Sermon - 21st August 2016
Scripture - Luke 13:10-17
[An audio version of this sermon can be heard via the link at Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
Notions around the Jewish Sabbath are clearly significant to the story in today’s reading, so we probably need to clarify exactly what we are talking about.
[Question: Which day is the Sabbath in any week?]
Within Jewish tradition, the significance of the weekly celebration of the Sabbath came out of a series of ten commandments which it is believed God gave to his chosen people, and which are recorded in the 20th chapter of the book of Exodus in the Hebrew Scriptures. The fourth commandment says:
“Observe the Sabbath and keep it holy. You have six days in which to do your work, but the seventh day is a day of rest dedicated to me. On that day no one is to work—neither you, your children, your slaves, your animals, nor the foreigners who live in your country. In six days I, the Lord, made the earth, the sky, the seas, and everything in them, but on the seventh day I rested. That is why I, the Lord, blessed the Sabbath and made it holy.”
So that principle of the seventh day of the week being a day of rest found its way into the early expressions of the Jewish Law and was eventually held to be a divine command and a characteristic of the Jewish people which made them distinctive and served as a sign of allegiance and loyalty to the God of their ancestors.
Interestingly, in the second appearance of the commandments, this time in the book of Deuteronomy, there is a subtle change of emphasis towards the end:
“Observe the Sabbath and keep it holy, as I, the Lord your God, have commanded you. You have six days in which to do your work, but the seventh day is a day of rest dedicated to me. On that day no one is to work—neither you, your children, your slaves, your animals, nor the foreigners who live in your country. Your slaves must rest just as you do. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt, and that I, the Lord your God, rescued you by my great power and strength. That is why I command you to observe the Sabbath.”
Notice that this second version has a very tentative sense of social justice within it, as it places a particular emphasis on ensuring that slaves must also rest, and couples this with a reminder about the slave history of the Jewish people themselves. While there are limits to how far we can stretch the meanings of the texts we have, is there perhaps a trace of something in this version of the commandment which hints at a common basic level of justice and fairness for everyone in the work that is required of them each week?
Is there a sense that this commandment is an early example of a statutory holy day which became a statutory rest day or ‘holiday’ each week? Can we push even further and consider whether the words ‘No one is to work’ might include the intention that ‘No one is to be made to work’? And does that bring us closer to the approach which Jesus seemed to take in today’s reading where he regards the healing of a person who has suffered for 18 years as an entirely appropriate way of observing the Sabbath and keeping it holy.
To Jesus, the holiness of the Sabbath day is something wide, creative, positive, and liberating. If the words of the commandment are acknowledged by recognising that it is a day of rest dedicated to God, then can the bringing of God’s love into someone’s life ever be against the true intention of the Sabbath?
The politics of the encounter
Another thread of the story is that, during the times that Jesus lived, the influence of the corrupt religious authorities, the collusion of a weak and degraded puppet king, and the agenda of the occupying armies of the Roman Empire, all meant that religious teachings and practices were heavily tainted by political requirements.
The Romans allowed 1st century Jewish authorities a certain degree of autonomy because they were satisfied that how the Jewish leaders managed their religion gave them a significant amount of social control. The Judaism of the day, which Jesus was constantly trying to reform, was oppressive, self-serving, elitist and entirely unrepresentative of the highest values of what had been a just and noble belief system.
And its leaders also had a huge vested interest in maintaining the status quo whereby the rich got richer and the poor stayed firmly under control by means of petty rules which claimed religious justification; gross inequalities of power and influence; widespread illiteracy and the consequent lack of access to information and independent learning; military suppression when needed with Roman troops available as the Final Solution whenever Temple guards could not cope; the permanent existence for many on the brink of destitution; and an air of mystical and supposedly divine authority which the leaders wrapped around themselves.
The Jerusalem temple was effectively a business, and it was from that vested interest sector of Jerusalem society that the Leader of the Temple challenged Jesus about his healing of the woman on the Sabbath, basically telling her to come back during ‘business’ hours. Do we, perhaps, start to get a feel for why Jesus was appalled by that kind of response from a religious leader, and why he reacted so strongly against it?
