The question of keeping a Sabbath can seem quaint and old-fashioned and even ludicrous to many of us. Our culture prizes busy-ness so much that even our days away from work aren’t often really away from work, thanks to cell phones and email. And even on weekends, our lives are jam-packed with activities—taking the kids to lessons and practice for sports teams, doing laundry and fixing up our homes. Even our leisure activities are all too often a whirl of activity. Sometimes our culture can even make volunteering not so much voluntary but part of our competition with each other.
But when I was a kid, there were still these things called “Blue laws.” Does anyone remember them? These were state and local laws that actually shut down businesses on Sundays. By the time I was a kid, it was only until noon on Sunday, because after church we Okies had to buy our beer and our snacks so we could watch football after church, but still. And just like in our gospel today, these laws had unintended consequences.
And that’s the problem illustrated by the reaction of the synagogue leader in our story who protests Jesus’s healing of this poor woman on the Sabbath. He privileges his interpretation of the law over the intent of the law regarding the Sabbath. He privileges a moral system over the moral imperative to compassion.
That, and the fact that, for the third time in five weeks, we see someone triangulating again. Because I hope you pay attention that the synagogue leader doesn’t approach Jesus to question or complain. Oh no-- instead he complains to the crowd, not Jesus, about what Jesus has done that he thinks is a violation.
Once again: trying to score cheap points off of someone publicly when you disagree with them rather than talking to them directly is absolutely dirty pool, people. When people engage in triangulating behavior like this, it almost always is about their own threatened sense of power or personal issues, rather than really trying to work with someone else. The synagogue leader sees that the crowd is enthralled by Jesus’s power to heal—and it threatens his position as an authority. So he sets out to prove his competence—and Jesus’s lack of authority.
The synagogue leader does not see what a miracle this healing is for this woman--all the leader can see is that, in his mind, the timing isn’t right. And Jesus is having none of that. As we see over and over again in the gospels, when you privilege human-made interpretation of rules over real human suffering, you always come down on the wrong side of God’s kingdom. And that’s exactly what Jesus then points out, to the crowd the synagogue leader has attempted to manipulate.
Jesus makes it clear that the purpose of the Sabbath is not to place another set of burdens on people. No—just the opposite: the purpose of the Sabbath is freedom. Freedom from work. Freedom to worship and center ourselves in God. Freedom to be with those we love. Freedom from anxiety. Note that when he heals the woman, he frames it within the context of freedom, the kind of freedom that doesn’t oppress others, but the kind that immediately enables her to give praise to God and stand upright and joyful before the altar of God. Jesus speaks of freedom because it is praise that is the highest expression of our freedom to worship, then and now.
In the New Testament, religious authorities are constantly confronting Jesus regarding his violations, in their opinion, of cleanliness and Sabbath regulations. In these stories, the religious leaders are always watching to see what Jesus will do—and also to be able to testify as to his apostasy for violating the Sabbath. Jesus confronts the leaders and questions whether it can even be unlawful ever to heal on the Sabbath. They never seem to actually SEE what Jesus is doing, however, perhaps because they are blind, from a compassionate point of view.
Here’s the thing: this goes back to the lawyer’s question of Jesus as to what the greatest commandment is. Do you remember Jesus’s answer? I hope so, because at the 8:00 service we have the ultimate cheat sheet, since we say it every Sunday.
Because the controversy we have before us is based on pitting both halves of the Great Commandment against each other: the synagogue leader promotes rigorously observing the Sabbath as the fulfillment of “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, strength, and mind.” Jesus performs miracles of mercy and healing, which certainly is the fulfillment of loving your neighbor as yourself.
However, Jesus refuses to concede that this should ever be an either/or proposition. It is obvious that Jesus believes that these two acts are complementary, that healing the suffering IS showing faith in and love for God, ESPECIALLY on the Sabbath.
Indeed, as Jesus himself notes, does not healing actually hallow the holy day? Is not this daughter of Abraham worthy of as much consideration as even one’s livestock? His blunt comparison probably provided a much-needed shock to his critics—and to us today, as well. Think of the people who get outraged at animal cruelty and yet don’t blink at the prospect of children in cages without adequate hygiene, rest, or health care. Is it because they refuse to see them as if they are our own children? I don’t know.
Our gospel story is a story of incredible generosity. The woman who is bent over is not depicted as approaching Jesus—instead, Jesus sees her and approaches her.
And let’s just stop right there and really hear that. What an amazing thing—Jesus really sees her, not as disabled, but as a beloved child of God. He sees her, even bent over, which makes her even smaller than the tiny space women were usually begrudged in the public arena then and often still now. That limited female space was even more constricted in a place like a synagogue, where 10 MALES were required to be able to meet, even if there were 400 women present. Yet Jesus sees her as a “daughter of Abraham”—subtly using the feminine form of a common label for Jewish men. He sees her as a beloved child of God deserving of as much consideration as anyone. He sees her—even as those around her have ignored her and her plight, shrugging it off with “Nothing can be done.”
The attitude of the synagogue leader is clear: She’s already been this way for 18 years, so what’s one more day in order to preserve the Sabbath as HE sees fit to interpret that.
Jesus turns that on its head: the time already spent bent double is too much; what is the point of waiting one more day when the means for not just healing but freedom stands right in front of her? To make her wait would be an act of injustice—and certainly of needless suffering.
