What was Jesus thinking? Why did he do that? Why, of all the things Jesus said and did, does the gospel writer tell us this story? Always good questions to ask ourselves when reading the Bible, especially when the passage is a familiar one. So then…
There is no getting around it, Jesus is in the face of the synagogue officials. I wonder why? Was he just trying to provoke them? To annoy them? Did Jesus heal on the Sabbath just because he could? Or was something else going on?
There are some interesting things in the story of the bent over woman who Jesus heals on the Sabbath (Luke 13:10-17). Verse 14 for example. The leader of the synagogue becomes angry when Jesus heals on the Sabbath. But he doesn’t appear to be angry because Jesus is healing people or that he is healing them in the synagogue. In fact the synagogue leader says, “..Come on those [weekdays] days and be cured…”. The problem is a disagreement about what constitutes proper Sabbath observance.
If you read carefully you will notice that the stories of healing on the Sabbath are slightly different from the stories of healing that happen on other days. Biblical writers, like lots of other writers, will give certain events a sort of pattern. For example when angels visit humans there is a predictable set of things that occur. This literary form helps us recognize what is happening and help us make connections between events. It is also instructive, then, to notice when an event doesn’t follow the pattern. Why is this event different from other similar events?
The healings on the Sabbath are different that other healing stories. In a typical healing story there is some conversation between the afflicted person, or someone speaking on behalf of the afflicted person and Jesus. Someone asks for healing or Jesus offers healing. But in the Sabbath healing stories, there are no requests, no questions, no conversations with the afflicted person. The people don’t ask to be healed. Jesus does not ask them if they wish to be healed. No one petitions on their behalf. The dialogue in these stories is between Jesus and the synagogue officials.
Since the stories don’t tell us, we are free to wonder about that. Perhaps the afflicted persons are so oppressed and crushed by their illness they cannot speak for themselves. They may be unable to imagine and ask for a life free from disease. They might agree with the standard religious view of their time that chronic illness should not be healed on the Sabbath. Maybe they think that asking Jesus for healing on this day violates the Sabbath. Perhaps the author of Luke tells the story this way to encourage us to focus our attention somewhere else, away from the healings.
But if these stories aren’t about healing, what are they about?
Are they about the narrow-minded wrongness of the synagogue officials? Are they a repudiation of Sabbath observance? Is Jesus telling us that Torah is to be ignored? I don’t think so.
I think these stories of healing on the Sabbath help us understand what the Sabbath is truly about. These stories aren’t so much about healing as they are about the ways the Sabbath gives us glimpses into the reign of God.
It is important for Christians to be careful when we read about Jesus’ conflicts with Jewish religious authorities and Torah observance. For many of us, it is easy to read our own ideas about law and grace, filtered through a long history of anti-Semitism, into the story.
For many Christians, Torah is nothing more than a bunch of rules that don’t apply to us. We, if we are not careful, equate Torah observance with trying to earn God’s favor. But that is a flawed understanding of Torah. Torah is part of a covenant between God and God’s people. Torah observance is about honoring God. In Jesus’ day, remember Israel was occupied by the Roman empire, Torah observance was a way of declaring where one’s allegiance was- to the God of Israel, not to the Roman Empire.
But Torah and the Sabbath are also more than that. There are a whole constellation of interrelated meanings expressed in Sabbath observance. But at its heart, Sabbath is a joyous event that celebrates God’s gift of creation and God’s relationship with Israel. That is, I think, what Jesus is telling us.
Jesus isn’t saying that Sabbath observance doesn’t matter. He isn’t saying that Torah doesn’t matter. He is saying that Sabbath and Torah are bigger, more joyous, more wonderful than we can imagine. Sabbath isn’t about what one can and cannot do, Sabbath is about what God is doing now through the Messiah Jesus.
Sabbath is a celebration of what is to come- the reign of God, of God’s shalom, of God’s and our delight in each other. What better way to honor God than to restore God’s people to wholeness? What better expression of the reign of God than healing and liberation from what oppresses us? What better expression of God’s love?
This Sunday’s lectionary passage is the Sabbath healing of the bent over woman, found in Luke 13:10-17. Some commentators say that verses 18-21 are part of the same story.