Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “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 whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.
– Luke 13:10-17
My wife and I have been married twelve years – time flies! We got married 8 days after I graduated from college, and while we were engaged and I was finishing up school, I didn’t have much money to spend on anything, including wedding rings. But I had a friend whose dad was a jeweler, and he was going to cut me a deal on some wedding rings.
Since we were in different states, he emailed me a whole bunch of photos of rings that were in my price range, and my fiancée and I got to work going through them, discussing the different features of the rings, and how each might or might not represent our timeless devotion and exquisite affection for one another. Alright, look – we spent a crazy long time talking about these rings. We had to pick one that we’d wear for the rest of our lives, and it was a hard decision.
We got down to two photos of rings that we both liked very much, and we talked for hours and hours, trying to decide which one we would purchase. Hours and hours, people. Finally, we settled on one, then I emailed both photos to my friend’s dad, and called him up. I said, “Thanks again for your willingness to help us, we really appreciate it. We had a very hard time deciding between these two. We’ve decided to go with number 1, but if for some reason that one is not available, we also really like number 2.
There was a moment of silence on the phone line. And then my friend’s dad said, “Rob, those are the same ring”. er… huh? “Those are two different photos of the same ring, taken with different angles and lighting to offer a different point of view on it.”
“Oh,” I said. “Then… I guess that’s the one we want”.
Sometimes you think two things are different, but they’re really the same.
Our scripture reading today is about a conflict did not need to be. This conflict came about because of a perceived difference, a difference that was mistaken.
The story takes place on the Sabbath day, and it’s about healing. Jesus was a devout Jew, and most of the people he interacted with personally during his ministry were Jews. The Sabbath, as you know, was and is very important for Jews; it’s central to community life, to the religious worldview, and the experience of faith. It’s the day out of every week when you choose not to do any work. For orthodox Jews to this day, the Sabbath is always Saturday, and there are specific requirements for how time is managed on the Sabbath. Christians who practice Sabbath may observe it on a different day, and probably don’t keep kosher, but it still requires a lot of commitment as a spiritual discipline to actually do it. You have to tell the world – all the people and projects that expect to have your energy and focus, that you’re going to get back to them next week, because it’s the Sabbath. It’s a time of rest and rejuvenation. And it’s essential, the scriptures tell us, in order for life to be rightly ordered.
The Sabbath is essential for people, for both physical rest, and to afford time for prayer and reflection, and the kinds of conversation and learning that are only possible when we put our usual work aside.
The Sabbath was ordained for animals, too – the bible talks about the beasts of the field being free to roam unburdened on the Sabbath.
The Sabbath is essential for the earth – the book of Deuteronomy actually speaks of preserving a year of Sabbath for the fields of a farm, so that they can rest, and if in that time food grows wild the fields, the poor will should be allowed to gather and eat it.
The Sabbath is essential for God. In the creation story that fills the first pages of the Bible, we’re told that God created all the many features of our world, and then on the seventh day, God rested, and didn’t do anything. Sabbath is part of creation and creativity.
It’s essential, and it’s not optional. It’s a requirement. Keeping the Sabbath is a commandment. It’s the fourth commandment among the ten commandments that were given to Moses. The first three of the ten commandments have to do with acknowledging God’s sovereignty; Keeping the Sabbath is the first of the commandments that is actually about how you live your life. Before telling us not to kill, steal, covet, God tells us to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Sabbath is a big deal. And that shapes what happens in our scripture passage.
In our bible story, Jesus is teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath. And there was a woman there who was having a lot of trouble and pain, physically. She hadn’t been able to stand up straight for 18 years. The passage describes a big crowd of people, and it says that the woman wasn’t standing near Jesus, but somehow he saw her amidst everyone and paused whatever teaching he was in the middle of and called her over to him.
Jesus always had a way of seeing people who might be easily lost in the crowd. Jesus always seemed to be looking for people others might prefer to look at. People who were different.
Or, should I say, people whom others thought were different, because sometimes people think they’re different, but they’re really the same.
The woman came to Jesus, and he told her that she was going to be set free from her ailment. He touched her, and she stood up straight, healed. And she started praising God, which sounds to me like the appropriate thing to do. But apparently there was a problem, because a leader in the synagogue spoke up that this healing should not happen on the Sabbath. That kind of thing is work, and you don’t work on the Sabbath.
Jesus called this leader a hypocrite, because the leader’s objection to the healing was not about his devotion to honoring the Sabbath. “Honestly,” Jesus said, “You know you take your donkey to get a drink of water on the Sabbath, and that’s work. So don’t pretend you’re a Sabbath purist” The objection that this leader had to what Jesus did came from his interest in seeing difference, instead of seeing what was the same.
