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A Modern Day Sabbath
Austin Weaver, SPM Intern
July 31, 2016
A reading from the Gospel of Luke:
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.
When I was growing up, the word Sabbath always felt outdated. If you think about it, you never really have someone walk up to you and say “Hey there! Any big plans for your Sabbath this week?” It was as though the word had dropped out of conversational English entirely. Naturally, when I started looking at this text, I was curious about how this word might have shifted with culture and from ancient, biblical times, to today. A clear example of this shift is the rule to not work on the Sabbath not being applied to Jesus’ teaching, because teaching was not considered work. Teaching, which even from my own brief time as a student teacher, I could tell was a difficult profession. This serves as a significant reminder that a job we consider one of the most challenging was not even considered work within the context of the Bible.
Then, I began to wonder about the characters in the story. I do believe it is significant that within the story it is a woman that was healed on the Sabbath, and not a man. This is done to set up a dichotomy between this woman and the men who were leading the synagogue. We see this through the development of the text. Jesus after healing the woman gets scolded by the synagogue’s leader because, in his eyes, you can’t cure on the Sabbath. Jesus immediately points out the hypocrisy of the leader’s argument, observing that each of these men on the Sabbath untie their ox or donkey in order provide it water (by the way, if we needed further evidence of the text’s historical context, how many of us all spend part of our Sabbath giving their ox or donkey water? My guess is probably not too many).
Yet, for all the ways in which we can see that this text might be outdated or no longer relevant, it holds wisdom that still rings true in the world we live in today. All of these people whom Jesus labeled as hypocrites were men. We know this because the text refers to them only with the male pronoun (his ox or his donkey). In a historical context that rarely, if ever, treated women (or any other gender) as though they were children of God in the same way that men are children of God, Jesus uses this moment to heal a woman, and that was intentional. Because, Jesus, when healing this woman, reminds us of the immense privilege men had, not only within Biblical text but throughout all of history. That, for the record, includes the world we live in now, and we need look no further than understanding the fact that, for the first time in American history, we have a woman nominated to the presidency of the United States. Not elected, though that remains a possibility, but nominated. The first time a woman has been seriously considered to be the strongest and most capable person to lead our country took almost two hundred and fifty years. For those who think male privilege, and, in particular, white male privilege is no longer significant, I encourage you to reconsider that idea.
This healing in the story, then, is twofold: There is this physical healing of the woman, curing her of her ailment, and also that Jesus reveals to us that healing must be done to correct the power disparity present between genders. That healing must extend beyond curing of physical ailments. Those who hold power in the story, the leaders of the temple, are called by Jesus to question their world views as he speaks to the extent of privilege in their lives, and the lack of privilege in this woman’s life.
Of course, I understand that I’ve grown up and enjoyed the benefits of such privilege, and it has probably had a significant shaping of who I am today. But I also believe I have to be intentional, both in acknowledging that privilege and using the platform it has given me to work towards a world of justice and equality. Though I hold a fundamental belief that, for the most part, all people are doing the best that they can, I do also believe that that doesn’t mean we can’t do a little bit better. I think this applies to the healing that still needs to be done in the world today. Much in the way we Presbyterians often refer to ourselves as “reformed and always reforming,” I believe we must consider ourselves “healed and always healing.” This acknowledges that we have made significant strides over time in power disparity, in racism and gender gaps. But these strides, though important and impactful, do not mean we should consider our job complete, nor our healing done.
Yet, even with this understanding and insight into privilege and power through the lens of a woman being healed, I think the most powerful line in the entire text occurs in Jesus’ last sentence. “And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from the bondage on the Sabbath day?” That line stops me wherever I am and brings out a whole range of emotions. What strikes me most, I think, was this intense focus that, on the Sabbath, of all days, we deserve healing. We deserve comfort, and support, and to be nurtured. Jesus makes a claim here that the Sabbath, of all days, was made for healing. The Sabbath was a day in which weary people would be able to rest from work without guilt, shame, or anxiety. Yet again, the world we live in today is so vastly different from the world the bible presents to us. One of the underlying meanings I find in this text is the lack of vocation that we ourselves have today. Working was a means to an end and nothing more. Enjoyment of what we do for a living is, today, a privilege many people have, though we may not quite realize that it indeed is a privilege. We encourage our kids to think about a future that sounds enjoyable to them, and is fueled by their passion. We often hear ideas from our children and youth that they want to grow up and become an astronaut, or a veterinarian, or in my case a worker on a garbage truck, because it looked like a lot of fun to ride on the back of that truck, and anything in between. This is something we today not only encourage, but admire. Any young person, whether it be a child, a youth, or even a young adult, is praised for their passion, dedication, and motivation when they declare to us the job they desire.
I think we open up our world too often, though not always, provide opportunities for us to either be healed by our own work, or be able to heal others in the work we do. We can both provide and receive comfort, emotional healing, and support through our work in a plethora of different ways today. This luxury of seeking a job which we understand today as our own vocation wasn’t available for these people Jesus met and talked to. Vocation had no impact on the type of work that was chosen in biblical times, while one of the ultimate goals we emphasize today involves not only finding our vocation, but then finding work that speaks to that calling.
So, then, this brings me back to my original question: how do we understand the Sabbath today, knowing the historical context of the Sabbath shaped its purpose, where today we live in a world where it is exponentially more common to have a job that fits within our own vocation? What, indeed, does a modern day Sabbath look like? I believe the purpose of a Sabbath today serves to make us pause for a little bit. In lives that are so busy and full of events, the Sabbath asks us to slow down and ask ourselves “where do we see God in our world and at work around us?” The Sabbath was claimed by Jesus to be made for healing. Allowing ourselves to pause, meditate, and reflect on God’s presence in our lives invites us to be healed and rejuvenated through the Sabbath day.
Of course, this healing can happen in a number of ways. The most obvious of these is at a church, for there are certain types of healing which only occur within communities. Yet, there also exists a personal healing that can happen within ourselves. Both of these forms of healing can take any number of shapes and sizes. For almost anyone who is a parent, it’s easy to see the presence of God through their child. Even if it’s something as simple as watching our child run around on a soccer field smiling and giggling, or, if your child was anything like me, picking flowers while everyone else plays soccer. But even though God is certainly present through children, God can be seen at work in a vast number of ways. Maybe we stop on our Sabbath and appreciate the beauty of nature in the world around us, an appreciation that we may not feel on a day where our responsibilities feel overwhelming and we feel the stress of work and everyday life. We see the sky or the trees or hear the sound of rain, and we feel a deep affection for this world we live in. If you’re a sports fan like myself, maybe you find it in cheering for and following your favorite team, or maybe you simply enjoy watching television and have a list of shows you save for your day off. We can even find joy through the simple presence of rest, allowing ourselves to nourish our body through the comfort of much needed sleep. Though our Sabbath can be used for any number of activities which provide healing, I think it’s also important to note that, while Jesus said the Sabbath was made for healing, he did not claim that healing was made for the Sabbath. The Sabbath, though it serves the valuable purpose of providing us a day to be healed, does not limit our ability to heal or be healed on other days. In fact, I believe we are called to lead lives that provide healing in any fashion every day. We are called to heal one another, and therefore, love one another. We are called to be healed, and always be healing. Though each Sabbath day remains unique, God’s love, care, and support for us remains the one constant of our Sabbath day and all days. Now, to the one is at work within us, who is more powerful and loving than we can imagine, think, believe, or ask. To this one be the glory. Amen.