August 22, 2010
William G. Carter
"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?”
Luke is just as surprised as anybody: the woman appeared out of nowhere. She had not been noticed. Nobody had ever seen her. Once upon a time she had been somebody’s daughter. Perhaps she was still somebody’s mother. But for eighteen years or more she had been invisible.
She was bent over. She could not stand straight. Now, for the first time in her life, she appeared.
We don’t know her name. Jesus calls her “a daughter of Abraham,” so we know she is part of the family. But other than that, she had no name, no stated relationship, no other identification. All we know is she had spent eighteen long years staring at the floor. Every waking moment of the day, she watched one foot shuffle in front of the next.
In the day of Jesus, that’s what a lot of women did. Outside of the home, women were to make no eye contact with anybody other than their husbands. It was deemed improper. So this “Daughter of Abraham” could fulfill the neighborhood expectations. Her spine was bent forward in the shape of a capital C.
It’s hard for many of us to imagine what that was like, so let me invite you to try it out: lean over, hunch your shoulders, bury your chin, and look down. Don’t move your head from side to side – with your neck firmly fixed, look around. You can look to the right, you can look to the left – but you can never gaze ahead. At best you can catch a twisted glimpse of the man who is in front of you. All the time, an invisible weight is holding you down.
That’s how it was for her. Eighteen long years of it. She was out of sight. Invisible. Dependent on others for anything beyond sideways navigation. And one day, all of a sudden, she appears.
Leave it to Luke to mention that he sees her. If you read through his Gospel, you notice he has an eye for the women, particularly the women that nobody else notices. He tells of Elizabeth, ancient as the Old Testament, and every bit as pregnant as Abraham’s wife. He sings of mother Mary, and reveals what treasures are locked up in her heart alone. It is Luke who tells us that women traveled with Jesus and the twelve: Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and others – and they sponsored his ministry out of their own purses (8:3).
Luke pays attention to all of them, and sees those whom the men ignore. He takes us to the kitchen in Bethany, where Martha is grinding out the hummus while her sister pays attention to Jesus. He sees the widow who supports the temple with two copper coins. After Jesus is condemned to death, he turns to a group of Luke’s women and tells them not to weep. Women stand guard at the cross after all the others have run away. In Luke’s account of Easter, women are the first to hear the angel’s sermon at the empty tomb. The men want to dismiss this “idle tale,” but their witness is vindicated.
It’s no surprise that he sees this bent-over woman in the synagogue. And he knows the argument that will be used against her healing. Three times already, Jesus has broken everybody’s expectations of the Sabbath. In Capernaum, he cast out a wild spirit that driving one man crazy (4:31-37), and while they bickered about it, he went next door to Simon’s house and shouted at a mother-in-law’s fever (4:38). On another Sabbath, he allowed his disciples to pick some grain and eat it (6:1-4). On yet another, he restored a withered man (6:6-10).
The religious rule-keepers saw what Jesus was doing, and their complaint was always the same: “there are six days when you shall do your work, and the seventh is a Sabbath rest before God.”
Now, I suppose there was actually a time in history when people actually kept that commandment. At least some of them did. As children, we were told in my house to sit still on Sunday and read the funny papers; God didn’t want us to work. Many of those days, I could see my mother carving the roast and leaning over the stove. Sometimes we were given some Sunday chores after dinner, while my dad did his homework for Monday work. It didn’t seem so restful.
Sabbath Rest is a selective discipline. Four summers ago, my wife and I found ourselves on the Isle of Lewis, off the coast of Scotland. On Sundays in Stornoway, everything shuts down. The Presbyterians dictate it. Margaret, the non-Presbyterian owner of our B & B, complained of the Sabbath when she dared to hang wet laundry on the line. After she returned inside the cottage, one of her pious neighbors sneaked over, took the wet laundry down and tossed it in a basket, so that Margaret would not be tempted to break the Sabbath by letting the sun do its work.
Later that same day, we were invited to the home of a local preacher. We had been pointed out to him as visitors. I don’t know how they knew – apart from my clerical collar and Jamie’s pant suit in a room full of dresses. The Good Reverend was a bit of an author, and had recently published a book on the proper ways to observe the Sabbath. I was pleased to receive a copy of the book. And then we were pleased as his wife brought in a large spread of jellies and scones that she had whipped up in her floral print dress.
