Sometimes, we create really complicated systems that are meant to help us do something good, but the very system meant to help ends up making things harder, not easier. My older brother Jim works for the ARC as a manager in vocational services, helping people with special needs find and maintain employment. He told me, once, about all the rules in place that had to be worked around for a particular young man to stay working, which was the goal. This young man couldn’t work too many hours, or he wouldn’t qualify for certain programs that were really helping him thrive. He couldn’t work too few hours, or he wouldn’t make enough money to survive. He couldn’t make more than a certain amount per hour, or again, he wouldn’t be eligible for benefits. While at work, he wasn’t allowed to complete his work too quickly, because he was required to be in a supervised setting for a certain number of hours a day, and if he worked too quickly, even if he did his work well, again, he’d lose out. To help this man work, all sorts of rules have to be followed. The aim is to help him work, but sometimes the process is so complicated that it feels like the rules are making things harder, not easier, moving him farther from his goal, not closer.
Today, we’re skipping ahead a little bit in the gospel of Luke, and find another story of something being made harder, more complicated, until Jesus steps in. Jesus, we read, was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And he sees there a woman “with a spirit” that has caused her to be crippled for the last eighteen years. She is bent over, quite unable, Luke tells us, to stand up straight. The text doesn’t tell us she was coming with the hopes of being healed, or that she was seeking out Jesus in anyway. Instead, he calls to her. When she comes over, Jesus simply says to her, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” Jesus lays his hands on her, and immediately, she stands up straight. She begins praising God. And in fact, the phrasing suggests not just a one-time prayer of thanksgiving, but that rather, from this point on, she begins praising God. It’s a turning point in her life, and her relationship with God. But that’s not where our story ends.
One of the leaders in the synagogue is indignant. Jesus has just healed a woman on the Sabbath. Healing would be considered a form of work – the job of a healer, performed on the Sabbath – was considered breaking the commandment to keep the Sabbath holy. And so the leader begins his own teaching to the crowd, reminding them: “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” He’s right, of course. It can be our tendency to think that everything the synagogue leaders and scribes and Pharisees do and say in the scriptures is bad, because Jesus argues with them so often, and we’re smart enough to know we want to be on Jesus’ side. But technically, what the leader says is right. He doesn’t say that the woman shouldn’t be healed. Instead, he asks why, of all days, Jesus had to heal her on the Sabbath. Why not on any of the other days? The Sabbath is a day set apart. Why break it, when what Jesus did could have easily been done the day before or the day after?
In response, Jesus calls the man and his colleagues hypocrites. “Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?” he asks. “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?” At this response, Luke tells us, Jesus’ opponents are put to shame, and the crowd rejoices at the wonderful work of God they see in Jesus.
We have a remarkable talent for taking gifts that God gives us and turning them into burdens, when we misuse or abuse, or simply ignore what God offers to us so freely. Elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus teachers that the Sabbath was made for humankind, not the other way around. Sabbath is a gift from God, enjoyed by God, and shared with us. There are two main “sources” of Sabbath in the scriptures. The first, of course, is in the very first story, the very story of creation. God created the heavens and earth and all living things, and then God, creator of the universe, rested. And so we rest, because God demonstrated to us that rest and renewal are a precious part of life. We honor God and God’s creative work when we set aside time to rest in God. Sabbath also finds roots in the story of the Exodus, when Moses leads the Israelites to freedom, as he helps them escape from captivity to their Egyptian masters. Sabbath-keeping, keeping a time of rest and making it a holy time is good news to slaves who had been working relentlessly to serve their keepers. And the gift of Sabbath was for all in the community – all economic classes, all ages – even animals got to rest on the Sabbath. (1) Sabbath is rest in God, aligning ourselves with the rhythm of our creator, and Sabbath is a sign of our freedom, the freedom that comes from following the ways of God.
That’s why Jesus calls the synagogue leader a hypocrite. Because when Jesus heals this woman who has bound, been captive to her own body for so many years, the way for her to experience rest, the way for her to experience freedom is for Jesus to heal her and to heal her at once. Eighteen years is long enough, and Jesus sees no need for her to wait a single day, a single minute longer to experience the true gift of Sabbath. Anyone who doesn’t understand that, Jesus says, is making something simple and freeing into a complicated burden that tries to negate the gift of God.
I wonder, do we understand Sabbath any better than the synagogue leader. The leader and his colleagues tried to keep Sabbath by making so many rules for observing it that it could actually be more difficult to experience it as a gift, as rest, as freedom. And ironically, I wonder if our very opposite approach to Sabbath has resulted in the very same consequences. In our world today, Sabbath, real rest, real time set aside to soak in God’s spirit is nearly unattainable. How free do we feel? We’ve let go of the rules and regulations that made it hard to practice true Sabbath, but we’ve also let go of the gift that God so desires us to have. From both sides, I think we’re in danger of being more bound up than set free.
So we have a few questions to ask ourselves, I think, in light of this text. First, I think we need to ask ourselves if we can receive the gift of Sabbath. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” I don’t know about you, but I hear that phrase “weary and heavy-laden,” and I know Jesus is talking to me. God invites us to rest, to rest in God. To rejoice in the freedom we find in Christ Jesus. To treasure our time and to treasure time we immerse ourselves intentionally in growing our relationship with God. I encourage you to look over your days and ask yourselves where you can find moments and minutes and hours – and maybe even a whole day of resting in God, honoring God’s creation, treasuring God’s gift to us, rejoicing in the freedom we find in God.
Next, we have to ask ourselves how we are bound, like this woman Jesus healed. How are we bound? How do we need lifting up? From what do we need to be freed? Sometimes we’re bound by things that we can’t get free from on our own, and we need help – from our friends, from our church family, from our community, from God, to find freedom. Sometimes, we can begin the process of loosening our bonds when we finally realize or admit or acknowledge that something about how we’re living is keeping us in bondage. How are we bound?
And then, finally, we have to ask ourselves: how are we like the synagogue leader? How are we getting in the way of someone else experiencing freedom in Christ Jesus? What boundaries and limits have we been inadvertently, or, I’m afraid, sometimes purposefully putting on how others receive the gift of God? Who is it that we’d keep from healing, keep bound and bent because we don’t want to break any rules to find the freedom God offers? We have the opportunity – the responsibility – to help others break free of the chains in their life as they embrace the freedom God extends to us.
Jesus said, “’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?’ When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.” Let us go and do likewise. Amen.
(1) See Lose, David, http://www.davidlose.net/2016/08/pentecost-14-c-dream-tenders/