Disrupting Church or Sabbath?

Gospel: Luke 13:10-17

10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’ 13When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.’ 15But the Lord answered him and said, ‘You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16And 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?’ 17When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

Jesus the Disruptor

We hear about disruptors in business; Google, Facebook, Uber... the list goes on. But, in reality, nothing has changed, business goes on. Talk to a motel owner, or a restaurateur, or taxi driver, and we will find that the likes of Trivago and Menulog and Uber are often felt as a kind of predation, rather than a service. My understanding is that much of this so called disruption often creates nothing really new; instead, it is a battle between old and new money. Old money (and its techniques and investments) finds itself outflanked by new competitors, rather than by anything which is a real innovation. In other words, the key issue in disruption is the holding of power, and who holds the power, rather than the technology or new ideas. In this sense, solar and wind power are not 'new' or innovative— how long have we had windmills; those embracing wind and solar power have outflanked the coal companies due to circumstance and luck. Business as usual, in other words.

To see that nothing fundamental has changed, observe how the new businesses can't seem to help themselves as they become like the old ones: Google began with the motto "Do no evil," but its Chrome browser is often referred to as "Google's Surveillance Software." It seems that the new companies continue the worst of the old companies' exploitation of workers and consumers. Facebook and Twitter and other "social media" have empowered propaganda (aka fake news, doxing, election meddling, etc) to a level which Joseph Goebbels, who headed Hitler's Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, would have envied.

In my denomination, newer congregations, and new expressions of faith, sometimes champ at the bit over regulations and structures, and feel held back by other parts of the church. There are deep differences in theological opinion. A colleague wondered recently if "we are preaching different gospels." Yet other groups feel that hard won lessons of the gospel are being ignored, or even rolled back. We often express these discontents through lenses which talk about being faithful to the gospel, or being faithful to the Basis of Union, but I find it hard not to see much of the discontent being, at base,  a series of arguments over power— a battle between oligarchies which wish to define the constitution of the church. I can't help but observe that, on all sides, we speak of 'freedom' and 'faithfulness to the gospel,' but nonetheless impose our own set of shibboleths along with our 'free and faithful' structures. New expressions of faith can be as exclusive and condemning as old curmudgeons like me, and people who extol inclusion often find it hard to include those who don't meet their standards for being inclusive.

In this week's text, Jesus specifically says the woman was "bound for eighteen long years" by Satan. However we imagine the being of Satan, (eg, see here and here) the power of the accuser  is channelled through us humans who accuse others to exclude them; who condemn those who are different in the way they live the faith, or who are different because of race  or gender, or some other marker; who set up boundaries as a way of creating for themselves a false sense of security and safety.  In the church, the accuser/satan thrives, and cripples and binds us, as we reject the testimony of others about the freedom they have received from Christ; the accuser cripples us when we make rules to disempower others, and to shut them out, and beat them down so badly that they are "quite unable to stand up straight." We all do it. And any congregation, and any expression of faith, which claims not to do this, simply does not understand the universality of our sinfulness.

Last night, I sat among lifelong, faithful Christians, who give faithful service (aka ministry) to their church and to the community around them; ministry which is an outpouring of God's love, and which is a powerful evangelism. The meeting also looked to the future, expressing frustration with too many reports, constant talking, and not being able to find a way forward. How many of us wondered, like me (adapting the words of my colleague,) if our "model of church is [approaching] its use-by date?" Is the problem that I don't know how to change; I don't know how to die and risk resurrection; I don't know how to let go of what we have, and to grasp onto a new freedom that will energise us for another lifetime and a new generation?

I need—and I think we need— a disruptor, someone who will single us out in the crowd and release us, even though we have become so used to being bent-over that, much of the time, we fail to notice it.  Someone who will set us free of the same old questions we have asked again and again, and who will lay hands on our endless reports and toss them out.  As frail and frightened people how are we to be set free? How can we be enabled to stand up straight, and be released from bondage? Will we allow Jesus to be the disruptor of the church? Or will we continue in a discontent where what appears to be new is, fundamentally, just business as usual, but in a new set of clothes?

