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on the Sabbath"
If we were to make a list, off the tops of our heads, of the best-known parts of the Bible, what would be on that list?
What might we assume that even those who never open a Bible, never set foot inside a church, a synagogue, or mosque, would know about the Bible?
Well, we might start with the Christmas story. It’s difficult to live in this culture without having at least a nodding acquaintance with the Christmas story, even though we might not be knowledgeable of all the details. During November and December it’s difficult to do any shopping anywhere without witnessing the commercial exploitation of Christmas.
But what other well-known parts of the Bible are there? The Golden Rule might qualify, although it can be found in other forms in other religious literature, and many Christians probably do not know that it IS in the Bible or where it is.
From the Hebrew Scriptures, most folks have some knowledge that there is a story of the creation in the Bible. And for many, this knowledge is more about the disagreements, conflicts, and arguments over how it really happened, whether God did it or not.
The great flood is well-known to many. Is there a child who has not asked what a rainbow is, where it came from, what it’s all about?
And most parents are not going to answer those questions with elaborate explanations of prismatic optics and the effect of light on water crystals.
Even non-believers may share, one might hope, the Biblical story of the promise that the rainbow is supposed to convey. But then again, maybe not.
In teaching the Bible at church camps and in Vacation Bible Schools, I discovered all kinds of things that children do not know about the Bible. (Of course, I could also say that about adults.)
But what is interesting with children is that whenever I mentioned the ten commandments, almost without exception, my listeners seemed to know what I was talking about.
Now, that does not mean that they could name them all, any more than adults can, but they HAVE HEARD of them. The ten commandments are, I believe, as much a part of the culture as is the Christmas story.
Now, whether folks know where they came from, whether they know anything about the Exodus, Mt. Sinai, Moses, the golden calf, or any of the other trappings of that event is really beside the point. Also beside the point is whether folks could find the ten commandments in the bible, or know that there are two books in which they can find them.
No, pertinent to the point is that folks KNOW that there were ten commandments, and supposedly these were rules God gave us for how we are supposed to live.
Maybe the popularity of the ten commandments lies in the fact that it seems to be a simple set of rules. Actually, more simple to read than to follow, but nevertheless concise. Don’t I wish that the instructions for my tax forms were as succinct.
And for Christians and Jews and Muslims, we ALL have this code of conduct as our heritage. We Christians may not follow all the OTHER 600-some laws that the Jews follow, but most of us feel like we should pay attention to those ten commandments. Besides, if we read the stories of Jesus, we know that he questioned others about their following the ten commandments. So he also must have thought them to be important.
But, for better or for worse, do we FOLLOW those commandments that we revere so highly? Did Jesus?
There is a most interesting story in the thirteenth chapter of the gospel according the Luke. Beginning with the tenth verse,
“Now he 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.”
Now, if this were being written in the twenty-first century, we would not blame this condition on a spirit. And any of you have arthritic problems, or any kind of condition that afflicts your joints, or muscles, or tendons, you’re not likely to blame this on a spirit. But in Jesus day, an unexplainable physical condition was a SPIRITUAL condition.
If folks could not understand what was wrong with them, they just blamed the malady on evil spirits. But even today, don’t we often wonder WHY things happen to us, and want to blame it on something? Or we wonder, “What did I do to deserve this?”
And we somehow think that we are being punished?
Well, Jesus is going to do something about this woman’s condition.
“When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”
It is extremely enlightening to pay very close attention to Jesus’ words at a time like this. Notice what he says and what he does NOT say.
Notice that he makes NO reference to himself. None. He is taking absolutely no credit for what is about to happen to this woman. Miraculous healing is taking place, and Jesus is acting like he isn’t even there.
Second, notice how Jesus talks about what is going to happen to this woman: “you are set free.” The implication is that she is in bondage, she is trapped, she is tied to something. And, indeed, illness does that to us.
It’s a burden, it weighs us down, it may keep us bedfast; at the very least it certainly slows us down, as if we were hauling the weight of world around.
But Jesus is making no claim, directly or indirectly, to do anything with disease. Nor is he making any claim, directly or indirectly, to do anything with the woman. He simply proclaims “you are set free.”
