Within the Judaism of Jesus’ day many debates raged around the correct interpretation and application of the law of Moses. I think it’s important to start with that truth, because there is a common human tendency to view those who are different from us as if they were undifferentiated, while seeing our own culture or subculture as containing shades and nuances. This came up recently, of course, in the furore around the Manly Pride Jersey – a lot of commentary spoke about the conservatism of ‘Pacific Islander Christianity’ – as if a couple of million believers could be lumped together as a homogenerous block of belief.
The Jews of Jesus’ day had as many arguments within the faith as we do. Probably more. They were famous for it.
So for Jesus and the leader of the synagogue to be arguing like this was not at all unusual – even when Jesus had been the guest speaker in the synagogue that day – invited, one has to assume, by the leader he then argued with.
Jesus was teaching in the synagogue, on the sabbath. And let’s just note in passing, since the argument that would follow was about working on the Sabbath, that no one seems to have any problem with the idea that a Rabbi, a teacher, would be teaching on that day. Since many people think that Sunday is the only day ministers work, it feels a bit ironic that teaching on the Sabbath wasn’t controversial. But I digress.
A women comes in who has been crippled for eighteen years. And he heals her.
And the leader of the synagogue isn’t happy about it. This – healing – in his book, counts as work. This is a violation of the sabbath rules.
But is it? The Old Testament law just says “don’t work” – leaving the word “work” undefined. The Mishnah – the primary Jewish commentary and interpretation of the Hebrew scriptures expanded the word to list 39 kinds of labour that were forbidden. But healing wasn’t one of them.
So we’re already in a gray area around the edge of the law.
Now if Jesus was – as we sometimes portray him – this mild and innofensive guy who was just nice to everyone, then, he could have waited and healed her the next day. She’d been crippled for 18 years. Would one more day have mattered?
So the fact that Jesus didn’t wait, that he chose that day to act – that matters. That tells us something about the way Jesus viewed the Sabbath. And about the way Jesus read and understood the rules of God.
So I want to take us back to the Sabbath law itself – to an observation I made a couple of weeks ago.
Reading from Deuteronmy chapter 5:
Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work
That’s about as far as we normally go. Six days to work, one to rest, keep the sabbath holy. But that isn’t where the passage ends. It goes on…
But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work —you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you.
The bulk of the commandment to keep the sabbath holy isn’t about what you do – it’s about what you make others do. The command is not so much “on the seventh day, have a rest” as “on the seventh day, give a rest”. It isn’t about a holy day, in the puritan restrictive sense – its a holiday (and the word play is no coincidence). The sabbath law is about economic justice. About giving some freedom to the least powerful.
The law does not exist to constrain people, but to set people free. This is the logic behind Jesus’ reply: And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day? Properly understood, Jesus implies, the Sabbath is the perfect time for healing.
In a similar argument, in Mark 2, Jesus famously put the same idea another way: “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath”.
When we come to weigh a religious or ethical standard, a law that we might apply to ourselves – or evenmore so, a law that we might seek to apply to others, this is the first test that the commandment would have us apply: does this law, this rule, this way of understanding the call of God, harm or heal? Does it set free, or does it enslave?
The sabbath law says that you will not work, in order that others can be free to rest. And why? The commandment continues:
Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.
It seems a non-sequiter: I set you free, so one day in every seven you shouldn’t work. No logical link. But instead, think: I set you free, so make sure those you have power over also enjoy some freedom.
And as I wrote those words, I realised how common an idea this is in the scripture.
Abraham was told that he was blessed in order that he might be a blessing.
To those to whom much is given, much is expected.
With great power comes great responsibility (ok – that one’s Spiderman)
God reconciled us to Godself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.
And even “we love, because God first loved us”.
It’s like a past-tense version of the golden rule: “treat others as you want to be treated”.
I think this is what lies behind Jesus’ response. He doesn’t accuse the leader of the synagogue of being too strict in his interpretation of the law; his accusation is hypocrisy: that he is selectively, conveniently, strict. He insists on an adherence (by others) to a law that costs him nothing to keep (he doesn’t need healing), but is much more flexible when it comes to a law that woiuld be a problem for him – “you feed and water your animals on the Sabbath, don’t you?”.
When all male leadership groups vote on whether or not women should be allowed leadership roles in a Church, that’s what we see happening. When straight, cisgendered Christian leaders speak against same sex relationships, or recognition of gender transition, that’s what’s happening: the imposition of rule which costs them nothing, but causes clear harm (the rates of self harm amongst rainbow youth are clearly and strongly correlated with the messages they hear from those around them – especially those with authority in their faith). When all western groups of government leaders make decisions about how to deal with social trauma in indigenous communities, it’s the same dynamic.
So perhaps the title of this week’s talk is slightly wrong. Yes, the call to sharing life in God’s Kingdom places on us the call to prioritise people. But the call here is deeper, and harder than that.
To prioritise those who are different, whose needs are different, to ours. To seek to offer the grace of God as freely to others as we enjoy it ourselves. To seek to break ourselves away from the instinct that remakes God in our image, remakes God’s will in the image of our subcultural norms.
Which, I suspect, we can only do if we can see the world from another’s perspective. Or, given that we can’t generally do that, if we have allowed them to speak.
I wonder how the rules of the synagogue would have been different if this woman had been involved in making them. How the history of Australia might have been different if indigenous voices were heard with every decision made. An educator I know is very fond of the quote (popularised in English by disability activists) “nothing about us without us” – take no decision without hearing those it will effect. It’s why I’ll personally be voting in favour of an indigenous voice to parliament.
But I wonder, here at Roseville, what voices we don’t hear when we seek to discern the will of God in our community. Who isn’t in the room where it happens.
And how we might change that.
So we might priorise even people who aren’t like us.