Jesus made it his habit to be in the synagogue on the Sabbath. (Luke 4:16) Fred Craddock says this "was to be at the heart of Judaism in its most prevalent and in many ways in its strongest form.
(Luke pp170) I think the longevity of Judaism comes from its hallowing of sabbath. The Sabbath is meant to be a time and place— an opportunity— for freedom. It is a day of rest—  in Hebrew, shabbath  means he rested; this is the word used in Genesis 2:3

 3So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.

I want to begin by saying Jesus does not come, and did not come, to break the Sabbath. That may have been the interpretation of the leader of the synagogue, but as Rob Myalis says, "if Jesus were around today, he would seek to free us from the chains that our lack of Sabbath structure imposes on us."

Deuteronomy 5 acts as a kind of commentary on Genesis.

12 Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. 13For six days you shall labour and do all your work. 14But 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. 15Remember 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. (Deuteronomy 5)

Sabbath reminds us that it is God who brings us out of oppression and into freedom. Observance of sabbath is meant to be the freeing disciplining of ourselves before God— discipling ourselves, really— and to be the time of reflection which opens us to being 'unbent' us and taken— enabled to walk— out of oppression. In the text, eighteen years recalls Judges 3 and 10 where "the Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord" (3:12, 10:6) and were "crushed and oppressed ... for eighteen years..." and "served King Eglon of Moab for eighteen years." (10:8 and 3:14) Luke's mention of eighteen years, then emphasised as eighteen long years, in which she was crippled and bent over, in a bondage from which she was set free on the sabbath, is hardly accidental!

The synagogue leader was not happy with the healing because he was focused on its being done at the wrong time. He sees the healing as a human work. Jesus sees it as an action of God. For Jesus, the law is not more important than human beings. From where Jesus stands, what better way to honor the Sabbath than by setting a captive free? (Alyce McKenzie)

In fact, Jesus does not talk about healing the woman.  He talks about freedom and bondage. It is the leader of the synagogue who uses the word NRSV translates as cure. Luke also uses cure to describe how the leader of the synagogue saw what Jesus had done. (The word is ἐθεράπευσεν; it transliterates to etherapeusen – you can see how we get the word therapeutic out of this, and it means 1) to serve, do service  2) to heal, cure, restore to health )

The leader of the synagogue berates the crowd which has come seeking freedom: "there are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day."  Do you see that he changes the granting of freedom, which itself is a sabbath into a work rather than a gift of God. He interprets one individual person's God-given exodus freedom from bondage, as a contradiction of sabbath rest. Which means that on the sabbath, when the crowds come looking for freedom, the synagogue tries to squeeze them into its own mould, (Romans 12:2 JB Phillips) granting sabbath freedom only on its terms, which is to seek to define and restrict what God chooses to do. The leader of the synagogue seeks to control the disruption that Jesus causes. He does not understand that healing and loosing means disruption. Healing and loosing are not business as usual. They bring us to something which is new, and which will, therefore, always clash with the way we think things should be done!

This is not a criticism of Judaism. Everyone in this story is a Jew, the leader, Jesus, the woman, and the crowd. Any thought that we Christians are do not gather in the same manner, is naïve to the fact that this is a story of thee universal human trait of seeking to control the grace of God. One particular synagogue seeks to control those who come to it seeking God's freedom, by imposing a human piety. And that one particular synagogue shows us ourselves as church when we seek to restrict and control instead of freeing and releasing.

There is a rhetorical marker within the story. It begins with Jesus and he... and then ends with the Lord. In other words, the story becomes an authoritative command.

15But the Lord answered him and said, ‘You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16And 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?’

