August 23, 2019, Never on Saturday (Luke 13:10-17) – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000150
Early this morning, at about 2:30, our good friend and brother in the Lord Al Layo went home to God. For those of you who didn’t know Al, he was a faithful member of our church for many years, a gentle and humble man of rock-solid faith. His daughter Patti, who is a priest in our Diocese, told me this morning that it was about eleven years ago that Al was officially diagnosed with Alzheimers. Al’s passing was as peaceful and gentle as it could have been. It seems entirely appropriate that he went home to Jesus on a Sunday morning. But it has been a long, hard journey, these eleven years and more, for Al and his wife Kris, for Mtr. Patti, and for everyone who loves Al. I wanted to let you all know about Al’s passing this morning. But I also hope that remembering Al will help you think about the woman in the gospel this morning, who was a real live person, and who, like Al, like so many people in this world, suffered patiently for a long, long time.
For 18 long painful years, that woman had lived her life imprisoned in a body bent and twisted, unable to stand upright. Everything she did, day after day, month after month, year after year, would have been painful and difficult – simple, everyday things like sweeping the floor, pulling weeds in the garden, kneading bread, getting dressed in the morning. Getting herself to the synagogue every week on the Sabbath would have taken more effort than most of us can imagine. But on this particular Sabbath day, Jesus was there in the synagogue, teaching. He noticed the woman, and calling her to come to him he laid hands on her and she was healed. Just like that. The bones and ligaments of her body stretched and straightened. She stood there, upright and free of pain for the first time in eighteen years, and she poured out her joy and thanks to God.
But it was the Sabbath, and the ruler of that synagogue was outraged that Jesus would dare to break the Sabbath for something that could have been done any day of the week. He saw all those people rejoicing with the woman, and praising Jesus for the wonderful thing he had done. And he was filled with righteous indignation. “What’s wrong with you people anyway?” he scolded them. “Come and get healed any other day, Sunday to Friday. But let’s show some respect on the Sabbath day.”
Jesus, on the other hand, never had a problem with healing on the Sabbath. He healed a lot of people, and quite a few of his healings happened on the Sabbath day. It was a Sabbath day when he restored the sight of a man who had been born blind. It was a Sabbath day with he healed an invalid by the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem. It was on a Sabbath day, in a synagogue, that he noticed a man with a withered hand. He called the man to stand in front of everyone, and he challenged them with a question. “I ask you,” he said, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm? Is it lawful to save a life, or to destroy it?” And on another occasion, having dinner with a prominent Pharisee, knowing he was being watched closely, Jesus healed a sick man, asking the Pharisees and lawyers seated there with him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not? If your child, or your ox fell into a well on the Sabbath day, for instance, wouldn’t you pull them out immediately?”
It’s important to notice those questions that Jesus asked, because they’re the key to understanding why Jesus was so persistent about healing on the Sabbath. Every time Jesus healed on the Sabbath, it enraged the religious authorities and added fuel to their desire to somehow get rid of this troublesome itinerant preacher who was all too popular with the common folk. So why did he insist on healing on the Sabbath – and not quietly or privately, but very publicly, very in-your-face?
The short meditation on the gospel reading in Forward Day by Day this morning has this to say: “Jesus’ decision to heal a woman on the Sabbath is one of many actions that keep getting him into trouble with the religious authorities. His mission is to shower the people with the love of God. Again and again, he teaches that people are are more important than laws.” I couldn’t agree more. But – but there is an assumption hidden there that the real problem of the synagogue ruler (and, by extension, the problem of all those Scribes and the Pharisees Jesus so regularly offended) is that he is adhering too closely to the Law of God. In the minds of many modern Christians, I think, the sin of the Pharisees et. al. was that they were too faithful to the Law; in this case, too faithful in keeping the Sabbath. Therefore, the true Christian attitude, according to the Day by Day writer, would be to – and I’m quoting here – “take Jesus’ willy-nilly approach to sharing love and fellowship.”
But I think Jesus is saying something else, something more important, in performing all these public healings – and getting himself in trouble in the process. Repeatedly, he asks the people in charge, the Scribes and Pharisees and synagogue rulers: “What is it lawful to do on the Sabbath?” Now, the experts in the Law knew any number of things that were not lawful to do on the Sabbath. In the oral tradition of Jewish law, there were 39 major categories of things that were forbidden on the Sabbath, and hundreds of subcategories. But when Jesus stood up in front of the synagogue and asked the simple question, “What is it lawful to do on the Sabbath?” no one had an answer for him.
