We believe faith, and life, is easier when we have rules to live by. Sometimes we find value in those rules and other times we believe them to be unfair, antiquated, or not applicable to our own affairs. For the most part, we think of rules as a means to governing our behavior and allowing us to live in community with one another. When we don’t like a rule, we try desperately to get around it. There is that great story about the guy at the airline gate who tried to have his ticket changed in order to board earlier and get a better seat. Frustrated that the flight attendant was following the rules and refusing to make an exception in his case, he demanded, “Do you know who I am?” To which, the flight attendant immediately got on the loudspeaker and asked the entire gate, “Does anyone know who this man is? He doesn’t seem to remember.” Needless to say, the guy did not get his ticket changed.
Regardless of whether or not we are rule followers or think we are the exception to the rule, it is often our perspective that governs our relationship to rules. In this morning’s Gospel, we hear the story of three different people and their perspective as to which rules should be followed and which should be broken—the leader of the synagogue, Jesus, and the daughter of Abraham. The leader of the synagogue is the one who is supposed to uphold the rules—the ways in which certain aspects of the Israelites’ common religious life were to play out so that everyone not only has a fair shake but is invited into relationship with God. The leader of the synagogue is charged with the responsibility and care of souls. He is the shepherd of a particular flock given under his care—he must protect them as well as make sure they are well fed and nurtured in their faith and love of God. He is the keeper of the covenant—you will be my people and I will be your God. That covenant includes particular rules regarding the Sabbath. Rules that have been in play since the time of Moses, as the psalmist says, “He made his ways known to Moses and his works to the children of Israel.” (Psalm 103:7)
Of the rules guarding the Sabbath, the distinction between work and rest is made abundantly clear. Yes, you can water your animal because otherwise they would get dehydrated and die: causing harm to the creature and economic loss to its owner. But that is a life or death situation. There are other nuances to the rules governing Sabbath that say you can take measures to save another person’s life, at least if they are an Israelite, but those rules do not encompass taking measures to help someone if they are simply suffering from a boo-boo. There will be no dispensation of band-aids on the Sabbath. It seems pretty clear that Jesus’ healing of the woman was not a life-threatening condition; she had been bent over for eighteen years. The indignant leader is watching over his flock, he is guarding the rules of the faith, and instead of playing favorites; he is trying to be fair and consistent with the distribution of the rules.
Jesus is not much of a rule follower. He has a very different perspective than the leader of the synagogue. He looks at the world and sees that transformation happens not from following rules that govern our relationships with God and one another, but by making decisions based on a case-by-case basis. In some ways, Jesus would be the most loved and despised referee of a football game because he would change the call every time in favor of whichever team had the football. Jesus’s ultimate goal is that we all win; not that we all have a fair opportunity to win.
Jesus doesn’t level the playing field—he makes it easier for some and challenges those who can’t understand his purpose. There is an old illustration of three kids trying to watch a baseball game over a five-foot wooden fence. The first kid is six feet tall and stands a head above the top of the fence. The second kid is five feet tall so that the top of his head is even with the fence and only by standing on tiptoe and straining can he see over the fence. The third kid is four feet tall. The top of his head is one foot shorter than the top of the fence. There is nothing he can do to see over the fence. The fair solution, the one that treats everyone the same so that the rules governing behavior are equally distributed and everyone has the same opportunity, is to give each of the kids a one-foot box. This way the tallest kid now stands head and shoulders, two feet, above the fence line—he can rest his arms on top of the fence line and even lean on the fence more comfortably. The middle kid who is five feet tall is now one foot higher then the fence and easily able to watch the game. The shortest kid’s head is now in line with the top of the fence, so that standing on tiptoe and straining his neck, he too, can see over the fence. This is the fair solution—but it is not the solution Jesus would have offered at the baseball game. Jesus would have given the tallest kid’s box to the shortest kid so that now the shortest kid is standing on two boxes and all three kids can see exactly the same over the top of the fence. By favoring the shortest kid with the two boxes, he helps him succeed in watching the ball game and at the same time, he takes nothing away from the tallest kid. That is the perspective Jesus brings into the synagogue that day—by favoring the bent over woman, he helps her to heal and he takes nothing away from anyone else that day, including the leader of the synagogue.
Finally, we have the perspective of the woman, the daughter of Abraham, who had been crippled by a spirit, bent over and unable to stand upright for eighteen years. Her perspective is of the ground. She can’t look up, she can only look down and see the dirt and rocks and filth that litter her perspective. She does not focus on hope, but shadow. She has known only bondage these eighteen years—her ailment has crippled not only her body but the way she understands the world: each step drawing her closer to the grave. So when this healing takes place, even on the Sabbath, her first thoughts would have echoed the psalmist as well, “He redeems your life from the grave and crowns you with mercy and loving-kindness.” (Psalm 103:4) And her response in being released from this bent over view of the world is to stand straight and praise God.
Perspective matters, even and especially when we are talking about rules. The rule governing the Sabbath that is in question is from Deuteronomy:
Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the
Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work (Deuteronomy 5:12-13).
The prophet Isaiah offers even further commentary on the Sabbath:
If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honourable;
if you honour it, not going your own ways,
serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;
then you shall take delight in the Lord (Isaiah 58:13-14a)
The perspective of the leader of the synagogue, Jesus, and the daughter of Abraham all color the way in which both Deuteronomy and Isaiah are understood. The leader of the synagogue sees Jesus, the bent over woman, and all the crowds equally. His perspective is on the maintenance of the Sabbath as a particular day. Jesus sees each of us as a unique individual, with our own needs and concerns. His perspective is on the honoring of the Sabbath by lifting up our needs, favoring us—maybe some more than others, and offering us healing. For Jesus, the Sabbath is about a person not a day. The daughter of Abraham experiences the Sabbath as a transformational. Her healing transforms not only her body but her opportunity to praise God. Her perspective is on the holiness of the Sabbath.
Three people, one Sabbath: they each honor the Sabbath in the way that best seems appropriate. But they do not all delight in the Sabbath. The leader of the synagogue bears the Sabbath as a burden—a responsibility he must keep not only for himself but for others as well. I am not even sure that Jesus delights in the Sabbath as he finds it to be one more time in which he must defend his actions and identity to the faithful. But the woman, there is no doubt that she delights in the Sabbath because she delights in the Lord, her response is to stand up straight and begin praising God.
That is true delight: the praising of the Lord and maybe that is what the Sabbath is truly about—not simply following the rules but delighting in them. We live in a world in which the primary question of faith is, “Have you been saved?” But maybe the real question of faith is, “Do you delight in the Lord?”
11 Pentecost Proper 16: Isaiah 58:9b-14; Psalm 103:1-8; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17
Church of the Ascension – Episcopal, Montgomery, AL
Sunday, August 25, 2019
Rev. Candice B. Frazer