Perhaps it’s useful to remember that this section of the Lukan account focuses on telling time. “You hypocrites!” Jesus scoffs in Luke 12:56 (NRSV), “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” Sabbath is, among other things, a way of marking time. But what kind of time is this Sabbath in our text? That’s an important part of the debate between Jesus and the leader of the synagogue.
We find the commandment on Sabbath keeping in Exodus 20:8-11. There it is rooted in the Creation account. On the seventh day, the Sabbath, all work shall cease. That commandment applies from the king to the cows. In the Creation account, the Lord rested on the seventh day. In that way, the Lord both blessed the day with significance and set it apart with holy purpose. In the Exodus telling, the Sabbath is about holiness – as is the balance of Exodus and Leviticus to follow.
We find the commandment on Sabbath keeping as well in Deuteronomy 5:12-15. On the one hand, the command is that all work shall cease. On the other hand, there is no mention of the Creation calendar in this text. Deuteronomy affirms that the Sabbath is the seventh day of the week. However, the reason for keeping the Sabbath is to remember God’s mighty act of liberation from slavery. “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” (Deut. 5:15, NRSV).
Both Sabbath texts set aside the Sabbath as “holy.” The Exodus text calls Israel to “remember” (Hebrew: zqr) the day by practicing it. The Deuteronomy text calls Israel to “observe” (Hebrew: shmr) the day by practicing it. The two verbs overlap to some degree in meaning but are not synonyms. Is this difference in emphasis part of the Torah debate that is happening in our text? Does the synagogue leader focus in the ritual remembering of the Sabbath while Jesus focuses on the liberating celebration of the Sabbath? I think that is the case.
If we want to point to these differences of emphasis in our preaching, I think it’s important to note that one focus is not “better” than another. That’s not the point I would want to make here. Both themes exist in the Hebrew bible. It’s frequent for us Christian preachers to slide into an easy and unconscious supersessionism that makes a “Jewish” focus on ritual bad and a Christian focus on liberation good.
That’s a simple and self-serving misinterpretation, and we should avoid that trap. More than that, I think that in every controversy story we should be at pains to point out that Jesus is presenting one alternative interpretation in a Torah debate. It’s not necessary, as Amy-Jill Levine often says, to make Jesus look good by making Jews look bad. So, Christian preacher friends, let’s tread carefully and exercise a wise touch in this matter.
I don’t think the issue is “ritual bad/liberation good.” The focus on this section of the Lukan account is on knowing what time it is. Since his inaugural sermon in the Nazareth synagogue in Luke 4, Jesus has proclaimed that his time is liberation time. He has come, he says, “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:19, NRSV). That is the year of Jubilee. That is the age of release from debt and bondage. That is the time for the restoration of all things as God intends. That’s what time it is when Jesus is about.
“There’s plenty of time on the other days of the week for curing illnesses,” the synagogue leader declares. In fact, he says, six days out of seven this activity is permitted. But not today. This is the Sabbath. The Lord labored six days and rested. Let us remember the Sabbath and honor it by doing precisely the same thing. It is time to maintain our holy boundaries and remember who we are as God’s people. It is time to stick to the script and not to experiment on the edges.
Jesus disagrees with this reading of the times. Luke 12 begins with a warning against the “yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy” (Luke 12:1c, NRSV). “Have a care for yourselves,” Jesus urges the disciples, “against the yeast (which is hypocrisy) of the Pharisees” (my translation). It seems throughout this section that the hypocrisy in question is an intentional misreading of the times in order to serve the interests of the status quo of power. Remembering this can help us to read and interpret our text today.
In other words, it’s not that careful attention to Sabbath rest is bad or beside the point. However, when the requirements of the Law are used to keep people in bondage, that’s a bad reading of the time (and of the Sabbath text). When Jesus is about, it’s liberation time. That may be hard to see at first, as in the following parables of the mustard seed and the yeast. But it doesn’t take a graduate degree in theology to see what’s going on – if only we are willing to look beyond our own privilege and position.
Our text is filled with liberation language. “Woman, you are released from your illness,” Jesus says. The ox and the donkey – who are also commanded to rest on the Sabbath (in the Exodus reading) are loosed from their bonds and led to water. Satan had bound the woman for eighteen years, and now she is to be loosed from the bonds (the cords or ropes) that held her. Jesus comes to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free (see Luke 4:18, NRSV). We get to see this in real time in our text.
When Jesus is about, it’s liberation time. This isn’t about denying or denigrating the need for Sabbath rest. However, it would seem that, for Jesus, a Sabbath rest will always be disturbed as long as any remain in bondage on that day. Another of the themes in this section of the Lukan account is that the right time is the time for action. Be dressed and ready for the moment the Lord comes. Don’t be caught napping, even at midnight. Don’t let the fear of conflict slow you down. Don’t pretend that you’re less of a sinner than others whose time had come.
Now is the time. Now is the time for liberation. Now is the time when Jesus is about, whether we recognize it or not.
There is a sense in the text of a sort of “one time offer” when it comes to Jesus and his liberation. Yet, let’s remember what comes immediately before our reading. A fig tree has not produced. Give it some more time, the gardener says. Let me work with it. Something’s not quite right. There’s still hope for life and growth. Let’s wait and see if the right time comes along. When it does, then we’ll act with dispatch.
Thus, there is a persistent patience in the presence of Jesus. When Jesus is about, it’s liberation time. And Jesus doesn’t go away, so his release is always on offer. The key is for me to see what’s happening.
I was working in the yard yesterday morning. A squirrel was berating one of the dogs from a tree. The squirrel was not retreating, not matter how the dog (and I) encouraged it to move along. I was puzzled by the persistence. Then I saw the baby squirrel cowering on the ground, unable to climb back into the tree. I hadn’t seen the baby for several minutes, so I completely misread the situation.
I took the baby in a fully gloved hand and put it on the tree. In seconds, the mother came and comforted the little one. In a few moments more, the mother took the baby by the scruff of the neck. She carried her child (fully half her size) across the top of our wooden fence and into her tree nest. She covered about a hundred feet in the journey. Maternal rescue successful.
It’s a homely metaphor, but it works for me. When Jesus is about, it’s liberation time. Jesus is always about and persists in seeking to release us from whatever may bind us. We’re often not willing or able to see what’s really going on and where Jesus is trying to free us. We’re more concerned about keeping things familiar and stable. So, we end up resisting the release. Let’s pray for the gift of time telling so that we can see what’s really going on.
And then perhaps we can better see that Jesus comes for the liberation of all Creation – healing and wholeness, peace and justice, compassion and community. Our concern for the status quo – for our power, privilege, position, and property – gets in the way of our seeing. We will need to release what binds us in order to be released from what binds us. The woman was healed. The important question is whether the ruler of the synagogue found his own kind of liberation.