And finally, from WHAT is she set free?: “from your ailment.” So did Jesus know what her ailment was? Or did it really matter? I would suggest that it did not.
It might have been any of a hundred different disorders; but Jesus was concerned only with the health of the woman, not with an analytic diagnosis of her condition.
“You are set free from your ailment.”
Maybe this would be a good prayer for all of us all of the time. “Lord, set me free from my afflictions.”
“When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.”
So what is going on here? How can we determine why this is happening? Does the power lie in Jesus laying his hands upon her? I don’t think so. I think that was an act that just accompanied the event.
Rather, I believe that Jesus words “you are set free” are a statement of faith; and that, combined with her belief that she WOULD be set free, comprised the power that allowed her to stand up straight.
And now that she’s standing up straight, does she have any good words for Jesus, the one who spoke to her, the one who laid his hands on her? No. But maybe he doesn’t need that, and she knows it. So she “began praising God.”
And indeed, all our healings, even when they seem to be accomplished by teams of surgeons or the complex chemical formulations of pharmaceutical companies, are still rooted in the will and power of God.
Well, as they say, every party has a pooper, and apparently every synagogue probably has one too.
“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.”
Whoops! It’s a commandment. One of the ten. It’s the fourth one. “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work.”
So, the leader of the synagogue is technically correct, and he’s just doing his job by pointing this out.
Of course, I’m preaching to believers. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t believe that at least part of the Christian sabbath should be kept holy. But what DO we believe about keeping the sabbath holy? Are we purists, or do we make exceptions?
And how do we define “labor” and “work”? If we self-righteously look down our noses at those who work on the sabbath, we need to ask some rather tough questions.
All those folks who work in nursing homes and hospitals: should they NOT work on the sabbath? If we plan to travel on the sabbath, do we expect all the convenience stores and service stations to be closed? And what if our house should catch fire on the sabbath? Would we prefer that the firefighters not work that day?
And for those of us who like to eat out for Sunday dinner, would we prefer that the restaurants at Carson’s Corner, at Hermitage, at Nemo, at Pittsburg, at Galmey, at Collins, or wherever else we might like to dine, be closed?
These are not idle questions. Each of us needs an understanding of how we set aside time for God in our lives. Pastors are not excluded from this concern.
At a Harrison family gathering, we were trying to determine when we all might next get together, and one of my brothers facetiously suggested, “John, why don’t you just tell your folks you’d like weekends and holidays off?”
Well, Jesus has an answer for the leader of the synagogue, and anyone else in earshot:
“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 he’s right! Because even the Jews made exceptions to their commandments. Even they had definitions of what was “labor” and “work” and what was not.
Obviously, if Jesus was teaching in the synagogue on the sabbath, this was not considered labor or work, or it was an exception to the rule.
And we have an interesting conflict here. Both the leader of the synagogue and Jesus are correct. The leader of the synagogue is correct in saying, “There are six days on which work ought to be done.”
But Jesus is correct in pointing out that there are exceptions made for the feeding and watering of animals.
The problem, then, is how do we proceed to make our exceptions? Upon what values do those exceptions reside? I must confess that I enjoy immensely watching profession football on television.
But I know that a ton of people need to be working on the sabbath in order for me to enjoy that.
At a considerably less frivolous level, Jesus asks, “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?”
He doesn’t say it, but by implication he is asking, “Isn’t this woman as deserving as an ox or donkey?” When he points out that she is a daughter of Abraham he is saying, “she is one of us, she is one of our own.” When he notes her eighteen years of suffering, he is arguing, “has she not suffered enough, has she not paid the price; need she wait any longer.”
If it is okay to water your donkey, should it not be okay to free a woman from a crippled condition of eighteen years?
“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.”
But there is a larger issue that is not resolved here, which I will only touch on this morning. That is, how do we interpret those ten commandments? On the face of it, they seem so simple; so simple in fact that the children of Israel made lots of exceptions to them. And we continue to make exceptions to them today.
When Jesus made an exception in this story, he did so by responding to a greater commandment, loving his neighbor. And maybe, after loving God, that is the best commandment for all of us to follow.
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