God’s will for us is not, and has never been, to set us an obstacle course of things we have to avoid or overcome all through the 70 or 80 or 90 years of our life or else he’ll send us to the Bad Place. His will for us is to become people who love to do the things he loves. Which means his will for us is to become people who love. It’s that simple. “What is it lawful to do on the Sabbath?” Jesus asked. The experts in the law thought they were really honoring God when they observed the Sabbath by avoiding every one of those hundreds of thou-shalt-not’s. But when God himself stood up in front of them and asked the simple question, “Is it lawful to do good, or to do harm? Is it lawful to save a life, or to destroy it?” they couldn’t give an answer.
The synagogue ruler was indignant at the impropriety of Jesus healing a crippled woman on the Sabbath. I’m absolutely sure it did disrupt the solemnity and dignity of the service – how could it not? But Jesus put him to shame. “How can you possibly say it is wrong to care for this woman on the Sabbath, a daughter of Abraham, who has been bound by her illness for eighteen long years? In fact, isn’t the Sabbath exactly the right day to set her free?” What could possibly be more lawful than to have compassion on a fellow human being? How could it ever be unlawful on any day to show kindness, to relieve suffering, to comfort, to share with someone in need, to seek justice for the oppressed?
The passage in Isaiah that Carroll read this morning is God’s word to his people who thought they were serving him faithfully by their religious piety, showing their self-righteousness in things like fasting and self-denial. But God tells them in no uncertain terms that they are missing the point entirely. “When you fast,” God says, “you make yourselves suffer; you bow your heads low like a blade of grass and spread out sackcloth and ashes to lie on. Is that what you call fasting? Do you think I will be pleased with that? “The kind of fasting I want is this: Remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free. Share your food with the hungry and open your homes to the homeless poor. Give clothes to those who have nothing to wear, and do not refuse to help your own relatives….If you put an end to oppression, to every gesture of contempt, and to every evil word; if you give food to the hungry and satisfy those who are in need, then the darkness around you will turn to the brightness of noon.”
Jesus didn’t stand up and publicly heal on the Sabbath because he was a radical and didn’t care what the Law had to say. He stood up and healed in the presence of his accusers because he wanted them to know what it really means to do God’s will. “What is the purpose behind every Law of God?” He asked them. “To help or to harm? To save someone’s life or to destroy it?” But they sat there in silence. Their failure was not in keeping the Law too well. It was in missing the point of the Law entirely. They were observing the Law without love, and so they were failing to observe the law altogether.
It’s always easy for us to point the finger at those ridiculous Pharisees and their foolish adherence to rules and regulations, and their hardness of heart, and all that; until we realize that here in the 21st century in the good old U.S. of A. Christians are still just as prone to Pharisaism as the Pharisees themselves ever were. We just have a whole new set of thou-shalt-nots. How often do we Christians measure ourselves and other people by what we don’t do? We don’t swear and we don’t watch pornographic movies. We don’t smoke and we don’t drink – very much. We don’t tell lies, and we don’t steal, and – this is an important one – we don’t accept charity. Ask any non-Christian person on the street to describe a Christian, and you will very likely get a list of all the things a Christian doesn’t do, on Sundays or any other days. How many people-on-the-street today would define a Christian as a person who feeds the poor and shelters the homeless, who clothes the naked and works to free the oppressed? How wonderful it would be if they did!
Jesus is calling us to pay attention, not to all the things we shouldn’t do, but to what we should do. We waste so much time judging ourselves and everybody else for doing what “good” people don’t do; but notice this: when Jesus boiled the Law down to its simplest form, there wasn’t a single thou-shalt-not left. “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’” he said. “That’s the greatest and the most important commandment. The second most important commandment is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ The whole Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets hang on these two commandments.” Paul says simply, “Love fulfills the whole law.” A good Pharisee was a person who kept himself pure, avoiding every possible infraction of the Law. Time and time again, Jesus offended religious sensibilities and raised religious hackles by breaking through the minutiae of rules and regulations. He did that, not to trample on God’s Law, but to reveal the beating heart of God’s true law, which is active, life-giving love. There are so many suffering people in the world around us. What is it lawful to do – to heal or to harm? To give life or to destroy it? That is the question Jesus asks us today.