This is an easy one, right?
Poor arthritic woman. Jesus in a healing mood. Insensitive leader of the synagogue. All together on the Sabbath. You can see where this is going just by the set-up.
So, here’s how it plays out: Jesus encounters a woman who’s been bent over from some kind of arthritic malady for 18 years. She needs some relief. Clearly.
Jesus heals her. Compassion enters stage left as Jesus lays his hands on the poor woman. She immediately stands straight, her body no longer bent and twisted.
Good job, Jesus! This is the kind of heroic sensitivity that we’ve come to expect from Jesus in Luke. Jesus sees somebody in need, and addresses it.
If it’s it going to be a good story, though, we need a bad guy. You know, a little conflict.
Luke, true to form, doesn’t disappoint. Along comes one of the religious muckity-mucks, as ever, looking to rain on everybody else’s parade. He sees Jesus heal the woman, and he pulls out his Roberts Rules of Order and, good parliamentarian that he is, he declares Jesus’ foray into affordable healthcare out of order.
“You can’t heal on the Sabbath! There are six other perfectly good days to cure this woman. Why can’t you do it on one of those days?”
We know the drill, right? We know how we’re supposed respond to the plot.
We have our own sensitivities reaffirmed for us, because ... you know, we would never be so parsimonious with our approval when it comes to healing. We know all the appropriate places to cheer and boo. Harrumph! Harrumph!
Jesus calls the guy a hypocrite. And we’re with him 100%. How do you begrudge healing to a woman whose been disabled for eighteen years? It’s like smacking a puppy or denouncing motherhood.
I don’t know, though. That seems awfully easy, doesn’t it? Maybe a little too obvious. Maybe a little too much confirmation of our own biases.
The leader of the synagogue comes off looking like a two dimensional stock character—a literarily necessary villain. It couldn’t be any more obvious if Luke had him scowling and twirling his mustache.
See, but here’s the problem with that easy read on the story: the leader of the synagogue was doing his job. He was following the rules.
And, I suspect, that that’s part of our dislike for the guy. We’re Americans. We’re iconoclasts. King George tried to lay some rules on us, and we told him to get lost. Americans are a people born in the tradition of sticking it to the man.
We’re suspicious of rules. They represent the system. Rules are what the man uses to keep us all down. Am I right?
So, when this guy shows up citing chapter and verse, it’s easy to dismiss him as a mindless tool, a stickler bureaucrat running interference for the establishment.
But let’s just stop for a second and consider what the rule stood for, and why it’d come into being in the first place.
Remember all the way back to the creation story in Genesis? After having done all that work, what does God do?
God rests on the seventh day. Sabbath observance in the law, the requirement that people shouldn’t work on the seventh day, took God as the primary example: “Look, if God needs a rest, don’t you think everybody else does too?”
Now, to our ears, resting on the seventh day doesn’t sound like that big a deal; it’s something we’ve built into our calendars—what with weekends and all.
But that whole weekend thing is a fairly recent invention—not even 100 years old. And for laborers and slaves in the ancient Near East, there was no such thing as a Sabbath day of rest.
So, the Sabbath was a kind of early labor reform. The Sabbath day was a way to ensure that the poor wouldn’t be worked to death . . . literally.
So, when the leader of the synagogue calls Jesus on the breaking of the Sabbath, he’s technically sticking up for those with the least power. In just about any other context, he might have been named Dorothy Day or Cesar Chavez. He’s OSHA, keeping an eye out for the little people.
During summers while I was in college, as I’ve told you before, I worked at a bread factory. It was hot and labor intensive. I didn’t much care for it.
One day I was moving a bread rack with pans of dough on it into the proof box, so the dough could rise before baking. These carts weighed about 300-400 pounds fully loaded. I was on the pulling end, where one of the handles had broken off the cart. So, I had my hand on the outside of the cart, pulling and guiding while another guy pushed.
All of a sudden I saw white, and felt like my hand had been in a car accident. The bread rack had run into a stanchion, with my fingers as the only cushion for those poor pans of dough.
I was wearing two pairs of industrial gloves, which I was afraid to take off, lest all of my fingers not accompany the rest of my hand when I removed it. Turns out, my fingers were still attached, but I needed to go to the hospital for stitches and x-rays.
The reason I’m telling you this is to tell you what happened next. I was a Teamster, which meant that when I was escorted into my foreman’s office, the person who met us there was my union steward. He asked the other guy who’d been pushing the bread rack with me what happened. And when he heard that the rack had no handle, he started screaming at my foreman: “How did you let this kid handle a rack with a broken handle? Did you give him instruction on the proper technique necessary for transporting bread dough to the proof box?”
