Unbound: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Eleventh Week after Pentecost
Eleventh Week after Pentecost (Year C): Luke 13:10-17
1) This week we’re almost midway through “Ordinary Time,” a sixth-month season of growth and study, this year chronologically walking through the Gospel of Luke.
2) One of Luke’s key themes is that the Gospel is open to everyone, including Gentiles (i.e., non-Jews). But at the same time, another of Luke’s key themes is that Jesus is and remains very much a Jew throughout his ministry, and that the Gospel, so far from superseding Judaism, is fully consistent with it. For example, in Luke, Jesus is presented at the Temple as a newborn; the opening sermon of his public ministry is in a synagogue; and here again, in this week’s story, he’s teaching in a synagogue, arguing with other Jewish leaders about the essence of sabbath keeping (Luke 2:22-24; 4:16-21; 13:10).
3) And not for the first time. According to Luke, the true meaning of the sabbath is a running theme in Jesus’ ministry. In Luke 6, Jesus is criticized for healing on the sabbath, traditionally a day of rest, and responds by asking sarcastically, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” (Luke 6:9). And in Luke 14, Jesus will heal again on the sabbath, this time countering criticism by asking whether it’s lawful to help a child who’s fallen into a well on the sabbath day (Luke 14:1-6). This week’s story isn’t a one-off; it’s part of this larger pattern.
4) And what point does this pattern make? As a rabbi and reformer, Jesus is especially concerned with protecting religious life from abuse and distortion. Religious practices are not ends in themselves, or standards people must meet in order to be righteous. Rather, Jesus contends, the purpose of practices like sabbath keeping is to help foster healthy, vibrant forms of life. Any religious act that diminishes or inhibits such life isn’t just a missed opportunity; it’s a profound contradiction, a disastrous step backwards. It's sin masked as religious virtue, toxin masked as medicine, desecration masked as consecration. Accordingly, Jesus’ repeated acts of healing on the sabbath are meant to provoke clarifying confrontations over what sabbath keeping is really all about. He does so as a Jew protective of key Jewish practices; and from the vantage point of those who seek to follow him today, his critique should be received as directed toward Christian distortions of Christian practices. In effect, Jesus is saying, Hey - enough with your self-serving, doctrinaire religion - remember what the sabbath is for!
1) On first glance, the leader of the synagogue’s argument seems reasonable: Keeping the sabbath is a commandment, and the sabbath is a day of rest, not work; on the seventh day “you shall not do any work” (Deut 5:14). If you’re going to heal this woman, Jesus, you have six other days of the week to do it. After all, she’s been in this condition for eighteen years - what’s one more day?
2) But Jesus will have none of it: You hypocrites - you miss the whole point! Don’t you untie your ox or donkey on the sabbath day, to give it water? How much more so should you unbind this longsuffering daughter of Abraham and Sarah, so she might be set free of her ailment. For the love of God, it’s been eighteen years - not one more day should pass! And indeed, what better day to do this than the sabbath day, the day of liberation, the day we remember that we, too, were once in bondage, and that God has set us free… (Deut 5:12-15).
3) Jesus' argument here rests on ancient foundations. There are two primary accounts in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament of the commandment to observe the sabbath day. One is in Exodus, framing the practice as an imitation of God, who rests on the seventh day of creation as if to delight in the sheer goodness of all that God has made (Exodus 20:8-11). And the other is in Deuteronomy, framing the practice as a form of remembering the exodus from slavery in Egypt (Deut 5:12-15). Like a “little exodus” each week, keeping the sabbath day releases us from toil, simultaneously a) reminding us of the divine deliverance at the heart of our lives ("you were enslaved in the land of Egypt"); and b) providing us with a foretaste of the Promised Land, the “milk and honey” toward which all salvation history is moving (and not just for supposed insiders - note how the sabbath’s refreshment was for everyone in Israelite society, including both “resident aliens” and “enslaved people”). The sabbath is for everyone! It's meant to help us thrive, personally and communally, and its spirit embraces the whole neighborhood, including other species (“ox, donkey, livestock,” and so on). In short, sabbath keeping is for restoration, for experiencing and cultivating the deep, abiding goodness of God and the world God has made.