He probably wanted to see differences between himself and others in the community, Jesus had become the center of attention that day with his teaching in the synagogue, and now here he starts performing miracles too, we can imagine how this leader might feel his own role and authority was being threatened.
He also wanted to see a difference between this woman and everyone else. It’s possible this leader and others in the community had grown comfortable seeing this woman in a particular way. In those days, it was common to assume that if someone had a physical ailment, it was related to some sin that they had committed, and it’s not entirely different today. If someone is overweight or diabetic or suffering from mental illness or who knows what, it is sometimes the case that people judge them, as if their health problems were their own fault. That does happen, right?
Jesus heals this woman, she starts walking around like everybody else, and suddenly people no longer have that particular bogus reason for treating her as lesser person. And that’s difficult for some to accept, because sometimes people are the same, but we prefer to think they’re different.
And what’s more this leader was looking for a difference in value between the meaning and value of Sabbath as he understood it, and the meaning and value of Jesus’ work. But sometimes things that seem different are the same. What Jesus would have him and us understand is that the woman came to the synagogue that day for the same reason that everyone else came. She received what everyone hopes to receive on the Lord’s day. The Sabbath is about healing. It’s about restoration to well-being. We rest, we choose stillness and quiet and peace, so that we can be made new and made well and made ready, for six new days of hard work, and often hardship.
When any of us takes a day and chooses not to work, we are choosing to let ourselves heal.
Rest is healing.
For Jesus to heal a person’s body on the Sabbath wasn’t a transgression; it was offering a precious gift on the most fitting day – the day of healing. Healing time, healing touch.
And we know that the healing this woman received, just like the healing that comes from rest, was healing for a purpose. Just like sleep, and prayer, and good conversation, and fellowship meals – the restful activities of Sabbath – prepare us to do good work as renewed persons, the healing this woman received was a gift not unto itself, but a blessing that would enable her to be a blessing to others. Unfortunately, we don’t know the rest of her story, how her life unfolded after this passage in the Gospel of Luke, but this week, we did learn of a beautiful story about a woman who experienced healing, and the difference that it made.
This week I’ve been absolutely captivated by the story of Antoinette Tuff. She is a woman who believes in healing. She’s been bent low, burdened, she’s felt broken-down. But by the grace of God and the hand of Christ, she has been able to stand.
Antoinette shared with a reporter this week many troubles she’s been dealing with in her life – great financial hardship, her worries for the well-being of her son who has many serious disabilities. And recently she was divorced from her husband of 33 years, a devastating experience – at times she felt unloved, worthless, unable to cope, in so much pain she considered ending her life. But through the support of loved ones and her involvement in church, she’s experienced the power of God’s love and has gained the strength to approach life with a new passion and zeal.
The reason that she was talking to a news reporter about all of this is because on Tuesday, in Decatur, GA, a 20-year-old man with an assault rifle entered the elementary school where Antoinette works in the office. He was going to be the next mass killer of innocent people, in our nation’s epidemic of senseless gun violence. He was going to be, but he wasn’t. He brought 500 bullets to the school that day but no one was hurt, because before he started shooting people, he met Antoinette, and she spoke to him with compassion and grace, she offered him words of peace and goodwill. She prayed for him, and she told him her story, and that she believed he didn’t have to kill and die that that day, but he could have a future and a good life if he didn’t do the monstrous thing he had come there to do. They spent an hour together talking, and at the end of that time, with her encouragement, he peacefully surrendered to the police.
After the mass school shooting in Newtown, CT, the head of the National Rifle Association gave a speech in which he said that “The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Antoinette Tuff showed the fallacy of that statement in two ways.
The first is that her nonviolent, compassionate response without a gun did stop the guy with the gun. And if a good guy with a gun had burst in during their conversation, the worst case scenario would have become more likely. The second truth she showed is that when it comes down it, we’re not a bunch of good guys and bad guys. We want to believe that people are different, and if someone is pointing a gun at you, you’d be forgiven for seeing only difference, but by the grace of God, Antoinette in that moment was able to see how she and this young man were the same.
He was a person in need of healing. Just like her. She had experienced healing, and so she believed that he could, as well. And so this week the story in the news was about lives saved, not lives lost.
If you’re in need of healing lately, you’re like everyone else. And it is God’s will that you receive the healing you need. For some of us here today, that seems like a far-fetched proposition, considering what you’re going through. But it’s true. And when it comes it may be quick or it may take a long time, arriving through healing words, healing work, healing touch, healing time, but be assured that it will be healing for a purpose, making you ready, to do the good things you will be called upon to do.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Read more about Antoinette Tuff here: