Today’s gospel reading takes place on an ordinary Sabbath just like today. There is a woman attending services at a synagogue somewhere in Galilee or Judea who is bent over from some sort of physical ailment that has been with her for 18 years. Jesus, as a respected rabbi, is teaching in the synagogue that day and he notices her. She may have gone unnoticed in her village after all those years of infirmity; people were used to the way she looked. But Jesus notices her. Without any fanfare he lays his hands on her and we are told that the woman stood straight. The original Greek serves us better; it says “she was straightened” emphasizing the fact that it was God who cured her.
Her response is immediate – she begins to praise and thank God. Again, the Greek helps us to understand the context better – the imperfect tense indicates that this wasn’t a one time “thank you God” but the beginning of praise and thanks that may have lasted her entire life. Imagine how the woman feels – she no longer has to look down and see only feet, she can look at people’s faces and into their eyes. Once easily overlooked, she is now able to participate fully in the life of her community. With her health restored, she is able to see that God is responsible for her healing and being a woman of faith she responds with her thanks and praise. Vision is an important theme in Luke and here Jesus sees the woman who is in need of healing and by curing her he restores her ability to see God’s love.
What a great Sabbath story. Who among us would not appreciate coming to worship and experiencing the healing of some ill, whether that of another person or perhaps our own. I know that healing of various kinds has taken place on the Sabbath right here in this place and no doubt in many churches and temples, usually in a less dramatic and more personal fashion. For us such an event on the Sabbath brings great joy. But our gospel indicates a different response to Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath. A leader of the synagogue begins to denounce him, proclaiming for all to hear that there are six other days in the week when people should seek healing, but the Sabbath is reserved as a day of no work.
To us that seems ridiculous – as Jesus explained, when we see suffering we must respond to it, Sabbath or not. But the various Jewish denominations of Jesus’ day continually argued about the law and its application, and what constituted work on the Sabbath was one of many disputed topics. The ambiguity about work on the Sabbath appears in several places in the gospels, but the concept of healing as breaking the Sabbath law is probably the most difficult for us to accept. Today, Orthodox Jews who are first responders or in the medical profession are given dispensation to work on the Sabbath.
Our lesson for today from the Book of Isaiah takes place after the Jewish people have returned to Jerusalem from their long exile in Babylon. Jerusalem had been rebuilt and a wall built around it, both for protection and also to create a sacred space where the practices of Judaism could be revived. They were struggling with their relationships with God and with their neighbor. Many were not honoring the Sabbath, and the wealthy were neglecting or even oppressing the poor. In the first creation story in Genesis, God created the world for six days but on the seventh day, God did not show up for work, thereby creating the Sabbath. The Hebrew word for Sabbath means “stop” and that is what we are to do, to stop our ordinary work and preoccupations and take time first to worship and thank God and then to enjoy some leisure time.
Today we are like those ancient Jews, we have become workaholics and we do not always honor a Sabbath. This is true of both Christians and Jews. That is something we can admire and emulate from Orthodox Judaism, the insistence on honoring the Sabbath. In many Jewish temples of all denominations there is an invitation to Oneg Shabbat in the service bulletin, a time following the service for refreshments and fellowship. Oneg Shabbat means Sabbath delight. We call that “coffee hour,” the time all the children look forward to during worship when we connect with one another on a more personal basis. A lot of plans for ministry and for helping or socializing with our friends happen during that time of refreshment following worship.
So we have a double message in our readings for today, both relevant and timely. We need to obey the third commandment to “Honor the Sabbath Day and keep it holy.” We, like the woman Jesus healed, should have the vision to see that all we have is from God, so it is important to offer our praise and thanks. Second, because like religious people throughout history, we go through phases when the Sabbath is diminished or ignored. In the early days of our country it was a civil law to keep the Sabbath. In some colonies, particularly in New England, all were required to attend worship services, which often lasted for most of the day. Meals were prepared the day before, so there was minimal cooking on the Sabbath. Fines were imposed on those who did not obey the law.
In the mid twentieth century the musician Duke Ellington wrote a beautiful composition called “Come Sunday.” He originally wrote it for an opera, which told of the plight of the African American people in the south. They were overworked and underpaid. But they were allowed to gather and sing and worship each Sunday. The refrain of the song is “But Sunday, that’s the day I’m waiting for…” At that period in history even the oppressed were permitted Sabbath rest, but today people of all different occupations are often expected to be on call 24/7. That is not good for anyone’s spiritual, mental or physical well-being. A teacher once described his busy life, “It was one of those nights when I was lying awake in my bed, babysitting the world.” How sad that he couldn’t relax and trust God to watch over things for one night!
Although Jesus always honored the Sabbath, he also taught by both word and example that there are times when it is permissible, even necessary; to perform what might be termed as “work.” If we see someone in distress, it is necessary that we help them immediately, no matter the circumstances. That’s what so many do not understand, and even seem to reject – that the nature of God is mercy, grace, and love, and that is to be our nature.
Our way has to be a different way. We have to believe that our way is a different way and to speak and act accordingly. The world needs to see that the ways of the church mean we are ready and willing to heal even on the Sabbath. We have to stand for mercy, grace, love and justice at all times for the sake of those who are suffering, marginalized or oppressed. We have to make it possible for them to be able to stand straight and proud as fellow children of God. When our vision is clear and we can see the ways of God, then we will inspire and enable others to share that vision. Amen.