4) And not just one day a week! To keep the sabbath is to enter into a pervasive, ongoing “every seventh” rhythm of liberation, delight, inclusion, and anticipation - a rhythm replicated at wider calendrical levels in both Exodus and Leviticus. Every seventh day is a sabbath day; every seventh year is a sabbath year; and every seventh sabbath year (plus one) is a Jubilee year of restoration, a kind of sabbath writ large: the land rests, enslaved people are freed, and debts are cancelled (Leviticus 25:8-12; Exodus 21:2; Exodus 23:10-11; Deut 15). And finally, when Jesus proclaims “the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:19), he evokes this Jubilee tradition, casting the Kingdom of God’s arrival as a Jubilee writ large, a Jubilee of Jubilees, creation unbound! Weekly sabbath keeping participates in this symphony of liberation with its tempo of nested sevens, all for the sake of health: personal health, familial health, societal health, and the health of the world. Recalling that the root of the word "salvation" is the Latin salvus ("health"), we can put it this way: the rhythm of the sabbath is the rhythm of salvation.
5) Once this spirit is understood, it comes clear that observing the sabbath in any way that diminishes or postpones healthy life is a perverse parody of sabbath keeping. In fact, it’s a form of desecration, an attempt to use a divine gift in order to hinder divine purposes. It’s withholding food from the hungry - in the name of righteousness. It’s withholding healing from the sick - in the name of holiness.
6) Finally, the story doesn’t end here. The woman is healed, the argument is won, the crowd rejoices - and Jesus, Luke says, “therefore” offers two parables comparing the kingdom of God to a mustard seed and yeast, respectively (Luke 13:18). It’s as if he says, Though this woman may seem to you to be small and unimportant, in fact she is a daughter of Abraham and Sarah, and her restoration and praise will spread like wildfire, beyond all expectations, like the astonishing growth of a tiny seed, or the rising of a loaf from a little leaven. God’s reign is like that. It’s like a seed, or a bit of yeast - or an ailing woman restored to health, whose praise soon spreads to all in the congregation, and beyond!
1) Here in the midst of Ordinary Time, this season of growth and study, Jesus reminds us of the promise and peril of religious practices. At its heart, Luke’s story is about how the most “holy” of duties can be carried out in ways that distort and even subvert what God intends. Not only sabbath keeping but every religious practice is permanently vulnerable to this kind of distortion, and Christians commit it at least as often as anyone else. Accordingly, we are wise to understand Jesus as preaching not to some audience long ago and far away, but rather directly to us today. Every disciple, every church seeking to follow Jesus, must continually ask, “Are we practicing our faith in the proper spirit? Are we oriented in all we do - our worship and our service, our prayers and our proclamations - toward the vibrant health of the beloved community?”
2) Sabbath keeping is an emblematic case in point. And so this is a perfect week to renew our understanding of the sabbath, including its participation in God’s “seven times seven” calendrical rhythm of love and restoration. Are we keeping sabbath in ways that are consistent with this sabbath spirit? Is it for us a weekly (and septennial!) occasion for reveling in the goodness of creation and God’s liberating grace, reviving the gratitude in our lives, remembering “the least of these” in our communities, forgiving debts and restoring opportunities in our neighborhoods, and foretasting the “milk and honey” toward which God calls us every day? Is each sabbath a “little exodus” - and also a “little jubilee”?
3) The good news this week is that Jesus stands against religion’s (especially Christianity’s!) self-righteous distortions, calling us to recover the beauty and promise of sabbath keeping, and of religious practices more generally. Jesus is all for such practices - he is no critic of the sabbath! On the contrary, as a passionate advocate and reformer, he seeks to clarify the discipline’s proper purpose, character, and life-giving spirit, precisely so we might discover it afresh today. For the sabbath was made to help unbind us, and let us go!