Thomas J Parlette
“Honoring the Sabbath”
Luke 13: 10-17
Once upon a time, a man was leaving a grocery store when he was approached by two young boys selling candy bars for their school band. The man told the boys, “I’ll buy one from you on one condition. You eat it for me.” The boys agreed.
The man paid for the candy bar and promptly handed it back to one of the boys so that he could eat it. But the boy shook his head and said, “I’m sorry, I can’t.”
The boy looked the man in the eye with a serious look on his face, “Because I’m not supposed to take candy from strangers.”(1)
Not there’s a boy who knows how to follow the rules. Technically, he didn’t the man’s name, even though he just sold him the candy. So following the letter of the law – he couldn’t take it.
In our Gospel story for today, Luke tells us the story of an unidentified woman with a severe back ailment that leaves her bent over, unable to stand up straight.
Luke is the only one who tells this story. This is actually the second story tells about a healing in a synagogue on the Sabbath. The first story is found in Luke chapter 6, just after Jesus and his disciples were caught going through a field of grain on the Sabbath and plucking some of it and eating it. The Pharisees objected, because this was considered work and you can’t do any work on the Sabbath. And Jesus responds, “David did, and besides – the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”
Then we hear the story of Jesus healing a man with a withered hand, in a Synagogue, on the Sabbath. The Pharisees saw the man in the crowd and wondered if Jesus would dare to take his Sabbath breaking to the next level and heal someone on the Sabbath – but they didn’t say anything.
They didn’t have to, Jesus knew what they were thinking. And he asked them a question – “Tell me, is it legal on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or destroy it.”
They Pharisees have no answer for this, if they follow the letter of the law, they have to say, “Well, you can’t do anything on the Sabbath.” But they don’t want to say that you can’t do something good either – so they’re in a bind.
While they looked at each other, wondering what to say, Jesus healed the man with the withered hand. And the Pharisees were filled with fury, and started plotting against Jesus.
So today, we’re back in a synagogue, on the Sabbath. Jesus is teaching, as he often does, and in comes this woman with a debilitating back condition. This woman does not approach Jesus, and never asks for his help. In fact, no one speaks on her behalf, begging Jesus to heal her, as we have seen before at times. No, Jesus saw her, called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free.” He laid his hands on her, and Presto! – she stood straight up for the first time in 18 years! And she immediately starting praising God.
And then comes the reaction. The Congregation transitions from witnesses of a healing into a jury listening to opposing arguments. The leader of the Synagogue objects – not to the healing itself, but to when it was done. “There are six days to do work – this woman could be cured on any of those days, but not on today, not on the Sabbath.”
Jesus counters, “You take care of your animals on the Sabbath, you meet their needs. Why shouldn’t we meet the needs of this woman, a daughter of Abraham, on the Sabbath.”
And the Congregation, acting as a jury, hearing both arguments comes back with a verdict in Jesus’ favor – “the entire crowd rejoiced at the wonderful things he was doing.”
As we can see, one of the themes that runs through the Gospel of Luke is how do we properly honor the Sabbath. In Genesis, we are told that after the Creation, the Lord rested on the seventh day – therefore we are to keep the Sabbath holy and not work, but rest to honor God’s work of Creation.
Later, in Deuteronomy, the Sabbath commandment shifts somewhat to a command for God’s people to observe the Sabbath and keep it holy in recognition of their deliverance from captivity in Egypt. A shift takes place here from a day of rest, a day to do nothing – to a day of holy work that is pleasing to God, holy work that honors God.
By Jesus’ time, there was great respect given to Sabbath keeping, to the point that there were many rules governing what you could and couldn’t do – many of which still exist today for highly observant Jews, right down to not being able to flip light switches on and off. In Jesus’ day, the definition of what constituted work was highly debated and delineated – that’s where Jesus gets his argument about being able to take care of animals – that wasn’t defined technically as work – whereas harvesting grain in any way was defined as work. The rules got very picky and specific.
One of the things Jesus came to do was re-claim the idea of Sabbath. Jesus was re-framing what Sabbath looks like. Sabbath rest is a practice of faith. Sabbath is a day of holy work. For Jesus, Sabbath wasn’t a day intended to do nothing at all. But rather, the Sabbath was a day to do something holy and grace-full, and pleasing to God. When we engage in holy faith practice, we honor what Sabbath really means. In this way, God brings healing to us – and through us, brings healing to a bent out of shape world.
Biblical scholar Ernst Kasemann tells a story about the time someone told him what it was like to be in Amsterdam after the severe storms and flood from which Holland suffered in 1952. The scene was one of those parishes where people felt themselves strictly bound to obey God’s commandments, and therefore to keep the Sabbath holy. The place was so threatened by wind and waves that the dyke had to be strengthened on Sunday if the inhabitants were to survive.
The police notified the pastor of the local church, who now found himself in a religious difficulty. Should he call out the people of the parish that had been entrusted to him, and set them to the necessary work, if it meant profaning the Sabbath? He found the burden of making a personal decision too much for him, and he summoned the Church Council to consult and decide.
The discussion went as one might expect: We live to carry out God’s will. God, being omnipotent, can always perform a miracle with the wind and waves. Our duty is obedience, whether in life or in death.
The pastor tried one last argument, perhaps against his own conviction: Did not Jesus himself, on occasion, break the fourth commandment and declare that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath?”
Thereupon a venerable old man stood up: “I have always been troubled, Pastor, by something that I have never yet ventured to say publicly. Now I must say it. I have always had the feeling that our Lord Jesus was just a bit of a liberal”(2)
Perhaps he was. At any rate, the town felt the circumstance warranted that they do some work on the Sabbath.
Jesus certainly is always challenging the status quo and calling people back to what God intended for creation. God does not desire a rule book and new regulations, policies and procedures. God desires a grace filled life in which we are healed and bring healing to those around us. When we engage in faithful practice and holy work, we truly honor the Sabbath.
Laws certainly have a place in our religious and national lives. On the whole, our Christian tradition encourages us to be law-abiders and commandment-keepers. Jesus himself said that he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. But the Apostle Paul made clear that “the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
“Ought not this woman,” asked Jesus, “be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” The answer in the time of Jesus was “yes”, and it is still “Yes” today.
Theologian Walter Wink reminds us in his book Engaging the Powers, “What killed Jesus was not irreligion, but religion itself; not lawlessness, but precisely the law; not anarchy but upholders of order. It was not the bestial but those considered best who crucified the one in whom the divine Wisdom was visibly incarnate. And because he was not only innocent, but the very embodiment of true religion, true law, true order, this victim exposed their violence for what it was – not the defense of society, but an attack against God.”(3)
In a synagogue in Galilee, Jesus freed the oppressed and spoke the truth to power. His actions healed a crippled woman and put his opponents to shame. Today, Jesus challenges us to do the very same, with the boldness that he showed to the crowd and to the leader of the synagogue. Maybe our mission is to tutor disadvantaged children, or assist battered women, or fight sex trafficking, or work with substance abusers, or welcome refugees, or support pregnant teenagers or participate in creation care. There are endless possibilities. Like Jesus, we can continue our work to free the oppressed and speak the truth to power.
The good news is that these actions lead to celebration, not condemnation; to rejoicing, instead of rejection. Luke tells us that the healed woman immediately began praising God, and the entire congregation rejoiced at all the wonderful things that Jesus was doing.
May we join the rejoicing as we honor the Sabbath with holy and healing work that is pleasing to God.
May God be praised. Amen.
1. Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXV, No. 3, p38.
2. HomileticsOnline, retrieved August 6th, 2019.