The Sabbath is all about release from the daily grind, from the things that preoccupy

Liz Stuart, 21 August 2022

Isaiah 58: 9b–14; Hebrews 12: 18–29; Luke 13: 10–17

I had a friend, a Roman Catholic priest, who was rather on the eccentric side. He used to allow his dachshunds to run free during services. And he had a disarming habit of stopping the service in mid-sentence to greet members of the congregation: ‘Let us pray … oh, hello Doreen, how are you? How is your mum? Did you get that job?’ As you may imagine, it wound up some people something rotten.

I imagine a similar scene in the synagogue in our gospel reading today. Jesus is in the middle of teaching when he notices a woman bent over and calls her forward, speaks to her and heals her. The leader’s exasperated response reflects what I suspect many people were thinking when my friend was celebrating the Eucharist: ‘This is a sacred space, it is the Sabbath, we have come here to worship, to learn and reflect, to listen to you. Could you not do this some other time?’ And it is understandable. But I suspect that Jesus is just the sort of person who would let dachshunds run free during services.

The synagogue leader may be indignant, but Jesus is exasperated because the leader has missed the point of the Sabbath. It is sacred, and it is sacred because it’s all about release – release from the daily grind, from the things that preoccupy, so that we can rest and, in the process, see more clearly.

According to Jewish tradition, those observing the Sabbath are gifted an extra soul for the duration of the Sabbath which increases their spiritual insight. Using that insight, Jesus sees the woman. We know nothing about her except that she was bent over and could not straighten up. We do not know if she had a physical disability or whether she was bent over with grief or trauma of some sort. Since most ancient Israelite worship required standing and bowing, her ability to join in corporate worship and connect to God was compromised.

But Jesus sees her and calls her forward to the front to heal her. She has not come seeking healing, she has not called out to him, but he sees her anyway. Perhaps to him she represents all those weighed down by burdens that seem to bend them away from God and from others. These are the people the Sabbath was made for, the eternal Sabbath of the kingdom of heaven that he has come to proclaim. She straightens up and she praises God. She is able to worship, to claim her place in the assembly as a daughter of Abraham.

Perhaps to Jesus the woman represents all those weighed down by burdens that seem to bend them away from God and from others. These are the people the Sabbath was made for.

Jesus has no time for those who would think nothing of untying their ox or donkey on the Sabbath, but for the sake of notions of order or sacredness object to the untying (it is the same word in Greek) of this woman from what binds her. In most ancient Israelite homes, the animals were brought into a sort of front room overnight and were then untied and led outside for the day. Untying them and letting them out was essential so that you were free to go in and out of your home. No one would have been at the synagogue that day if they had not untied their animals. With his Sabbath soul, Jesus could see that until all were free, none were free.

When we come together on a Sunday for our Sabbath service, do we look at each other with our Sabbath soul? Are we conscious of the burdens people are carrying? The Church is so prone to put order before liberation.

Think of the thousands of women bearing the burden of unfulfilled vocation who went unseen while the Church debated whether it was in order to ordain them. Think of men and women bent over by the grief of divorce who were for so long unable to be married in church. Think of the LGBTQ+ people who even now wait for the burden of discrimination to be removed from their love by the Church. Jesus sees them with his Sabbath soul even when no one else does, and we have to believe that their waiting will somehow be redeemed by him, and that those who have gone to their grave without that freedom will find their joy in the Lord as Isaiah suggests.

A question for the ministry team here: does our worship nurture the Sabbath soul; are we able to see more clearly and feel untied from our burdens at least for a bit by participating in it? Today we read one of my favourite bits of scripture from Hebrews, ‘You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering’. Do we create the kind of worship that captures the joy and celebration of those angels who, if we could but see, teem and tumble among us? Or are we more concerned with order than liberation?

A question for us all: are we Sabbath people? Do we have regular periods in our lives when we release ourselves from the burdens of everyday living and just be? Do we nurture our Sabbath soul so that we can see what Jesus sees – children of God carrying burdens that need to be untied? If not, we need to introduce Sabbath rest into our lives, to take time to do nothing but be and be with God.

The theologian Walter Brueggemann has written an excellent book on Sabbath in which he argues that Sabbath rest is above all else an opportunity to remind ourselves of our baptismal identity as beloved children of God, and a crucial time to step off our cultural roundabout of production and consumption. Sabbath interrupts that narrative and is therefore for Brueggemann a form of resistance. We deliberately stop serving the god of mammon, set down our burdens and focus on the true God. It is that focus which activates our Sabbath soul that will allow us to see as Jesus sees. For Jesus, I believe, lived constantly in his Sabbath soul.