Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.
A pastor friend of mine once told me a story of his early days in ministry. He was the pastor of a small rural church, and many in that community just expected each other to attend church on Sunday. After worship one Sunday, the pastor was driving home when he passed by the home of a church member, who was out in his yard pruning his bushes. The pastor stopped, rolled down the window, and remarked, “We sure would have loved to have you in church today.” The man replied, “I would have loved to be there, but you know, when the ox is in the ditch…” He then went back to his pruning.
The man was referring to Luke 14:5, which echoes concerns about the Sabbath that we see in this reading from one chapter before. The notion is that some emergencies require work to be done on the Sabbath. Now, whether pruning one’s bushes qualifies as an emergency is up for debate, but it’s clear that Jesus lived in a world in which a great deal of attention was given to the custom of observing the Sabbath. Most people living in first century Palestine would have been familiar with the fourth commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” As we can see from the aforementioned texts from Luke’s gospel, there was some disagreement over what this “remembering” and “keeping” was to be.
The small community in which my pastor friend began his ministry had a certain Pharasaic quality to its observance of the Sabbath. The Sabbath meant going to church, and if anyone in the community chose not to attend, then high-horsed churchgoers would be free to wag their fingers in the faces at them while giving a speech about what they were expected to do on the Lord’s Day. The Pharisees butted heads with Jesus precisely over this expectation. In their radical adherence to the “jot and tittle” of the law, they became the moral and ceremonial watchdogs of the community. Jesus’ responses to them show us that Sabbath-keeping isn’t really about wagging one’s finger at the non-churchgoers, but something else entirely.
Consider the unmistakable language of bondage and freedom that pervades this text. The woman comes to Jesus “bent over and unable to stand”. The image is of someone weighed down and crippled by some burden. Jesus heals her by proclaiming, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” She then stands up straight, as if a weight pressing down upon her has been removed. When the leader of the synagogue challenges Jesus, he replies, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”
The language of bondage and freedom is not accidental. Rather than observing the Sabbath as some moral obligation that shackles the people, Jesus uses it as an occasion to set the people free! It’s been said that Jesus came not to polish our chains, but to set us free. That’s the message of this text, and it has clear implications on our observance of the sabbath day.
When I look out over the pews on Sunday morning, I undoubtedly see the faces of at least some who feel obligated to be there. Some have come to church simply because it is their sabbath duty, and they will also be the ones chastising others for not attending. However, we make a mistake when we assume that everyone approaches the Sabbath with that mindset. The truth is that everyone who c0mes to church – even those who feel compelled to be their against their will! – come as people in need. They come carrying heavy burdens, weighed down by the baggage of life. They come as people who have stooped under life’s pressure for so long that they have forgotten what it feels like to stand up, to lift their heads high, to walk straight as unencumbered people. In other words, we all forget what it feels like to be free. We have to be reminded.
We are not unlike the crippled woman who came to Jesus, stooped and burdened. Jesus healed her by setting her free. She stood straight. Now of course, she’ll depart from him and once again be assailed by the burdens of life. She slowly come to take on more pressure, more pain, more weight, until she may even begin to bend. But in that moment she may well remember the one who set her free, and perhaps she’ll stand a little straighter, or feel the pressures of life lessen a bit. She’ll be reminded that she now walks as a free woman.
That’s what Sabbath is for us. Though we may not be able to escape from the pressures that weigh us down, we may nevertheless be reminded each time we gather that we walk as free people. Perhaps our burdens will lessen, and in that moment we’ll remember the one who set us free.
And we’ll rejoice at all the wonderful things he is doing.
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First Look is a weekly commentary on the upcoming gospel lectionary text, written by Rev. Lee A. Koontz. It is usually published on Mondays.