Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost
Towards the end of high school, quite a few of my classmates were asking one question in particular: Where am I going to go to college?
I, however, didn’t ever find myself asking that question. You see, there was a college close to home that I knew I was going to attend—no questions asked. My father had taken graduate classes there, my sister went there for her undergraduate studies, and my mother worked there. I had practically grown up on campus, I had stayed in the dorms already, I had gone to quite a few of the basketball games, and I knew quite a few of the professors and administrators. Already, the college really was my second home. But what really sold me on attending this school was the fact that, because of I was the child of an employee, I could attend for free. It didn’t make sense to pass up the potential of graduating with no debt, so it was the only school to which I even bothered applying for. And so, nine years ago this month, I moved in to my first dorm room for my first college semester.
The first week of no classes really felt more like a church camp than college. Days were spent learning about the school and participating in service projects, and nights were spent meeting the other freshmen and exploring the city. But reality hit on the first day of classes. Hear me when I say that the classes themselves were not the issue. No, the rude awakening came that evening, when all of the freshmen in my dorm gathered to learn all of the rules for student life.
My goodness were there a lot of rules.
In retrospect, I should have expected it. I had heard about them from my sister, and it was a Christian college, after all. Some of the rules were understandable, and some I actually grew to appreciate during my four years. But there were far more rules that simply seemed like mores from a long-distant era. I have to confess that I developed a little bit of a covert rebelliousness, just seeing what I could away with without being called into the dean’s office. And when graduation day finally came four years later, you better believe that a large part of my excitement was due to the fact that I would no longer have to live with so many rules.
What I soon found out, however, is that regardless of where you go, there are going to be long lists of rules, customs, or procedures that you’re expected to follow. We know many of them, whether they are officially written in some kind of legal code or constitution or just culturally understood, and we also have a way of knowing which rules have a little more flexibility in how closely they are to be followed. We make sure to not stiff the cab driver on a fare, but we also know that our commute would be ten minutes longer if we actually followed the crosswalk signals.
And so it goes with the church as well. We have the unsaid rules around this church, such as our unofficial assigned seat, what we think is acceptable to wear on a Sunday morning, or what types of songs that we sing on any given Sunday morning. Most of these have a little bit of wiggle room, but there are certainly some that you will hear about if you unknowingly transgress them. In the United Methodist Church, we have The Book of Discipline, which details what we as a denomination supposedly believe, what our social principles are, how churches are organized, and what we are allowed to do in the church building. Whether we want to admit it or not, some of these have a little bit of flexibility, while some of them we ought not to violate at the risk of getting in trouble with our bishop.
In our gospel lesson this morning, we encounter a situation in which Jesus seems to have violated one of the rules that he had been expected to follow. He is teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath when a woman who had been experiencing some kind of physical ailment appears in front of him. Luke says that she had a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years; a modern account might suggest that she had osteoporosis or some other similar condition, but that is neither here nor there as we’re reading the story. What does matter is that Jesus sees her bent over, unable to stand up straight, and calls over to her, saying, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” And then he lays his hands on her, and immediately she stands up straight and began praising God.
But the leader of the synagogue is furious that Jesus had cured on the Sabbath day, and he keeps telling the crowd that had gathered, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.” After all, this woman had lived eighteen years with this ailment; why not wait one more day so that she can be healed in observance with the law, or at least how he understood the law?”
Jesus, however, isn’t having any of that. Answering him, he says, “You hypocrites! Don’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from its stall and lead it out to get a drink? Then isn’t it necessary that this woman, a daughter of Abraham, bound by Satan for eighteen long years, be set free from her bondage on the Sabbath day?”
What Jesus does in this instance is hearken back to the original understanding of the Sabbath rather than the cultural and religious laws that have been built around the commandment.
Sabbath was and still is central in the life of Jewish communities. In the creation narrative of Genesis 1 and 2, we read that God works for six days of creation and then blesses it for resting. In this moment, creation was allowed to just be as it was, free to do what it was to do. And this rest was so important that while creation was called “good” and humanity was called “very good,” as one scholar notes, “God blessed the seventh day and called it holy, making Sabbath the first sacred thing in all creation.” Creation was not complete until there was rest; of enjoyment of what was in existence.
