Luke 13: 10 On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, 11 and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” 13 Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God. 14 Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.” 15 The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? 16 Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?” 17 When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing.
I’m feeling some anxiety this morning. We’ve just heard Jesus call someone a hypocrite, and that person was clergy. Like me. And during a worship service. In front of all the worshipers. And here we are, gathered together in the presence of this same Jesus. It just goes to show what Jesus’ brother James said: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness (Js. 3:1).”
Some of us here might be having other feelings, like trauma, or guilt, if ever your parents or a preacher told you, “No, you can’t go fishing on the Sabbath; no, you can’t tend your rose bushes, play softball, swim at the beach, go to a concert or watch any movie ever at all on the Sabbath. You’re just going to sit there all day after church and read your Bible. Or some devotional book.” Now I’m all for such devotional reading, but not when it is imposed on people in ways that heighten the letter of the Law and kill the spirit.
As for the rabbi whom Jesus called, “hypocrite,” I confess that a little part of me wants to rise to the rabbi’s defense. And not just because we’re both clergy. He and I take the Sabbath seriously. And so does Jesus, apparently. So that’s one thing this rabbi got right: he knew the importance of the Sabbath, and so he took it seriously.
So seriously did he take it that, from his training as a rabbi, he could probably quote word for word the Fourth Commandment of the Ten Commandments from Exodus 20: “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.”
He also got right the fact that the Sabbath was for rest. He doesn’t object to Jesus healing the woman bent over all those eighteen years; he objects to the fact that Jesus healed her on the Sabbath. Now there is no verse in the Bible that says that healing was work forbidden on the Sabbath. Jewish tradition and case law have long said that a doctor or a nurse could do their work in urgent cases of life or death. The rabbi would have known that. But he seemed to think that the woman’s eighteen-year infirmity was not an urgent life or death matter. It could wait another day, he thought.
Another thing that rabbi got right was that the Sabbath is for worship. He and Jesus were worshiping that day. So are we. Ideally, we worship God at some point every day in our prayers, in our work and our witness before others. When Christians argue over which is the right day to worship, I wonder, “On which day should we not worship God?”
But given our highly distractible human natures, we cannot guarantee that we will pray and worship God any day of the week if we do not commit to worshiping God at least one certain day a week. Observing the Sabbath is not intended to be the limit of our worship; it is the base minimum guarantee that we will worship God.
Another thing that rabbi got right about the Sabbath is that he expected that observing it would be costly. It could be inconvenient. Sabbath rest requires some work. The Sabbath won’t observe itself. It could even meet some resistance from the world.
Thirty years ago the first Christians of the Senufo tribe in Burkina Faso accepted the cost of observing the Sabbath. Last week I mentioned how they wanted to know what sacrifices God requires of us. Reading the Bible for the first time, they quickly saw how important the Sabbath is. So their next question to the missionary linguists was, “When should we observe the Sabbath?” Their friends, family and neighbors took Fridays off each week because that is the Muslim day of prayer. Taking Sundays off would put them at odds with their families, with some of their market days, and the days that their farming co-ops might do field work together. Observing the Sabbath on Sundays could cost them dearly.
So they brought in an African theologian and pastor from neighboring Ivory Coast to help them discern this matter. He ended up his teaching by saying this: because the Christians changed the Sabbath from the Jewish practice of Friday sunset to Saturday sunset, to Sunday instead, the day of Jesus’ resurrection, I think it’s more important that you observe a weekly Sabbath, than when. I would think you can observe it on Friday, when everyone else around you is taking a break.
I would have respected their decision to do just that, if that is what they had chosen. It’s what I counsel people whom the community needs to have working on Sunday, like fire fighters, police, group home aides, paramedics, emergency room doctors and nurses. Oh….and preachers. I take Mondays off.
But the new Senufo Christians asked that visiting pastor, “On what day do all the other Christians and churches of the world observe the Sabbath?”
“Sunday,” he said.
“Then that is when we’re observing it too, whatever the cost. Because the worldwide church of Jesus Christ is now our tribe.”
Those Senufo Christians not only understood and embraced the cost of the Sabbath, they understood its observance as a marker of their identity, as God’s covenant people. So did the rabbi in today’s Bible text.
But I can think of at least three ways in which that rabbi went off the rails, and so might we: 1) He forgot, or overlooked that the Sabbath is not just a rule, it is rooted in God’s very nature; 2) He forgot, or overlooked that the Sabbath is about human worth and dignity, as well as God’s worth and dignity; and 3) He forgot, or overlooked, that the Sabbath is a picture, a foretaste of our destiny, indeed, that of all Creation.
