Remember the Sabbath Day, to Keep It Holy Luke 13:10-17
I don’t know what you learned about the second commandment (“Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy”) in Sunday school or confirmation class but what I remember learning (not necessarily what was taught) about this commandment is that it was pretty much fulfilled if I attended church on Sundays. Surely that is one way to keep the Sabbath in a holy way. But is there more to it?
What sets off the religious leaders in today’s Gospel reading is that Jesus invites them to rethink the ways they’ve understood God’s laws—particularly that one about keeping the Sabbath holy. Jesus gives a sign of the in-breaking of the kingdom of God on the Sabbath, but all the religious leaders see is Jesus apparently breaking one of the 10 Commandments. Jesus claims he did not come to abolish the law, but to open it up in new ways no one had seen before. He heals a woman on the Sabbath not to show that the Sabbath is not important or holy, but to redefine what Sabbath IS: a time to recall that God is God and we are not.
As Jesus embodies it, keeping the Sabbath holy means following the Law of Love above all other laws. Keeping the Sabbath holy is not only about going to church on Sunday– though that is certainly good and right and holy–it’s also behaving as citizens of the kingdom of God, mindful of God’s sovereignty and grace, seven days a week. Keeping the Sabbath holy can involve reaching out to those who have been excluded or forgotten or wounded by the church or the world. It can mean marching in a Pride Parade, so that people who feel that God and the church have abandoned them can see that it is not true. It can mean participating in preparing lunch for Compass Housing Alliance residents, so that they see Christians truly feeding the hungry. It can mean just resting, trusting that God is taking care of the world, so you don’t have to.
Some questions to ask when trying to decide if we are keeping or breaking the 2nd commandment might be these: “Is this action in line with God’s dream of abundance? Does how I’m spending my time contribute to more life for me, for others, for this community, for the world? Does it give me an opportunity to remember that God is God and I am not?”
In today’s story, Jesus gives a concrete example of honoring the Sabbath day and keeping it holy. He sees a woman who has been bent over for 18 yrs. Though it’s unclear whether the ailment is physical or whether she is metaphorically “bent over” by loss or grief or trauma, what is clear is that for almost two decades, no one has seen her tears when hearing magnificent music or an unkind remark. No one has seen her smile. Whatever the circumstances, what’s clear is that she has been unable to meet anyone’s eyes for 18 years. What must that kind of isolation do to a person’s spirit?
We know what it did to the people around her. They forgot her name. They forgot who she was. All they could see was her ailment–“the bent over woman” she is called. She is defined not by her sense of humor, nor her fantastic lentil stew, nor her advice about curing diaper rash, but by what makes her different and weird and somewhat scary. They point at her, or feel sorry for her, or are annoyed with her for not taking better care of herself. Perhaps they wonder–as people are wont to do–if her suffering is God’s punishment for something she did. (Maybe they speculate about what that terrible thing was!) Surely if God loved her, if she had been faithful in her prayers and tithes and good deeds, if she’d just kept the Commandments, she wouldn‘t be in this mess.
Isn’t it true that God rewards good people with good things? That’s what today’s prosperity Gospel preachers say: “If you honor God, and have enough faith, God will make sure good things happen to you and for you.” But God is NOT a gumball machine, spewing out blessings when we put in our quarter! To think that God must ration out blessings to a deserving few is rooted in the fear that God has a limited amount of generosity, a finite amount of grace to bestow, which contradicts all we know of God’s extravagance.
The people around this woman in Luke’s story have lost the capacity to see beyond their own shoes, to imagine what it’s like to be in hers. In their own ways, they too are “bent over,” curled in on themselves—in curvatus se—which is how Martin Luther defined sin: to be curled in on oneself, unable to see, acknowledge, or care for anyone or anything else.
Jesus sees people for who they truly are, not just what their circumstances are. He doesn’t ignore their physical or emotional predicaments, but he doesn’t define them by those circumstances either. He’s the only one in this whole story who doesn’t call the woman in the synagogue “the bent over woman.” What does he call her instead? “Daughter of Abraham.” He names her as one of the shining stars God promised would be Abraham’s descendents. Jesus ranks her among those to whom God has made promises. He assures her that as a daughter of Abraham, she will never be forsaken, alone in the darkness, that God will always to be working in and through her life. The title Daughter of Abraham gives her dignity AND it connects her to all the people around her—including those who spent time thanking God they were not like her.
As I picture this scene in my mind, it is impossible for me to imagine that Jesus speaks to her while looking down on her bent back. From what I know about Jesus, I believe he would have had to look her in the eye when he was talking to her. So I imagine Jesus getting down on his knees in front of her, taking her face into his hands, and looking into her eyes when he calls her Daughter of Abraham. I am guessing that Jesus was the first person in years to see her—really SEE her. He was looking at her as she began to smile or cry. Or probably both at the same time. I believe that’s why, more than anything else, she’s able to “stand up straight and praise God.”
I don’t know if she literally stood up, if her twisted spine actually straightened. Maybe. But it’s entirely possible that her physical condition remained unchanged. Maybe standing up straight had nothing to do with her body, but her spirit experienced a miraculous healing. If this woman could claim her place in the human family again, if she could see herself with the same loving affection that Jesus offered her, wouldn’t that be healing? Wouldn’t it be a holy thing, a wondrous thing, a glorious thing for her to know she’d been seen and recognized for her true self and claimed as God’s own forever?
When we offer prayers for someone’s well-being, we keep in mind that there is a difference between being healed and being cured. Interestingly, Jesus’ words to the woman today don’t include either term. Instead he says, “You are set free from your ailment.” Not “cured,” or “made well,” but “set free.”
Can a person be “set free” and not be “cured“? That depends on what the ailment is, I guess. If it wasn’t this woman’s physical condition but her isolation from the community that caused her to suffer most, if what caused the deepest pain was her separation from others, then her back was not the real problem. Perhaps Jesus set her free by enabling her to see her own worth, regardless of her body’s condition. Maybe Jesus empowered her to rejoin her community and the world by reminding others of her worth, giving others new eyes with which to see. Maybe what she (and they) most needed was to reframe her identity, to envision her in some way other than “the bent over woman.”
The last verse in today’s reading tells us that not only did the woman stand up and praise God, but that the whole crowd rejoiced as well! Miracle of miracles! Joy is magnified when it is shared! It’s just like the miracle of the loaves and fishes. What looks like not enough becomes enough for all! An abundance of mercy, of hope, of goodness! With left-overs besides! Holy Sabbath, Batman!
So how do we, as children of Abraham, bright shining stars of God’s promise, keep a holy Sabbath like that? In Christ, we, too, are set free! Set free from fear. Set free for love. Recalling that God is God and we are not, might we discover that our own bones seem stronger and we are better able to stand up straight and praise God?
Jesus’ desire to bring wholeness and dignity to all creation extends to us and through us. For this gift of grace, for our overflowing cups of joy, for being seen and loved, let us praise God in the abundance of God’s dream, and praise God today and always.
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