Later on in our Bible, we get to Exodus and Deuteronomy, where the newly liberated Israelites receive what we call the Ten Commandments from God. Deuteronomy is particularly powerful in our understanding of the Sabbath, for it reminds the people of Israel that to keep the Sabbath is to be reminded of the Exodus. As an enslaved people in Egypt, work did not follow the patter of rest that God had established in Genesis. Rather, work was continuous without rest and without a chance to witness the fruits of their labor. To keep the Sabbath as a people that were now free, however, was a sharp juxtaposition to where they had come from. Whereas Pharaoh demanded unceasing work, God commanded rest. Whereas Pharaoh enslaved, God liberated.
The Sabbath regulations within the Torah followed this pattern as well. Humans, of course, were to rest on the Sabbath, but so too were animals, and the land itself was given a time of rest. Perhaps even more emblematic is the Law of Jubilee in Leviticus. For 49 years, people would incur debts and the land would change ownership. In the fiftieth year, however, the Year of Jubilee, everything is reset. The land itself is freed up, reminding the people of Israel that it is not their land but God’s. Debts are forgiven, reminding people that they are made to be free in the image of God, not enslaved to a system that perpetuates obligation or prioritizes productivity. Slaves and prisoners are released, and the mercy, love, and liberation of God reigns over the land.
This is, after all, the purpose of Jesus’s incarnation. Earlier in this Gospel of Luke, we find Jesus in the synagogue on another Sabbath teaching for the first time, and he chooses a passage from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
Because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To let the oppressed go free,
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, the year of Jubilee.
Humanity was not made for Sabbath, and we are not made for rules. Rather, Jesus reminds the crowd around him that Sabbath was made for humanity, a much-needed break from productivity and labor to simply rest in its original intent. The Sabbath is for healing; the Sabbath is for rest; the Sabbath is for freedom. What more appropriate time is there to heal someone in bondage than on the Sabbath?
It was this that the synagogue leader missed. He got so caught up in the letter of the law and how it had been interpreted throughout history that he missed the original intent; he missed the spirit that rendered such a law necessary in the first place. While he may have been convinced that what Jesus had done was a violation of the rules, what we find is that this seeming transgression was rather a fulfillment of the Sabbath commandment; what first appears as a breach of the law rather achieves the purpose of the law.
When we become too honed in on our own interpretation or understanding of the rules and how things ‘ought’ to be done, our vision can be far too narrow to see the broader picture of where God is working in our world. When we hold too tightly to some of our traditions and customs, we can suffocate the very life that they first brought to us.
This is not to say that rules are not important. This is not to say that tradition is irrelevant, that our customs are automatically bad. But it is to say that we must always be looking at how we exist as a community—how we operate as a nation and as a world—and question whether we are missing something that the Spirit of God is doing around us; whether we’re missing out on some healing that is right before us in a way that we do not expect. We must always be evaluating what we are doing and what laws govern us—whether explicit or implicit—and question whether they line up to our call as Christians, as those co-working with God to usher in the Kingdom of God.
Because here is the thing—we can not and do not control where it is that the Kingdom breaks in around us. The church has time and time again claimed that it is the only medium through which God can work, seeking to control and manage the flow of God’s goodness and healing as if it belongs to us, and doing so only in the times and places that we deem appropriate.
And yet despite what we may try, God continues to act.
If we find that our actions and rules line up with what Jesus came here to do—to bring good news to the poor and proclaim release to the captives—then we are doing something right and sacred.
If we find that they do not, however, we need to confess that something is going to need to change and perhaps even die. The path before us will require courage; it’s going to take us out of our comfort zone a little bit and surely anger some people along the way.
After all, we are not made for Sabbath but Sabbath was instituted for us. We are not made for laws and customs and rules, but they are made for us. Sometimes that means that we embrace what we do and the ways that govern us. Sometimes that means that we need to develop a little bit of rebelliousness and disobedience. Sometimes that means that the way of the church is not always the way of God.
And so, my friends, let us take what we do in this space and in our lives seriously but lightly. For if we’re holding too tightly to the rules and customs we have built, they can themselves become life-killing rather than healing. But if we open ourselves to the movement of the Spirit in the world and allow our systems and communities to change as needed, we will begin to take part in God’s grace that transforms this world right in front of us.