Ought not this woman…be set free from bondage on the Sabbath Day?

Author: 
Fr Alec
Date: 
Sunday, August 21, 2016 - 9:30am

 

 

As always seems to be the case, I feel a certain sympathy with Jesus’ opponents in today’s gospel. I’m not sure that one is meant to, but I always look at these characters, be they Scribes, or Pharisees, or, as today, the leader of the synagogue, and I see religious leaders doing their best. Trying to protect the faith they have held unspilled for so long, and to uphold its laws and sacred practices.

This poor man must have felt on pretty safe ground. (Let us assume that he is not a cartoon villain – a straw man for Jesus to knock down.) After all he is not taking issue with a healing, he is taking issue with when the healing is happening. The poor woman has been suffering for eighteen years. Would the few hours until sunset have been to long to wait to do honour to God’s commandments? Or was Jesus being deliberately controversial?

Well, I rather suspect that he was. And it has to do not so much with the keeping of commandments as with understanding why they are there.

There is an old story that many of you will already know about a young wife preparing a Sunday roast for the first time with her husband. As she prepares the meat for the oven, she takes a sharp knife and cuts off a piece from either end. The husband, looking on, asks her why.

‘Well’, she says, ‘Doesn’t everyone do that?’

‘I don’t think so’, says the husband.’

‘I suppose it’s just what my mother always used to do. I’ll ask her why when she comes round later.’

When the wife’s mother arrives they ask her how it is that removing both ends improves the roast.

‘I’m not sure,’ she says. ‘But it’s what your grandmother used to do.’

When they next see granny, they ask her, and a smile spreads across her face. ‘My darling, she says, I don’t think it helps at all. When you were growing up, I just had a very small roasting tin.’

And this, I think, is the point that Jesus is attempting to make. Faithful Jew that he is, he is not attempting to undermine the Sabbath, but to return to what it is really for. And what is it really for?

Well, first of all, it is for Rest. This after all is what Sabbat means. Not rest in the sense of sleep. Sleep is simply a physical necessity. Nor rest in the sense of a few minutes’ coffee break stolen from the working day. But enforced rest. A prohibition of the ceaseless activity which characterises so much of life. The Sabbath is that most precious of things, a prohibition that sets us free.

As long as we feel that we have to work (albeit for all the good and noble reasons that we might do so – providing for our family, and so on) we are slaves to work. Time out is less refreshing, because there is always the nagging voice that says ‘You could be working’. But on the Sabbath, God prohibits work. The spare time we have is not borrowed time, but free time, in which we are released to be independent and creative people.

And this is reflected in the biblical origins of the Sabbath. Scripture, interestingly, gives us two explanations for the prohibition of work on the seventh day.

In the book of Exodus, it is expressed as a sign of the covenant between God and humanity arising from the seventh day of creation.  By enjoying our Sabbath rest, we imitate God who is not bound by his work of creation, but expresses his sovereign freedom in rest.

 

Deuteronomy offers another reason. ‘Remember’ says God, ‘that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord your God brought you out with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm: therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.’ It is a sign not just of our connexion with God, but our dependence on Him. It is God who set his people free from slavery. What better way to demonstrate freedom from slavery than setting apart a day when nobody and nothing has a claim up on our time?

Now you will note that the poor woman who comes to Jesus in search of healing has ‘a spirit that has crippled her for eighteen years’. Her experience of disability is of being possessed, limited, restricted and enslaved. She cannot stand upright, a sort of metaphor for the kind of rectitude, the uprightness that characterises the righteous.

When Jesus speaks, he says ‘Woman, you are set free from your sickness.’

Jesus seems to be saying that the Sabbath, far from being irrelevant, is too important to be misunderstood. That the Sabbath is concerned primarily with freedom. Freedom to enjoy the fullness of God. To enjoy the liberty that belongs by right to all his children, and which was denied to this woman by her crippling disease. ‘Come to me,’ says Christ, ‘All you who labour and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.