Sunday, August 26, 2007
Freedom and the Sabbath: A Sermon on Luke 13:10-17
“Freedom and the Sabbath”
August 26, 2007
I grew up at the Jersey shore, in a little town where my parents owned and operated a small business. We lived in an apartment upstairs from the store, and only later in life did I realize how fortunate we were, to have both parents working and yet available and at home at the same time. Throughout my childhood blue laws were in force in our town. That meant that one day a week, Sunday, my parents were set free from the store. They didn’t have to rise early, to work the hour it took to put all things in readiness, the twelve hours the store was open for business, and then the hour or so needed to restock at the end of the day. On Sunday morning my mom might cook a big breakfast while dad read the paper and we kids watched TV. Sometimes we would take a day trip to Philadelphia to see our cousins. Sunday night, almost without fail, we dressed up, got in the car, and had dinner at a restaurant, always someplace special.
At some point in my childhood—maybe when I was nearing high school—the laws changed. It was no longer illegal to do business on Sunday. Because larger chain stores were on the rise, my parents did the only thing they felt they could do. They started opening up on Sunday. They hated it. They resented it. But they felt they had to do it. They believed they might lose customers to the chain stores, if they didn’t provide the convenience of being open seven days a week. And our lives changed. No more leisurely Sunday mornings. No more daytrips. My dad did close earlier on Sunday, so sometimes we went out to dinner. But when we did, my parents were more tired, less talkative. The freedom of Sunday was lost to my family. So that was my first understanding of Sabbath, though I didn’t yet know the word: Sabbath was freedom.
Many years later, I read a book of essays by women about how they practiced their faith and spirituality. One was by a Jewish woman who spoke of her extensive preparations for the Sabbath. As I am no Martha Stewart, there were things she wrote about that left me cold… an awful lot of cooking, an awful lot of cleaning! But the theme that echoed through her essay was the beauty of the Sabbath: the sheer loveliness, after all the travails, of stopping, and eating a wonderful meal by candlelight, surrounded by friends and family, and hallowing that meal with ancient prayers of thanksgiving to the Author of all our blessings. All the busyness was prelude to the experience of welcoming that beauty: as Isaiah says, welcoming the Sabbath as a delight, and the holy day of the Lord as honorable. And that was my second understanding of Sabbath: Sabbath was beauty, delight.
At some point during my life as a churchgoer, I came to attach a religious significance to taking one day in seven to rest and to worship God. And simultaneously with learning it, I learned how very hard it was to practice it. The pace of modern life certainly doesn’t encourage us to turn off our computers and stop doing work, or to think of one day in seven as a day in which we are not “permitted” to do certain things. So my third understanding of Sabbath was actually in tune with what the word means in Hebrew: Sabbath was ceasing, resting, completion.
So, what is the Sabbath, really? What does the Sabbath mean to Jesus? And what can it mean for us?
These questions are implicit in today’s passage from the gospel of Luke. In our reading, Jesus is in a synagogue for the very last time in the gospel; it is the Sabbath, and he is teaching. So the first thing we notice is that he is honoring the Sabbath by worshipping, as any good Jew would. But a woman appears on the scene, and then the action commences… she enters the synagogue with “a spirit that ha[s] crippled her,” according to our translation, but a better one would be “a spirit of weakness.” Luke adds some details: this spirit has crippled her for eighteen years; she is completely bent over, and unable to stand up straight. And Luke omits other details… the woman’s name, and the source of her illness. A “spirit of weakness” doesn’t necessarily indicate possession by evil spirits. So the woman’s complaint is vague in origin, but it has visible, painful, debilitating consequences.
Jesus does what we know he will do. He heals her. He does not hesitate. He recognizes her ailment as a kind of captivity, a kind of bondage. And so he calls her over to him, and says, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” And the minute he lays his hands on her, it is completely obvious to anyone watching that she is completely healed. She stands erect, for the first time in eighteen years, and does what I imagine any of us would do in her place: she praises God out loud. If Jesus’ path were simple and easy, our story would end here. Everyone present would stand up and praise God right alongside the miraculously healed woman. But of course that is not what happens, because the gospel message is often misunderstood by those whom Jesus encounters. We learn very quickly that Jesus’ view of what is permitted on the Sabbath has just crashed head-on into the view of the leader of the synagogue. The leader makes a strategic decision to address his complaints to the congregation. He tells them why Jesus has done wrong, why he thinks Jesus has violated the Sabbath. Like an anxious store manager suddenly afraid of crowds, he warns them against the notion that such cures will be available on future Sabbaths. “There are six days on which work ought to be done,” he says, “come on those days and be cured, not on the Sabbath day.”
The thing is, the leader of the synagogue is right in a sense: there are six days in which to work; every person there knows that the Sabbath day is supposed to be a day of rest. But there is some meaning of Sabbath that has been lost to the leader. There is something vital that he is missing, something of which Jesus reminds him.
If we were to flip back through our bibles, if we were to look at the history of the Sabbath in the Hebrew Scriptures, we see that it has layers of meaning attached to it. We can barely get past the first page of the bible before being confronted with it: a defense of the Sabbath is tucked right into the creation story: “So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation” (Genesis 2:3). The Sabbath is a day of rest because even God recognizes a need for it. This explanation is given in the version of the Ten Commandments found in the book of Exodus. However, when they are related in Deuteronomy, there is a different explanation that is given. This is the fourth commandment:
Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. 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, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.
~ Deuteronomy 5:12-15
Here, the commandment to keep the Sabbath is not about God needing a nap after a few hard days of creating. Instead, it’s about the difference between being a slave and being free. And the commandment is so sweeping—not only “you” but also “your son or daughter, your male or female slave,” your ox, donkey and all the rest of the livestock, and the resident alien in your towns: all these are prohibited from working on the Sabbath. Rest is not seen as an entitlement of the wealthy. Suddenly Sabbath-keeping is not merely about obeying a commandment or mimicking God’s own actions on that first Sabbath day. It is a matter of freedom. It is a matter of justice.
In fact, it is entirely possible to observe the Sabbath in practice and utterly violate it in spirit, as the prophets are continually pointing out. Amos is particularly scathing in his indictment of the unjust practices of the people: ‘Hear this,’ he excoriates them, ‘you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale?’” (Amos 8:4-5a). These are the words of those who see the Sabbath as just another inconvenient barrier to commerce. The heart of Sabbath-keeping is that we are made in God’s image, and that every single one of us has the right, by God’s measure of justice, to enjoy the dignity of one full day of rest in every seven.
In fact, Sabbath commandments in the Hebrew Scriptures go way beyond the commandment for people and animals to rest. God commands that the land be given a Sabbath—a year of rest every seventh year (Lev. 25:1-7). Every seventh year, all debts are to be forgiven, because people who are enslaved by debt cannot possibly be truly free (Deut. 15:1-11). God puts a limit on the amount of time a slave can be held. A human being can be held as a slave for six years; in the seventh year, he or she is to be freed. Not only that, the master is to provide for that person “liberally” from the flocks and herds, so that the freed slave may being a life of freedom with some resources (Deut. 15:12-18). All these startling provisions have roots in the Sabbath: every human being, every creature, every piece of God’s green earth has dignity and worth. No one is to be exploited or indebted or worked into oblivion.
When the nameless woman enters the synagogue, bent over by an infirmity that has tied her up in knots for eighteen years, Jesus sees someone who is not free. And we might ask ourselves whether her external maladies had to do with a deeper sense of imprisonment. After all, the situation of women in first century Palestine was one in which they were not equals to men, in which they were regarded largely as property, the property of their fathers or husbands or brothers. In fact, I suspect that women were the only folks whose work on the Sabbath was tolerated. Did you notice who is not on the list of those who are required to rest in the 4th commandment? “Your wife.” And since a “wife” is specified in another commandment, it appears pretty clear that this is a deliberate omission. Perhaps Jesus looks at the woman bent over with her infirmity and sees a kind of slavery that goes far deeper than her physical symptoms.
The synagogue leader has forgotten the liberating roots of the Sabbath, and sees it now only as something to do with stopping, with prohibition, with religious rules and regulations. Jesus reminds him—in strong words, even harsh ones—of what he has forgotten. He reminds the crowd that they unfailingly unbind their animals so that they may drink and eat on the Sabbath. Shouldn’t a daughter of Abraham—hear the dignity Jesus accords this nameless woman in that title!—shouldn’t a daughter of Abraham be similarly unbound? With this simple analogy, Jesus gets to the heart of what the Sabbath is really all about: freedom and justice. If our God is a God of justice, then Sabbath is about allowing a nameless woman the same dignity one allows a beast of burden. If our God is a God of freedom, then Sabbath is about not letting our wrongheaded ideas about religion get in the way of our relationship with God; and that is just what we do anytime we deny freedom to the oppressed in the name of religion.
Someone has said that Sabbath is a gift, but we are so reluctant to accept it, God had to make it a commandment. So I would ask you this: what if we dared to accept this gift of the Sabbath, whether we honor it on Sunday or some other day, just one day a week? What if we took to heart the good news that we are free children of God, just one day a week? What if we took that time to revel in our human dignity, to truly open ourselves to experiences of beauty, just one day a week? And what if, in the days when we do labor, we were to commit ourselves to making others just a little bit more free as well? So that they too could experience that one day a week of dignity and beauty and rest? Amen.