A book series that I devoured as a child was the autobiographical Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I read all of them, but my favorite—then and now – is Little House in the Big Woods,” which was the first book in the series. In these books, Laura Ingalls Wilder told the story of her life and her family’s as they moved from
then westward. Little House in the Big Woods is about her early
childhood in Wisconsin.
Wilder wrote about daily life in a small house in the big woods of
While you wouldn’t assume that descriptions of making maple syrup candy in snow
or churning butter or listening to Pa play his fiddle were interesting, Wilder
made the stories of her childhood fascinating. One of the days she described in
detail was Sunday.
Sundays were difficult for Laura anytime, but they were especially challenging in the winter. They were already stuck in the house most of the time, but Sundays were worse. On Sundays Laura and Mary were clean from their baths on Saturday night. They wore their best dresses and had ribbons in their hair. The girls had to sit quietly all day. They could not run or jump or play any games. Mary couldn’t sew on her little quilt. Laura could not knit the little mittens she was making for her baby sister, Carrie. They could look at their paper dolls, but they could not sew on any doll clothes for them. The girls could hold and talk to their rag dolls, but no playing with them. They could listen quietly while Ma read Bible stories, or stories about exotic animals from Pa’s big book , The Wonders of the Animal World. Laura and Mary were allowed to look at pictures, and Laura liked looking at the pictures in the Bible the best. One of her favorites was the story of Adam naming the animals. Laura liked this picture because Adam was so comfortable, sitting there without any clothes on. She envied Adam not having clothes to keep clean and tidy. I remember reading this description of Sundays as a child and thinking, “I am so glad I live now and not then. Our Sundays aren’t nearly so bad.”
Our Sundays aren’t nearly so bad. Looking back, I realize that’s a sad way to view the Sabbath. Although I didn’t have the same rigid restrictions that Laura Ingalls Wilder had, I dreaded Sundays when I was a kid. I had to wear a dress. Sunday school wasn’t too bad, but I had to sit through an unending church service that I didn’t understand. I had to be quiet. I couldn’t fidget. There was an altar call every Sunday, but my parents never let me go forward when Brother Bob invited folks to come down. For Laura and for me, Sunday was a day to be endured not embraced. It was a day of rules and regulations. It was more about what you couldn’t do, then about what you could.
That’s the essence of what we read in our passage from Luke: what you could and could not do on the Sabbath. Only Luke’s gospel tells this story of a woman bent over for almost two decades. It was the Sabbath day and Jesus was teaching in the synagogue. As Luke described it, this crippled woman, bent over from a spirit for 18 years, appeared. There is no indication that she came looking for healing. It would seem she came for the same reason everyone else did – to worship and to obey the laws of the Sabbath.
But Jesus saw her. He called out to her, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” He laid his hands on her and she stood straight for the first time in a long, long time. When she did, her first response was to praise God. We might expect that this would be the end of the story. Jesus healed; the woman praised, the people rejoiced, the end. But the healing was just the beginning. When the leader of the synagogue saw that Jesus healed the woman, he became angry. The text tells us that he was “indignant,” that Jesus “cured on the Sabbath.” Instead of confronting Jesus, he turned to the crowd and said, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” The irony of this is that the leader did not question Jesus’ healing. He did not question the fact that Jesus had the power to heal, instead he questioned when Jesus healed.
Although the man did not speak directly to Jesus, Jesus spoke directly to him.
“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 who Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”
When Moses brought the Law down from the top of the mountain, there were Ten Commandments. But when the people finally began to obey them, they took them from ten to approximately 600; 600 rules and laws and requirements that the people were to strictly follow if they wanted to remain in God’s good graces. Some of the most elaborate rules were the ones that dictated the ways people were to keep the Sabbath. Keeping Sabbath meant no work. However, letting animals starve and thirst was not acceptable either, so they could be tended to without being violation of the Law. But curing this woman would have been seen as work. After all, she had been crippled for 18 years, what’s one more day?
Yet Jesus called the leader’s reprimand hypocrisy. Whether the Pharisees and the other leaders of the day realized it or not, they had put the well-being of their animals over and above the well-being of God’s children. Jesus called the woman a “daughter of Abraham,” a stark reminder that this woman was an inheritor of the covenant and the promise of God the same as the religious leaders, the same as anyone else. What’s one more day?! Why should this woman wait one more day when she could be cured of an illness that had robbed her of so many years? Jesus was not going to let her wait one more day, no not one more second, when healing could be hers immediately. It was the Sabbath, true, but what better day to cure her, to heal her, than on the Sabbath day?
This is a healing story, but it also brings up a larger question. What is the Sabbath actually intended for? Is it merely a day in which the rules of what to avoid are even more strenuous? Does keeping Sabbath only mean what you cannot do?
Most of Jesus’ ministry was about not just bending the rules, but about upending people’s expectations: about the Law, about God, about the messiah. This story is no exception. Jesus not only forced the religious leadership to face their hypocrisy, he turned upside down the meaning of Sabbath. After all, where did the example of Sabbath come from? From God. God created for six days, but on the seventh he rested. Does this mean that God needed a break? Was God tired? Or was this an illustration of God taking what I call a “divine pause.” It was a moment of rest and of pausing, after time spent creating and making and life-giving.
Nowhere does it say that God rested so that rules and regulations could be fulfilled. Nowhere does it say that God rested so that God might avoid doing the wrong thing. The Sabbath was a divine pause, a chance to exhale, a chance to enjoy what had been created, and perhaps even to imagine what would come.
But in trying to follow God’s command to keep Sabbath, the people had only created more and more rules. They saw the Sabbath, not as a pause, but as a day of requirement and avoidance. Jesus said, “No.” The Sabbath was not just a day for avoidance; it was a day to be filled. It was a day to be filled with worship, with thanksgiving, with praise for God and God’s good gifts. It was a day to be filled with life. Jesus filled that day by giving life back to this woman who had been bent over for so long. Jesus filled that day by freeing this woman from bondage. And if anything goes against God’s order it is bondage, whether that bondage is physical, emotional or spiritual. Jesus did not reduce the Sabbath to mere avoidance; instead he filled it with life, with freedom, with love. Jesus bent the rules, but he fulfilled the Law. This brought his opponents to shame, but the crowds of people rejoiced.
What do we fill our Sabbath with? We’re here. We’re worshipping. We are giving praise and thanks. But I wonder if we’re not being called to reexamine our own understandings of Sabbath. I made the point earlier that the leaders, wittingly or not, made the care of animals more important than people. I love animals. I hate animal abuse. I hate seeing any animal, pet or otherwise, harmed. Yet on social media I often see more outrage about the harming of animals than I do about the harming of people.
I despise animal abuse, but what about the children who are being abused? What about the children who are dying in the ongoing genocide taking place in
What about the women and men who experience violence here and around the world?
What about the families that are torn apart? What about the people, God’s
people, who are dying without sense or reason? Why should they wait one more
day for healing, for freedom, for life?
I know that we cannot leave here on this day and change the world. But perhaps we can leave it with changed intention. Perhaps we can leave it with new found resolve and determination to participate in God’s work of creativity and giving life. Perhaps we can leave here determined to fill the Sabbath day and everyday with God’s peace and justice by helping to bring God’s children, daughters and sons of Abraham, out of death and into life. Why should anyone wait one more day to live full and healthy lives? What better day than today, the Sabbath, to recommit ourselves, we followers of Christ, to being instruments of God’s peace, justice, wholeness and life? What better day than today to bear God’s love into God’s world?
Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!”