Luke 13:10-17 || Sabbath & The Gift of Freedom

a reflection by Dan Spragg

 Don’t you just want to punch this guy in the face? I mean really! This Pharisee, in the presence of something special, misses the point all together! Surely indignance in the face of what has just occurred should never be acceptable? It’s interesting that he actually tries to blame the woman for the apparent transgression that has just occurred. “There are six other days to be healed,” he says, “come on one of those days!”  There is of course a bit more going on in this story than simply a woman being healed and a Pharisee getting grumpy. There is in here the idea of being bound and being set free, of being blind to what binds, of sight gifted wrapped up in freedom. The healing is simply the visible sign of a deeper truth at work, of a much larger frame of reference at play.

Mr Pharisee’s role in the Synagogue was to ensure that the reading of the law of God, the reading of the Scriptures which included teaching by Rabbi and others was conducted well in accordance with the various rules of the place. None so as important as when it was done on the Sabbath. So here they are, in the Synagogue, on the Sabbath. The Sabbath isn’t a word we’re too familiar with anymore. Sharon and I encountered a contemporary hangover of this last year while we were in Wales (a year ago this week). It was a Sunday, about 4pm, and we were heading back to the house and thought we would pop into the Supermarket on the way and grab a few things to throw together for a quick and easy Sunday evening meal. Well it was then we really encountered something we weren’t used to – Sunday trading hours! The Supermarket, along with just about every other shop, had closed at 2pm. This hasn’t been around in New Zealand for a while but it’s still happening in some places as one of the hang-on’s of Christianity’s influence on society. Sunday’s were for church and not much else – some of you will have far more memory of this than me. Not very many activities were permitted on Sundays in some circles – not even fun it seemed was permitted according to some stories I’ve heard! Some of you might have stories where an outburst or two of indignation occurred because of some prohibited activity I imagine! We might say that this interpretation was quite in line with what we might have expected from the Pharisees of Jesus’ day.

It all begs the question to what the original intention of the Sabbath was. It begins of course in Genesis 1, as so much does. God rests on the seventh day and calls all creation to rest. The first thing human beings are called into after their emergence was to rest. And we note as I’ve mentioned before that the days in this creation poem begin with evening… evening/morning, the first day… etc. The day begins with rest, and every seven days we are called to rest just as God rested, not because God needed to but because all was good and to be enjoyed, just simply by being there. There is also reference to Sabbath in the rebuilding of the Jewish people after God had rescued them out of Egypt. In Egypt their entire existence had been defined by how many bricks they could produce for their slave masters. Once they were free, once again the rhythm of rest had to be established, now as a reminder that their identity was not dependent on what they could or could not produce. The world went on and all was well even as they stopped working. Which is the nice reminder of holidays that we notice isn’t it? The pattern of Sabbath was also included for the land, and for the animals. So, Sabbath was about rest, about the freedom of everything, about identity beyond production, about the self-worth of everything, about enjoyment and recuperation. It would be fair to say that the Pharisee, and I would say some of our not too long-ago religious leaders, got the wrong end of the stick about Sabbath when it started to be defined by rules and regulations and restrictions, wouldn’t you?

It’s interesting actually that the word and the idea of Sabbath is starting to make quite a comeback in contemporary Christian writing and amongst quite a number of my peers and people younger than me. There is a genuine attempt going on to recover a rhythm of rest and work centred on an intentional time of rest and recuperation – whatever that looks like for you – that allows people to feel as though they aren’t slaves to their jobs, slaves to the demands of the expectations of society which says, quite loudly, work more, buy more stuff, earn more money, do more, do more, do more… I heard a number of comments from some of you recently about what you notice in the lives of your own families. Life is pretty busy! Recovering a healthy rhythm of Sabbath could make a lot of sense. But, it’s not easy! Resistance and indignation comes in all shapes and sizes from inside oneself and outside from others when you start saying yes to Sabbath and therefore no to other things. The idea of Sabbath is quite counter cultural, the idea that you are free, that your worth and your identity isn’t dependent on what you produce or on whether or not you rush around after other people’s demands on your time and energy. This can be quite provocative – especially for those who are in control.

The Synagogue in Jesus’ day was the centre of their religious life and therefore it was the centre of where the control and the power were held with regards to what was seen as proper and good, and what simply was therefore not seen. It was where the Scriptures were read and taught and debated. The Synagogue was set up in order that their life as the Jewish people would remain centred on God’s law. It was the centre of their worship and as has been the case with our Sunday services of worship the primary activity to be engaged with on the Sabbath. I guess for the Pharisees, it seemed like the stakes were quite high. They had assumed over a long period of time the responsibility of ensuring the Jewish people remained Jewish in their religion and culture and they believed quite passionately that if all were to simply adhere to all the rules then God would restore them to their former glory. They believed that if the rules were followed, if they were ‘perfect under the law’ that the Messiah would come and they would be set free from all oppression once and for all. When you put it that way, they had a lot to lose! However, as with the Sabbath, the Synagogue had become distorted from its original intent and no longer served to point them to God’s freedom, but had rather become something that enslaved them further by allowing their distorted view of what God wanted to take the lead.

Jesus came into this as what we might call an agitator, or a disrupter, one who liked to poke the proverbial bear…  The Pharisee tried to blame the woman for coming to be healed on the Sabbath, however she didn’t even ask for it. Sure, she was there, but it was Jesus who saw her and perhaps in that moment he saw an opportunity to not only release her from her imprisonment of ailment, but also to make a larger point about what God intends for all of us. He made his point. All who were there rejoiced in what he was doing while his opponents, realising they were in the wrong, had no comeback.

The point at the heart of it really is that this is a story about God’s story of freedom and restoration – all symbolised in the idea and in the practice of Sabbath which if it was to be observed, real, seen in action anywhere, should have been in the Synagogue – the centre of their focus as people of God. Instead, even there, even on that day it had become rather a story about rules and regulations, about expectations, about obligations, and ultimately about who was deemed as worthy or unworthy to participate in it. It is simple for us to look back on this story and ask the simple question of well, what is more in step with the story of God? The giving and receiving of God’s freedom, especially on the Sabbath, especially in the Synagogue? Or, the refusal to participate in this because of one’s own narrowness of sight – literally and metaphorically. What would you say was more in step with the story of God?

It is human tendency to be blinded by rules, expectations, and obligations isn’t it? God’s grace is of course the remedy to our universal human condition of needing to control and order things in order to feel worthy, or loved, or both. It seems quite hard for us though doesn’t it to break out of these habits of ours even though they run directly in the opposite direction of what the big story of God is.

We are here on a Sunday, participating in our weekly service of worship. The place where we remind ourselves of the story of God; that we are unconditionally invited into it, and that we are to participate actively in it. It would be worth asking the question if we find ourselves experiencing what this woman experienced. Do we experience here a profound encounter with the gift of God’s freedom – from whatever seeks to bind us? Do we truly know that this is what God longs to give us? If not, why? What are we blinded or bound by? It would also be worth asking the question, given that this woman only became noticed after her encounter with Jesus, who do we not see here among us who could do with experiencing the freedom of God? And, what rules, what expectations, what proper and orderly things do we do and say that stop those who aren’t here from experiencing the beautiful and redemptive love of God that we know to be true?