A Lectionary Reflection on Luke 13:10-17 for Proper 16C
Many of us remember, as children, being told by our parents, at one time or another, to go and rest during the day. For some of us this was a weekly occurrence on Sundays when everyone was supposed to rest because it was the “Sabbath”. Apart from the more obvious theological argument that Sunday is not, actually, the Sabbath, but is the Lord’s Day on which we celebrate the resurrection, this approach to Sabbath was, for many of us, very unhelpful, because those times of imposed rest were about as unrestful as could be. I remember feeling bored and distracted, and counting the minutes until I could finally burst out of my room and start to expend some of the energy that had miraculously appeared in my body the moment the command to rest had been issued. Rest is not something that can be commanded or imposed.
Which is where the synagogue leader in this week’s Gospel reading missed the point of the Sabbath. When he saw Jesus healing a woman who was bent over, he was indignant and spoke his legalistic mind most vehemently. “There are six days during which work is permitted. Come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath day.” (Luke 13:14 CEB). For him healing was work, and no work was permitted on the Sabbath, and so both this woman and Jesus had broken the Law. But, it is clear that this man had taken no time to discern what “work” really was, or what “rest” was. He had a set of rules that made everything clear and simple, and he knew how to use them. It obviously never occurred to him to consider the consequences of his rules, or the reason for the Law, or the possibility that there could some flexibility in how the Sabbath instructions could be applied.
But, Jesus had a completely different approach. He was concerned not for the letter of the Law, but for its purpose and spirit. Sabbath was not so much about ceasing activity, but about learning to release the attitudes that drive us to burn-out and exploitation of others. When we are driven by fear, greed or the quest for power, then, even if we cease our activities, we find no rest, and we remain imprisoned by our addictions and our own petty empire-building projects. So, in this framework of liberation, healing was not work, but was a doorway to the “rest” of health for the afflicted woman, and was a doorway to the “rest” of interdependence and collaboration for the community through which she was healed. Jesus’ view of Sabbath did not require him to stop his liberating activity – as was also true for the synagogue leader, even though he denied it (as demonstrated by Jesus’ illustration of leading a donkey or ox out for a drink). It required him to stand against the forces that lead to oppression, injustice, disease, division, and lack of compassion.
Throughout the Gospel, Luke seeks to show that Jesus’ practice of Sabbath-keeping was a foundation for his preaching and demonstration of God’s Reign – which then becomes a call for us to follow a similar practice of Sabbath-keeping. But, our rejection of Sabbath attitudes have driven us to ignore the human need for times of stress-free rest and non-income generating activity. We have idolised self-sufficiency and so have lost the Sabbath ability to trust in a provision and care beyond our own efforts. We have idolised success, and so have lost the joy of play, or of the enjoyment of non-competitive activities. We have idolised wealth, and so have lost the joy of simplicity and the freedom that comes we release our addiction to more. We have idolised consumption and have lost the abundance of resources that our planet has provided for us. We have idolised religious ideas – like the synagogue leader – and so have lost the glorious mess of relational, contextual, spiritual practice.
It’s time for us to reclaim Sabbath as a life-giving opportunity. We need to learn to rest again – not in an imposed, ceasing-of-activity kind of way, but in a trustful, liberating, healing way, the way of true rest-oration. And we need to learn that, at its best, Sabbath is a healing practice that creates room for the healing Spirit to move within our hearts and relationships, across our earth and its creatures, and through every activity, action and attitude, bringing freedom, connection, creativity, and new life.