by Bill Carroll
“Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’ When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.’ But the Lord answered him and said, ‘You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?’ When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.” (Luke 13:10-17)
Millions of Americans are celebrating Labor Day this weekend: by taking an extra day off. This may seem paradoxical at first, but it’s not. Labor and rest ideally complement each other in a sacred balance. Labor can be good and life-giving, or the opposite. So too can the ways we rest. Some of us, of course, don’t get the day off. Increasingly, we can’t take time off in ways some of us used to be able to do. Nor do we remember with enough clarity the ways that labor had to organize and fight for this holy time of rest and recreation. Now, people either choose to (or are forced to) work on weekends, and creative, faithful churches, synagogues, and other communities of faith are having to figure out how to offer worship and community on other occasions.
Today, I would like to offer a meditation on the Sabbath and its liberating purpose. The Sabbath is tied to the Exodus (and creation itself) in the Scriptures. I write as a Christian, with an appeal to a New Testament text, but I hope that what I say would not be offensive to my Jewish brothers and sisters, even if they may come to different conclusions on Sabbath observance and other points of teaching and practice. (Learning to value differences, as well as uncovering shared concerns and opportunities to work together for the common good, is an important part of genuine interreligious dialogue.) I am mindful that Jesus is always arguing as a Jew among Jews (often using the kinds of arguments that rabbis still use). And some Jews (precisely in their fidelity to the everlasting Covenant understood in Jewish, not Christian, terms) are closer to Jesus (here and elsewhere) than those of us who claim to follow him.
A huge part of the Christian life is letting Jesus train us to see correctly. Jesus teaches us to see with the eyes of our merciful, righteous, and liberating God. Seeing what Jesus sees and loving what he loves can lead us to follow him more faithfully and to do what he asks us to do. When we pay attention to the Gospels, one of things we notice first about Jesus is who he sees and how he sees them.
In the Gospels, Jesus teaches us to seek and serve him in our neighbors, especially those who are poor, exploited, or suffering. On the Cross, he comes to occupy our places of suffering and shame—transforming them into places of grace and divine encounter. Places where we meet God. When we offer someone a cup of cold water, Jesus teaches us, we shall not lose our reward (Mark 9:41 and parallels). Whenever we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, or house the homeless, we are doing these things to Jesus himself. (Matthew 25:40)
Much of this, of course, is grounded in his understanding of the Torah and the prophets. The works of mercy and justice, as well as acts of solidarity with those who suffer violence and injustice at the hands of others, are some ways that Christians ought to make common cause with Jews, adherents of other historic religions, and all people of good will.
The teaching and example of Jesus help us see who God is and what God is like. Living in our flesh, Jesus shows us what to look for if we want to do God’s will. The story of the woman Jesus heals in Luke 13 is no exception. A woman has a spirit that has kept her bent over, in pain, and unable to move easily for eighteen years. And how does Jesus respond?
Well, first of all, he sees her. He sees this woman. He sees her with God’s own eyes and has compassion for her. He reaches out to touch her, and she is healed. She straightens up and walks. And she praises God.
But Jesus heals her on the Sabbath. And so, there are those who fail to see the Good News in what he’s doing. The leader of the local synagogue, for example. There are six days, he says, on which work ought to be done. Come on one of those days and be cured. But not on the Sabbath day.
And here’s where the clear-eyed vision of Jesus helps train the eyes of our hearts. Does not each of you, he says, untie his ox or his donkey from the manger on the Sabbath, and lead it away to give it water? Here, Jesus is reasoning as Jew among Jews. Indeed, there are rabbis who take the same position about this type of question. And there are Christians today, who would side with Jesus’ opponent.
Jesus looks to precedent to seek God’s mercy and justice and guide proper religious observance. He finds exceptions to the commandment to do no work on the Sabbath day. He identifies the same exceptions that some rabbis were prepared to accept. And then, he reasons from these about the case at hand: And ought not this woman, he says, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?
