Wrong Day? Right Day!
"Respect the day of rest," we're told in one modern translation of Deuteronomy 5. "Make it a holiday. This is God's idea, for your good. Six days is enough work for one week. Give the seventh to God, and encourage your family and anyone else for whom you're responsible to do the same. That includes your employees, your livestock, even strangers who enter your life. Remember, you once had to work very hard in Egypt, with absolutely no rest. So take a day off as a reminder that Almighty God rescued you from slavery."
The rest of the passage lists all the people and animals that get a day off. Clearly, the Sabbath was meant as a time of rest, refreshment and reflection for the benefit of all God's creatures, an oasis from the desert of their labor.
Fast-forward about seven hundred years. By that time, the Pharisees had developed an almost myopic focus on the Talmudic laws that had grown up over the centuries around the Torah. Their hair-splitting legalism led them to put their own strict rules of Sabbath-keeping above the principles of compassion and rest -- the reasons God originally set aside the day.
It had become a law-centered religion, based on meticulous observance of rules governing Kosher diet, business transactions, tithes and countless other details of day-to-day life, instead of focusing on sustaining a loving relationship with God. They were keeping the letter of the law for its own sake, forgetting the values of justice, mercy and compassion for one's neighbor on which God's laws were based.
Jesus taught that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath, which is why Ahimelech, the priest at Nob, could give David and his men the priestly Sabbath show-bread from the altar as an act of mercy, out of compassion for their hunger on a long journey, when he had no other food to give.
In today's Gospel lesson, Jesus was teaching in a local synagogue on the Sabbath, and there was a woman present who was so bent over with pain she could not straighten up. Today she might be diagnosed with a form of severe arthritis or a similar illness.
There were no words for her condition then, no CAT scan or MRI, so they said it was an evil spirit. She had endured that intense pain for eighteen years, nearly bent double, and yet she was still a faithful believer and managed to attend synagogue to worship God. How many of us would be so faithful today, still struggling to regularly attend temple in spite of the pain after eighteen years of prayers for healing had seemingly gone unanswered?
When Jesus saw her, he immediately felt compassion for her suffering, and reached out to her in mercy. I believe He also recognized her faith. Didn't God see her walking to temple every Sabbath for eighteen years, and know the faithful dedication it took for her to do that? Of course He did. Saint Luke tells us that Jesus reached out to her and touched her, and told her she was free from the illness that had kept her in bondage for so long. We're told that at that moment she straightened up, free of the pain that had haunted her every waking moment for probably as long as she could remember, and she began praising God.
But the leader of the synagogue wasn't praising God. No, he interrupted Jesus and said, "Wait a minute, this is the wrong day for that! We don't heal here on the Sabbath, we have other days when we do that. Come on one of those days and be healed, ma'am".
He's splitting hairs again. Putting the letter of the law above mercy and compassion. Wrong day. Sorry. Can't be healed on the wrong day.
Imagine what Jesus was thinking at that moment. Actually we don't have to imagine, because He started shouting.
"Frauds!" He shouted. "Every Sabbath you untie your cow and your donkey and lead it out of the stall to get water, and you think nothing of it. And yet if I untie this daughter of Abraham and lead her out of the bondage she's suffered for eighteen years, you say it's the wrong day for that. You hypocrites!"
Remember our passage from Deuteronomy? The Sabbath was a reminder that God had rescued them from slavery. But they wouldn't let Jesus rescue someone from years of slavery to a crippling illness, because they had made the Sabbath laws an idol.
Luke says the synagogue officials were left feeling silly and ashamed, but the people in the congregation were delighted with Jesus and cheered Him on. He began then to teach about the Kingdom of God, and I like to picture the woman who had just been healed sitting somewhere in the congregation just hanging on to His every word, finally free from her life of pain and eager to learn even more about the Kingdom from this miraculous healer and teacher. It certainly wasn't the "wrong day" for her.
And today is also the right day for you and me. God declares, "Today is the day of Salvation. Today, if your hear His voice, do not harden your hearts." Repent of your sinful way ... which means to turn away from those things you are doing, saying and thinking which are displeasing to God. Turn to Him for forgiveness and healing. Yes, today is the day of Salvation!
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