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Keeping the Sabbath Holy (Luke 13:10-17)

September 5, 2013

“It’s always done this way.”
It is an expression of our custom, habit, and tradition. Yes, we live in a world so accustomed to follow traditional rules that are largely tied with tradition and custom. But we often forget that we have to disobey and resist tradition and custom when they become an unjust law. A large number of Americans identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” (“Spiritual, But Not Religious” by Robert C. Fuller). Why? They don’t feel that religion can help finding a path to God since religious practices, such as worship service, the holy communion, baptism, prayer, and Sabbath, became institutional. Today’s gospel passage challenges us to rethink about our custom and our institutionalized religion.

Jesus challenges the way how people keep the Sabbath by healing a woman on sabbath. The word “sabbath” appears four times in this passage. It means sabbath is the key term in order to understand the message of the passage. Here is the question: how do we keep the sabbath holy? Notice a wonderful literary composition between Jesus and this woman, concerning the sabbath. First, Jesus was teaching in a synagogue on the sabbath (Luke 13:10), and a woman, who was bent over for 18 years, came to the synagogue on the sabbath (Luke 13:11). Second, Jesus healed this woman on the sabbath (Luke 13:12), and this woman stood up straight and began praising God on the sabbath (Luke 13:13)

Now, the story of healing on sabbath illustrates the conflict between Jesus and the leader of the synagogue. The leader of the synagogue became indignant, saying: “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.” (Luke 13:14 NIV) It sounds like what the Torah commands, regarding the sabbath. What is the problem of this religious leader? For eighteen years, they saw this woman on the sabbath, but he couldn’t see her condition and her needs. She has been walking around looking at passing feet. She cannot see the smile on the faces of people. She cannot see the green of the meadow. “The leader of the synagogue wants to make the issue Jesus’ violation of the sabbath, but Jesus returns the focus to the needs and dignity of the woman.” (“The Gospel of Luke” in NIB) Jesus challenges the religious community to think about what keeping the sabbath really means. In his article, “When Compassion Trumps Law,” Ryan Wilson explains the conflict between Jesus and the leader of synagogue in the following way:

Jesus dodges the whole issue of healing on the Sabbath and focuses on the issue of meeting human need rather than the issue of healing. Jesus focuses on releasing someone from bondage and suggests that in doing so, he honors the Sabbath and keeps the fourth commandment.

This woman (1) “stood up straight” and (2) “began praising God.” The expression “stood up straight” symbolizes restoration, and the response “began praising God” represents celebration and worship. Jesus called her first “Woman” (Luke 13:12) and second “a daughter of Abraham” (Luke 13:16). This name calling from a woman to a daughter of Abraham signifies transformation. So transformation is another meaning of keeping the sabbath.

For Jesus, Sabbath is a special day of restoration and celebration instead of the day of rest. Let’s look at the case of Zacchaeus (Luke 19). Even though this story has nothing to do with the sabbath, it is a story of transformation from a sinner to “a son of Abraham.” Zacchaeus celebrates his transformation/restoration by sharing his possession with the poor. Like Jesus, there are some people who tried to recover the meaning of law and tradition. It has been called “civil disobedience” (non-violent resistance): Martin Luther King Jr., “One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” Gandhi: “An unjust law is itself a species of violence.”

The good news is that we are invited to keep the sabbath so that we may celebrate the restoration and transformation. This is how we keep the sabbath holy. Amen.

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