“Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.” I don’t know what you learned in confirmation class, but I was taught that this commandment was fulfilled by attending church on Sundays. And surely that is one way to keep the Sabbath in a holy way. But what if there’s more to it?
I think that’s what sets off the religious leaders in today’s Gospel reading. They’ve always understood the Law of God one way, and now Jesus is making them look at it again, differently. When Jesus gives a sign of the in-breaking of the kingdom of God on the Sabbath, what the religious leaders of the time see is Jesus apparently breaking one of the 10 Commandments. Yet Jesus claims he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it, to open it up in ways no one had seen before. He heals a woman on the Sabbath not to show that the Sabbath is not important or holy. He is simply redefining what the Sabbath is all about: a time to recall that God is God and we are not.
As Jesus embodies it, the rule about keeping the Sabbath holy is not about strictly following the letter of the law, so much as it is about following the Law of Love. The questions to ask, then, when trying to decide if we are keeping or breaking that commandment are these: “Is this action in line with God’s dream the abundance? Does it contribute more life into this person, this community, this world? Does it give me an opportunity to remember that God is God and I am not?”
Keeping the Sabbath holy, then, is not just about going to church on Sunday, though that is certainly good and right and holy. It’s also behaving as citizens of the kingdom of God who are mindful of God’s sovereignty and grace. Keeping the Sabbath holy can involve reaching out to those who have been excluded or forgotten or wounded by the Law or the world. It can mean marching in a Pride Parade, so that people who may feel that God and the church have abandoned them can see that it is not true.
In today’s story, Jesus gives a concrete example of how to honor the Sabbath day and keep it holy. He sees a woman who has been bent over for 18 yrs. No one has seen tears spring to her eyes when she heard magnificent music or an unkind remark. No one has seen her smile. Nor has she seen anyone smile or weep for almost 2 decades. What must that kind of isolation do to a person’s spirit?
We know what it did to the people around her. They forgot her name. They forgot who she was. All they could see was her ailment—“the bent over woman” she is called. She is defined and recognized not by her sense of humor, or her fantastic lentil stew, or her advice about curing diaper rash, but by what makes her different and weird and somewhat scary.
The people around her point at her, or feel sorry for her, or are annoyed with her for not taking better care of herself. Perhaps they wonder—as people are wont to do—if God is punishing her for something she did. Maybe they speculate about what that terrible thing was! Surely if God loved her, if she had been faithful in her prayers and tithes and good deeds, if she’d just kept the Commandments, she wouldn‘t be in this mess. Isn’t it true that God provides good things for those who live faithfully? NO! All of these thoughts and accusations are rooted in fear: fear that there isn’t enough love, or grace, or health, or happiness in the world—fear that, “If we give her our compassion/respect/attention, there won’t be enough left for us.”
The people around this woman were also, in their own ways, “bent over.” They had lost the capacity to see beyond their own shoes, to imagine what it was like to be in hers. They were curled in on themselves—in curvatus se—which is how Martin Luther defined sin: to be curled in on oneself, unable to care for anyone or anything else.
I am proud of the many ways that Trinity is not curled in on itself. I love how enthusiastically this congregation keeps the Sabbath by looking up and out, by noticing one another, and meeting the needs of people who are hurting. I’m grateful for the ways in which we receive homeless families with the Road Home, because it is not just a cause to which we donate money, but also involves many volunteers contributing their time and energy. It’s one thing to write a check for a charitable cause (which I hope we all do), and another thing altogether to sit down next to someone and ask, “How was work today?” or “Would you like some more milk?” Hearing someone laugh or noticing their tears is quite different from seeing only their outstretched hands.
Jesus sees people for who they are and not just for what their circumstances are. I don’t mean he ignores their physical predicaments, but he doesn’t define them by those circumstances either. He’s the only one in this whole story who doesn’t call the woman in the synagogue “the bent over woman.” Instead he calls her “Daughter of Abraham.” He names her as a descendent of the one through whom God initiates us all into one family, an inheritor of God’s promise that we will never be left alone in the darkness, that God is always be working in and through our lives to bring harmony to all of creation. Daughter of Abraham. The title gives her dignity and connects her to all the people around her—including those who had spent time thinking about how different they were from her, how grateful they were not to be like her. All are “children of Abraham.”
As I imagine this scene in my mind, it is impossible for me to imagine that Jesus speaks to her while standing over her. From what I know about Jesus, I believe he would have had to look her in the eye when he was talking to her. So I imagine Jesus getting down on his knees in front of her, taking her face into his hands, and looked into her eyes when he called her Daughter of Abraham. I am guessing that Jesus was the first person in 18 years to see her smile. Or cry. Or probably both at the same time. I believe that’s why, more than anything else, she was able to “stand up straight and praise God.”
I don’t know if she literally stood up, if her twisted spine actually straightened. Maybe that’s how it went. But it seems entirely possible to me that her physical condition might have remained unchanged, and she still experienced a miraculous healing. If this woman could claim her place in the human family again, if she could see herself with the same loving affection that Jesus offered her, wouldn’t that be healing? Wouldn’t it be holy thing, a wondrous thing, for her to know she’d been recognized for her true self and claimed by God’s love forever?
Every time we offer prayers for healing we remember that there is a difference between being healed and being cured. Interestingly, Jesus’ words to the woman today don’t include either term. Instead he says, “You are set free from your ailment.” Not “you are cured,” or “you are made well,” but “you are set free.” What if she was still hunched over when she left that day? Would it mean Jesus’ touch was not efficacious? Can a person be “set free” and not be “cured“?
I guess that depends on what actually “ailed” her. If it wasn’t her physical condition but her isolation from the community that caused her to suffer most, if what caused the deepest pain was her separation from others, then maybe her back was not the real problem. Perhaps Jesus set her free by enabling her to rejoin her community and the world, reminding them that she was someone, giving them all new eyes and smiles. Maybe what she (and they) most needed was to for her to become someone other than “the bent over woman.”
The last verse in today’s reading tells us that not only did the woman stand up and praise God, but the whole crowd rejoiced as well! Miracle of miracles, joy is magnified when it is shared! It’s just like the miracle of the loaves and fishes. What looks like not enough becomes enough for all, with left-overs besides! That sounds like a holy Sabbath to me! How can we keep the Sabbath like that?
We are also children of Abraham. In Christ, we are also made free! Looking up from our own feet into the smiling or weeping faces of people who are different and scary and somehow “not quite right,” and seeing there the face of God’s Beloved, we will are set free from fear. As we recall that God is God and we are not, we acknowledge one another’s significance. We discover that our own bones seem stronger, that we are better able to stand up straight and praise God. Jesus’ desire to bring wholeness and dignity to all creation extends to us and through us. For this gift of grace, for our overflowing cups of joy, let us stand up straight in the abundance of God’s dream, today and always.
~Pastor Susan Schneider