St. Thomas’ Church, Whitemarsh
Proper 16, Year C, 2016
May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.
We don’t know her name or even how old she is. But it’s safe to assume that 18 years is a significantly long time to be bent over—it’s at least 6,570 days. 6,570 days of walking around, staring at the ground or her feet. 6,570 days of being shunned, ostracized, separated from her community. 6,570 days without human touch.
We don’t know what makes her stop at the synagogue that day, of all days. Has she heard of Jesus and his healing power? Or has she simply been alone too long and needs to be around people, to feel human again, even if it means she’ll once more face rejection?
What we do know is that as soon as Jesus lays eyes on her, he immediately stops teaching and calls her over to the crowd. This woman—unclean, untouchable, unwanted—is invited to be a part of the group. She doesn’t ask for anything, but simply makes her way to Jesus, her heart beating wildly. Notice what Jesus says to her. Not “you are healed” or “you are made well” but “you are set free” (Luke 13:12). The woman has been released from what has been holding her back and keeping her down. As soon as Jesus lays hands on her, she stands up straight and begins to praise God (13:13).
But this is no ordinary day for reasons other than the miraculous healing; this is a Sabbath day. Wanting to make an example of Jesus and shame him in front of the crowd, the leader of the synagogue tells them that it is absolutely not appropriate for him to be doing any work, and especially not such important work like healing on the Sabbath.
This might seem an extreme reaction to us today. To understand what makes the leader of the synagogue so upset about Jesus healing on the Sabbath day, we have to go back to the origins of the Sabbath. There’s the obvious story of God resting on the seventh day of creation, not from exhaustion, but to delight in all of God’s handiwork (Genesis 2:2-3). Then there’s the Ten Commandments, of which keeping the Sabbath is one (Exodus 20). Remember that these commandments are given to the Israelites after they have been freed from slavery in Egypt; the Sabbath is a time to praise God and to remember and give thanks for their liberation. It is one of the most important commandments, for it reminds them that they belong to God. Therefore, the Israelites take this commandment very seriously; the punishment for working on the Sabbath is death (Exodus 31:15).
When Jesus heals on the Sabbath, it’s not considered to be just a little bit disrespectful; for the leader of the synagogue it appears to be a slap in the face of God. And that kind of behavior cannot be tolerated, but must be addressed and put down immediately.
Jesus responds by calling the leadership out for their hypocrisy. He reminds them that even on the Sabbath day they must still do a little bit of work to stay alive; they must continue to take care of their animals by untying them and leading them to water. If they’re allowed to do that, then how much more is he compelled to release this woman—who, by the way, is descended from Abraham, just like all of them—how much more is he compelled to release her from her captivity? Is not her life worth more than the lives of their donkeys?
Ultimately the message Jesus is conveying is that mercy and compassion are always a part of the saving work of God; God demonstrates this over and over again throughout the Bible, throughout all history. Therefore, works of mercy and compassion should be permitted on the Sabbath because they remind us of God’s saving work.
Jesus redefines the meaning of Sabbath by paying attention to the world around him, liberating people from their burdens, and by reconnecting them with God and each other. We are called to do the same. Sabbath is not just about resting, but about us finding freedom from our burdens and setting others free from theirs. We cannot have complete rest on the Sabbath when our sisters and brothers are suffering. We cannot turn a blind eye when we see others in pain, whether they are the homeless person next to the neighborhood coffee shop or the little boy pulled from the rubble in Aleppo, Syria.
Our liturgy is designed to help us live into this new form of Sabbath. We begin the service by hearing the story of our salvation. We revel in God’s creation and pray for the world. We confess our sins and are assured of God’s forgiveness. We share with our sisters and brothers the peace of Christ followed by the Body and Blood of Christ, reconnecting with one another and with God. And then we are sent out, refreshed, to
[Rite I] “continue in that holy fellowship, and do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in, through Jesus Christ our Lord” (BCP 339).
[Rite II] “do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve [God] as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord” (BCP 366).
May this Sabbath day and every Sunday equip us to “go in peace to love and serve the Lord” (BCP 340, 366).
Image found here.