Our texts for this week speak of healing—physical healing, spiritual healing, societal healing. I hope that these texts speak a word of healing to you, Working Preacher, and through you, to those who will hear your sermon this week.
The story from Luke 13 speaks of a woman bowed down, unable to stand upright for 18 long years. Can you imagine? She has to twist her head around awkwardly in order to glimpse the sky, the sun, and the stars, or to look into people’s faces.
When Jesus sees her, he has compassion on her, “Woman, you are set free,” he says. And then he touches her and she is able to stand upright, to see the faces of the people around her clearly for the first time in a very long time. Physical healing lifts a terrible burden from her, and she praises God.
But the leader of the synagogue reacts to this miracle of healing by scolding those gathered there—“There are six other days in the week, people! Come on those days to be healed, but not on the sabbath!” His interpretation of the law blinds him to the miracle before him.
Which is discouraging, since the Sabbath is given way back in Exodus as a gift, a gift of life to those who have known the terrible burden of slavery.
The Hebrew word for Sabbath is shabbat, which as a verb means simply to stop. Stop and rest. The world will continue to turn without you. God is God and you are not. The world does not depend on your busy-ness. So just stop.
And more than that, according to the Sabbath law in the Ten Commandments, let your own slaves rest, too. Remember how it was to be a slave? Remember how it was to work without rest? Well then, don’t do that to another human being.
Sabbath-keeping, of course, was one of the ways that Jews defined themselves and kept their identity even over long centuries of living in exile and diaspora, living as strangers in a strange land. There were no other people that had a weekly day of rest, so Sabbath was one important way to maintain Jewish identity.
By Jesus’ time, the Sabbath law was interpreted differently by different Jewish sects. There was an ongoing debate among rabbis and other teachers of the law—What could you do and not do on the Sabbath? What constituted “work”? Lighting a fire to cook? Taking your livestock out to pasture?
It is worth noting that the synagogue leader in the Gospel story today is not the strictest interpreter of the Sabbath law. In a parallel story in Matthew 12, Jesus poses a question to the Pharisees who challenge him for healing on the Sabbath:
He said to them, “Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:11-12)
Jesus’ question makes it clear that the Pharisees did, in fact, consider it lawful to rescue an animal who had fallen into a pit on the Sabbath. By contrast, the contemporaneous Qumran community ruled that one could not on the Sabbath lift up an animal that had fallen into a pit. Moreover, if a person had fallen into a pit on the Sabbath, one could not use a rope, ladder, or any other instrument to help that person.1
So, the leader of the synagogue is not the strictest interpreter of the Sabbath commandment. Nevertheless, he does consider healing on the Sabbath a violation of the law. But Jesus, who of all people knows the heart of God, calls him and his fellow leaders out: “You 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? 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?”
And here we see the heart of the Father, the heart of God. God wills life, abundant life for God’s children. And God gives the Sabbath law in order to ensure such abundant life for all of God’s children, especially those who have been burdened by physical ailments or by human oppression.
So, then, the question for you and for your parishioners is: What weighs you down? With what are you burdened today?
Perhaps it is a physical ailment, like the woman in our Gospel lesson today. Perhaps it is anxiety or depression. Perhaps it is guilt over what you have done, or anger over what someone else has done. Perhaps it is grief, the loss of a dearly loved one. Perhaps it is keenly felt disappointment. Perhaps it is just plain weariness.
Whatever it is, whatever burden you carry, whatever is weighing you down, hear this good news: God wills life for you. In and through Jesus, God sets you free from whatever binds you. God forgives your sin. God heals your diseases—of mind, body, and spirit. God releases you from the power of sin, death, and Satan. God lifts that terrible burden from your shoulders so that you can stand upright, so that you can take a deep breath at last and see clearly the faces of the people around you, fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.
This healing, this release, this cleansing of sin—it is not an easy or a quick process. Sometimes those burdens we carry are hard to let go of. Old resentments, long-held guilt, heavy grief—we cling to those burdens because they have been a part of us for so long and we are not sure who we would be without them.
But the Gospel speaks a new word into those old patterns. And that new word can sound like healing and liberation (as in our Gospel lesson), like an ever-flowing spring of water (as in our Old Testament reading), or like a raging fire (as in our Epistle lesson). “Our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29).
So, again, some questions to ponder: What in your life needs to be burned away? What burden needs to be lifted? What healing needs to take place?
Hear again this good news: God in Christ frees you from whatever binds you. God heals you. God gives you rest. God forgives you and frees you to live life, and to live life abundantly.
No wonder the psalmist sings:
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and all that is within me, bless his holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits—
who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the Pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good as long as you live
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s (Psalm 103:1-4).
I pray that you experience the healing and rest that you proclaim this week, dear friends. Thank you for your faithfulness in that proclamation.
- One scroll fragment at Qumran indicates that you could use clothing to rescue such a person, perhaps because you didn’t have to “work” to do so (i.e., walk back to your dwelling to get rope or a ladder and carry it back). Presumably being in some sort of state of undress was not as problematic as walking too far or carrying something on the Sabbath. For a discussion of the various Sabbath regulations in the Qumran community, see https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/jewish-studies/sabbath-keeping-in-qumran/