Grace Presbyterian Church
August 25, 2019, Pentecost 11C
Sabbath, Healing, and Not Healing
To some degree we get a break this week, or so it seems, from the seemingly relentless demands for justice and righteousness and care for the poor and oppressed that has been characteristic of the readings from Luke and Isaiah that have been read these last several weeks. Of course, that isn’t really true; Isaiah is still sounding the clarion call, and the story related in Luke is actually an account of Jesus putting into practice what he has preached, in the face of a hyper-legalistic opposition that insists that rules about Sabbath must somehow overrule God’s call to do justice and to liberate those bound, in this case by her own body.
The story starts innocently enough. Jesus is teaching in a synagogue somewhere, on an otherwise unidentified Sabbath. The woman in question, who we will learn had been crippled for eighteen years by this condition that kept her “bent double,” appeared – it isn’t clear whether she showed up late, which might be understandable, or she simply first came into Jesus’s sight at this point. Whatever it was, note that the woman herself did not do anything to call attention to herself; this isn’t a case (as were many recorded in the gospels) of someone approaching Jesus begging to be healed. As far as we are told, she simply showed up at the synagogue, presumably expecting to listen to the teaching of, as far as she knew, whoever was teaching that day. She took her place, presumably at the back of the room, as women were supposed to do according to the rules of the synagogue – men in front, women in back – and listened. Indeed, there’s no indication she had any idea Jesus was the one teaching or knew about Jesus at all.
No, in this story the initiative is fully and intentionally Jesus’s. Jesus calls her over; Jesus speaks to her telling her she is “set free from your ailment”; he lays hands on her. At that she is able to stand up fully, and does so with rejoicing. One might imagine the crowd in the synagogue also rejoicing at the sight.
What happens is possibly a little like the scene after your team scores a touchdown, only to see that some highly zealous official has thrown a penalty flag on the play. In this case, an official of the synagogue throws cold water on the proceedings with the charge that curing on the Sabbath violated the rules of the Sabbath as handed down in the Torah and in its interpretation (possibly an illegal procedure penalty, to extend the metaphor). You’ll note that today’s reading from Isaiah also placed a premium on how the Sabbath was to be kept, mandating that God’s people “refrain from trampling” the day and not pursue their own interests instead of God’s.
Like any good coach in the face of a bad call, Jesus argues back – but in this case Jesus has the rules, the interpretation of Sabbath law from Torah in this case, on his side, and indeed the official has blown the call. His answer might sound a bit obscure to us, but it makes perfect sense in the culture of the time and place. As interpreted by scribes and scholars over the centuries, the seemingly strict law about observing the Sabbath – going back to that commandment, number four of ten, which instructed to “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8), followed by possibly the most detailed interpretation of any of the Big Ten as to what exactly it means to do that – do your work for six days, but not on the seventh, neither you nor anyone in your family nor the alien who lives among you, nor your beasts of burden.
If you know anything about working animals, though, even if they aren’t being used for work on a given day, they still need to be fed and watered. Particularly in a hot and dry climate, oxen or donkeys would very definitely need to be given water or else, at the very minimum, they would not be much good for work the next day, and maybe much worse.
So the ongoing and extensive tradition of interpreting the Law included what amounts to an exception for the sake of compassion; the “work” of leading a work animal away to be given water, and then presumably leading that animal back to its lodging, was not forbidden on the Sabbath. Besides being good for the working of the fields, it was a basic interpretation of compassion for those beasts who were, after all, fully a part of God’s creation, for which humanity was charged to be good stewards and caretakers. So you might say that the command (direct from God) about the Sabbath was being interpreted in light of the even older mandate (also direct from God, in Genesis) to care for creation.
With this compassionate exception to Sabbath law in hand, Jesus then confronts the official with a call for more compassion. If we can show such compassion to an ox or a donkey on the Sabbath, Jesus asks, how can we withhold such compassion to this woman, a “daughter of Abraham” as Jesus names her, as to leave her bound to her deforming condition because it’s the wrong day of the week?
You don’t always see Jesus’s opponents in these disagreements described as being “put to shame,” but that’s how Luke describes the response to Jesus’s defense of his healing. They are silenced, apparently, and the crowd does engaged in full-throated rejoicing – not just at this one healing, Luke says, but at “all of the wonderful things that he (Jesus) was doing.” Apparently his reputation had at least kept up with him after all, and this story really does have a full-fledged happy ending.
Now there are a couple of things to note about this particular story. The woman had been in this condition for eighteen years. What this suggests is that while this condition was no doubt painful, and made the woman’s life extremely difficult and challenging, it was not a life-threatening condition. The act of healing that Jesus performs here was not what we might think of as an “emergency” healing, like so many of the healings attributed to Jesus in the gospels. Healings of those who are very ill, on the verge of death, or even believed to have died seem more common across the gospels than a healing of this nature.
This offers us a clue to a fuller understanding of Jesus’s acts of healing. Restoration of life, it turns out, can have more than one meaning. Surely the healing of one on the verge of death is a “restoration of life,” but here also is a “restoration of life” even in the woman in the synagogue was not on the verge of death. To be so severely bent over as to be unable to look others in the eye was indeed a life-diminishing condition, even if not a life-threatening one.
And this is important enough for Jesus to single out and heal this woman, Sabbath or not. Being healed by Jesus is about being healed “all over,” so to speak; healed from that which threatens life, to be sure, but also healed from that which impinges or hinders life. A woman who couldn’t look her neighbors in the eye could stand up tall and walk proudly among her neighbors, and apparently to Jesus, that matters, even enough to tick off a synagogue official on the Sabbath.
As with bodies, so with souls. Healing is about more than the preservation of life. As Jesus says in John 10:10, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Just barely living isn’t the point; living fully, living abundantly, “living out loud” (to use a modern turn of phrase); this is the desired outcome of Jesus’s acting in our lives. To the degree that we don’t do that, we shortchange what God through the Spirit is moving in our lives to do.
But there’s a flip side to this, and I freely admit it is one I might not have appreciated it in this passage had I come to it before what happened to me three months ago.
How many others in that synagogue that day were suffering their own afflictions, their own life-impinging conditions that weren’t necessarily seen before the world?
How many others, in how many other settings across the gospels, did not receive healing?
Let’s get personal; how many do we know who did not receive healing?
It can be hard – painfully hard – to read such stories in the gospels when one suffers one’s own need for healing. You cry out, you pray, you beg and plead and make promises and make vows and everything you can think of, and yet your illness doesn’t go away, your condition doesn’t improve; or your loved one dies anyway.
I’m going to guess that most of us here today have had some variation of that experience, whether we or a loved one was in need of healing that somehow didn’t happen.
Clearly I can’t give you an answer. Even if my own health were perfect I wouldn’t be able to give you an answer.
Only just yesterday I heard about an old friend, from back in high school days, who has suffered cancer and been undergoing treatment. Some of you know just how difficult and challenging and painful that can be, from firsthand experience. Why? Why???
Yeah, it can be really hard to read one of these healing miracle stories now. Harder, frankly, than I expected.
And yet, we are still called children of God. We are still called the body of Christ, even with all the brokenness and illness in our own bodies. What kind of body Christ must have now, made up of us broken and hurting bodies and souls? And yet this is who we are.
I wish I had some easy answer. I don’t. I only have Jesus, the moving of the Holy Spirit in us, picking us up and carrying us along sometimes when all else seems to have broken down and quit. Maybe in the end, that really is enough to live.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #393, O Day of Rest and Gladness; #620, Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven; #—, With Our Earthly Bodies Broken; #797, We Cannot Measure How You Heal