The gospel of Luke recounts a story in which Jesus heals a woman “with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years” and he does it on the sabbath. This draws the ire of the leader of the synagogue who accuses Jesus of violating the sabbath law by doing work on the holy day of rest. “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day” (Luke 13:14).
I have to feel sorry for this guy. Because he’s absolutely right: according to the law, you can’t do work on the sabbath. And not only is he in the right, he believes it, too.
That’s why I feel sorry for him.
Leaders of the synagogue, temple leaders, pharisees – the keepers of the law, rites and culture of the hebrews – almost always seem to be the bad guys in the gospels. It’s often such a caricature, they might as well be Snidely Whiplash, only with a full-on orthodox beard. But I don’t think they’re really that bad, though it seems useful to portray them that way as a foil for Jesus’ teaching and actions. What they are – and maybe I’m being overly optimistic here – are believers in the power of the law to guide their lives. Strict adherence to the law governs how they live.
But it doesn’t give them life.
And that’s precisely the point so constantly being made by Jesus. In order for the law to give life, one must live by the spirit of the law, not the letter. The law written on your heart is more powerful than the law written in a book.
Jesus heals on the sabbath. That may be work to this pharisee’s understanding of the law, but to Jesus it’s life-giving compassion and that’s what the sabbath is for. That he heals a bent over and broken woman couldn’t be a clearer indication: she is unburdened, freed from what weighs on her spirit, restored to health, given new life.
If only the church leader could see that.
Sorry, I meant to say synagogue. Or did I? Maybe a question we ought to be asking about our churches or any religious institution, about our society and our community, about our way of living, is this very thing: is it life-giving?
How do you use “sabbath” time? Just for a minute, let go of the letter of the law that says what you can’t do that day, let go of the argument about what day, exactly, it is. Whatever moment it is for you, whenever you make it – and you must make it – it should be more than a time of rest from labour and it should be more than routine ritual. It’s a time for unburdening yourself, it’s a time of renewal and refreshment of your relationship with God (by whatever name or means that you know God), it’s a time for finding new inspiration for your spirit, it’s a time for finding new life through rest and healing.
The days ahead need that.