And so Jesus sees what this particular religious leader does not. He sees what many Christians would not. This particular leader sees only a violation of the Law of Moses. But Jesus sees its true purpose. God gives us the Torah, he argues, to set us free. And God gives us Sabbath in particular, as a day of rest.
In biblical times, as in many cases today, labor was brutally hard, and surrounding cultures worked their workers beyond the point of exhaustion. Pharaoh wasn’t afraid to work his slaves to death. God gives us the Sabbath, so our bodies might find some rest and restoration, so that the breakneck pace of buying and selling might stop for a day, so that we might rejoice in God’s good gifts and pause to thank the Giver.
Jesus sees what God sees. He sees the woman. He sees a daughter of Abraham in need of his help. He sees her bent over and crushed by her life. He sees her with God’s own eyes, and he’s not afraid to set her free. He knows in his bones, according to the innermost logic of the Sabbath, that she ought to be healed today.
And so, wider vision leads to faithful action. Seeing what God sees helps Jesus see what God requires. In the Gospels, time and time again, we are offered a more comprehensive perspective—one that sees the little people, those who are crushed with heavy burdens, those who are bowed down by the weight of the world.
That’s the one thing we all have in common. If we’ve lived for any length of time we’ve suffered. Suffering is the great equalizer. Today, we are offered a glimpse into the heart of God, who desires mercy, not sacrifice (Hosea 6:6)—GOD who commands us to love our neighbors and sets us free to show each other mercy and do each other justice.
Our worship helps us widen our perspective in similar ways. It helps us let go of the superficial and partial visions of reality that so often guide our actions, so we may see what Jesus sees, love what he loves, and do what he would do. Biblical worship, like the teaching and example of Jesus, expands our conception of who counts as our neighbor. So that, following in his steps, we may learn to love each other.
And so, we see a woman bent over for eighteen years, not as someone who should wait for another day, but as a suffering person in need of our help now. Likewise, we come to see various outcasts and sinners as neighbors to be embraced, rather than problems to be avoided.
And we start to really see our brothers and sisters—this motley crew gathered together on the day Jesus rose from the dead. We see the Eucharistic assembly—the one Body made up of young and old, rich and poor, of various backgrounds and life experiences—not as an accident but as part of God’s holy design. We see the church not as a random collection of people but as God’s embodied offer of grace—the beginning of God’s new creation that changes our lives and sets us free.
For Jesus, the living Lord, has gathered a People out of every language, tribe, family, and nation—a People set apart to see with his eyes and love with his heart—to show forth his mercy in the world. And he has poured his Spirit of love into our hearts, so that we might love like him.
Our loving response to each other is the beginning of God’s Reign. It’s a real but imperfect taste of the wide-open mercy of Jesus, who welcomes sinners at his table—who invites strangers to become neighbors and enemies to learn to live as friends.
And so, I ask us, who are those among us who do backbreaking work, carry heavy burdens for others, and find ourselves bowed down? Where do we see these people in the places we live, work, and play? Who are they in our congregations? And how are we collaborating with our loving, life-giving, and liberating God in the holy work of setting people free.
I would like to invite those of us who are lucky enough to rest for a long weekend to use it to reconnect with God and other people. Sabbath observance is a kind of resistance to a world in which work, good and holy in itself, no longer serves our human needs but instead crushes the people God creates, redeems, and loves.
On this Labor Day weekend, I invite us all to remember the struggles of those who toil for their daily bread and the other necessities of life. To see them—to really see them—to help them when we can, to share whatever gifts we have from God, and to live, struggle, and labor in solidarity with ALL the neighbors God gives us. ALL of them.
The Rev. Canon Bill Carroll serves as Canon for Clergy Transitions and Congregational Life in the Diocese of Oklahoma. He has served as a parish priest in Oklahoma, as a parish priest and college chaplain in Southern Ohio, and as a member of a seminary faculty. In 2005, he earned his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School.
image: The Gleaners by Jean Francois Millet, 1857