Reading scripture, especially the way we read it on Sunday mornings can feel a lot like working a jigsaw puzzle. When you just dump it out on the table half of the pieces are face down and you can’t see anything until you turn it over. You can immediately begin to discern certain prominent colors. This green piece is foliage. Is the blue sky or water? Is the brown the horse or the tree trunk? Many of the pieces are mostly one color, but have a little bit of another. It is only when you begin putting the pieces together, when you find where the shapes and the colors match, that you begin to see the big picture. The more of the puzzle you get worked, often the easier it gets.
Our gospel lesson today is like one of those small puzzle pieces. It is a healing story, one of many in the gospels. It is a story about the Sabbath which connects to other stories in the Old Testament. It is a critique of biblical interpretation by some of Jesus’ contemporaries which connects this story to the previous story in Luke and it is a story about the coming of the Kingdom of God in the midst of the people. I would like to spend a little time connecting this piece to other pieces of this puzzle to see if we can get a better view of the overall picture.
“Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath.” (Luke 13:10). According to Rabbi Shlomo Yaffee “after the restoration of the Second Temple (352 BCE), the Great Assembly, led by Ezra, instituted the Kaddish, Kedushah, Barechu, and the rest of the standardized communal service (requiring the participation of a minyan or quorum of ten) as well as the obligation for individuals to participate in these services. There arose both in Israel and the Diaspora places set aside to pray communally. Thus was born the “Place of Gathering” – Beit Kenesset in Hebrew, and synagogos in Greek” (Yaffe, n.d.)
The idea of the Sabbath goes back at least to Moses and the Ten Commandments. “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 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 – you, your son or your daughter, your male of female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.” (Exodus 20: 8-11)
We know very little about ancient origins of various stories, songs and poems prior to their current placements in the canon of scripture. Those who put together the Torah in its current form placed a poem or song about creation as the introduction to the Torah. This poem provides the background for the understanding of the connection between sabbath and creation. “So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.” (Gen 2:3)
Some additional passages in the Torah give further instruction regarding the Sabbath, but many of the rules in place during the first century were the result of years of interpretation. How far could one walk and it not be considered work. How much could one lift and it not be considered work.
Jesus is in one of these gathering places, synagogues, teaching on the sabbath. He was doing exactly what was expected of him at this point. A woman with a bad back walks past and Jesus notices that she is having to walk bent over and he calls her over. He lays his hand on her, and tells her she is healed. We don’t know Jesus’ motivation. It could have been compassion for the woman; it could have been to demonstrate the healing power of God; it could have been to intentionally provoke the Pharisees and open the door for conversation about the purpose of the sabbath.
Jesus calls the Pharisees hypocrites, play actors, because they pretend to be holy and God fearing, yet they have twisted the Law of Moses to suit their own needs while ignoring the intent of the law. Sabbath was intended to provide everyone – human, farm animals, and even the land necessary rest. No one and nothing is to be worked to death. Sabbath was intended to remind people that God is to be worshiped not material gain. Humanitarian acts such as feeding the hungry, healing the sick, freeing the oppressed, rescuing those in danger were not to be suppressed by the laws of the Sabbath. These are things which further the kingdom of heaven and are not intended to make one rich.
Just prior to this passage Luke tells us the parable of the barren fig tree. Throughout Luke Jesus has been critiquing first century interpretation of the scriptures. He has witnessed a barrenness that has come over the religious practices of his people and he is seeking to restore life via the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God to the people
Luke will follow up our story of the healing of the woman on the sabbath with a parable about a mustard seed that grows into a tree and a small amount of yeast that leavened three measures of flour. Small acts, such as the healing of a crippled woman, can have enormous impacts. It not only restores that woman to wholeness, it gives hope to others, and should cause Jesus’ critics to think about the ways their own lives are crippled by their own actions.
Sabbath has become a forgotten practice in modern society. I am not suggesting we go back to the Blue Laws of my childhood. They were as problematic as the Pharisees’ interpretation of the sabbath laws in the first century. I would encourage you to look at your own personal calendar. Where are you making time for quality rest and connection with God in your own life? Are you conscious of the labor of those who provide goods and services to you and do they have the opportunity for quality rest? How are you responding to those, like the crippled woman, who interrupt your life, perhaps at inconvenient moments?
Our spiritual lives are not made up of disconnected pieces. All that we are and that we do are connected, the colors of our lives overlap the various shapes of the other pieces. As you go through this week look for those connections, those small hints of how everything goes together and remember that you too are a small piece in God’s big picture.