1. The Problem of the Sabbath
One of the features of today’s world is that it doesn’t take seriously the need to have time out from the routine of normal living, or the need to spend quality time with the creator. As a consequence we live in a society that expects everything to be available at all times, at any time of day and night, and at a touch of a button. It expects shops to be open seven days a week, and somehow has learnt that it’s not possible to cope unless they are. And it has learnt that sport, family commitments, and other activities are just as important—perhaps more important—than the idea of gathering together for worship.
2. The Purpose of the Sabbath
Now, I know that the very early on in the Church’s life the day of rest was changed from a Saturday to a Sunday. And that was so that there could be a weekly remembrance of the resurrection. And, I know that as Christians we live under grace and not the law, so there is an emphasis on what Christ has done, rather then what we can do for ourselves. But regardless of that, there was a reason why God told his people to keep the Sabbath. And that was in order to have some time out each week from the daily routine as day of rest, and for the community to set aside some time each week to spend time with God. And, God did that, because he was concerned not just about our physical and mental welfare, but he was concerned about our spiritual welfare too.
That’s why the fourth commandment, that he gave his people, quite clearly states: Remember to keep the Sabbath day holy, as YHWH your God has commanded you. For six days you are to labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is to be set apart as a Sabbath to YHWH your God. So neither you, your son or daughter, your manservant or maidservant, your animals (ox, donkey or any other animal), nor any alien living with you, are to work on the Sabbath. That way your manservant and maidservant may rest like you should.
YHWH created the heavens, the earth, the sea and every living being in six days, and on the seventh day he rested. For this reason YHWH has blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
In addition, remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and YHWH your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. For this reason too YHWH your God has charged you to observe the Sabbath day.” (Exodus 20:8-11; Deuteronomy 5:12-15)
3. The Result of Modern Attitudes to the Sabbath
Now, of course, these days the fourth, and all the other commandments, are generally not considered relevant in our society. They’re usually explained away, taken so literally that they become meaningless, or when found to be inconvenient, are generally ignored. And we can see that reflected in the history of our own church. After all, after the flurry of activity in the 1800’s to establish churches around the state, the 1900s witnessed a period of slow decline, eventuating in the closure of numerous churches, and the amalgamation of many parishes.
As a consequence we can easily conclude: if we ignore God’s laws, we do so at our peril. We may be people of faith, not law; nevertheless God’s principles for living were designed to show us how to live healthy lives—in terms of our faith and our community. And as soon as we tamper with those rules, adjust them here and there—that is a recipe for deep trouble.
And we have an example from the Bible of what happens when people tweak God’s rules in the passage from Luke’s Gospel.
B. THE HEALING OF A CRIPPLED WOMAN
1. The Situation (10-11)
Now the situation was that it was a Sabbath, and Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues. (In fact, it is the last time Luke records Jesus teaching in a synagogue). However, whilst Jesus was teaching he noticed a woman—probably suffering from a fusion of the spinal bones—who was so bent over she couldn’t straighten herself at all. This woman’s complaint was serious. She‘d suffered it for eighteen years, and it was the result of some kind of possession or evil influence.
2. The Healing (12-13)
Now, Jesus would have been well aware of the attitude of the synagogue leaders to the Sabbath. He would have known that outwardly, at least, they professed the need to keep God’s commandment regarding the Sabbath. And yet lived by their own book of rules, telling people what they could and couldn’t do on the Sabbath. Yet, despite that, Jesus spontaneously responded to the woman with compassion. He summoned her from the congregation, pronounced her “cured”, and laid his hands on her.
The woman’s healing was immediate. This wasn’t just some temporary easing of her ailment. The woman responded to Jesus by immediately straightening herself, recovering to a normal upright posture—a posture that she had been unable to achieve for 18 years. Then recognising God’s hand in her cure, she began to praise God thankful for her healing. Which, if you think about it, was very appropriate, particularly being in a synagogue.
Now if the synagogue leaders had been genuine in their need to keep the Sabbath, they would have rejoiced at the woman’s healing and they would have joined in the praises of God. But that’s not what happened. Instead they took offence at Jesus for healing the woman on the Sabbath. And why? Because he had broken the set of rules that they lived by. Yes they may have been created as a means to interpret the fourth commandment, but in their use had left the fourth commandment well and truly behind.