Joseph Fitzmeyer says,

The argument of the Lord is irresistible; "if it is permitted to care for household animals on the sabbath, it is also permitted to care for human infirmity; if one can loose the tether of animals to lead them to the feeding-trough to water, one can loose the bonds of an afflicted human being and bring her to health." (Fitzmeyer Gospel of Luke Vol 2, p1012)

Let's look at the Greek behind this text to emphasis this.

12When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free (ἀπολέλυσαι, which transliterates into English as apolelusai) from your ailment.’ What Mark D Davis says is that "the root of the verb ἀπολέλυσαι (“loosed”) is ἀπολύω, a form of λύω," or as we would say: luo (as in Bluo.)  The woman is "loosed."

So then the synagogue leader complains (NRSV is correct to say kept complaining) saying, "There are six days on which work ought to be done." The word translated as ought is δεῖ (transliterates as dei) which can means must or ought, but also: to bind tie, or fasten. Davis shows us the word play—or should we say: the inspiration— of the text here: The word dei

is often simply translated as “must.” The root [of the word] suggests a binding, a necessity, similar to the (biblically informed) southern expressions of my youth, “I am bound and determined” or “I am bound for the promised land.

And this, the wordplay and spiritual insight about life and sabbath continues: Verse fifteen says, "But the Lord answered him and said, ‘You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie; that is, loose (λύει; ie, luei) his ox or his donkey from the manger (the same word as in the Christmas story), and lead it away to give it water?

The word flow of NRSV's translation does not help a Greek beginner like me, so I've used Davis' translation of verse sixteen, which keeps the Greek word order:

Yet this being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan bound (bound is: ἔδησεν; to bind tie fasten, and it transliterates to edEsen which has as its root that same word deibehold eighteen years, was she not bound (ἔδει; see the dei in edei? ) to be loosed (λυθῆναι; luthEnai) from this bondage (δεσμοῦ; desmou, that same de root from the verb deo to bind) on the day of the Sabbath? 

So it is not just that if one can look after one's animals then surely one can look after a human being. Jesus the Lord is saying that the sabbath is about the loosing of bondage. The loosing of bondage is the essence of sabbath.

But how do we do this? We are without doubt called to obey, for it is "the Lord" who speaks. But the Lord sets no rules. Perhaps that is the point. If we love the Lord our God with all our mind and soul and strength… if, as Paul says, "the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’" then perhaps Jesus leaves us to discern what is good and lovely for human flourishing in the place where we live. He recognises that the conditions for flourishing cannot be codified into a set of rules. They must be discovered, refined, tested, embraced.

Perhaps when someone is singled out by Jesus and stands up straight and praises God, we could listen to their witness.  We could listen to the women who disrupt our male power structures when God calls them. We could listen to the Sudanese woman whom God has called to disrupt her mostly anglo church here in Adelaide, or we can seek to control and restrict the Spirit; the word Jesus uses is bind. We could trust the LGBTIQ people who witness to the freedom God has granted them in life, and even marriage, even though it disrupts all our tidy theologies of creation and ontology and gender. We could trust those with guitars and bands and fog machines, and those who find freedom in ancient hymns sung to an organ.

We could even rejoice when a new expression of faith finds it has been loosened and given freedom although it sounds strange to us. And be free to pray for a freedom that seems more to suit our being, "for [we] were called to freedom." And both of us could refrain from condemning the other who is different, for as Paul also says, "If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another."  

Sabbath is the place people gather together, and reflect and rejoice, and rest in the freedom God has given us. Sabbath questions us: When people see this gathering, when the crowd comes to our synagogue, will we squeeze them into our mould, or will we be able to show them freedom and rejoice with them? What builds their life up? Will we enable that?  In the end, the way we mark sabbath will be our judgement. It will reveal how free we were or whether we were just business as usual, only with a bigger barn and a better band.

Andrew Prior (2019)

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

Also on One Man's Web
Luke 13:10-17 - Everything flows from this (2010) 
Luke 13:10-17 - How could you do that? (2013) 
Luke 13:10-17 - You don't get it, do you, Teacher! (2013)



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