Sunday, August 22, 2010


10On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, 11and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. 12When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, "Woman, you are set free from your infirmity." 13Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.

 14Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue ruler said to the people, "There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath."

 15The Lord answered him, "You hypocrites! Doesn't each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? 16Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?"

 17When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing. (Luke 13:10-17, NIV)

He bent over backwards to get this Jesus fellow here, and this is the the way he is repaid. No one knows the sacrifices that he made, the strings he pulled, the favors that he called in: all to get Jesus to be at his synagogue on this Sabbath. Jesus was such a hot commodity, everyone wanted the honor of hosting him. The crowds; the notoriety; the bragging rights... He was bent on getting him there... For a solid month it was his singular focus. All that only to have Jesus mock him and all that he believed by healing old bent over Sarah on that day of all days. Why, God, why? He couldn't believe it was happening... the Sabbath defiled on his watch... after all the trouble he had been through... now he was bent...

It hadn't started out that way. Actually it began as a pretty ordinary Sabbath day. Nothing too special about the gathering crowd. A few unfamiliar faces, onlookers, and curiosity seekers mixed in among the faces of the usual suspects. And of course there at her customary position at the edge of the shadows slouched old bent over Sarah. She was a fixture hanging on the fringes of his congregation. She'd been all crippled up and stooped over for as long as he could remember. Some whispered that she was possessed by a demon. He really didn't place much credibility in those rumors, but he kept his distance all the same. One could never be too careful.

He was proud of his little worshiping community. Nothing to showy or notable about them. They were just ordinary people living out the command of their God, just as their ancestors had done before them. And sabbath keeping wasn't just living out any old command; it was living out the command. It was the command which marked the Jewish people as special and chosen by God. No other nation, to his knowledge, kept anything like the Sabbath, a day of holy rest to honor God. No other nation went to such scrupulous lengths to safeguard this special day. The other nations had their festivals, their rituals, and their sacrifices, but they had did not have the Sabbath, a day when even the stranger in their midst was bid to lay aside their weekly burdens and rest. It was a Sabbath to the LORD; a remembrance of the Creator of all that is, of God's sovereignty over all Creation and of God's deliverance of the Jewish people who once were allowed no rest as slaves in Egypt, but who had been led out of slavery by God's mighty hand and set free. The Sabbath was all about Creation, freedom, and rest. And the Jewish people worked very hard to preserve that Sabbath rest. 39 types of work were extrapolated from the Torah and forbidden; and the rules were scrupulously enforced. This was their identity as a people, as God's people, they were talking about. So violations and violators were not treated lightly. 

Jesus already had a reputation of playing loose with the Sabbath laws, of dancing around the fringe, poking and prodding and pushing. He was a little wary. But nothing had prepared him for this. It was a blatant disregard of all that he held sacred. He was happy for Sarah, he really was. To see her stand upright bouncing around in praise and thanksgiving was quite a sight. But not on the Sabbath.

Healing was a form of work clearly forbidden by Sabbath law. He couldn't remember which number 1-39, off the top of his head, but it was there all right. Somebody had to stand up and be counted. If the Sabbath observance is profaned, disregarded, violated at will, then who are we? Whose are we? Too much was at stake. He felt compelled to speak out.

And the ultimate indignity was to have Jesus turn it back on him, like somehow he was the bad guy here. True enough, unbinding animals and leading them to get a drink was permitted: it was humane. But by extension to allow for the unbinding of people? No, it didn't hold water in his estimation. Animals needed water. People, for the most part, could be healed at another time. No, not the same at all.

Yet, here he was, watching Sarah dance and sing and praise, like she was a young girl again. And while he wanted to be happy for her, for her release, for her freedom; he felt captive to the the Sabbath laws, bound by his people's tradition. He was bent...

(The biblical story was retold from the perspective of the synagogue leader in order to emphasize the importance of the Sabbath law in Jewish piety. This was not some trifling incident, but a major challenge to what had become a cornerstone of Jewish identity. It is easy on first blush to lose sight of that. Jesus tied into the part of the tradition that saw Sabbath keeping as a celebration of freedom and deliverance. The ensuing discussion ultimately was left with two questions: What keeps us bound and bent over and unable to celebrate with others? How are we enabled to free and release others from that which binds them?

I didn't take this tack, but I wonder if this text may somehow give some insight to those who are so angry and upset by recent ELCA Churchwide Assembly decisions to allow for the ordination of LGBT people living in "lifelong, committed, monogamous relationships," what we straight folks are allowed to call "marriage." Is this a case of folks being so bound by the tradition, a tradition held in good faith, that they can't celebrate with others? A question worth contemplating, IMHO. I am the Unlikely Pastor. Welcome to my world.

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