In the Name…
At a civic function, the main course was baked ham with glazed sweet potatoes. When it was served, the Rabbi politely waved it away. Sitting next to him was the Roman Catholic Monsignor, who asked, “Rabbi. You don’t know what you’re missing. Couldn’t I persuade you to try a bit?” “Of course”, replied the Rabbi. “When you serve it at your wedding.”
Jesus was a good Jewish boy, raised in a good Jewish household, so where did he go wrong? Or, at least, based on today's Gospel, it may seem that way because today's Gospel provides an example of something Jesus did which pleased his critics no end - he healed on the Sabbath.
Glancing through the Gospels it seems that this is one of the most heinous charges levelled against him. "This man is not from God", they say, "Because he does not keep the Sabbath". Indeed, healing on the Sabbath would appear to be a major stumbling-block to his credibility in reaching out to religious Jews. So why did he do it?
When the Jewish people were conquered in 588 BC and taken into exile in Babylon, the experience was a cultural and religious trauma. In an age when people believed that gods were local, that they only had power in certain areas, how were the Jews to sing the Lord's song in a strange land, as the Psalm puts it. The Temple was destroyed; the people weren't in the Promised Land anymore. How were they to survive?
Living in Babylon, the people had to find a new basis of unity and they found it in three cultural practices - circumcision, the kosher diet, and keeping the Sabbath.
Now, other Mediterranean peoples, like the Egyptians, practiced circumcision, kept special diets, and observed days of rest. But, in Babylon, which was not Mediterranean, these were unheard of and by rigidly adhering to them, the exiled Jews were able to keep their special identity in the face of 70 years of pressure to be assimilated. Indeed, when the Exile ended and the Jews returned home, they attributed their survival to this holy trinity, if you will, and these assumed a centrality in Jewish life which they had never previously enjoyed.
Enter Jesus. That he was circumcised, we know. It's a feast day of the Church. That he kept kosher, we know, because nobody ever said he didn’t and, we read, he dined with strict Pharisees. So, what was up with the Sabbath? Unless, unless on this one, the Jews had got it wrong.
In the Ten Commandments, it says, “Six days you shall work”, but, the Sabbath is a day holy to the Lord. You can't get much plainer than that. And, the rabbis have spent centuries regulating what may and may not be done on the Sabbath. Any of you who have been to Israel know that elevators are automatically set to stop at every floor on Saturdays because pushing the buttons has been determined to be forbidden work. In Jesus' time, the debates were over - and these are real cases - can a man sweep crumbs from a table, can he pick up his child if the child is holding a toy, can a man open a window, can a man tie a knot? This is all for real. But, none of it is in Scripture.
The Gospels record that Jesus performed six healing miracles on Sabbath days; a man with a demon; a crippled woman; a man with edema; a man lying by the pool of Bethesda; a man who had been blind from birth; and today's case of a man with a withered hand. What these have in common is that in each case, nobody asked Jesus to heal these people. He just, as we heard today, took it upon himself to initiate the action.
And something else they had in common was that none of these illnesses was life-threatening. There were some rabbinic schools which allowed doctors to work on the Sabbath in extreme cases, but, it seems Jesus wasn't even trying to take advantage of this loophole. He's a flagrant law-breaker. But, you notice he’s not opening windows or sweeping crumbs.
Now, in ancient cultures, healing was considered a priestly function and one of oldest Greek words for healing can also mean "to serve the gods." And, this is the word Jesus uses when he says, "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?" In other words, he’s asking, is it o.k. to serve God on the Sabbath? Well, what can the critics say to that? And this is why I said that the Jews had gotten the whole Sabbath thing wrong.
I’m going to back track a couple of weeks here and remind us of the Pentecost sermon. I said, then, that when God “rested” on the seventh day, we used a special word. Does anybody remember it? Yes. “Cathedzo” meaning to sit on a throne and exercise power.
The Sabbath appears in the Ten Commandments because the Ten Commandments are all ways in which humans are asked to imitate God. Just as God is truthful, respectful, selfless, etc., Moses and the people are commanded to also imitate God in keeping Sabbath, in exercising God's power, as well. They are to refrain from selfish and secular work and spend the time in selfless and sacred work and healing was one such exercise.
The rabbis had gone overboard. They tried to limit physical activity without considering that the purpose of that activity was more important to God than the calories not burned.
And so, Jesus, the Great High Priest, healed - on his own initiative and without being asked. He was God exercising God's power to improve human life - and he was teaching that so should we, his priestly people.
By the way, many Christians have got this Sabbath thing as wrong as the rabbis. God never said we shouldn't go to the store on a Sunday, or a Saturday. Actually that's a good point, which day is the Sabbath? Saturday or Sunday? Well are you ready for another surprise? Jesus revealed to us it's Saturday and Sunday and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
Christians observe the Sabbath every time we do the works he wants us to do. It's not about what we don't do one day a week. It's about what we let God do, to us, in us, and through us, every day of every week as we act as a priestly people and bind the wounds of the world.
So, is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath? Of course. For every day is a day holy to the Lord, a day when we should do God's work.
In the Name...