You see, there’s a connection between the world we live in, and the world of Jesus’s time. In our society many may say that they believe in God, and many may profess to live by God’s commandments. Yet how often do we see God’s commandments, trivialised, explained away, or ignored if they are inconvenient? It’s the same problem that Jesus faced. Only in Jesus’s day, there was a whole new book of rules which had replaced God’s own.
As a consequence what happened next was far too predictable.
4. The Arguments (14-16)
a). The Need for Compassion
Because, firstly, once the woman was healed, the ruler of the synagogue went on the attack. He was indignant at Jesus for breaking their man-made rules. However, perhaps a little afraid to attack Jesus directly, he directed his comments to the crowd. He told them that there were six other days in the week in which the woman could have been healed; indeed, it wasn’t necessary for her to be healed on the Sabbath. As far as the ruler was concerned Jesus should have waited for the following day. And, he may well have added something like “She’d already suffered for 18 years, so what difference would another day make”.
To which Jesus responded, by pointing out, firstly, how ignorant he was of God and his commandments. God was a compassionate God. And yet he had demonstrated no understanding of that; indeed he had failed to be compassionate to the woman too. Secondly, he had failed to recognise that it was God who had healed her. Indeed, the same God, who had given them the commandments in the first place. And thirdly, he pointed out how hypocritical that he, and others like him, were. After all they would think nothing of watering their animals on the Sabbath—something that was necessary for the welfare of their flock. So why, then, couldn’t they care for someone in their human flock too?
At the heart of Jesus’ words were a pointed comment on the rules that they had made up, rules that had replaced God’s commandments in their thinking. Rules that they rigorously enforced, to the point where God’s principles for healthy living, and compassion and care had been thrown out of the window.
Under God’s commandment, and under their own set of rules, it was permissible to water one’s animals on a Sabbath, provided they didn’t do any work. But under God’s rules that’s where it ended. However under their rules, for the Sabbath, there were restrictions on how the animals could be tied up, what sort of knots could be tied, how far one could take one’s cattle for water, etc. etc. So in raising the issue of the hypocrisy of applying man’s rules, Jesus was not only pointing out that there were differences between God’s rules and man’s rules—and God’s rules were far more compassionate—but he was demonstrating that man’s rules had become so complicated that they couldn’t possibly be kept. All they did was to impose an intolerable burden on those who were required to keep them.
b). The Need to Restore the Sabbath
And, following that line of argument, Jesus made the additional point that because they had replaced God’s laws with their own, they had forgotten what the Sabbath was all about.
Indeed, if the whole point of the Sabbath was that it should be holy, that it should represent a time away from the normal duties of life, and a time when the community could spend time with God, then it was actually fitting that the woman be cured by God, on the Sabbath, and in a synagogue, because in that way the Sabbath was positively hallowed.
5. The Reactions (17)
Now the arguments of Jesus, to the leaders’ responses, received two reactions. Firstly, Jesus’s opponents were humiliated. They’d been put to shame by his understanding of God; they’d been put to shame by his understanding of the commandments, particularly the fourth; and they’d been put to shame by his compassion for the woman who had been crippled for eighteen years. And secondly, the congregation were delighted; they were delighted with everything about Jesus, with all the wonderful things that he had done, and was doing. They were delighted that people were receiving healing; and they were delighted that Jesus was intent on stripping away all the man-made rules—all the things that tied people up in knots. And in doing so, Jesus was restoring God’s rules, and making God, and the Sabbath, more accessible to the common people.
So what difference is there, then, between the world of Jesus’s day, and the world of today? Very little. In Jesus’ day, they had taken God’s rules, and made up a whole new set of their own. And people were actively encouraged to ignore God’s rules (on which they were supposed to be based). Similarly today, for the most part, God’s laws have been set aside, people pay only lip service to them, they’re explained away; they’re taken so literally that they have become meaningless; or when found to be inconvenient, they are generally ignored.
The common factor to both biblical times and today is that neither then nor now did or do people generally take God’s principles for healthy living, very seriously at all.