And, keeping an eye on the wider picture, let’s not overlook what Luke puts in his final verse of the story: “His answer made his enemies ashamed of themselves, while the people rejoiced over all the wonderful things that he did.” Don’t we know what happens when a privileged controlling faction is publicly shamed, while an underclass finds the political courage to show support for the actions of a radical revolutionary?
I think we know what needs to happen to protect the vested interests, the professional reputations, and the power which comes with high office, when some preacher starts to mobilise the ordinary people to reject the social constraints in which they are being held? We know that the answer in 1st century Jerusalem was cross-shaped.
For us today
When the Christian communities began to separate from the Jewish synagogue tradition, the Christian practice of recognising the first day of the week - Sunday - as the principal day for worship in commemoration of the resurrection of Jesus on the first day of the week, became the norm. The Sabbath, as a day of particular holiness, was replaced by The Lord’s Day and steadily many of the features and characteristics of Jesus’s own Jewish faith began to be lost from the picture of Jesus which the church promoted as it became a hugely influential power across the world, and largely separated from its Jewish roots.
And, of course, with huge influence and power came wealth, new and different vested interests, power struggles, political interference, and corruption in many guises. Even though the Jerusalem Temple in Jesus’s time. and everything connected with it, was in so many ways a temple to hypocrisy, two millennia of organised Christianity have also seen corrupt and hypocritical behaviour on a massive scale, and too frequently to count.
Within our own Christian history, the simple messages and values of the Gospel have often been obscured and overlaid by structures, rules, systems and bureaucracies to the point where the church has traded away its integrity and lost touch with the teaching it claims to uphold.
In our reading, Jesus posed a challenge: Sabbath rules, - or Sabbath healing?
The religious authorities said ‘rules’: the people said ‘healing’ and rejoiced in the radical vision of holiness and freedom which Jesus offered.
In our Christian communities today, Jesus poses a similar challenge: wrap yourselves in the comfort blanket of church rules, tradition, systems, custom and practice, - or radically embrace the Gospel values of healing, wholeness, love, abundant life and inclusion?
I can think of religious authorities that would still choose self-preservation by means of ‘rules, tradition, systems and custom’: but I also know of communities of Christians who choose healing, wholeness, life, love and inclusion, and who rejoice when discredited power networks, discrimination and hypocrisy are exposed, and when Jesus’s vision of holiness and freedom takes priority.
We each still need our Sabbath time - even though we may not call it by that name. The principle of having a regular time for rest and reflection, which is set apart in some entirely personal way for however we experience God in our lives, is still a good safeguard against being overworked, exploited or simply overwhelmed by the noise and rush of modern living. A personal discipline of that kind, but without any religious dimension, can be found in many forms of modern therapy and counselling to which we may need to turn when the pressures of our lives need to be released.
For Jesus, Sabbath time was a holy time in which to both give and receive healing. It was the opportunity to show his followers a new way to use holy time in a meaningful way. And the people around him who watched and listened and understood the truth of his teaching, rejoiced at his wonderful deeds and engaged with his challenges to the discredited religious systems and structures of his day.
The challenge at the heart of the story is for every Christian community - including ours - to consider whether we put healing, wholeness, love and inclusion above any systems, structures or regulations that would try to constrain us; whether we watch, listen and seek to understand the truth of Jesus’s teaching as we encounter it in our own holy time; and whether the people around us rejoice at the changes we achieve by applying the values of the Gospel that we have received from the one who calls us to this place and to each other.
Coincidentally, on Friday of this week some of us will be challenging rules and regulations alongside a church member who seeks leave to remain in a country and a community where he has found healing and wholeness. And on Saturday of this week, we will walk, as Christians Walking With Pride, through many thousands of people who will watch and listen and hopefully engage with the values of inclusion, justice and equality which some other churches still cannot embrace in a way which leads to healing and wholeness.
I think there are some powerful Gospel values in who we are and what we do here. May God bless us as we choose those values over and above any power that would deny us the right to show God’s unconditional love for all people at all times and in all places.