Jesus offers her freedom from her affliction NOW. And that promise and that healing extends to us, today, right now, as well. Because I am convinced that too many of us have our backs bent double, too, just like that woman in the synagogue. And we can’t tell just by looking who that applies to, but it’s safe to assume that EVERYONE carries some burden we don’t know. Our backs can be bent double by neglect, through the wounds and scars many of us bear from our childhoods, from traumatic experiences we may have encountered throughout our lives, accidental or not.
We, too, long to hear Jesus pronounce our freedom and help us stand upright. And the loving gaze of Jesus sees each and every one of us just like he truly saw that woman. The good news is that Jesus offers us—all of us!-- that freedom, offering it to us in the name of a love that sees us exactly as we are, that loves us no matter what, but then doesn’t just leave us there. That amazing love that Jesus offers each of us is like that balm in Gilead, that makes the wounded whole.
But while we’re accepting that love and that freedom that pours over us like a balm, we are also called to ourselves embody the generosity and empathy that Jesus does. That’s the privilege and essence of discipleship. Our healing NEVER stops with us. Our healing empowers us to be agents of healing in the name of Jesus for the sake of the entire world—no exceptions.
Because, beloveds, there is no doubt that one of the greatest plagues of our modern time is refusing to really see each other- to see each other, to honor the divine spark in each other without questioning who is worthy and who is not. Just like that lawyer a few weeks ago, we want to know what the limits of the people we have to acknowledge as our neighbors are. But what this world needs is radical acceptance and radical empathy. We are called to lend our strong backs to those bent over from bearing pain or hatred.
Too many of us—and it seems to be growing!-- are far too comfortable with failing to honor each and every person as fellow human beings. Too many of us are far too inured to each other’s pain and suffering—as the continuing crisis on our southern border, and all over the world, demonstrates. We inoculate ourselves against caring in a variety of ways: by telling ourselves that those who are suffering deserve it; or that we’re sorry, but they have to wait for freedom in the midst of their suffering in the name of rules far more capricious than the Sabbath-day work injunction.
Some even take pleasure in the suffering of others, especially those different from them, and see that suffering as justice, and I am not just talking about the criminal justice system.
We have criminalized poverty in this country especially in the 170 years since the Industrial Revolution, and we are told over and over that poverty and hunger are the results of character flaws or stupidity rather than a travesty of systemic oppression and institutional structures that siphon wealth away from the poor and middle class, redistributing wealth upward into an ever-tinier circle of people who cannot possibly spend all that they have in a hundred lifetimes.
Our society has grown too comfortable with the phrase “the working poor” even while pretending that poor people don’t work—because too many refuse to truly see the poor and all the groups who have been “othered” like that woman as full human beings.
Refusing to see and acknowledge the essential humanity of others was also the basis for the system of racially-based chattel slavery imposed on African captives and their descendants for over two hundred years, and that was first imposed on indigenous peoples throughout the Americas and the Caribbean almost from the landing of Christopher Columbus in 1492.
Slavery can only exist when we refuse to acknowledge those who are enslaved as human beings. It is indeed important that we contemplate the echoes of that blindness this week, as we remember the 400th anniversary of the selling of the first 20 African captives to English colonists in Virginia—what some African American historians call the beginning of African American history.
This history is still permeated with the refusal by too many people in our country to truly see people of color as being just as deserving of freedom and liberty to move around in public spaces like our neighborhoods and schools and shops—a casual freedom just to “be” in a public space that too many of us take for granted for ourselves.
|Permit Patty called the police on a family BBQ in a park|
Perhaps we could see a connection here between this woman, bent double and minimized by those around her, and those who bear burdens that make them invisible or objects of scorn and rejection in society today. Because here’s a truth: there are many ways for one’s back to be bent double. There are entire groups of people who call out to us to be seen and freed of their added burdens. And one of the most prevalent ways we add to this problem today is by blinding ourselves to the systematic burdens of injustice, oppression, contempt, poverty, racism, homophobia, and xenophobia that we see rising up again in our world.
Jesus insists that healing on the Sabbath honors the original intent of God that the Sabbath be a day dedicated to God and godly things. The argument here is over just what practices make a day holy—and Jesus’s answer is, “Miracles and healing!”
Too often we set the law and compassion at odds against each other—and that kind of thinking always leads to undermining the very purpose and spirit of the law in the first place. Laws began when people began to live in community, in relationship with each other. Laws should not be invented just to trip people up. They should exist to maximize the happiness and security of everyone. Laws that provide freedom at the expense of someone else being placed in danger are neither just nor do they make society stronger. Laws only exist in community because the purpose of law should be the flourishing and security of everyone.
Embedded within this story is a call to action to us—to examine our own minimization of others. To examine our failure to truly see each other—especially those who are far outside our familiar circles. And even more, to examine our silence in the face of others being minimized and bent double by the weight of that erasure. To examine our excuse for inaction in claiming that we are powerless to challenge and fight against the denigration of others based on who they are or where they come from.
Jesus insists that one of the highest forms of honoring God is by honoring the image of God that resides in EVERYONE, no matter what. And once we are willing to truly see that, we realize that the most sacred use of our freedom is to work for the freedom of others. From being bound double by fear and suspicion, freedom lies in letting love heal us and bind us to each other.
The love of Jesus sets us free from all that keeps us bent over in pain—may we lend our strong backs to those bent over from pain or hatred. We have been seen, loved, and freed by the grace of Jesus our Savior. Let us now go forth and do likewise.
Preached at the 505 on August 24 and at the 8:00 and 10:15 services on August 15, 2019, at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville, MO.