As for the first thing the rabbi forgot, or overlooked, that the Sabbath is rooted in God’s very nature: Our God is not only a working, creating, redeeming God. The peace, rest, release, serenity and tranquility of the Sabbath ideal find their source in God’s very nature too.
In that version of the 4th Commandment given in Exodus 20, the reason given for the Sabbath is that God Almighty himself rested on the 7th day of Creation. Now that does not mean that God got so tuckered out after six days of making the heavens and the earth that he needed to put his feet up, chill out, rest and recover. Ours is a timeless and tireless God. In the ancient Near East, to say that a God rested meant that this God accepted and entered his new temple. When God created earth and the heavens then, he effectively made his own temple. And when the Bible says that God “rested,” that means that he found the temple of earth good, and entered it, there to dwell with his subjects and his worshipers.
That was also the case when the first temple in Jerusalem was built. Upon its completion, King Solomon prayed a prayer of dedication for the new temple, ending with these words, “Now arise, Lord God, and come to your resting place, you and the ark of your might.” And then the temple was so filled with the cloud of God’s glory that the priests could not minister in it. That’s how they knew that God accepted that dwelling place as his and took his rest in it. The Sabbath is our weekly reminder that everywhere we live, move and work is God’s temple, the Earth, and we are ever in the very presence of God.
It’s not just the Sabbath Day that speaks about God’s presence and ownership of Earth. Every seventh year in Hebrew law was to be a Sabbath year in which the Israelites were to forgive all debts, release all slaves and let the land rest from farming. That was good conservation practice, but it also reminded the people that the land is God’s, and we are but God’s tenants.
Then after every Sabbath of Sabbath years, on the 50th year of Jubilee, all lands were to be returned to the clans and tribes who first got them after the Exodus. That was to keep an increasingly smaller group of people from accumulating and owning an increasingly larger amount of land at everyone else’s expense, like in the game of Monopoly, when you put hotels on Boardwalk and Park Place and then clean everybody else out who lands there with sky-high rent. Returning the land to the original families, clans and tribes pushed the economic reset button and gave everyone a fresh start and a fair chance to stay in the game.
These Sabbath days, years and Sabbaths of Sabbath years, the Jubilee year, were so important to God that the failure to observe them was one of the reasons why Israel was exiled in Babylon for 70 years: In 2 Chronicles 36: 20-21, we hear that “God took into exile in Babylon those who had escaped from the sword… 21 to fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had made up for its Sabbaths. All the days that it lay desolate it kept Sabbath, to fulfill seventy years.” In effect, “the land vomited the Israelites out” into exile, so that God’s Promised Land could finally have its 70 years of overdue Sabbath rests from oppression and exploitation. All these meanings of the Sabbath Jesus put to words when he said, “Woman, you are released!” Because ours is a releasing, restoring, redeeming God, a Sabbath God who forgives our debts of sins and releases us from slavery to sin, suffering, injustice and death.
Had that rabbi, whom Jesus called “hypocrite” remembered or considered that the Sabbath is a reflection or an expression in time of a Sabbath God of justice, peace and release, who works for rest, renewal and reconciliation, he would not have blown a gasket when that woman suddenly stood up straight for the first time in eighteen years, and praised her Maker and Healer. For Jesus released this woman from eighteen years nonstop of the hardest work of all: suffering. There is no work in life harder than suffering. That rabbi should have said, “Her healing is precisely what the Sabbath is about!”
He should also have known this second thing: that the Sabbath is about our worth and dignity, as well as the worth and dignity of God. The second time that Moses expounded the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy chapter 5, he gave another reason for it than what we heard in Exodus 20, about God resting on the 7th day of Creation. In Deuteronomy 5, that version of the Sabbath commandment says, “15 Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.”
In Pharaoh’s Egypt, no rest was guaranteed anyone. In the imperial religions of ancient Egypt, Assyria and Babylon, the common people existed only to be slaves and sacrifices to the divine emperor, as his worker drones, his soldier drones or as sexual drones in his harem, to live at the Emperor’s beck and call all day, any day, every day. But the Sabbath gift and the command that the Hebrews were given at Mt. Sinai, after they left Egypt, quite radically set them apart from the oppressive, exploitative kingdoms and religions of their neighbors. That God commanded rest for all, from king to commoner, and even for the laboring animals, means that every part of Creation has its own God-given dignity and its own God-given integrity, apart from how much they can do for the economy. The Sabbath means that everyone is to be valued, cherished and nurtured equally as Creations of God, and not as units of productivity to be exploited. The Sabbath says that everyone’s well-being and recuperation is just as important as everyone’s labor and contributions. It is a weekly reminder that God created us and values us as human beings and not just human doings. It’s our reminder to let God be God 24/7, and that there’s glory and goodness enough just in being human.
