Sunday, September 08, 2013

Free Sunday

Free Sunday
Lk. 13:10-17[1]
  The words “free” and “Sunday” haven’t typically been associated with one another.  Except maybe in some commercial on TV trying to lure crowds into a “really big sale.”  But for those of us who have lived in and around the church, we don’t tend to think of Sunday as “free.”  We tend to think of it as a day when we “have” to go to church.  Maybe even Sunday School and church.  In rare cases these days, maybe we “have” to go to church in the evening as well.  We talk about worship as an obligation, as a burden, as something we “have” to do.  But if we were really “free,” there are other things we’d much rather do on Sunday than go to church.
  Of course, you and I both know that lots of people these days view Sunday as a “free” day.  But it hasn’t always been that way.  From long before the days of Jesus, the command to “honor the Sabbath” was essential to Jewish faith and life.[2]  And one of the ways they believed they honored the Sabbath was by not doing any work.  And so the Jewish leaders developed a wide variety of restrictions about what you could and could not do on the Sabbath as a practical way of obeying the command.  The Sabbath was a day that was anything but “free.”  Unfortunately, the  Christian observance of a “Sabbath” on Sunday has been just as restrictive.
  As it was with many things, Jesus shook things up quite a bit regarding honoring the Sabbath.  Think about it: it would seem that honoring the Sabbath is supposed to be about honoring God.  But as many prophets have attested throughout the ages, you can’t honor God from some sense of obligation.  It has to come from the heart.  Beyond that, it would seem that all the restrictions on what you can and can’t do on this day takes the focus off from God and places it on keeping the rules.  And it’s not that we’re “keeping” the commands to honor God.  We’re just keeping the rules for the sake of being able to say we kept the rules.
  In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus breaks a major rule for keeping the Sabbath: he healed someone who was not in any imminent danger.  And as you can tell from the Synagogue leader’s response, this was something one just didn’t do.  But notice that when the leader objects, he doesn’t say anything directly to or about Jesus.  Rather he rebukes the woman: “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day” (Lk. 13:14).  And yet the story doesn’t indicate that she came to the synagogue on that day to be cured.  She came for the same reason she always came: to worship God.[3]   
  I think it’s important to notice the difference between this unnamed woman and the Synagogue leader who was an important man in the community.  When Jesus set her free from her ailment,[4] she immediately began praising God.  It seems to me that there’s no better way to honor God on the Sabbath than by engaging in some heart-felt praise to God! By contrast, the Synagogue leader with his obsessive rule-keeping thought that his stingy complaining was somehow a more fitting way to honor the Sabbath.  He may have been keeping the rules, but his resentful behavior doesn’t strike me as something that brought honor to God.[5]
  This episode isn’t the only time the Gospels report Jesus clashing with the Jewish authorities over the Sabbath.  Time after time, rather than following their restrictions, he honored God on the Sabbath by putting into practice God’s mercy and compassion in the lives of people who were suffering and in need.[6]  And they always accused him of dishonoring God by violating the Sabbath.  In response, he tried to point out the hypocrisy of their obsession with rules.  In this case he reminded them that they would free their livestock for feeding and watering on the Sabbath, but they refused human beings the chance to be free from their suffering.  He insisted that practicing mercy and compassion were not only permitted on the day set aside to honor God, in fact they were positively required.[7]  In contrast to the Synagogue leader’s complaint, he insists that this daughter of Abraham “ought” to be set free on the Sabbath day (Lk. 13:16).[8]
  There’s no better way to honor God on the day we set aside for worship than to follow Jesus in practicing God’s mercy and compassion--especially toward those who are suffering and in need.  There’s no better way to honor God on the day of worship than by setting people free from all that binds them--including setting them free from the stingy rules that we have used to reinforce the notion that they “have” to come to church.  I don’t believe God wants anyone to come to church because they think they “have” to.  I think God is honored when people are set free like this woman--when that happens they not only want to praise God, it may be hard to keep them from it!  I believe when you set people free, they will honor God on the Sabbath because they want to--because they cannot help but celebrate God’s kindness and mercy and love.

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/25/2013 at First Presbyterian Church of  Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf. Joel B. Green, “Jesus and a Daughter of Abraham (Luke 13:10-17): Test Case for a Lucan Perspective on Jesus' Miracles” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 51 (Oct, 1989): 649.
[3] Cf. Fred Craddock, Luke, 170.
[4] Cf. Green, “Jesus and a Daughter of Abraham,” 653-54, where he points out that the language associating her ailment with being “bound” by Satan is common in Luke’s Gospel, and contributes to the them that Jesus’ healing miracles are important demonstrations of the victory of God’s Kingdom over the powers of evil that oppress people.  Cf. similarly, John Nolland, Luke 9:21–18:34, 725; Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:224-225.
[5] Cf. Green, “Jesus and a Daughter of Abraham,” 649:  “What is central is that these loci of the sacred, Sabbath and synagogue, actually segregate this needy woman from divine help.”
[6] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.2:232.
[7] Cf. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Luke X-XXIV, 1011: “The episode is but another one in the Lucan Gospel in which Jesus is portrayed as stressing that the welfare of a human being takes precedence over even such religious obligations as the observance of the Sabbath.”  Cf. also Green, “Jesus and a Daughter of Abraham,” 651; Craddock, Luke, 170; R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” New Interpreters Bible IX:274; Barth, Dogmatics 4.2:226.
[8] Cf. Green, “Jesus and a Daughter of Abraham,” 651, where he points out that “daughter of Abraham” is one of the ways in Luke’s Gospel that Jesus refers to those who are “people in need of God's mercy, persons defined by others as existing outside the boundaries of God's chosen, yet the very people to whom God shows his fidelity and brings salvation.”

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