Sunday, August 22, 2010

Breaking the Sabbath, or Restoring the Sabbath?

I like thinking, "what if?" We're always casting the Pharisees and religious leaders as the bad guys, the sinister characters lurking in the shadows of the Gospels, awaiting their opportunity to jump out and yell "BOO!" at the Messiah.

Real life is more nuanced than that, and I imagine that more than a few religious leaders actually heard and considered and were changed by what Jesus was saying. Perhaps this leader of the synagogue was one of them.

You know the drill: comments and constructive criticism welcome!

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Now the word of the LORD came to me saying, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations." Then I said, "Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy." But the LORD said to me, "Do not say, 'I am only a boy'; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD." Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, "Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant."

Hebrews 12:18-29
You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them. (For they could not endure the order that was given, "If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned to death." Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, "I tremble with fear.")
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking; for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven! At that time his voice shook the earth; but now he has promised, "Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven." This phrase, "Yet once more," indicates the removal of what is shaken-that is, created things-so that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire.

Luke 13:10-17
Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, "Woman, you are set free from your ailment." When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, "There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day." But the Lord answered him and said, "You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?" When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

This is the word of the Lord.

I struggled for awhile to come up with the right adjective to describe this pericope, this account of Jesus healing a crippled woman. It’s a beautiful account, but it’s confusing. It’s powerful, but a little, dare I say, convoluted.

Jesus heals a woman who doesn’t ask for healing, and the leader of the synagogue doesn’t confront him directly about it, but shouts at the people. And instead of calling the leader of the synagogue a hypocrite, Jesus speaks in the plural – directed to the people gathered there, rejoicing? To the religious sect the leader of the synagogue was a member of? Perhaps the leader was joined in his protests by others in the synagogue. We don’t know.

The more I think about this leader of the synagogue, though, the more I think he gets kind of a bum deal most of the time. After all, we’re a people who don’t keep the Sabbath, we attend church on the first day of the week, Sunday, rather than the last day, Saturday. And while for much of the last century, many parts of America had blue laws, prohibitions against stores and restaurants and such being open on Sunday, for the most part all of those laws have been either done away with or are largely ignored.

Some of us enjoy Sunday as a day to rest, enjoy friends and family, watch a ball game or a race, and recharge for the coming week. But we’re not above doing some work if it needs to be done: an extra shift at our job, or some repair work on our home or car. We’ll drive to the grocery store, pick up a shovel or a rake, push a lawn mower, whatever needs to be done.

All this Sabbath-keeping stuff is long past us, so we view the exchange between Jesus and the ruler of the synagogue as little more than Jesus winning an argument. Jesus doing away with the idea of the Sabbath rest. We see it as a justification for working or doing whatever needs to be done on whatever day of the week it comes up.

But there’s something deeper going on here.

It helps to understand, first, that the ruler of the synagogue (and for the sake of simplicity I’m going to call him the rabbi during the rest of our discussion this morning) may not simply have been blowing his top over Jesus breaking the rules: “how dare he cause me to look bad in front of the congregation by deliberately going against the things I think are right!”

What if this rabbi’s outburst, his protest, was not a result of being offended, but rather out of concern that the members of his synagogue, his community, whom he cared deeply for, worship their God in the way he knew of as best?

Each of us knows that one of the Ten Commandments is to “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. 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. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.” That’s Exodus 20, verses 8 through 11, by the way.

For the devout Jew, the words about no one doing any work are not a suggestion, not a commentary on the commandment, but part and parcel of the commandment, the “how” to the “what” of remembering the Sabbath.

Over the centuries men of faith had, through long discussion and serious prayer, come up with specific instruction aimed at properly observing the Sabbath. If one should not work on the Sabbath, then one must understand, in detail, and no detail is too fine, how “work” is defined.

There are thirty-nine categories of prohibited activity on the Sabbath. They are: plowing earth, sowing, reaping, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, selecting, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking, there’s the shearing, washing, beating or dyeing of wool, then spinning, weaving, making two loops, weaving two threads, separating two threads, tying, untying, sewing stitches, tearing, trapping, slaughtering, flaying, tanning, then scraping, marking, or cutting hide to shape, also writing two or more letters, erasing two or more letters, building, demolishing, extinguishing a fire, kindling a fire, putting the finishing touch on an object and transporting an object between the private domain and the public domain, or for a distance of 4 cubits within the public domain. Whew!

