Well, he told them he had come to bring fire to the earth; to bring division, not peace. Now it was time to make good on his campaign promises and the opportunity came soon afterward, as he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. When we read that Jesus was teaching on the sabbath I suspect we hear that word as a day of the week, as if Luke’s gospel is simply saying “one Saturday Jesus was teaching in the synagogue,” but it’s much more than that.
This story begins with the detail that Jesus was teaching in the synagogue on the sabbath, not so that we will observe that Jesus went to church on the weekend like we do, not so that we will remark that he was a popular speaker who booked great gigs on the preaching circuit, because we know that Jesus was teaching and preaching and healing all the time, wherever he went on whatever day it happened to be. When Jesus healed a boy seized by spirits, Luke’s gospel doesn’t mention the day of the week. When Jesus healed Jairus’ daughter and the hemorrhaging woman, no one remarks on what day of the week it is. When Jesus casts the legion of demons out of the man chained up in the country of the Gerasenes no one bothers to record on which day that miracle took place. So the framing of this story with the fact that it took place in the synagogue on the sabbath matters. Without that detail, the rest of the story doesn’t make sense.
To begin by saying that Jesus was teaching in the synagogue on the sabbath is to begin by reminding us that the God shown in Jesus is a covenant-making, promise-keeping God. That God is faithful. To begin by saying that Jesus was teaching in the synagogue on the sabbath is to remind us how the sabbath came to be. In the word “sabbath,” we hear the echoes of Israel’s liberation from the slavery of Egypt and the covenant made with the people, the giving of the law and the Ten Commandments with the sabbath as the sign of that covenant.
When we hear the word “sabbath” we’re supposed to remember all of this and more. Those of us who were raised on Luther’s Small Catechism hear his brief explanation of the Third Commandment (“Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy”) explained as meaning that “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not despise preaching or God’s word, but instead keep that word holy and gladly hear and learn it.” Of course, Luther had much more to say about the sabbath — as he had much more to say about practically everything. In Luther’s Large Catechism, he offers a much richer reflection on the ethical importance of the Third Commandment:
“We do not observe holy days for the sake of intelligent and well-informed Christians, for they have no need of them. We observe them, first, because our bodies need them. Nature teaches and demands that the common people — menservants and maidservants who have gone about their work or trade all week long — should also retire for a day to rest and be refreshed. Second and most important, we observe them so that people will have time and opportunity on such days of rest, which otherwise would not be available, to attend worship services, that is, so that they may assemble to hear and discuss God’s Word and then to offer praise, song, and prayer to God.”
Luther says that we observe the sabbath, not for the sake of intelligent and well-informed Christians, but because our bodies need it. There is a whole other sermon to be preached right at this point about the connection between the sabbath and the labor movement, and the long, proud history of working people facing all kinds of opposition to preserve for themselves and for their children and neighbors the right to rest. Because Labor Day is only two weeks away and because we will once again have a speaker with us from Arise Chicago, a faith-based labor justice organization, I will move on from that point for now, but I’m sure we can all hear the call to action.
Instead, let’s hold on to Luther’s assertion that the sabbath is intended first and foremost for our bodies’ rest and return to the scene in Luke’s gospel where Jesus is teaching in the synagogue on the sabbath, where a crowd has gathered to hear him speak. Keep in mind that Jesus is not teaching from a pulpit and the crowd is not seated in chairs or pews. Jesus may, in fact, have been seated. The crowd may have been standing around him or in front of him. It would be hard to see past the first row of faces, to know who was in the room, particularly if you were in the back, or if you were short, or if you were hunched over as one of the women was who’d been afflicted for eighteen years.
Jesus does see her, though. He sees the curve of her spine, the way it takes a great effort for her to walk. He sees the arch in her neck that makes even the simple act of looking up from the ground a painful act of resistance. He sees her body’s hard labor, its bondage to a condition that makes leaving her home a great ordeal. When I read about this woman, I think of our sister, Betty Feilinger, who is home this morning because of sciatica that has afflicted her for the last few years. Betty, who for most of her life enjoyed walking a few miles every day all around Logan Square, but has had difficulty leaving her house since her most recent surgery. How lonely it must be to feel so cut off from the people around you by a physical ailment over which you have no control. I believe Jesus saw that as well.
Now comes the challenge, the dramatic tension in the story. The crowd that has come to hear Jesus speak has heard of his miraculous healings elsewhere, and we who have read Luke’s gospel to this point know that he has the power to free her from the spirit that has bent her over. The only thing stopping him is the body of law that has grown up around the practice of keeping the sabbath. As a sign of the covenant between God and God’s people, the people have developed a complex set of customs and regulations for ensuring that no labor takes place on the sabbath, rules that prevent a farmer from farming, a fisher from fishing, and a healer from healing. Rules that go so far as to regulate that one’s oxen and donkeys ought to be untied so as to allow them to experience rest as well. So, in this moment, will Jesus show faithfulness to the law or to this “daughter of Abraham,” this woman who was also a part of the covenant community established by God’s word.
We know how the story ends, but let’s linger for just a little while longer in the space between the moment when Jesus first sees the woman bent low and the decision to call her over and set her free. That moment of opposition, between what Jesus had been taught to do and what he had been called to do. Because we confess that Jesus is Lord, that the Christ who comes to save is the visible face of the invisible God, it is hard to imagine that there was any gap between seeing and acting. After all, this is the same Jesus who berated the crowd by asking them, “Why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” Now the moment is upon him. Where does he find the courage to act, to do something new, to claim the authority to keep the spirit of the law by disobeying the letter of the law?
I think it was by knowing the stories and the histories, by claiming the people’s customs and traditions that he found the strength and inspiration to challenge and reform them. It was because he knew that Moses confronted Pharaoh and led the people through Red Sea on their way to freedom, because he knew that Joshua marched around the walls of Jericho until God brought them tumbling down, because he knew the stories of God’s faithfulness to God’s people, shown through the empowered and empowering acts of God’s prophets in every age. Jesus was a descendant of those heroes, women and men, who by faith saw the distance between the way things are and the way they ought to be, and who braved the leap of faith each one of us must make when we look out at the world today and wonder if we, too, are descendants of God’s holy people. If we, too, are people of the covenant.
We are all this, and more. As people marked by the covenant made with us in baptism, we make the absurd claim that we are connected not by bonds of blood but by bonds of water. We claim that we are living members of the body of Christ, that we have those eyes and those ears, that we are those hands and those feet, that our mouths are filled with words that flow from the same source as the words that flowed from Jesus’ own mouth when he looked at the woman the world had overlooked and said, “you are set free” (Lk 13:12).
We are constantly living in the moment between seeing this woman and calling out to her. There are always customs and regulations and laws, traditions cultivated to serve and protect us, which over time have come to choke and restrain us. In the face of such great opposition, we must remember our heritage. We are people marked by God’s promises, blessed with bodies that God made and God loves. We are destined for liberation, not bondage. Because God has shown such faithfulness to us, we are already free. How shall we use our freedom? Who shall we stand beside? How will our lives sing with the praise of those have known what it is to be laid low, but have also tasted the power of God to lift us up?
Together, with all God’s people, leaving no one behind. That is how. We face the opposition, which is simply another way of saying “the distance between what is and what is to come,” together.