21 August 2016
Isaiah 58: 9b-14, Hebrews 12:18-29, Luke 13:10-17
Some four score and seven years ago . . . . Wait a minute: somebody else said that before me. So let me just say . . . four score and forget the seven years. I was at that time growing up just south of the borough of Queens in the East New York section of Brooklyn, which is now considered, according to the New York Times, the most dangerous district in New York City to live in or even to visit. But back then my neighborhood was safe and sound with the descendents of German, Irish, and Italian immigrant families growing up more or less harmoniously, as was also the case of a Polish neighborhood nearby. This was before, as well as at the time of, World War II to which families of all nationalities sent sons, if not yet daughters, to Europe and the Far East to fight for our country. And at the war’s end, I remember endless block parties celebrating the victories of the United States.
My section of East New York was then—indeed, still is—just north of the Brownsville section, which until the early 1960s, at least, was largely a Jewish enclave in Brooklyn, though now it is no longer that. And a goodly number of the Jewish families were more or less Orthodox. I knew this from friends who were hired by some Jewish families to do various tasks on the Sabbath that they thought would have been breaking this holy day if done by themselves or members of their families. Consequently, when in the gospel we hear of a leader of a synagogue reprehending Jesus for curing a woman on the Sabbath, we can understand, if not sympathize, with his thinking.
The Sabbath—originally called “Shabbat”—after all, was so holy a day that it was the only day of the week in Jesus’ time that had a name. Hebrew weekdays had no names. There were no Sundays or Mondays or Tuesdays and so on back then. There was the Sabbath and the rest of the days of the week simply designated by numbers. That seems to be the way that one kept appointments back then before I-pads. And there had to be such appointments because if work was to be done, it was not to be done on the Sabbath! The Romans changed things during the first century when they began to name the days of the week after their gods: Sunday came from the Sun god; Monday from the Moon god, Tuesday or Tiw, from the god who presided over combat and strife. If this fascinates you, you can check out “The Origins of the Secular Names for the Days of the Week” on Google and thereby get through the rest of the week with the rest of the gods!
But let’s go back to the Sabbath. What wasn’t work? Scholars tell us that “Every case of danger of life allows for the suspension of the Sabbath.” Moreover, “healing in the New Testament is considered to fall under the principle of ‘danger to life”; thus healing was permitted on the Sabbath. That’s why we read that Jesus can put it to the leader of the synagogue that physical tasks like leading oxen and donkeys to water on the holy day are much more problematic than speaking a few words to a daughter of Abraham who has been unwell for eighteen years. Consequently, one of the principal things that Jesus does here is enforce a way of thinking when human health is an issue. In a word, he is educating those who were supposed to be educating him.
Jesus takes up this task again in the very next chapter of Luke’s gospel when he heals another suffering individual on the Sabbath. We read at the beginning of chapter 14 that
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely. Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy. And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, “Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath, or not?” But they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away. Then he said to them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a Sabbath day?” And they could not answer him. (Luke 14:1-6)
The answer, of course, is an unequivocal Yes! Thus does Jesus further educate the leader of the synagogue who questioned his curing the woman crippled with a spirit of infirmity.
The synagogue in those days was the Jewish equivalent of a Christian church in our day. Synagogues came into existence after the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in 587-586 BCE by Nebuchadrezzar and his Babylonian army. So synagogues became centers of Jewish communities: places of prayer, study, education, social and charitable work. What Jesus emphasizes in his reprimand is the last of these matters: the social and charitable work of healing. In doing that he is entering into the mind and heart of Isaiah who speaks today of removing “the yoke among you”—removing “the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil” and replacing these with satisfying “the needs of the afflicted” so that “light shall rise in the darkness and . . . gloom be like the noonday.” Jesus is furthermore realizing in the words of today’s epistle to the Hebrews: “something that can [not] be touched”– “a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them.” Indeed, Jesus does not need another word. His words have already healed the afflicted man and woman.
The four gospels are replete with Jesus curing people on days other than the Sabbath: ten lepers in Luke; two demoniacs, a paralytic, and two blind men in Matthew where he also loosens the tongue of a man who cannot speak. He cures a deaf mute in Mark and opens the eyes of a blind man. In John’s gospel the eyes of two blind men. These, of course, are only a few of his cures. Why should a man with dropsy—now called edema–or an ailing woman be different from all these others because it is the Sabbath. There is no reason in Jesus’ mind whatsoever.
Having begun with the words of a President, let me draw toward a close with the words of a would-be President, Hillary Clinton, who cited a tenet of her Methodist faith in accepting the Democratic nomination for the Presidency: “Do all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the ways you can, as long as ever you can.”
It strikes me today and every day of the week as well as every week of the year that this sentence sums up for us anew a full measure of faith and devotion.