She came to the synagogue on the Sabbath, Luke says. Jesus was in the synagogue that day teaching. Luke doesn’t tell us what Jesus was saying, only that he was teaching in the synagogue. But whatever Jesus was saying, he stopped when he saw this woman.
She was older. She was bent over. She had been that way for eighteen years. For eighteen years she had walked, probably in pain, looking down at the ground, unable to stand upright or look anyone in the eye. But she had come that day to the synagogue. “Come here,” Jesus said. All stooped over, probably hobbling, she made her way to Jesus. “Woman, you are healed of your infirmity,” Jesus said and laid his hands on her. Suddenly, she stood straight and began praising God. But the ruler of the synagogue was not happy about what had happened. He went around saying to people, “There are six days in the week to work, come on one of those days and be healed but not on the Sabbath!”
To protect the Sabbath, the religious rulers had ruled that if someone could save a life on the Sabbath, it was okay. But if healing could be put off until the next day, then to protect the Sabbath, that is when the healer should perform acts of healing. It was a way of honoring the Sabbath and keeping it holy, just as the Law of Moses had commanded. After all, the Lord had struck someone dead for gathering sticks on the Sabbath in the Old Testament, so keeping the Sabbath was something God apparently took seriously. But Jesus called the leader of the synagogue, and the others who were outraged over healing this woman on the Sabbath, hypocrites. And the reason he did was because it was they, not he, who was dishonoring the Sabbath.
In remembering this event in Jesus’ ministry, Luke is telling us something, I think. He shows us how Jesus read the scriptures and how he thought of God. In Deuteronomy 6, the Law of Moses said to honor the Sabbath. But it didn’t stop there. The Israelites were commanded to honor the Sabbath in order to remember that their ancestors were once slaves. They worked every day. They were treated as property, like animals. But God had heard their cries and delivered them, bringing them into a land of milk of honey. Therefore, to honor the Sabbath is to honor the God of the Sabbath – a God of compassion and deliverance. So, what better way to do that than to deliver a woman from eighteen years of oppression on the Sabbath.
Jesus reveals, and the scriptures reveal, a God of deliverance – a God who is honored when God’s people seek deliverance of others from suffering and oppression. That is what the Sabbath denotes – a God who delivers God’s people. We can keep the Sabbath today, it seems to me, by doing the same thing. We can honor the Sabbath by caring for the least of these. We honor the Sabbath by offering compassion and deliverance where we can. The Sabbath isn’t just another rule to keep. The Sabbath is to understand the kind of God we serve and then to serve others in the way Christ has served us – in compassion, love, and deliverance of those who are suffering oppression in its many forms.
Rev. Brad Thornton