ve been thinking about this story as I’ve followed the stories of the asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island.
The law and policy says we must turn back the boats as we want to stop drownings at sea and stop the people smugglers…, and, we cannot allow these people to come to Australia as they’ll impact our culture and our country and take our benefits and employment and they might, God forbid, take advantage of our good nature and overwhelm us; and instead, in turning back the boats, locking people up and refusing them entry, we have bent their backs, broken their spirits and punished them with torture, abuse, rape, violence and death, but at least they haven’t died at sea.
Jesus says to the leader and his supporters: ’You hypocrites!’ These are strong words. I think such steadfast refusal to see beyond the letter of the law limits the freedom God’s love gives to those who are marginalised and alienated. It is dreadful and God weeps.
I also think Jesus is not simply talking about Sabbath as a day of transformation and healing for the broken, oppressed and marginalised as on this occasion, but also a day of transformation for those of us who are privileged, but also scared of the alien and the one who is different, not able to see God in the ‘Other’.
The liberation that comes with accepting all of God’s people, not seeing difference and not being frightened is remarkable. The letter of the law is not the whole law.
The healing of the bent woman heals the wounds of the community as her freedom restores them to a better understanding of God’s love and forgiveness and offers healing for all. As God reminded Jeremiah: ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you…(Jeremiah 1:5).
And as the Hebrews reading also confirms, God’s gift is secure. In the midst of a complex and changing world, Christians have something secure on which to base their lives and hopes: the reign of God, an unshakable kingdom, which has come into their midst in Jesus Christ, will one day be established in fullness on the earth.
The Lord be with You.