Sabbath. A day of rest. A day we recall the six days God created and the seventh day upon which God rested. A day when the Hebrew Exodus is remembered and the Messianic Age is anticipated. God commanded that the sabbath day should be remembered, kept holy, and given to the Lord (Exodus 20:8-11). When we ponder the intention behind both God and humanity resting after six days of labor, we cannot help but see it as a day to put our labor into perspective. Not only do we remember the fruits of our labor on that day, but we gain a deeper understanding of the purpose behind our labor and what we are working towards. The sabbath then puts work and purpose into proper balance. When this balance is maintained humanity does not come under bondage to their work, as the Hebrews were under Pharaoh, but their work is fused with the purposes of God.
With our 21st century Christian eyes, we can be tempted to read Luke’s Jesus as bucking the entire Jewish system. However, this is quite contrary to Luke’s presentation of Christ. Luke celebrates Jesus’ Jewishness in the birth narratives of chapters 1-2 with the circumcision rite and Temple sacrifice. As the gospel progresses, we see that it was not only Jesus’ custom to weekly attend synagogue, but he preaches his first sermon in his home-town synagogue in Luke 4. By chapter 13 then, the reader should not be surprised to find Jesus going about Jewish business as usual, teaching in the synagogue on the sabbath. Jesus was not only a Jew, but a committed Jew.
While Jesus was teaching, he noticed a woman who, as Luke emphasizes twice, had been crippled for eighteen years. When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” Then, he places his hands on her, and immediately she was straightened up and praised God. Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader quoted Exodus 20:9-10 to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath” (vv12-14). The synagogue leader not only seems to not consider teaching “real” work for he allows Jesus to teach, but he also seems intent on swaying the people away from Jesus as he directs his comments only to them.
Emphatically, Luke applies the tittle “Lord” to Jesus as he answers the synagogue leader with “you hypocrites!” in verse 15. We heard Jesus level this accusation of hypocrisy in last week’s pericope in regards to spiritual blindness (Luke 12:49-56). That would seem to be an appropriate implication here as well. Just as it was for those who could not “interpret the present time,” the synagogue leader and those like him are blind to the relationship between God’s work and God’s purposes. God’s intention behind sabbath was that humanity would not work their way into bondage, but rather rest in God so that their work would bring healing, liberation, and unbinding. Ironically, in the synagogue leader’s critique of Jesus, he was claiming that Jesus’ work of keeping the sabbath was not working. Jesus and the crippled woman obviously needed to work harder to keep sabbath holy.
Jesus rejects this notion and claims that humanity was never intended to become property of their work. To do so would be in complete contradiction of God’s purposes. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus says “sabbath was made for humanity, humanity was not made for sabbath.” Jesus points out that Satan prospers in keeping humanity in bondage with such notions, such as the crippled woman. Jesus shows that this notion does not apply when their ox or donkey is in bondage to thirst and so it should not apply to a child of Abraham who is in physical and spiritual bondage. The imagery here is rather stark with both the Ox and donkey seen as property for work in the first century. Jesus claims that no human being should be in bondage to the work of Satan, but rest in the work of God.
Jesus as the incarnation of God brings about the messianic age through him. He has truly come to proclaim freedom to captives, recover sight to the blind, and set the oppressed free (Luke 4). Jesus does so for this crippled woman causing the crowd to rejoice due to all the wonderful things He was doing in their midst. This rejoicing in contrast to the shame of the leaders illustrates who was resting and abiding in the work of God and those who were resting in their own work for God. Jesus truly allows God to work His purposes in and through him. For this commentator, that is the crux of this text. Hypocrites allow their work to define their relationship with God, while Jesus allows His relationship with God to define His work. We Christians are called to follow Christ’s example.
The pastor might do well in pointing out what works we prefer to rest in other than God. In contrast to the synagogue leader, we modern day Christians tend to fall to the other extreme. We emphasize a personal relationship with Jesus to such an extant that we water down any practices and habits as simply optional. We tend to rest in our own beliefs of God while disregarding any work for God. The question becomes, how will we know how to proclaim freedom to the captives, restore sight to the blind, and set the oppressed free if we do not learn that work from God?
I have been hearing a pretty terrible phrase floating around lately: “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship.” Now, I know what they mean. I get they are implying that Christianity is not about works and rituals, rather it is about a relationship with Jesus Christ. However, I would say such a phrase is to speak beyond what we understand.
Let’s think about that notion for a minute. What relationship can survive without works and rituals? Will our relationship with our job continue if we quite showing up for work? Those of us who are married, how will things fair for us if we stop working on our marriage? What happens when we stop practicing the ritual of our anniversaries, birthdays, first dates, etc.? What sort of parents do we become when we do not teach certain practices and habits in our relationship with our children?
This notion of “it’s not a religion it’s a relationship” is a false dichotomy. It is swinging the pendulum to the other side, claiming that works are optional, but a relationship is mandatory. It is making the internal life much more important than the external life. God wants both the inward and outward of our lives.
When I was a little boy, I really wanted to be a guitar player. Internally, that desire was there. I could call myself a guitar player and tell people my passion about playing the guitar all I wanted. But what actually made me a guitar player was when I learned and practiced my guitar. I also wanted to be a good guitar player. So what did I do? I went to weekly lessons, with a teacher who taught me how to read chord charts and play well with other musicians. I practiced everyday for several hours. You could say I was quite religious about my music, which meant going to lessons more than just around Christmas and Easter (pastor joke). I would clean and take care of my guitar constantly. It was a ritual for me. I did this so often that playing a guitar wasn’t just something I did, it became apart of who I am.
What I practiced religiously shaped my being, and what I did flowed out of my being.
Do you see where I am going with this? We Christians gather weekly around a table. We hear a teacher who teaches us how to read scripture, live lives of worship in Christ, and how to play well with other Christians and our world. We are then called to study scripture, pray, fast, and meditate on God religiously, like it is a habit, ritual, a way of life of which we just can’t let go! Until the Christian life isn’t just something we do, it becomes who we are.
What we practice religiously shapes our being and what we do flows out of our being. We practice the presence of our Lord and what we do flows out of our being with the Lord. Our relationship with Christ is our religion. We celebrate His birthday, his funeral, his resurrection, his ascension, and as the bride of Christ, we as the church will never let him forget our wedding anniversary after he returns. We take communion together to remember what He did, what He continues to do, and what He is going to do. We read the scriptures, we baptize one another, we pray together, we sing, we confess our sins, and we recite our creeds. We do these things so that God’s purposes become so much apart of who we are that it is shown through our work. The Lord has shaped these practices, these rituals for us, and these practices shape us into the habits of our Lord. We cannot rest in the Lord without our labor in the Lord.
We are a people who yearn to practice the presence of God so God is present in us. Everything we do then flows out of that presence. A church who labors in God, is a church who also rests in God’s presence. A church who rests in God’s presence is a church who’s labor creates space where healing, liberation, and unbinding is our reality as it was in Christ Jesus, our Lord.