Furthermore, while Jewish Law demanded that the Sabbath be broken in order to save a life or prevent death, but that was the limit. Healing, you see, may involve work.

Thus a plaster might be applied to a wound if the object was to prevent it from getting worse, but not to heal it. Life could be saved, but healing from injury beyond that could never take place on the Sabbath.

I can imagine this rabbi, having spent his life in the study of the Law, was sent from the Temple into a village in the Galilean countryside. There, working out of the tiny synagogue and simple home provided for him, he would have mediated disputes, written and read letters for the largely illiterate populace, counseled troubled people, comforted the lonely, rejoiced with the happy, officiated weddings, performed circumcisions, officiated funerals…

In short, he would have come to care about these people. He would have grown to love them. Nothing would have made him happier than seeing this woman, bent and in pain for as long as he had known her, standing erect, singing praise to the God who had healed her! But it was the wrong time for this to happen, weren’t there six other days in the week for healing? Why now, today, when the Law taught strictly that such things were forbidden?

And what should happen if everyone who was sick, crippled, and in some kind of pain came forward for a touch from this amazing man, this Jesus of Nazareth? The whole town would be breaking the Law! He had to protect them, he had to stop them from doing the unthinkable!

I’m approaching it this way because, when we read passages like this, we tend to see Jesus in opposition to angry, contentious religious leaders. We tend to hear the words in our head as if Jesus was having an argument with them, and winning the argument. That’s kind of true, but it isn’t precisely accurate.

Here’s what I mean. When people are under stress, when a problem or a challenge produces anxiety, they most commonly react not with logic or clear reasoning, but with emotion, operating out of the most primitive portion of the brain, what’s called the reptilian brain. They fight back. That’s why, when you hear two people arguing, and you’re not involved, it so often sounds confusing, and perhaps a bit silly, each one saying things that demonstrate that they’re not completely listening to one another. Each one is not so much trying to convince the other of his point as trying to protect his turf. Winning an argument isn’t as much about bringing someone over to your way of thinking as it is about verbally beating them into silence.

And while, many times, the scribes and Pharisees were, from their perspective, fighting for their own turf, Jesus didn’t have any turf to protect. His whole life, every word he spoke, wasn’t an effort to put people in their place, to demonstrate his verbal prowess, to highlight his intellectual superiority, but to speak the truth to people who were starving for it. Dying for it. He spoke words not to win arguments, but to change lives.

I imagine this rabbi, with conflicting emotions of joy at the healing of this beloved woman and fear at seeing his people profane a holy day, shocked at the harshness of Jesus’ words to him: “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”

Luke doesn’t record the rabbi’s response. I’d like to think there wasn’t one, not immediately. Henry David Thoreau said, “It takes two to speak the truth: one to speak, and another to hear.” What if that rabbi, who was just as passionate about seeing the lives of these people he loved, really heard what Jesus was saying? Not immediately (being called a hypocrite stings a bit, after all), but after the shock wore off. What if he thought about what Jesus said, and understood… and was changed?

You see, when we get right down to it, Jesus wasn’t breaking the Sabbath! He wasn’t encouraging others to break the Sabbath! Jesus was returning the Sabbath to its original intention – a day of rest given in praise and worship of God. A day where the mundane and ordinary is set aside, and God is glorified.

Elsewhere Jesus says that the Sabbath was made for the man, not man for the Sabbath. Perhaps what the rabbi learned that day, and perhaps what Jesus is saying to you and I this morning, is that our faith is not built upon the rules we follow, or the words we repeat. Our hope is not predicated on the soundness of our doctrine, or founded on theological treatises. The woman in that synagogue was not healed to make a point, but because she needed healing. She was healed not to win an argument, but to glorify God.

It is that simple, and that profound. Christ was consumed with glorifying God in all things, and his message was always one of love. Far beyond rules and laws and doctrines and theological statements, this too is our aim: to glorify God and to love all those who God created.

It is that love which defines our faith.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful message!
    I especially liked your observation:
    "The woman in that synagogue was not healed to make a point, but because she needed healing. She was healed not to win an argument, but to glorify God."

    Rules make things easy for insiders. What to do and what not to do is right there, in black and white. Jesus calls us deeper, out from under the law and into our hearts. When we examine how we practice our faith in the light of Christ, those practices take on a much deeper meaning. Our faith practices then serve to draw people to Christianity, where rules, almost always, push them away.

    Great job.