My foreman just sort of shrugged his shoulders like a nine year-old who knows he’s in trouble for breaking his dad’s driver while hitting rocks in the backyard but doesn’t know how bad, and said, “I don’t know.”
And my union steward, a gruff sixty year-old man, turned purple, and swore—a beautiful litany of curse words that embarrassed even me. Then he said, “Well, what do you know? How did you even get promoted to management? I’ve got a Labrador Retriever that’s smarter than you are. I’ll tell you this, you’d better hope that kid doesn’t lose those fingers, or you’re going to spend the rest of your life working at McDonalds.
If it weren’t for the pain, it would have been one of the most satisfying work exchanges of my entire life. But I’ll tell you this, it’s good to have somebody who’s job it is to worry about the rules, about taking care of the folks at the bottom of the org chart.
Now, you may say, “Well, ok, that’s fine. We support looking out for the voiceless in labor market, but come on. I mean, Jesus healed a woman. The guy should have taken in that into consideration, shouldn’t he? Shouldn’t have been so rigid.”
No, you’re right. But it’s not quite so easy as that. The leader of the synagogue knows something that we all sense intuitively: You start monkeying around with the rules, suspending one here, making an exception there, and pretty soon the rules don’t mean anything.
And the Sabbath was an important rule. In essence, the leader of the synagogue was a union steward standing in the middle of the road objecting to the watering down of a rule that protected people. We want the OSHA folks wandering around, don’t we? We want somebody to make sure that the equipment’s safe, that the work environment isn’t hazardous.
I say we cut this guy a little slack.
But it’s even more complicated than that. In the Deuteronomic version of the Ten Commandments, the keeping of the Sabbath was tied directly to the Israelites’ liberation from bondage:
>Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. For 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 servant 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).
In other words, Sabbath is connected to liberation. Those who’ve descended from the very people God led out of bondage are reminded of the importance of the Sabbath, because they (more than anyone) are aware that Sabbath—far from being a restrictive set of rules about what you can and can’t do, is a gift of freedom to those who spend their lives in bondage.
So when Jesus sees this woman bent over, he takes the opportunity to heal her. But he doesn’t just heal her arthritic condition, he sets her free.
Jesus sees her in pain, says to her, “Woman you are set free from your ailment.” He lays his hands on her, and “immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.” But in Greek, the phrase is literally, “immediately she was straightened up”—the assumption being that it is God who straightens her up.
Think about it: this woman hasn’t been able to look anyone in straight in the face for 18 years. She couldn’t stand up straight. She’s hobbled her way through life in a permanent bow. Her view of the world has consisted largely of staring at everyone else’s footwear.
Then Jesus comes along and offers her liberation from a life of pain and humiliation, freedom from the suffering and the sidelong glances, welcoming her back into full participation in a community she has been excluded from for 18 years—because of her affliction.
That’s right, not only did she suffer from a debilitating physical condition, she would have been denied access to the life everyone else in the community took for granted—because she would have been viewed as broken in a religious context that required health and wholeness. In healing her, Jesus gave her back her life.
So while the indignation of the leader of the synagogue makes sense from the standpoint of protecting rules against working people to death, it fails to account for the full meaning of Sabbath.
Sabbath is about rest from work—yes. But Sabbath is also about liberation, about being freed from the bondage that oppresses the weak and the vulnerable. In healing and setting free the woman who’d spent the better part of her life being looked down on by … literally … everyone, Jesus embodied the very liberation at the heart of the Sabbath.
Jesus says to the indignant leader: “Come on, man. You treat animals better than this. And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?”
And the text says, “When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things he was doing.”
But the very next verse—one not included in the lectionary reading—is crucial to our reading of this passage; it sets the frame for how we are to understand this Sabbath healing: “[Jesus] said, ‘Therefore, what is the kingdom of God like?’”
In other words, Jesus brings healing to this bent and twisted woman, liberating her on the Sabbath, and then says, in effect: “So, when you think about this kingdom I’m announcing, this new world God is busy creating, it’s going to look like this: The broken will be made whole. Those who’ve lived their lives in pain and humiliation, who’ve woken up each morning to another day of uncertainty and vulnerability will be set free from the bondage that has kept them stooped and isolated. They will their place in the beloved community, where everyone has value, where dignity is accorded to each of us. That’s the world God wants.”
So, the question to us is: How are we bringing Sabbath liberation to those who’ve lived so long in desolation, alienated from the rest of polite society because of the things that make them different … things that make them—in the eyes of the folks always at the top of the food chain—broken and without value?
Where are we for them? How is it that we embody the liberation of Sabbath for them?
These aren’t simple questions. But if we want to participate in this new world God is busy creating, they’re precisely the questions we need to ask.