10 Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. 11 A woman was there who had been disabled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and couldn’t stand up straight. 12 When he saw her, Jesus called her to him and said, “Woman, you are set free from your sickness.” 13 He placed his hands on her and she straightened up at once and praised God.
14 The synagogue leader, incensed that Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, responded, “There are six days during which work is permitted. Come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath day.”
15 The Lord replied, “Hypocrites! Don’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from its stall and lead it out to get a drink? 16 Then isn’t it necessary that this woman, a daughter of Abraham, bound by Satan for eighteen long years, be set free from her bondage on the Sabbath day?” 17 When he said these things, all his opponents were put to shame, but all those in the crowd rejoiced at all the extraordinary things he was doing. (CEB)
As a parent, I fight this battle all the time. We have certain rules in our house. Some of those rules are designed for the good of individuals. Other rules are designed for the good of the household. We, parents, (usually) see our rules as meaningful; important; good; needful, even necessary. Our children, however, sometimes see them as annoying, unnecessary, stupid, and arbitrary. Parents see the value and purpose behind them. Children rarely see beyond the superficiality of dos and don’ts.
You will brush your teeth. If you don’t, your teeth will rot, I’ll have to pay for a cavity filling, and the rest of your family will suffer under the onslaught of your withering breath. Brush! And brush well! That means, brush for longer than two seconds!
You will change your underwear in the morning. I know you think I’m crazy to suggest such a thing, and I don’t care about your rationalization that you want to give Mommy less laundry to do, but you’re changing your underwear! It really is socially acceptable to wear clean clothes!
You will flush the toilet and wash your hands after you use the bathroom. I don’t care if you didn’t get urine on your fingers, you’re going to wash your hands! And seriously, flush the toilet! That’s gross! No one needs to see your business once the deposit has been made! And don’t tell me you care about water conservation. I’ve seen the way you bathe. You get more water on the outside of the tub than in. Either way, you’re not allowed to conserve water by leaving the toilet unflushed. Just flush the toilet!
You will do your homework before you play on the computer. Have a snack. Take a half-hour to relax, then get your homework done. I know homework is stupid. I agree. But you still have to do it.
Depending on how enforceable they are, rules come in a variety of names. Sometimes rules are called guidelines, which makes them sound more like suggestions to me. The United Methodist Church has a set of Social Principles which are not enforceable rules, but they are meant to teach and guide our theological reflection and our missional activity.
The City of Mount Vernon has rules, which we call ordinances, and you can get ticketed for infractions. Although, one thing I can’t figure out is the speed limit on 4th Street at the intersection of Main Street. If you’re traveling east on 4th Street, the speed limit is 20 mph, but if you’re traveling west on 4th Street, the speed limit is 30 mph. At the very least, it makes me pay attention to the speed limit signs.
I studied rules at the Federal level for my undergraduate degree. The legislature passes laws that become part of the United States Code. Then, Federal agencies write rules—called regulations—which become part of the Code of Federal Regulations. The Regulations tell us how to keep the Code.
That’s basically what happened in Judaism. God gave a whole lot of rules (613 of them) in the Written Torah: the first five books of the Bible. Later, Jewish rabbis—religious scholars who were experts in the Jewish Law—came up with regulations that people had to keep in order to obey the Law. The Pharisees expounded on this Oral Torah, as did later Jewish rabbis. The Oral Torah is contained in the Talmud.
These scholars were so serious about keeping the Law that they discussed questions such as, How far can someone walk on the Sabbath before it is considered work? Regarding the prohibition of working on the Sabbath, what activities can a person do or not do? So, if you go to Israel today, you’ll see these wires up on posts. They’re Sabbath Lines called eruv. Exodus 16:29 says, “Look! The LORD has given you the Sabbath. Therefore, on the sixth day he gives you enough food for two days. Each of you should stay where you are and not leave your place on the seventh day” (CEB). But how boring would it be if you couldn’t leave your house? So they set up these lines to enclose whole communities. If you walk outside that line on the Sabbath, you’ve broken the Law to stay “in your place on the seventh day.”
