May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
When you think about God, the Church and the Bible, what image comes to your mind? What image do you think comes to the minds of our neighbors? Do we picture a stern, angry God who says “Thou shalt not!”, “do it this way, not that way”, and “if you are going to get to heaven, you need to follow the rules.” Unfortunately, this is a picture that many have. Some embrace this image zealously and seek to make it very clear to their neighbors that they are following what they think is God’s law very scrupulously. Others are so turned off by this image that they reject religion totally and are so ensnared by this stereotype that they are unwilling to take a new and fresh look at God. Still others are turned off by this image but react against it by thinking that we can ignore God’s law and do whatever pleases us in the name of love. Or they will say that Jesus taught us that compassion should trump God’s law. In fact, I’ll bet that a lot of sermons preached today will say that in today’s passage from Luke, Jesus is teaching us that compassion should come before following God’s law.
I think that all of these responses miss the mark. Our Gospel story helps to give us a good perspective on this. I think that Jesus is teaching us that a proper understanding of God’s law is compassionate. It’s not a question of compassion vs. God’s law, but rather a proper understanding of the law. Let’s look at the story from Luke. For those of you who might not know, the Sabbath day was a very important part of Jewish religion in the time of Jesus. The fourth commandment is very clear: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”
And so the story begins when Jesus was at a synagogue on a Sabbath teaching the people. Nobody had a problem with a rabbi teaching on the Sabbath, so no issues yet. But then Jesus saw a woman who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. Note that Luke, the physician, does not just say that the woman had a physical infirmity, but rather that she was crippled by a spirit. This woman is not just oppressed by old age or sickness, but by a spiritual being. This woman is in spiritual bondage which physically manifested in her being bent over and unable to straighten up at all. For eighteen years.
What does Jesus do? Ignore her spiritual bondage and preach to her about how God will set the captives free but do nothing to effect that freedom? Ignore her discomfort and pain and preach to her about how there is nothing God can do for her since it is the Sabbath and God doesn’t heal on the Sabbath? No. That’s not what the Gospel is about.
Instead Jesus looks upon her with compassion. He calls her forward and lays his hands upon her, telling her “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” Let’s pause here and ask ourselves what Jesus did exactly. He laid his hands on her and declared that she was free from her infirmity. Last week, Pastor Barbara told us that one of the primary functions of a pastor is to proclaim the forgiveness of sins to the people of God, and to assure us that we are free from the consequences of our sin. Sin is our infirmity. The pastor stands before us and tells us “Man”, “Woman”, “You are set free from your infirmity.” And this is what Jesus did here. He told this woman that she was set free from her infirmity and she was.
Immediately after Jesus made this declaration and put his hands on her, she straightened up. She had indeed been set free. And her natural response was to praise God. After eighteen years of being bent over and tormented by an evil spirit, I’ll bet that freedom felt really good to her. And she knew who had set her free. That is why she praised God. Happy ending, right?
Well, not for everyone. The synagogue leader became indignant with Jesus. He was angry because he thought that Jesus hadn’t followed the rules. He said to the people “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.” Just imagine – suppose you came up for healing prayer and just as Pastor Barbara was about to lay hands on you and pray for you, I said “Not now. Come back tomorrow. No healings here today. There are six days for that sort of thing. Today is a Sabbath. We leave people in their bondage and sickness on the Sabbath because God wants to take a rest.”
Do you think that Pastor Barbara would say “oh yeah, right. We don’t heal people today or tell them they are free from whatever is keeping them in bondage. This is Sunday and we don’t do that on Sunday.” If this is what it’s all about, then why not just pack it all up and head home? What’s the point?
What’s the point indeed? The synagogue leader had completely missed the point of the Sabbath. Jesus responded to him by calling him a hypocrite. He asked “Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”
You see, Jesus was pointing out that it was considered acceptable to untie your ox or donkey and give it water on the Sabbath. Note very carefully – you could release your animals from the bondage of a rope and give them physical sustenance. This was considered perfectly okay. And so, Jesus says, should it not also be permitted to release a human being from spiritual bondage?
Jesus isn’t saying that the Sabbath wasn’t important, or that we can simply ignore it whenever it is convenient to do so, or that observing the Sabbath conflicts with a compassionate attitude. His point was that the synagogue leader completely misunderstood the point of the Sabbath and so this leader was using it to hinder the Gospel instead of to further God’s work. God did not designate the Sabbath day to be observed as some kind of arbitrary rule to be blindly followed without purpose. It was not meant to be one of a long list of rules for us to follow and thereby gain favor in God’s sight. No. God set the Sabbath aside so that we would take a day away from the hustle and bustle of work and life and rest and reflect on God, on what he has done for us, on how he has set us free from that which enslaves and binds us. And so to suggest that God should not set free someone who is in spiritual and physical bondage to an evil spirit because it is the Sabbath is to miss the whole picture. It is to fundamentally misunderstand who God is.
God wants to free us from that which enslaves us. That is why he called Abraham and set apart the nation of Israel in the Old Testament and why he sent Jesus Christ to become one of us. God did not give us His law to further enslave us, but rather to guide us. God knows that we are not capable of following the law on our own, and He doesn’t intend it as some sort of obstacle course for us to conquer and so win the prize. God gives us the law because He loves us.
In our Old Testament reading, Isaiah outlines how we should look at following God’s law, including keeping the Sabbath. Listen again to what he tells us:
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.
“If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the Lord’s holy day honorable, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then you will find your joy in the Lord, and I will cause you to ride in triumph on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.” For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
Following God’s law should always be about pointing ourselves and others toward God, reflecting upon Him, and following what God calls and commands us to do. This is the only way that we can bring true joy and freedom to both ourselves and those around us. God is not a stern old man telling us “thou shalt not” but a loving parent trying to keep us from hurting ourselves and guiding us to be the sons and daughters he is calling us to be.
Let us pray.
Lord give us a right understanding of your law, so that we will not see it as an instrument of burden or bondage, but rather as your loving guidance for us, leading us to freedom from the sin that enslaves us. Let us see that by following your laws and commands, we will become like a well-watered garden in a sun-scorched land. Let us see the Sabbath not as something to forbid your life-giving grace, but rather as something to delight in, where we can find our joy in you and through which we will feast on the inheritance promised us through your son Jesus Christ. Amen.