St. Paul’s Homily 8/21/22 Myrna Koonce
When I was in seminary, I took a course on the Sabbath, in which I was introduced to Abraham Heschel’s luminous, mystical book, The Sabbath. Heschel speaks of the sanctified time that is the Sabbath in this way:
The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath, we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation, from the world of creation to the creation of the world. (p.10)
The Sabbath has been defined as a time out of time, a time that by its very essence disrupts the status quo. In Jesus’ time, the status quo was the Roman Empire, with its insatiable demand for resources and labor of all kinds. By practicing the Sabbath, Jews were pushing back against the mainstream culture.
There is a temptation for us, I believe, in reading the passage from Luke today—or indeed, any passage in which Jesus is challenged for doing what is forbidden on the Sabbath—to view this simply as the religious authorities trying to trap Jesus through a narrow and rigid adherence to the law. But I think we need to give the synagogue leader the benefit of the doubt in this case, when he says, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.” While to us, this may sound cruel, the religious leaders were after all the gatekeepers of the tradition and may have feared the dissolution of what kept the Jews distinct from the Gentiles and what kept the profane distinct from the holy.
The Sabbath observance arose from the Scriptures, which gave three reasons to keep the Sabbath: it followed God’s example of resting from God’s labors on the seventh day; it commemorated the deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt; and it was a sign of the covenant between Israel and God. To violate the Sabbath was to violate the covenant with God.
The Midrash Aggadah, a collection of rabbinical works interpreting the Jewish Scriptures, named 39 categories of work forbidden on the Sabbath—a lot to keep track of! And there were, of course, exceptions.
Our Sabbath professor, Naomi Seidman, grew up in an orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn. She shared with us one modern “workaround” that Jews had invented to address unintended consequences of the prohibition against carrying in public on the Sabbath. Strict observance of this rule meant that you could not carry keys, a wallet, a book, but also that you could not push things. The result was the effective exclusion from the synagogue of people who used canes and walkers, of children who were too young to walk and needed to be carried, and of people who might need assistive devices. So the rabbis developed a ritual construct called the eruv, a boundary that essentially allows entire communities to turn a large area into one that is considered, for Jewish law purposes, a large private domain, in which items–and babies!–may be carried. We walked through an eruv in an orthodox neighborhood in Berkeley, where we saw the wires between light poles and other features that delineated the boundary. The whole point of the eruv was not to disregard or diminish the law, but to allow the community to more fully enter into all aspects of the Sabbath, including public worship.
And this is where the blindness of the synagogue leader comes in. The woman was bent over. She could likely not see the service, and could not fully participate in her community because of her condition. Yes, this was not a life-or-death situation when it was clear that the law could be set aside. But as Jesus points out, there are compassionate exceptions to working on the Sabbath that extend to caring even for animals so that they may not suffer. And this woman was indeed suffering.
A second temptation in our response to the Gospel reading is the temptation to leap too quickly from the embodied to the symbolic. Commentators have suggested that the woman is crippled by doubts, or fears, or sins, and she is set free by Jesus from these ailments of the spirit. Notice, however, that Jesus does not say, as he does in other circumstances, “Go now and sin no more,” or “Your faith has made you well.” He says, “You are free from your ailment.” And we are told later that Satan has bound the woman with this specific, particular condition—a physical deformity, which in the time of Jesus was often associated with having an evil spirit or demon within oneself. But what Jesus is primarily saying is that the woman has been bound by an external force, by Satan, working on her body.
So let’s stay with the body for a moment. If you have ever tried to do anything bent over, you know how limited her life was. Just getting dressed in the morning can be an excruciating ordeal. Let’s think about where this woman’s body was in the hierarchy and what her body was expected to do—cook, clean, sew, weave, bear and care for children, fetch water, care for livestock, tend a garden. Any of these tasks would be difficult, if not impossible, for her. I have had women patients at the hospital whose bodies have been broken by working in housekeeping or caregiving or factory jobs at the bottom of our economic ladder, who are suffering from the callous indifference of a society that places profits before people. What if Satan is manifest in the systems that hurt our actual physical bodies and that do not place value on healing the lesser members of society? If we are to jump to the symbolic, should we not instead jump to the sins of a system that would not or could not heal this woman sooner?
Eighteen years. The religious tradition and the cultural mores say, “Eighteen years, what’s one more day?” Jesus says, “Eighteen years, not one more day.” This is the difference between a faith that cripples us and a faith that frees us.
Perhaps a third temptation here is not to dwell long enough or deeply enough in the heartfelt awe and sacred mystery of the healing, which moves the woman to praise God. Our eagerness to revel in Jesus winning yet another argument with the powers that be can easily eclipse our ability to remain in this moment. If we focus more on Jesus putting his opponents to shame and less on all the life-giving things he was doing, we are again missing the point. He was doing those things to show how shalom, the right relationship of God’s people to one another and to God, can be realized.
Our God is a God who became fully human in Jesus. Jesus came that we might have life and have it abundantly. The pure, unadulterated joy of this woman having been cured is its own kind of “time out of time,” and to savor it means to pause before any blaming and shaming, intellectualizing or use of this miraculous event as a weapon in the world’s dualistic dynamics.
In a recent conversation with our own Rev. Katie about my desire to cultivate a Sabbath practice, Katie reminded me that before human beings or creation “got to work,” there was the seventh day, a day of rest. God rested. All creation rested. Time reset and became something new.
So my question for all of us today is what is it that we might need to set down, to let go of, so that we can meet the world with renewed energy as servants of Christ and seekers of the kingdom? Just as the synagogue leader was challenged to think of the purpose of the Sabbath differently, where are we being challenged now to think of our lives and work as Christians differently? And following Jesus’ example, how can we approach everyone with compassion, even those people we may oppose because they are warped by a system we struggle against? May the Holy Spirit show us the way.
St. Paul’s Homily 8/21/22 Myrna Koonce