- Fr. Frank St. Amour III
Sermon - 4 Lent
In the Name...
A Jewish businessman went to see his rabbi. "Rabbi", he said, "I've had terrible news. I sent my son to study in Jerusalem and he tells me he's become a Christian." "Don't tell me about it.", the rabbi replied. "My son also went to Jerusalem and now he tells me that he's become a Christian. Let's pray for comfort." So, they put on their shawls and the rabbi began, "O God of consolation, who brings comfort to your people in their distress. Hear us. We sent our sons to Jerusalem and they both became Christians." At that, a rumbling was heard from above and a voice boomed forth, "Don't tell me about it."
Jesus was a good Jewish boy, raised in a good Jewish home, trained in the good Jewish customs, so where did he go wrong? At least, it might seem that way. Glancing through the Gospels, every so often one finds these, or similar words, "This man cannot be from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath."
This was a serious charge because Sabbath observance was one of the three pillars of Jewish orthodoxy. The other two were circumcision and the dietary laws. Now, we know Jesus was circumcised according to the Law because that's recorded in the Gospel. And we know he kept kosher because if he hadn't he wouldn't have been invited to dine with Pharisees and other leaders of the community.
No less important, then, was the Sabbath. The rabbis of the time went to extraordinary lengths to define what could and couldn't be done on the day. Here are some real questions they addressed: Can a man lift his child on the Sabbath? Can a man open, or close, a window? Can a man tie a knot? This was, and still is, serious stuff and any of you who've been to Israel know that elevators are programmed to automatically stop on every floor on Saturday because pushing an elevator button has been ruled by the rabbis as forbidden work.
Actually, I'll tell a story here. When Sue worked for a bank in the D.C. area, she had to deal with a Jewish customer who reported his credit card lost because, when he realized it was in his pocket on a Saturday, he threw it away into some bushes. You see, you can't carry money on the Sabbath, either, and a credit card is money.
So why would Jesus, who seems to be perfectly orthodox in every other way, deviate from the norm when it comes to this? And he does so quite intentionally. The Gospels record six times when he heals on the Sabbath and in each of those cases nobody asks him to. Not one of those six people asks Jesus to heal them. He just takes it upon himself as in today's Gospel with the man born blind. And, while some rabbinic schools gave doctors a dispensation to save life, not one of the six Sabbath cures of Jesus was for anything life-threatening.
It seems he really went out of his way to make trouble. But, you notice that he doesn't break the Sabbath by lifting children, or opening windows, or tying knots, or pushing elevator buttons. He's not doing just any old "work." He only does his ministry of healing and that gives us a clue as to what is going on.
The key is in the words. In Greek, there are many words we can translate as "healing". The problem is that we miss the layers of meaning which the use of certain words would have signalled to the people who heard them.
For example, on one of these occasions, Jesus was at a Sabbath dinner where one of the other guests was suffering from a painful bladder infection. So, Jesus posed a question which, in English, comes out as, "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?" Simple. The obvious answer would be, "No" or "Under certain conditions." But, the Gospel says that nobody could answer him. Why not? Because he used a very technical word for "healing" whose meaning in classical Greek was also "to serve god."
In effect, then, Jesus issued a challenge, "Is it lawful to serve God on the Sabbath?" Well, what can you say to that? But, that's exactly the point he is trying to make.
In the beginning, literally, when God created the heavens and the earth, on the seventh day, we read, "God rested on the seventh day."
Now, a lot of people think that's the origin of the Sabbath. But, it isn't. You see, Adam is not asked to take a day off, and neither are Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob, and the word "Sabbath" actually doesn't appear in the Bible until well into the Exodus. All it said in Genesis was that God "rested" and the word used - cathedzo - means "to sit down." Now, there's a word which comes from "cathedzo" that we Episcopalians know well and that's the word "cathedral." Literally, it means where the bishop "sits down." The cathedral is the church where he sits down to preside over the diocese, to rule, to exercise his authority. And, that's what Genesis means when it says God "sat down." He sat down to preside, to rule, to exercise his authority over creation.
Which leads us to consider something else about the description of the seventh day and that is that it has no evening. The other six days have a morning and an evening, a beginning and an end, but, the seventh day has no end because God's rule has no end. So, every day of the year is, in reality, part of the seventh day when God is ruling his creation.
So, what's with this Saturday thing? Where did that come from? The word "Sabbath" actually means "cease" or "stop" and that's what it's about - stopping. The Fourth Commandment says, "Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but, the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God and on it you shall not do any work."
Six days we do things for ourselves, but, on the seventh we stop what we're doing and we think about what God is doing and what He wants us to be doing. The Sabbath was supposed to be a stop sign on the weekly road, for the Hebrews to look both ways and reflect before going further. It was a day when Man was supposed to focus on his relationship with God and consider how he should make every day a holy day.
But, Man being Man, the people ended up treating the Sabbath as just another regular work day, so the rabbis came up with all the rules to make people think about God's work. But, again, Man being Man, keeping those rules on just the one day, instead of thinking about how to serve God every day, became the entire focus.
Which leads us to Jesus. Why was he here? To work. To restore the relationship between God and Man, to heal our fallen human condition, to bring us the gifts of salvation and eternal life. And, by curing disease on Saturdays, Jesus was showing that he had the power to do just that. He exercised God's authority seven days a week.
The work of God in Christ was to replace the seventh day rest with seventh day rule. The work of God in Christ was to restore us to our rightful role of sharing in God's work and doing the things He wants us to do. You see, the Sabbath isn't about what we don't do; it's about what God does through us. We have been given His power through the Holy Spirit to extend the kingdom of God on earth and there's no day-off from that.
So, is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath? When else? For every day is a Sabbath day; a day when we should do God's work.
In the Name..