The woman was bent over, struggling to walk, to see where she was going. She came that day, that Sabbath day. What did she hope for? What did she expect? Perhaps she came every Sabbath. Maybe, at first, she had prayed for healing. Maybe, at first, she had hoped someone would notice—someone would help. But after eighteen years, she continued to come and worship God. Halfhearted? Out of habit?
But this day was different. As she stood among the other worshipers, bent over, staring at her dusty sandals, unable to see who was speaking, Jesus saw her. He saw her in the back, doubled over, hidden behind others who stood straight and tall, comfortable in their bodies. Jesus saw her, through the crowd of those who could better hide their own weaknesses behind nice clothes, healthy bodies, clear eyes. Jesus saw her, and he called her forward.
In mid-teaching, he stopped to call this woman forward. What would the people gathered be thinking? Good…it’s about time. Hey…I was listening to that. Who does he think he is? We know what one of the religious thought. That’s breaking the rules! He’s working on the Sabbath! He’s setting an example. Someone has to stop him.
And like a good religious leader, he quotes from Deuteronomy to establish his authority with Jesus and with the woman. “Scripture clearly says, ‘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.’” But he aims his criticism at the woman. Victims always make easier targets. “Six days, you could have come for healing. But this is the Sabbath. How dare you?”
But Jesus also reflects Deuteronomy when he uses language of being bound and being loosed—like the donkey you loose in order to drink. “Remember,” Deuteronomy says, “that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath.” Jesus knows what the Sabbath is about. It’s about freedom. Liberation. Being loosed from your bonds. It’s about new life. He says, “this woman was bound to be loosed.” This is no healing miracle—this is all about being set free.
Much like Isaiah’s words, Jesus reorients us to the purpose of Sabbath. We can easily get caught up in our own ideas of what worship and Sabbath are about. By this point in Isaiah, the people have been released from exile to return to a country they barely recognize. The Temple and their homes have been demolished, and the people who had been allowed to stay those 70 years before have been working hard to cultivate the land. You see, it was primarily the wealthy and important people of Judah who had been taken. The workers were allowed to stay—cheap labor.
But now, the exiled have returned, and they take little time in establishing themselves. They set up expectations, such as Sabbath, in an effort to appease God and secure their future. But God sees through them. The first part of Chapter 58 condemns the people for their false Sabbath. They continue to oppress others, they serve their own interests, they continue to fight over their wealth. And then, on Sabbath, they pretend to humble themselves, to sit in sackcloth and ashes, as if the previous six days had never happened—only to return to their regular lifestyles as soon as possible.
But God says, “Is not this the fast that I choose; to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” There are those words again—‘loose’ and ‘bond’ and ‘freedom.’ Eventually, we get to today’s reading in which God tells Judah what the world will be like if they embrace the Sabbath’s purpose and not just its practice. “Your light shall rise in the darkness…you shall be like a watered garden whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt…you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” When you keep the Sabbath, truly, you are part of God’s kin-dom building work.
The Sabbath isn’t about rule-keeping and structure; it’s about being set free!
We’re told another story of Jesus preaching in the Synagogue in Luke. After his baptism, after being tempted by the accuser, he goes home to Nazareth to preach. He stands before the people to read from Scripture, and opens it to Isaiah. He reads, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he sits down to give the message. All of one sentence: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And the people turn on him—just like the religious leader we read about today. Just like so many of us who find ourselves uncomfortable with a message that pushes us out of our comfort zones—a message that challenges our rules and systems—a message that, for many of us, feels more like Law than Gospel.
And yet, isn’t that exactly what Jesus is about? Are we, too, not bound in our sin of loving rules and false security more than the good news of Christ? Are we, too, not bent over—in spirit, if not in body—by the ways in which we must contort ourselves in order to maintain the status quo and still call ourselves disciples of Jesus? Aren’t we as much in need of being loosed by the Word of God as those whom we bind in systems cloaked with ‘law and order’, with ‘commandments’ defined by our own desires rather than God’s?
This is the purpose of the Sabbath. This is the purpose of God. This is the purpose of Christ—his life, his teaching, and his death on the cross. In his sermon on this passage, Reverend Michael Curry says, “God has a dream for [God’s] creation, a dream for every man, woman, and child who ever walked upon the face of the earth, and God will not rest until our nightmare is ended and God’s dream is realized.”
Isn’t that the truth? In our effort to free ourselves, we end up creating a nightmare—spiritually, physically, ecologically, politically, socially, religiously. We are still bound by our chains of self-sufficiency, of racism, of nationalism, of legalism, of religious fervor. But God has a dream that is set in motion at Jesus’ birth—a dream that we will be led out of slavery and into the promised land; a dream that we will no longer bind one another with prejudice and fear; a dream that the Sabbath will again be a day of straightening the crooked, releasing the captive, and loosing the bonds of sin.
That day is today. Today, God sees you—bent over under the weight of sin and death. Today, God sees you and calls you forth. Today, God tells us each to stand up straight. We no longer live in the shame of all that has gone before us. We no longer need to live in the chains of this world. Today, God sets us free and calls by a new name—sons and daughters of Abraham, Children of God.
Today, God sees the children huddling in detention centers; today, God sees the addicts bent over needles and bottles; today, God sees the lonely, the home bound, the sick, and the dying; today, God sees the trans men and women, uncertain of who to trust; today, God sees the student struggling in school; today, God sees the bullied…and the bullies; today, God sees the young boys and girls being trafficked for sex; today, God sees the people in Flint who continue to long for clean water; today, God sees the prisoners wondering how to move forward in life; today, God sees the victims of assault; today, God sees those who have been turned away from the church because of human rules. Today, God sees you and me.
Today, God calls us forth and sets us free. And as we stand straight, like the woman, we praise God—through song and prayer, in our bodies and in our lives, through our work and in our play. Like Isaiah reminds us, set free our light shall break forth like the dawn, and we will be like a watered garden whose waters never fail. We shall be the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in. We shall be the Children of God.
Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church