...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 to 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?”... Luke 13:10-17
The central issue of this text is about the application of Sabbath rules – specifically whether it is forbidden to heal on the day of rest. The 24-hour period between sundown Friday to sundown Saturday is marked by one’s ceasing to do anything that the religious authorities might consider work.
To a good Jew, like Jesus, Shabbat is to be upheld at all costs. It’s number 4 on the top 10 commandments, so we can say it’s pretty important.
Long before kids, we used to live in a very Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Hollywood. If you need to know anything about Orthodox Jews it’s that they adhere to a strict rabbinical interpretation of Jewish law and its traditional observances.
One evening, our neighbor Branden was coming in from work when he was approached by a man who frantically asked him if he was Jewish. Although Branden answered, “No” the man kept pressing, “Are you sure you’re not Jewish? Is your mother Jewish? What about your grandmother, is she Jewish?” Each time Branden assured the guy he was nothing more than a lapsed Catholic.
Finally, the man said, his wife was in labor and was about to give birth. But he couldn’t drive her to the hospital, or call an ambulance, for the same reason Jesus gets scolded for. It was Shabbat and he was forbidden to do any work.
Without giving it a second thought, Branden agreed and ran with the man into the building next door. As the man began to walk his wife out the apartment, he asked Branden to turn off the stove, shut off the lights, and to do a few other things that might have violated his religious obligation. All of which Branden did willingly.
Once they got the very pregnant wife into the car, this stranger had one more request. “Can you go back upstairs and get her suitcase? I am forbidden to lift anything.”
After a few choice words, none of which are appropriate to repeat here, the man relinquished his moral obligation and got the suitcase himself.
Now here’s a little secret, ancient Sabbath restrictions didn’t include a ban on all work. Like Jesus pointed out in our reading, taking your cattle out to get some water was allowed. So too was acting to save human life.
Time and time again, Jesus performed acts of healing on this sacred day, drawing a clear distinction between the law and life. What this tells me is that it’s the principle behind the law that gives a law power.
But as Ken Kesselus noted, "This passage reveals the tendency for humans to resort to methods of power and control to achieve what they want or feel they need.” He argued the leader of the synagogue tried to use God’s law to wield power over Jesus regardless of the good he had done.
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Luke tells us the man indignantly, and rightfully, insisted that Jesus could have waited for another day to cure the woman. The woman was not in mortal danger. She’d been struggling with this infliction for 18 years and probably could’ve waited another day to be healed.
So, let’s not use this story to make the man out to be the bad and Jesus good. I’m sure Jesus knew the leader of the synagogue was not only in charge of making sure the law was upheld, but also that it was properly interpreted.
This is where life gets a little fuzzy. How I see something and how you might see can be vastly different. A perfect example of this would be Rep. Chaney and the rest of the Republican party.
As Luke pointed out, Jesus was teaching that day, people had come to hear his understanding of Torah. We aren’t told if that’s why this woman showed up, but we know it was Sabbath and she was required to be there despite how burdensome it was for her.
When Jesus sees her, he has to make an ethical decision. Use his power to heal this woman and violate Sabbath law. Or uphold the law and withhold the blessing the woman clearly needs. Now, the woman never asked to be healed. Jesus saw her and had compassion for her. He knows he possesses what she needed and doesn’t think twice about using it.
Therein lies the difference. Jesus uses his power to help, while the leader uses his to control. Again, let’s not be too quick to judge this man.Historically speaking, the Christian church has behaved more like him than Jesus.
I have witnessed firsthand how religion uses personal interpretation of scripture to ritually and legalistically condemn and control others. It happened between the Roman Church of the West and the Eastern Orthodox Church. It happened between Protestants and Catholics. And still continues in the political fights between Conservative Evangelicals and Liberal Christians.
What this tells me is that in our desire to possess power we’ve reduced God to a size that’s small enough for us to control. But here’s the thing - our God is bigger than that. Bigger than us, our needs, our laws, and our actions.
We cannot continue to shrink God, because in doing so we make ourselves and our presence in the world, smaller and smaller.
When I read this story, I don’t believe Jesus heal the woman to exercise his power any more than he did it to break God’s law. On the contrary, he’s upholds the law, the way it was intended to be used - to show the real universal power of God’s love. Period. Isn’t that exactly what we’re called to do?
Sadly, we’ve lost sight of Jesus’ power in our personal quests to obtain and keep our own. What we need to remember is that the only way we will get it right, is by seeing and doing what Jesus did.
He used his power to heal and help; not hurt and harm. He used his power to redeem and unite all people together, not to reject and divide us. He used his power to forgive and absolve our sins, not use them against us to manipulate and control us.
When Jesus used his power to love others, he leveled the playing field so that everyone had a chance to experience God’s power within them.
The power of God is love. And the power of love is universal. If it is not for all, then what good is it? It’s powerless, and so are we. But here’s the good news – There’s nothing we can do to make God love us any more or any less.
If love has conditions, it’s not God’s love. If love is not liberating and freeing, then it is not God’s love. If love is not life giving, then it’s not God’s love. Jesus knew this love intimately. He shared it liberally. By acting out of compassion for this woman, Jesus revealed the ultimate power of God’s love that helps, heals, and gives life.
This is what the kingdom of God is all about – restoring, redeeming, and returning us to where we rightfully belong. In this space between the law and life, Jesus meets us where we are; touching our hearts and making things right.
For our Lord, true Sabbath is God giving true freedom to people like this unnamed woman, who was released from her burdens by the power of Jesus’ compassion. Through his power, Jesus unlocks the Divine love within us all. A power by which we must use to love God, love others, and serve both.
Yes, in this sacred space of Anamesa, God not only requires us to keep the Sabbath but to make it holy. This happens whenever we welcome the stranger, love our enemies, encourage our friends, and help and heal each other.
As followers of Jesus, we are to partake in a divine kingdom that is not based solely on obedience to a set of rules, but also on sharing the power of God’s great love.
Jesus has entrusted us with the Holy Spirit, to bear its fruit until there are no more broken or disfigured, captive or slave, or us and them. Through Christ, God’s power is given to all, so there will be no more wars or conflicts over religious ideology or political beliefs. What God gave to Jesus; Jesus has given to all.
May no law, ritual, or religious belief stop you from receiving the full power of God’s love right now. And may nothing ever stand in your way from giving it away, every day, until everyone rejoices in the wonderful things God has done.
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010).
Kesselus, Ken. Power and Control. www.episcopalchurch.org. August 25, 2019 (accessed on August 18, 2022).
Womack, Lawrence. It’s A Wonder. www.episcopalchurch.org. August 22, 2010 (accessed on August 18, 2022).
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”