Had that rabbi remembered that about the Sabbath, he would have responded to the woman’s healing with a “Hallelujah! This is the Sabbath in action!” For Jesus not only restored that woman’s bent back, he restored the dignity of her role and place as a participant and contributor in her family and community.
The third thing the rabbi forgot was that the Sabbath is a foretaste of our destiny. Every time we rest and worship on the Sabbath we’re doing a dress rehearsal of all Creation’s coming universal Sabbath rest from sin, death, injustice and conflict. For that is how our salvation and “the renewal of all things” are often described in the Bible, as “rest.”
That rabbi should have known the promises of the Prophets, like Isaiah, about the coming Messiah, “whose resting place will be glorious.” Rabbis before him had already begun talking about the coming kingdom of the Messiah as “the day when all will be Sabbath.” The writer of Hebrews tells us that “a sabbath rest still remains for the people of God… Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest…” And John the Revelator heard an angel describe our eternal Sabbath in his vision of heaven: “Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord.” “Yes,” replies the Spirit, “they will rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.” When the New Jerusalem descends to unite heaven and earth, we read of God’s new resting place: “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples and God himself will be with them.”
When that rabbi saw that woman stand up for the first time in eighteen years and praise God, he should have known that he had just seen a sneak preview of the promised day of the Messiah, the day “when all shall be Sabbath.” Even, that he had seen the Messiah himself.
Now what does all this mean for us today? For Twenty-First Century Mennonites, it seems like we are going from one extreme to another. We used to hear that if you’re having any fun on the Sabbath, you’re making God angry! Now we’re more likely to hear, “Does it even matter anymore? Weren’t we set free from that law, like the one about not eating pork?”
But we now face a different problem, from back when things were so strict that the clock barely moved on Sundays. We now face every incentive, and all sorts of pressures, to be so overactive, committed, busy and beholden to everyone and everything that Sunday is just another day in a hectic, frantic, nonstop stream of activities, obligations, duties and distractions. In our fast-paced, technologically complicated world, we face what I call “obligation inflation.” If we can conceivably do something, then we must do it. No excuses: there’s always an app for that.
This obligation inflation is happening in the world of technology, sports, academics, business, and entertainment. All of them together are clamoring for ever more space in our calendar, and in our lives. In such a world, Sabbath-keeping is seen as a luxury at best, or as something unproductive, obstructionist, even antisocial, at worst. We’re constantly told to be very afraid that if we miss out on this event, or if our children miss out on that activity, then there’s no catching up in the race for grades, for scholarships, for professional advancement, networking, or building up my bank account or my resume. With all the offerings, options, trends and technology coming at us, there’s no keeping up with all the obligations and expectations as well.
Now, I’m not going to give a list today of what we can or cannot do on the Sabbath. I would simply ask, “Is what we do when we leave from here today helpful to our refreshment and renewal, in body, soul and spirit?” And if you can honestly say that, yes, going fishing or tending to my garden or going to the game, or playing in it, does indeed push my spiritual, emotional and physical reset button, I’ll take your word for it, especially if the first part of this day has been given to active and focused worship of God.
But if whatever we do after this worship service is motivated by the fear of not keeping up, or the fear of disappointing someone else, and you can’t grab another day off this week to rest and recharge, we’ve got some bigger issues to work on than carving out time for Sabbath rest and worship.
Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” I’m glad we’ve left some of the rigid legalism of the past behind. But we mustn’t just ditch the Sabbath, because the Sabbath is finally not about us. It’s about the LORD who dwells in the temple of this world, this time, this people. Otherwise, we start to think we are gods, and that this earth is our very own temple in which we can do whatever we wish, without limits or consequences, for our own glory and aggrandizement. That is too much a burden for us to bear, and for the planet. Only One among us here is capable of it, and worthy of it, the One who released that daughter of Abraham from eighteen years of nonstop suffering. Like all the commandments of God, the Sabbath is also a gift from him that we desperately need, especially now.