Audio transcript available at https://youtu.be/NgZxg83IPxg.
Pentecost 14 C 2016
Isaiah 58:9b- 14
One of the things that I find most fascinating about the Gospel of Luke are the parallels between Jesus and Isaiah. Right from the very beginning of the Gospel there are connections and parallels and Isaiah’s prophetic voice underpins so much of what Jesus says and does.
This story of the woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years is unique to Luke and very, very interesting, particularly when you read it in the original Greek. The lectionary gives us the option of reading Isaiah 58 beside it, which is a very good thing because this passage is all about the Sabbath and the covenant relationship between God and his people that the Sabbath implies.
Jesus is teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath and “behold” a woman appeared. Now our version says, “just then there appeared a woman”, but in removing that “behold” we really miss out on something. Jesus sees this woman, he holds her in the gaze of love. She is disabled and cannot stand up straight so she is unable to “behold” Jesus. Because of her infirmity the Jewish leaders would have not been able to see her- she would have been excluded from the temple. But here she is in the synagogue and here Jesus beholds her. As soon as he sees her, and remember that Isaiah talks about really seeing and really hearing, Jesus calls her over and says, “Woman, you have been loosed from your infirmity”. She has been “bound” by her infirmity, and Jesus looses her. This language of binding and loosing is the same as Matthew uses, in chapter 16:19 when he speaks of Peter having power to bind and loose. This language of bondage is different from the thing that Jesus often says, which is that people’s faith has “healed” or “saved” them. It is, however, what Isaiah is talking about when he says, “If you remove the yoke from among you”, this is all about oppression being lifted off. This poor woman has been oppressed by a Spirit that has crippled her, and she is “bound” to be loosed by God, in another play on words in the Greek.
All this language of bondage and its corresponding freedom seems less relevant to us today. We are not enslaved, we are no longer bound by employment contracts as apprentices and other bondsmen were. But you know, in another way we are just as bound by mortgage contracts and debts on credit cards, by the compulsion to workaholism which is rife in our society, to the keeping up of appearances or whatever it is that constrains us. From all of this we, like this crippled woman, can be loosed. And that loosing is “Sabbath”.
Sabbath in Isaiah’s words is the removal of the yoke of oppression, not just the oppression of the social order but the oppression of judgement- the pointing of the finger and the speaking of evil. And these are things that often oppress us, things that we do to each other that oppress. Isaiah says that if we share food with the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, just as Jesus does with this woman, then Sabbath will be a delight.
Sabbath is the bringing in of justice for the oppressed. The whole purpose of Sabbath was that everyone, bond and free, got the rest that they needed, and the refreshment of a day when it was against God’s law for them to work. This was law that was the same for rich and poor, and was law that gave dignity to everyone. When the poor, the slaves and those oppressed because of poverty, were under God’s law they had a day off a week. They could be like a watered garden, Isaiah says. But it was more than just that, it was also a day for community, a day for thinking of others, and if they were to honour it, not going their own ways, not serving their own interests, or pursuing their own affairs then they would take delight in the Lord. And God would feed them with the heritage of their ancestor Jacob. And that is the third thing about Sabbath- it is a sign of the Sinai covenant. In Deuteronomy chapter 5, Moses tells the Israelites that the Sabbath is to remind them of the fact that they had been slaves in Egypt and that God has brought them out, therefore they have been commanded to keep the Sabbath.
Jesus reminds his audience of this very covenant, doesn’t he? First he calls the woman a “daughter of Abraham” in other words part of God’s chosen people? And in the Greek there is another “behold”. “Behold” she was bound for eighteen years and God has loosed her from the bondage, just like loosing the people of Israel from the bondage of slavery in Egypt, this woman has been called out into a Sabbath freedom.
The leader of the synagogue has missed that point hasn’t he? Because then as now, it is very easy to overlook the needs of the poor and the afflicted. The leader of the synagogue was much more concerned with keeping the letter of the law, than the spirit of the law, which he has misunderstood, or is trying to ignore. And aren’t we so often like that? We make rules that are very difficult for others to keep, rules that exclude others from the Sabbath and the delight of God that comes from being in the Sabbath space.
Jesus however is more than a match for the leader of the synagogue because he truly sees. He beholds the woman and sees that even though she is of little worth to her community she is precious and honoured of God. He sees a daughter of Abraham, part of God’s covenant and one who through the new covenant of his death and resurrection, what Hebrews calls ‘the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel,’ is set free. Jesus makes a covenant of freedom where the bonds of all his people are loosed.
Sabbath, is the earthly sign of the true nature of things in the Kingdom of God, is the sign of the promise of complete freedom that we have in Christ, thus this woman is a sign for the others in the synagogue and for us of the freedom from bondage to sin. I spoke earlier of the kinds of bondage that we might suffer in our first world culture. So often for us, it is about where we choose to store up our treasure, that binds us in our lives. Instead we can choose to live Sabbath lives, lives that are about justice for others, lives that are about community, lives that shine like with light out of the darkness as Isaiah tells us.
And the result if we choose freedom is that we will have delight in the Lord, and just like the woman in the synagogue we will stand up straight and begin praising God.
“Bless the Lord, oh my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name. Bless the Lord, oh my soul and do not forget all his benefits- who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. Bless the Lord, oh my soul!”