And that’s a problem, because whilst we are supposed to be a people of faith, and not dependent upon works, and whilst we may celebrate the Sabbath on a Sunday, we still need to take seriously the concept of the Sabbath, as it was originally intended. And just as in our story Jesus was successful in restoring its meaning to the common people—to give back the Sabbath to the people in that synagogue—so part of our role today is that we need (with God’s help) to try to restore the idea of the Sabbath. To give the Sabbath back to the people today too.
And that means that we need to take seriously, and we need to show by example, the principles behind God’s Sabbath rule.
So using Jesus as our example, his daily routine was that he wandered backwards and forwards across Palestine, and occasionally went into nearby territories. He spent time healing the sick; he performed miracles; he raised the dead; he taught people about God; and he spent time alone with his disciples.
1. The Need for Rest
But despite his normal routine, there were also times when he got away from it all. There were times when he went off on his own, to rest and recover from the routine of everyday life. Now he wasn’t always successful, because people followed him everywhere. But he tried, and tried, and tried—he was persistent. And he tried to make sure that the disciples got away from it too.
Now, the principle is quite sound. As human beings we were never designed to be going seven days a week. And consequently working flat out, without regular breaks, means that our health (and our work) will tend to suffer. In addition we were designed to communicate and have an intimate relationship with God, and with each other. And that requires a commitment of time and effort outside of our normal routine.
2. The Need for God
The second thing that Jesus did was to spent time on the Sabbath in either the Temple or in one of the many Synagogues that were scattered around the country.
For sure, Jesus didn’t just talk to, and worship, his Father only on the Sabbath. He talked to him at other times too. But come the Sabbath Jesus was there in the synagogue, to worship God, to pray to him and, importantly, to meet with the people. There he also taught, corrected, encouraged and shared the message of the Kingdom of God with those who had gathered to meet.
And the principle behind that is quite simple too. When God created mankind, he created us as communal beings. Now with today’s emphasise on the individual, our society may have lost that sense of community. Nevertheless meeting together to encourage one another, build each other up, and worship as a community is a very important part of who we are, and what we were created to be.
Of course, we all need to set aside time for God, daily. But one day a week, we should come together as a community, for that special community focus on worshipping God.
3. The Need to Care
And the third point about Jesus is that even on the Sabbath he continued to care. Indeed, he particularly made a point of caring for others on that day.
Indeed, immediately he encountered the crippled woman he responded. She may have suffered for eighteen years, but Jesus could not countenance her suffering even another day. And to me that raises the question about what the leaders of the synagogue had done in the preceding eighteen years. Had they prayed for her? Had they tried to help? Or had they given up long ago? Because what they should have done is that immediately Jesus presented himself in the synagogue, they should have brought her to him for healing.
One of the major aspects of the Sabbath, then, is the need to meet together. We shouldn’t come as individuals for whatever we can get out of it ourselves—and if we don’t get something then we just stop coming. Rather the point of coming together is for what we can put in, what we can give, and what we can contribute to the welfare—physical, mental or spiritual—of everyone else. Now that is what the synagogue leaders, tied up in their traditions and their rules, had failed to see. It is also something of which we need to be acutely aware.
Caring for one another is a vital factor in God’s purpose of giving us the Sabbath. Because if caring is not part of our Sabbath experience, then we really aren’t the compassionate caring people that God wants us to be.
Now history can teach us much. And our own history can be very revealing. But the decline in the church, the closure of buildings, and the amalgamation of our parishes all point to the same cause: people do not take God, his commandments, and the idea of the Sabbath very seriously at all.
Indeed in many ways our society has changed, adapted and corrupted God’s laws so they are virtually unrecognisable, just like they did in Jesus’s time. And we’ve seen an example from Jesus’s time on where that leads. Christians are saved by grace, not works, but the concept of the Sabbath—a principle of God for living—surely should have a place in our lives.
Jesus restored God’s laws in an age where they had been replaced by some very complex man-made rules. And in an age where God’s rules are often ignored or explained away, we should do our part in restoring God’s laws too.
We need to take time out each week from the routine of everyday life. We need to take the opportunity for regular worship. And we need to meet together, not for what we can get out of it, but for what we can put in—to care for others, and to keep in touch with our fellow believers.
That is the purpose of the Sabbath. And whether the Sabbath is celebrated on a Saturday, Sunday or even a Wednesday, it doesn’t matter. The important thing is that the importance of the Sabbath is upheld and honoured as was originally intended.
Posted: 20th August 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis