Sabbath Hope-Luke 13: 10-17
(August 21, 2022-11th Sunday after Pentecost)
What are your memories of the sabbath growing up? Depending on your age that question might not even mean anything to you. I am part of one of the last generations, in the province of Ontario anyway, to experience a government sanctioned Sabbath. In 1986 I am nineteen years old when the Supreme Court of Canada declares Ontario`s Sunday closing laws unconstitutional. The reasons for the decision and the pressures that brought it about are many. They include a decades long move away from one dominant culture and religion toward increasing religious cultural and religious diversity and secularism. Merge these trends with the always unmet appetites of our capitalist economic system and state sponsored sabbath is doomed.
But, I wonder if the barren ground that allows these forces to pluck the Sabbath out of our societal soil has to do with how people experience Sabbath. The truth is many people experience Sabbath as a restrictive rule, with a design to limit people’s options and behaviours. Many experience Sabbath as a restriction that is more about the Church maintaining control of society and their lives than anything else. Although, as an aside, many faith traditions do incorporate a day set aside to rest and worship. We seem to have this tendency in Canada to think that the only way to deal with religious diversity is to eliminate it completely from our public life. This approach only diminishes us, leaving us prey to the values of the marketplace alone. Instead, we could engage in meaningful and respectful conversations about the shared values that lie at the core of such religious concepts as the Sabbath and incorporate those into public policy. That’s an aside. The main point being Sabbath withers in the ground during the eighties because to many it is simply a burden.
I think it’s this sense of burden to which Jesus reacts so strongly, Sabbath as a form of religious control—”For God’s sake you untie a donkey on the Sabbath to let it drink, but won’t let me untie this woman from her disease?!”1 Really, this quarell, between Jesus and the leader of the synagogue is about scripture; how to interpret it and the worldview that underpins the interpretation. When the leader of the synagogue admonishes Jesus for healing on the Sabbath he is quoting almost directly from Exodus (20: 8-11) and Deuteronomy (5: 14-15) where the command is given to set aside a day for worship and rest, for everyone, for children, for servants and slaves, for foreigners even for livestock.
Jesus is familiar with these scriptures as well but hears them very differently, he doesn’t primarily hear rules and restrictions, he hears liberation. Liberation from work and into rest. Liberation into a deeper identity as a child of God, an identity beyond the one imposed by economic forces. Liberation to ponder, to reflect, to be grateful, to sit in awe. It’s easier for Jesus to hear the scriptures this way than it is for the leader of the Synagogue (or the “meeting place President” as The Message paraphrases). The religious
1 Paraphrase of Luke 13: 15-16.
official is an exemplar of the dangers of scripture in the hands of people with power and privilege. For the poor, Sabbath is about liberation from the grind of daily living and a weekly reminder of a deeper identity, an identity that’s eroded by the economic and political forces around them. For those who have no need of such liberation, for those who control the economics, the politics and the religion Jesus’ hearing is dangerous. The powerful prefer to hear the version that allows for control.
This doesn’t mean the religious official doesn’t believe he has good intentions. I’m sure in his heart he believes he is upholding the integrity of the faith by admonishing the woman and Jesus and for the act of healing. But it’s a very small religion he upholds, one he can hold in the palm of his hand. Its religion reduced to rules where people are made to serve religious institutions instead of religion serving the people. It’s religion that trades a living encounter with God for the safety and predictability of control. It’s a small religion that refuses to seek the wild, untamed God set loose in the world. A wild, untamed God whom existing beyond our rules and conventions demands a different kind of religion. Not a rule enforcing institution but one that guides and mentors followers in a spiritual adventure where we seek the Holy, the Sacred, in the messiness, joy and despair of daily living. It means trading in control for the faith of settling into grace. God doesn’t need enforcers. God needs seekers, listeners with courageous hearts.
This is what Jesus exemplifies. Jesus’ approach to the woman in need of healing is different from the religious official because his understanding of God and reality is different. Jesus experiences God not as the “other”, out there, detached from creation. Rather God is in him, around him and in others. For Jesus, God is in the creation itself. This kind of God doesn’t need cops; this kind of God requires faith, a relationship of trust. Jesus’ job as a person of faith is to do everything in his power to be open to and to respond to the movement of God’s Spirit in his life. That is why, even though it is the Sabbath, and he can get into a lot of trouble, he heals on that day. He senses God’s call to mercy in the woman’s plight and he responds. His heart is moved, and he cooperates with God’s intent for healing and wholeness for all creation.
Jesus isn’t interested in anything that prevents him from being present to the Holy in daily living. The Leader of the Synagogue is so focused on the rules and the fear of a God who exists outside those rules that he can’t see God’s work right in front of him, “You hypocrite!” Jesus says to him, a so-called man of God who recoils in fear and lashes out in judgement and anger at the sight of grace in his presence.
I am struck by the last line in this story, “When he put it that way, his critics were left looking quite silly and red-faced. The congregation was delighted and cheered him on.”2 What I hear in that line is the joy of liberation, of a truth revealed that lifts a burden off your back. The idea of Sabbath lost so much support in our society because it became a burden, a rule to be enforced and followed. Who needs one more burden in their life? The world doesn’t need Christianity and Christians to pile on more burdens. The world
2 Luke 13: 17, The Message.
needs Christianity and Christians to point to the presence of God in our world, so that people can rest from the burden of living as if life depends on our activity, so that low wage, racialized workers can rest, so that the planet can rest from our ceaseless striving for more, so that all God’s people can come out from under the tyranny of indifference and entitlement and into the joy of awe and gratitude, so that the world may rest in grace.
Rev. Joe Gaspar
Sabbath Hope-Luke 13: 10-17