Exercise is forbidden if the person is doing it for health or training. However, if they’re doing it for the sheer pleasure of the activity, it’s okay. So, sometimes it’s not what a person does, but the reason for doing it. An Orthodox Jew can’t open an umbrella on the Sabbath because it’s considered akin to erecting a tent, which is construction work. If you open an umbrella, you’re breaking the Law to do no work on the Sabbath.
Numbers 15 tells about a man who was caught gathering wood on the Sabbath, and Moses ordered him to be stoned because he was doing work on the Sabbath. (That’s another advantage of the eruv. You can carry certain things within the enclosure and it won’t be considered work. But only certain kinds of items).
So, the kind of activities that Jews are allowed to do on the Sabbath has been debated for thousands of years. What is the Sabbath for, and how does one properly honor it? The law given in Exodus 20:8-11 says, “Remember the Sabbath day and treat it as holy. Six days you may work and do all your tasks, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. Do not do any work on it– not you, your sons or daughters, your male or female servants, your animals, or the immigrant who is living with you. Because the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything that is in them in six days, but rested on the seventh day. That is why the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (CEB).
Jesus, however, seems to interpret Sabbath-keeping more along the lines of Deuteronomy 5:12-15, which says, “Keep the Sabbath day and treat it as holy, exactly as the LORD your God commanded: Six days you may work and do all your tasks, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. Don’t do any work on it– not you, your sons or daughters, your male or female servants, your oxen or donkeys or any of your animals, or the immigrant who is living among you– so that your male and female servants can rest just like you. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt, but the LORD your God brought you out of there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. That’s why the LORD your God commands you to keep the Sabbath day.” (CEB).
On the one hand, Exodus says the reason for keeping the Sabbath is because God rested, so we should rest, too. On the other hand, Deuteronomy says the reason for keeping the Sabbath is because God liberated the people from bondage. So, when Jesus sees this woman come into the synagogue, bent and crooked from a disease that bound her for 18 years, he has a choice. He can choose to focus on the letter of the law in Exodus and withhold healing from this woman because it would be considered work. Or, he can choose to focus on the spirit of the law in Deuteronomy and give this woman freedom from bondage, which is at the heart of honoring the Sabbath.
Jesus choose to free the woman from bondage. She doesn’t ask for healing. Jesus simply sees her and tells her she’s unbound. When he lays his hands on her, she stands up straight and praises God. She was free! She was no longer captive to a terrible disease! And her freedom came on the day that Jews celebrate because God set them free!
But the leader of the Synagogue had Exodus in mind. He witnessed Jesus doing work on the Sabbath, and he gets upset. Luke tells us the Synagogue leader was indignant and told the crowds, “There are six days during which work is permitted. Come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath day.” (CEB). The problem for Jesus, of course, is that people are more important than rules.
Jews aren’t allowed to do work on the Sabbath, but even the Oral Law made exceptions, and that’s the thing Jesus uses to call out the leader of the Synagogue and those who agreed with him. “Hypocrites! Don’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from its stall and lead it out to get a drink? Then isn’t it necessary that this woman, a daughter of Abraham, bound by Satan for eighteen long years, be set free from her bondage on the Sabbath day?” (CEB).
“Isn’t it necessary,” Jesus said. It is possible to get so tied up in what the rules say that we forget the purposes behind the rules. It’s easier to default to the rule than have to think about the reason for it. We can forget what is necessary. Jesus words and actions here show us that kindness toward a fellow human being is more necessary than keeping a strictly-minded, inflexible legality.
What’s more, this woman’s healing doesn’t depend on her faith, or the people’s faith, or her worthiness, or even her seeking it directly. Jesus sees her brokenness and simply heals because that is God’s character. As followers of Jesus Christ, it should be our character, too. Caring for others takes precedence over any other rule, law, or religious custom. In fact, caring for God’s people—caring for those in need—is the heart of Christian faith and practice.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!