Today’s Gospel reading tells us a story with familiar themes. These themes occur quite frequently in the Gospels. In just a few verses we have a healing story. We also have a story of Jesus being at odds with the religious leaders of his day. We also have a story where Jesus passionately teaches about the grace of God. To sew it all up we have one of the many glorious reports of the crowd marveling at Jesus’ preaching and actions.
Leaf through any one of the Gospels and you will see many passages with these themes. Leaf through all four of the Gospels and you will find that time and again such dynamic stories are told. By being told so often we are taught some key insights about Jesus:
- Jesus was a powerful man of God’s healing
- Jesus was a religious reformer
- Jesus was a powerful preacher
In short, these stories teach us that Jesus was a powerful force of God. But there is another aspect to these stories with such common themes. In hearing them so often we can miss the key nuances, the subtle statements that can bring deep questions and new insights.
There are any number of such moments in our short reading this morning. One is Jesus’ reaction to the synagogue leader’s protest about Jesus healing on the Sabbath.
Jesus heals a woman. The synagogue leader doesn’t confront Jesus. Instead he turns his ire on the crowd telling them not to seek healing on the Sabbath. Jesus continues this peculiar chain of reactions. We are told that Jesus answered the synagogue leader, but look how he answered him.
He says, “You hypocrites.” Who are the hypocrites? Why would Jesus us a plural word if he were only speaking to one man? It must be that in answering the leader he was also addressing the people. But the people were not at fault here. It is clearly the synagogue leader who was wrong, not the crowd.
Or is it?
I believe Jesus knew that every person in that room had a hypocritical view of the Sabbath. The Sabbath was intended as a day of rest, a way to remind our souls of the deep and abiding care of God, of the grace that we live within the palm of God’s hand. The Jews of Jesus’ day had put in so many safeguards to keep the Sabbath holy that they missed the meaning and impact of the day.
They were too busy making sure they were not working to remember that it was because of God’s grace they were not working not because of God’s command.
The Sabbath was a gift, not a demand. Or, as our Lord states elsewhere in the Gospels, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath….”
It was not just the leader of the synagogue who was guilty of hypocrisy. It was everyone in the room that day. The whole society had fallen into the farce of legalistic Sabbath keeping.
Prominent rabbis argued over whether a chicken egg laid on the Sabbath could be eaten or not. It was understood that only a certain distance could be traveled on the Sabbath because to take one step further would be considered work.
To bring this all into its ridiculous focus: it was not that Jesus said to the poor stooped woman, “You are set free from your ailment.” Had Jesus just spoken those words and stopped, no one would have had a complaint against him.
What was the offense Jesus committed to raise the ire of the leader? He touched the woman. Words were not considered work. But Jesus lifted his hand and put it forth to accomplish a task. Therefore, Jesus worked on the Sabbath. Is it any wonder that Jesus responded so strongly to a society that would allow the beasts of the field to be tended but a poor, broken woman could not receive a healing touch of God.
Is it any wonder Jesus called them all hypocrites?
But we must be careful in casting our disdain upon the people surrounding Jesus in this reading. We must be very careful.
My Old Testament professor taught her students to not only read the text of the Bible but to let the text read them. In other words it just might be us, too, who are the hypocrites.
Perhaps rather than thinking that the people with Jesus that morning had lost sight of God’s true desire and will for them we would be wiser to wonder and consider whether we have as well.
I am a habitual, unrepentant Sabbath breaker. I believe strongly in the wisdom and value of the Sabbath, I just don’t keep it very well. I would venture to say I’m no different than anyone in this room.
Perhaps we should each take Jesus’ words to heart this morning. He called everyone present that morning hypocrites. The word hypocrite is a Greek word and it was the Greek word for actor. A person in a play was a hypocrite, because he was acting like something he wasn’t.
Perhaps Jesus’ choice of words should lead us each to consider not just whether we are Sabbath-breakers or not. In fact, I think that is a bit short-sighted. Instead, I believe we are called to consider if there is any place in our lives where we are just actors in the role of leading a life of faith.
Where do our wills and the will of God depart? Where do we know what to do and yet do what we know is wrong? Where in our lives have we, perhaps unconsciously, placed a wall so as not to allow God’s spirit to influence us? In any and all of those places we are just acting the role of being faithful.
The Sabbath is not the only day God seeks our faithfulness. It is a day when we are given an opportunity to bask in God’s faithfulness. But each day, each hour, each breath is a moment when we are called to be faithful, when we are called not to be simply people who are acting like they are followers of Jesus but ones who are striving to follow Jesus.
The Sabbath is not about keeping the law. None of the commandments are truly about keeping God’s strictures. They are about living as God’s people in God’s world. Or, as the writer Alice Walker said, “Anyone can observe the Sabbath, but making it holy surely takes the rest of the week.”
© 2019, Tom Thoeni