Bible Text: Luke 13:10-17
You know, we expect religious leaders to follow the rules. As public figures, people who are under the watchful eye of both their critics and their admirers, religious leaders have to watch their P’s & Q’s and make good decisions. They have to practice what they preach, or they’ll be headline news.
So why is it that Jesus so often breaks the rules? Here he is, teaching in the synagogue on a Sabbath. Jesus is regarded as a rabbi, a spiritual teacher, but it isn’t like he’s the associate pastor or something. He doesn’t “have a church”, a group for which he’s responsible or even to whom he’s accountable. He’s more like a pulpit supply pastor, an itinerant rabbi; he shows up in various towns and starts teaching. That’s one of the benefits, I guess, of not being the “regular” rabbi for a community—he can say whatever he wants and doesn’t have to care if they like it or not; he might not ever see them again. But why? Why does he always stir up trouble?
Here he is, teaching on the Sabbath, we don’t even know where, whose synagogue he’s about to disrupt. And here comes a woman, stooped over, unable to stand up straight. We don’t know why she’s there—she may have been coming to that synagogue every Sabbath of her life; she may have heard about Jesus and has come to check him out. But here she is, bent over, shuffling along, unable even to look him in the eye—but she catches his eye, and he calls her over.
Now here we are, halfway through Luke’s gospel, and you can just imagine the response of the crowd. The disciples are there, surely, and others who have been tracking with Jesus; some first-timers who don’t know him, probably, too. Some are curious, standing up on their tip-toes, scooting closer to see why he has called this woman forward. Some remember what happened last time he interacted with a stranger on the Sabbath, and put their heads in their hands, hoping he learned his lesson. But no. He tells her, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment,” lays his hands on her, and she stands up straight and praises God. And everyone rejoices?
Well, not yet. The synagogue leader has been trumped by his guest preacher, and starts to get territorial. He can’t really be angry with the woman—she didn’t even ask to be healed, she just walked in. He can’t really ask Jesus do undo the healing and wait until sundown, when the Sabbath is over—that wouldn’t gain him any popularity points. So he gets legalistic. “Six days! Sunday through Friday you could do your work! But no! You have to come and profane the Sabbath!” The synagogue leader is not wrong. He’s a leader. He knows the rules, and this is one of the Top Ten, after all: “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. 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, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.” Not only that, but later in Exodus the Torah tells us that anyone who works on the Sabbath shall be put to death. If you’re going to mess with a commandment, pick a different one—God is serious about this one.
So, again, why? Why does Jesus heal on the Sabbath, instead of waiting a few hours until the next day? Why does Luke have this story that is not found anywhere else? Well, remember, in Luke everything Jesus does is salvation, and salvation means “being set free from whatever binds you right here, right now”. Jesus is also right. He knows about Sabbath—Sabbath is a promise from God who knows we probably work too hard most of the time because work is hard. Sabbath is a promise that for one day we don’t have to work, one day we are set free from the daily grind. Jesus knows that Sabbath is important—it’s vital to life. Indeed, Sabbath is a different day—while we work ourselves to death the other six days, Sabbath is for life. “Sabbath is a day that lifts people’s eyes to God’s promise in the midst of the most unpromising circumstances.” So Jesus does what gives life on the Sabbath, as he believes is holy work on a holy day: he saves this woman, frees her from what had bound her, so that she can lift her eyes to God for the first time in 18 years. Jesus brings life, even on the Sabbath—that is why he does what he does.
As a religious leader, or a person in general, I am not much of a rule breaker. But I am learning as I continue on this journey of faith that sometimes “the right thing to do”, the holy thing, is not within the rules. We are not called to break rules blatantly just to get attention; that is never why Jesus breaks rules. But we are called to bring life in world that insists on death—our news stories again and again remind us what a dangerous world this can be for bodies, minds, and souls. We are called to proclaim God’s promise in the midst of unpromising circumstances. We are called to see what those who are bent over with shame and fear and oppression and disease cannot see, and to help lift them up even when it’s inconvenient or disrupts our sacred order of perpetual busy-ness. We may not get the importance of Sabbath in this story because we just don’t get Sabbath—we don’t observe it, we don’t practice it. Jesus shows us that Sabbath is not about keeping rules—it’s about giving life, it’s about making the world a better place, it’s about living in the kingdom of God here and now. May God help us to stand up and see the kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven! Amen.