Who hasn’t been frustrated when something they had planned to go a certain way was interrupted? It’s frustrating, for example, when a colleague sidetracks the conversation in a meeting so much so that the original issue is never addressed. Or it’s frustrating when, as happened to me the other night, a bath for small children is interrupted by a potty accident. And in this week’s reading, a synagogue ruler was frustrated when his neatly constructed service was sidetracked by the number of people coming to be healed. Jesus comes to speak into the frustration and give a right ordering of priorities.
We must pay close attention to the language used in this Gospel reading. The spirit of sickness kept the woman bent over double, and she wasn’t able to release herself from this position. When Jesus interrupted his teaching to heal her, he used the language of freedom rather than healing to describe what he had performed for her. The issue, as presented in the Gospel, is one of “binding” rather than just being unwell.
The synagogue ruler was frustrated at Jesus, who went beyond his invitation to speak and performed a healing on the Sabbath. But the ruler, who no doubt valued Jesus as a teacher enough to invite him to speak, didn’t address him directly. Instead, he told the crowds to come all the other days of the week to be healed. The synagogue ruler saw Jesus perform a healing miracle and believed that he could continue to do so for all the others in the crowd. There was no problem of disbelief here, only a question of order and frustration. Is it right to heal on the Sabbath when there are plenty of other times in the week for folks to be healed?
Jesus would have none of it. He again used the language of freedom to say that humans untie animals to provide for their daily needs (“tying” and “untying” being two of 39 regulated categories of work on the Sabbath). Using an argument from lesser-to-greater (kal v’homer), Jesus reasoned that if doing actions normally prohibited on the Sabbath were permitted to improve the life of beasts of burden, how much more is untying the bonds that an evil spirit used to abuse a human woman incumbent upon all those who are able to help?
There was no problem of disbelief here, only a question of order and frustration. Is it right to heal on the Sabbath when there are plenty of other times in the week for folks to be healed?
The reactions of those who heard Jesus are telling. Those who opposed him were humiliated, while everyone else in the crowd joined the recently freed woman in rejoicing. The synagogue ruler was an outlier in that time and, indeed, an outlier in Jewish traditions that mostly allow wide latitude in foregoing Sabbath protections to save or improve human lives. Sadly, however, modern Christians are familiar with the ruler’s thinking. All too often we hide behind processes or policies to avoid freeing people, frequently women, who have been bound up, abused or kept imprisoned by religious leaders who are frustrated when people step out of line.
To be clear, God and God’s people care about Sabbath law. Sabbath is a justice issue in our overhyped world that seeks to drain every ounce of human energy through hustles, side-hustles, and bi- and tri-vocational ministry. God proclaims through the prophet Isaiah:
If, because of the Sabbath, you restrain your foot
From doing as you wish on My holy day,
And call the Sabbath a pleasure, and the holy day of the Lord honorable,
And honor it, desisting from your own ways,
From seeking your own pleasure
And speaking your own word,
Then you will take delight in the Lord,
And I will make you ride on the heights of the earth (58:13-14a; New American Standard Bible).
The letter to the Hebrews proclaims: “There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God” (Hebrews 4:9). Jesus certainly recognized the importance of Sabbath and rest. Indeed, his disciples and opponents were continually perplexed at his sleeping and feasting schedule and relative lack of work and fasting. Jesus also understood that the point of religious practice was not the practice in and of itself, but that it accomplishes God’s desires for the world. No doubt Jesus was thinking of a passage from Isaiah, just prior to our lectionary reading this week, when he framed the healing of the woman as release from bondage:
Is this not the fast that I choose:
To release the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the ropes of the yoke,
And to let the oppressed go free,
And break every yoke? (Isaiah 58:6).
Make no mistake, Sabbath is good. Policies and best practices are good and useful, as long as they actually are good and useful. But I think maybe we, as Lutheran Christians, have a particular responsibility to look out for how religious rules designed by humans can inhibit the freeing, liberative work of Jesus. That is, after all, the genesis of our tradition. Therefore, when we find ourselves feeling frustrated by how the liberation of others interferes with our plans and expectations, we could choose to see that as an invitation from Jesus to rightly order protection and liberation over rules that bind and inhibit freedom.