It is the Sabbath in Jerusalem and Jesus is a guest rabbi at the temple. Listening to him is a woman who, for eighteen years, has been so bent over that she can only look at the floor. Try to imagine that; never, ever looking up, never meeting the eyes of another person. I like to try to put myself in bible stories to better understand them so I imagine that this woman suffers from osteoporosis, like me. I can stand up straight, but, as you know, I can’t stand or walk very well without hurting. So I put myself in her position: Jesus commands me to come forward, says; “Woman, you are set free from your ailment!” He lays his hands upon me and suddenly, I’m healed. Suddenly my crumbly bones are strong as steel. I don’t feel fragile. My feet don’t hurt!
Believe me, like the woman in the story, I’d be loudly praising Jesus for this unexpected, unasked for gift of health. But the elders of the synagogue turn, not to Jesus, but to me and the crowd and quickly point out just how wrong my healing has been. “Six days have been defined as work days. Come on one of the six if you want to be healed, but not on the seventh, the Sabbath.”
They are right. The law clearly says no work on the Sabbath and isn’t healing work? We hear no more from our bent old lady in this story but if it had been me in that place, those elders would have had an earful. “Really? Why don’t you live in my painful body for a while then tell me that the rules about healing on the Sabbath are more important than the love and compassion I just experienced?”
Jesus argues back, calling the elders hypocrites. He continues; “You frauds! Each Sabbath every one of you regularly unties your ox or donkey from its stall, leads it out for water, and thinks nothing of it. So why isn’t it all right for me to untie this daughter of Abraham and lead her from the stall where her pain has had her tied these eighteen years?” (Is Jesus comparing me to an ox?) With this argument, he shames his opponents and the crowd is on his side.
This short story graphically illustrates the tension between the new way modeled by Jesus and the hidebound rules he confronts. After all, honoring the Sabbath is one of the ten commandments. On the Sabbath (which is itself a point of contention; either Saturday or Sunday, depending on one’s tradition), one should rest. There are so many variations on the degree to which one should rest. That very simple premise, rest on the Sabbath seems to be out of reach for many of us. I know of many working families who use the Sabbath to do laundry, shopping and home repair. Are they breaking a commandment?
Jesus and the temple elders are arguing over these points of Rabbinic law concerning the Sabbath. This is not a small deal, as the stakes were very high for our bent over old lady. Did you know that the Bible says that Sabbath breakers were to be cut off from the assembly or potentially killed. Here is Exodus 31:15: “For six days work is to be done, but the seventh day is a day of sabbath rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day is to be put to death.”
Defining the word “work” here is key. Orthodox Jews have 39 creative activities (or work) which are prohibited on the Sabbath. Here are some examples: Planting is not allowed. This includes anything that promotes plant growth, so watering and fertilizing plants is not allowed.
Threshing or extraction is not allowed. So this would mean one should not wring cloths or juice fruits or vegetables. Turning lights off and on is prohibited. Cooking is not allowed. A great deal of traditional women’s work is disallowed, such as weaving, spinning, dyeing, doing laundry.
Puritans believed that smiling or laughing on the Sabbath was a sin. Keeping the Sabbath is written into the Tongan constitution. On the Sabbath, Tongans are not allowed to work, drive, swim, or fish and no sporting events are allowed. No sporting events on Sunday? Just how well would that go over in America?
So we see some of the many ways this ancient law has been interpreted. How do we best follow this commandment? What do you do to honor the Sabbath?
Let’s go back to our story. Put yourself in that temple with Jesus. You’ve seen the old lady healed. You’ve heard the argument between Jesus and the elders. You know the law; you’ve lived within its constraints all your life because you believe the law brings you closer to God. Jesus is challenging your core beliefs here. What do you think? Who is right here?
I think that Jesus is showing us that the teachings of the Bible are not immutable. Although the original ten commandments were literally set in stone, the Word, as lived by Jesus is alive and active. Jesus seems to be reinterpreting the Bible and the biblical tradition. He embraces sinners and the sick, and in doing so, he is clearly breaking the laws of his faith.
In our reading from Hebrews today, the Word of God is described as “living” and “active.” In Jesus the word becomes flesh, and lives among us, full of grace and truth. The Word of God is not dead and static. The word is alive in Jesus and in his teachings. We must study the bible in the context of our times.
Jesus tells us that what really counts, is simple: “The first and greatest commandment is to Love the Lord God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind”. He further clarifies; “And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” This teaching trumps everything else. If we point out that someone is an abomination according to something in Leviticus, we seem to be ignoring the greater teaching of Jesus: which is that love trumps Leviticus. Love trumps the law. The word is alive. Let’s treat it as such. Amen.