Are you getting what I’m throwing here? Don’t believe for a minute that first century synagogue leaders had a corner on hypocrisy. Especially when it had to do with Sabbath keeping and their inability to see women as human beings.
If today is a Sabbath, how shall we keep the day? That’s the question. And it’s an important question because Sabbath is the essential character of God’s Kingdom.
Don’t take my word for it. Listen to Rabbi Abraham Heschel, who once wrote the definitive book on keeping Sabbath. He writes: “Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone else.” (p. 14)
The Rabbi knew there is a battle going on in our lives. God claims our very lives, but there are forces that threaten to demean us, to enslave us, to bend us over nearly in two and beat us down. We don’t know what weight was on the shoulders of that previously unseen woman in the synagogue where Jesus taught. But something had twisted her like a pretzel. There she was – a child of God’s covenant, a daughter of Abraham – yet largely invisible to her neighbors, mostly unseen because of a lingering physical condition.
What she needed – what all of us need – is to hear the rest of the Sabbath commandment. The synagogue leader that day got the rule right, but he missed the reason for it. It’s true – Deuteronomy 6, verse 12 – “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the sevent day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.” That’s the rule, but here’s the reason – Deuteronomy 6, verse 15 – “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.”
Sabbath is the day of freedom. Sabbath is the day when you tell Pharoah and his task masters, “I don’t belong to you any more.” Sabbath is the day when you stand up straight, and you look square in the eye every counterfeit power that would try to bend you in half. Sabbath is the day, says John Calvin, when you rest from your labor so that the God who saves you can do good work in you. Sabbath is the day, the regular returning day, lifts you high with “a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.”
This is why we keep the Sabbath, and this is how we keep it: the God of Israel frees us in Jesus Christ. God frees us from every demeaning force that would try to make us less than human. And so, Jesus the Lord declares, “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?”
There are eighty-five ways to slip back into bondage, maybe eighty-six . . . so the Sabbath is given to us as a gift of freedom here and now, and as a rehearsal for the Kingdom that Christ is establishing. To quote again Rabbi Heschel, “Unless one learns how to relish the taste of Sabbath while still in this world, unless one is initiated in the appreciation of eternal life, one will be unable to enjoy the taste of eternity in the world to come. Sad is the lot of (the one) who arrives inexperienced and when led to heaven has no power to perceive the beauty of the Sabbath.” (p. 74)
And what is the beauty? That the God of Sarah and Abraham loves us, claims us, sets us free from every oppression, straightens our crooked spirits to live in complete praise and joy. I don’t know how you planned to spend this day, this Sabbath day, but I invite you to let it release you from ever twisted power that would otherwise demean you.
For the Sabbath is the day that the Lord has made, to the end that we hear how much God loves us, learn what God calls us to be, and discover what God empowers us to do.
I like a story that a friend tells. A little girl lived in a small country town, far from the situations you and I take for granted. It was just a few years ago, but it was one of those towns where driving down Center Street is like driving back into the thirties. She lived in a little house and went to a small school. She had loving folks and, from time to time, a good teacher. But the way she was growing up was not the way you would want your little girl to grow up. She had a cleft palate and the money for the repair wasn’t there. By the time she was seven, she knew how cruel the world was. She heard the phrase, “Only a mother could love that” and she understood it.
One day a special teacher visited the school and put the children through some basic speech tests. When it was her turn, the little girl went into the classroom that had been set aside for the exams. “Just stand over there by the door,” the teacher said from her desk at the far end of the room. “I want to test your hearing first. Turn your back, face the door and tell me what you hear me say.”
“Apple,” the teacher said in a low voice. “Apple,” the little girl repeated.
“Man,” the teacher said. “Man,” the little girl repeated.
“Okay,” the teacher said, “Now a sentence.” The child knew that the sentences where usually fairly easy—she wasn’t the first child to take the test, after all. She’d heard you could expect something like, “The sky is blue” or “Are your shoes brown?” Still, she listened very carefully.
So it was, that with her face against the door, she heard the teacher’s whisper quite clearly, “I wish you were my little girl.” (Thanks to Jana Childers for the story!)
This is how God sees us: as daughters and son. We are precious, not because we are good or perfect or completely straight; we are precious because we are loved.
And this is the day, the best day of the week, when we live that truth from the top of our head right down to the soles of our feet.
(c) William G. Carter
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