“Sabbath Healing” Colchester Federated Church, August 21, 2022, (Luke 13:10-17) Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

There is a wonderful book about Christian spiritual practices called Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor by Jana Riess.  In the book, Riess attempts a different spiritual practice each month for a year in a quest to become saintly.  Her spiritual practices include fasting, lectio divina, contemplative prayer, gratitude, generosity, sabbath-keeping, and so on.  It’s a down-to-earth book about Christian spirituality in part because she fails at just about everything.  What emerges is a story about what we can learn from failure.

In the chapter on keeping the sabbath, Riess decides to do her best to keep the sabbath the way that some Orthodox Jews do.  The guidelines she discovers are quite strict and difficult.  She explains, “However things are when the Sabbath begins are how they need to remain until the Sabbath ends—no washing, cutting, cleaning, painting, or the like.  I’m not supposed to change anything from its original state.”[1]  There’s a list of thirty-nine categories of things to be avoided on the sabbath and it’s very specific, including activities like: carrying, burning, extinguishing, finishing, writing, erasing, cooking, washing, sewing, tearing, knotting, untying, shaping, plowing, planting, harvesting, selecting, and so on.[2]  For a strict observance of the sabbath, one cannot boil anything, bake anything, or even toast bread—because all of those ways of cooking change food from its original state.  Remember that nothing should be changed from its original state.

Now perhaps we think of these restrictions as too much.  Though all of them are designed to honor the example of God.  God, who created for six days and rested on the seventh day—making that day of rest a holy day when no work must be done.  Let us not forget that God commanded that we remember the sabbath day and keep it holy.

Today’s Gospel text from Luke’s 13th Chapter concerns a conflict between Jesus and a fellow Jew who happened to be a synagogue leader.  Remember how last week we wrestled with the text that Jesus did not come to bring peace but division?  Well, today we witness another conflict.  This conflict revolved around the observation of the sabbath and Jesus and the synagogue leader’s differing views on the matter.  Their disagreement was about how to remember the sabbath day and how to keep it holy. 

Jesus heals a woman who had been disabled for eighteen years.  Jesus sees her, calls her over, and says, “Woman, you are set free from your sickness.”[3]  He lays his hands on her and she immediately stands up straight and begins praising God. 

Luke tells us that the leader of the synagogue is indignant.  Not just because Jesus heals this woman, but because he healed her on the sabbath.  That’s where this passage gets especially interesting with the synagogue leader declaring, “There are six days during which work is permitted. Come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath day.”[4]  It appears that he’s even more upset at the woman than he is at Jesus.  He’s mad at this woman who came to the synagogue while Jesus was teaching.  She shows up perhaps hoping to be healed, but not outright asking Jesus to do so.  It’s Jesus who sees her, as he often saw those whom others ignored.  It’s Jesus who calls her over.  It’s Jesus who declares her free from her sickness and lays his hands on her to make it so.  But the synagogue leader is incensed that this woman (whose name we will never know) dared to show up for healing at the synagogue on the sabbath itself. 

And Jesus isn’t having it.  After healing her and hearing this woman insulted by that religious leader, Jesus speaks to anyone who may be holding similar views: “Hypocrites! Don’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from its stall and lead it out to get a drink. Then isn’t it necessary that this woman, a daughter of Abraham, bound by Satan for eighteen long years, be set free from bondage on the Sabbath day?”[5]  This is one of those mic drop moments of Jesus’ ministry.  The crowd rejoices for the wonderful things that Jesus is doing (they obviously find no violation of sabbath observances in this healing) and his opponents are put to shame.

Now it is helpful to view this passage as showing a conflict within a specific religious tradition.  One of our Jewish guides (Jared) told us when studying in the Holy Land that he’s observed over the years that Christians tend to argue with each other about orthodoxy (right beliefs.)  We do.  We even burned one another at the stake for different theologies over Communion, Baptism, and Ecclesiology.  For instance, Jan Hus (a Protestant Reformer who was active in church reform movements in the early 1400s in what is today the Czech Republic) was burned at the stake for heresy against the doctrines of the Catholic Church.  Jan Hus is often considered the first Church Reformer as he lived before and influenced Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, etc. (though we hardly ever hear about him)!  Jan Hus remains a good (and disturbing) example of what Christians have done to one another when we fight about right beliefs.  Lest we get high and mighty about people of other faiths having conflicts with one another.

Anyway, Christians tend to argue with one another both historically and in present times about orthodoxy (right beliefs).  Whereas Jared told us that Jews tend to argue with one another about orthopraxy (right practices).  This is exactly what we see in our Gospel text with Jesus and the synagogue leader (both Jewish men) arguing with one another about how to observe the sabbath.  They are not arguing about their beliefs about the sabbath or whether or not the sabbath is important to observe.  They are getting into the specifics of how to properly observe the sabbath. 

Work is prohibited on the sabbath.  Is the healing that Jesus performed considered work?  The synagogue leader said yes.  Jesus counters by stating that oxen and donkeys are untied on the sabbath and led away to water.  If animals are set free from their bondage on the sabbath, shouldn’t this Jewish woman (this daughter of Abraham) be freed from her bondage on the sabbath?  Jesus’ ministry was all about liberation.  The crowd goes wild because Jesus just freed this woman for new life, and they witnessed the miracle.  

The truth is that there are any number of issues that religious folks don’t see eye to eye about, whether we are arguing about right beliefs or right practices.  There will be differences of opinion within religions and even within churches.  Conflict is normal.  There will be different ways of living out one’s faith.  There will be times when we simply cannot understand why another person feels that way about something when we may feel the exact opposite.  Yet we both call ourselves Christians.  It’s a conundrum.

Though Jesus chose a side—he chose to heal on the sabbath, knowing that some would consider what he did as working.  He even threw in an insult by calling people who disagreed with him hypocrites!  He healed on the sabbath because Jesus was standing up for what he believed in his heart to be right.  He was standing up for a person who didn’t demand healing and got blasted for Jesus healing her on the “wrong day”.  He was standing up for a woman that he could see with eyes of compassion.  Jesus saw her and claimed her as a daughter of Abraham.  It was like saying—she’s our sister, and can we treat her as such?  Jesus stood up for the idea that God desires freedom.  That was worth the conflict with those who disagreed.  Because sometimes we must stand up for what’s right, especially when it comes to protecting the vulnerable.  For we know that when we do, we are walking the path that Jesus himself walked.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Jana Riess, Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor.
[2] “The 39 Categories of Sabbath Work Prohibited by Law,” Orthodox Union, July 17, 2006, https://www.ou.org/holidays/shabbat/the_thirty_nine_categories_of_sabbath_work_prohibited_by_law/
[3] Luke 13:12, CEB.
[4] Luke 13:14.
[5] Luke 13:15-16.

Photo by Rev. Lauren L. Ostrout