Here Jesus is, in this unidentified synagogue. It’s the sabbath; Jesus was teaching, as He often did, until He saw a woman who was so bent over that she could not stand straight. And so Jesus immediately calls her over and frees her, heals her.
The synagogue’s leader was furious that Jesus had broken the Sabbath laws, which prohibited work of any kind on the Sabbath. (Presumably the leader was counting healing as working.) But Jesus responds, “Are we not allowed to untie our animals so that they can drink? So why can I not free this woman from her bonds? How is that against the spirit of the Sabbath?”
The question, then, is what the Sabbath means. What is it for? Why are we told to set a day apart? Why is this one of the Old Testament laws that we still hold to today?
In the Old Testament, the Sabbath had two explanations: the first came from the creation story in Genesis 1, where God creates the earth in seven days. Day after day God creates, the stars and the oceans and plants and animals, until the seventh day, when everything had been created and God rested. God rested on the seventh day, they said; we also should rest on the seventh day. At other times, the command to rest on the seventh day has to do with freedom, a marker of the Israelite’s freedom from oppression (Deuteronomy 5:12-15). When they were slaves in Egypt, they did not have the freedom to rest; now that they were free, they should rest, and give others the opportunity to rest as well. In both explanations, the sabbath day is a day that God has set aside as holy.
By Jesus’ time, many Jewish teachers taught a variety of things that were not allowed on the Sabbath, in an attempt to ensure that the people did indeed keep the day holy and not work. Specific kinds of work were specially singled out. That feels familiar enough; I’ve heard plenty of stories from older Presbyterian pastors about traditional Presbyterian Sundays, where people went to church, and then when they came home were only allowed to pray and read “spiritual” books. No games, no music, no “fun” books; just sitting around in their best clothes, uncomfortable and bored, all day. Traditionally, Presbyterians have thought that basically anything fun or enjoyable was probably bad, and especially so on a Sunday.
I’m truly glad we’ve stepped away from that tradition, because true Sabbath isn’t about spending all day doing one of three denominationally-approved activities. Sabbath is meant to be a day of nourishment and worship, a day where we remember our freedom and healing. It’s a day where we celebrate our freedom, reconnect with God and others, and have space to take a breath. It’s a day that leaves us refreshed and reconnected to better face our jobs and our callings again the next day.
Sabbath rest is not meant to be a burden. It’s not meant to be an impossibly out-of-reach to do list. It is not meant to to be restricting. We are celebrating! God has freed us, from our own sin and from the world’s power. By taking a day to rest, we remember that we do not have to do everything. God is working, even when we are not. We can rest, confident that God is holding things together, and we don’t need to hold everything together anyway.
And what that freedom is looks different to everyone. It doesn’t have to mean sitting around all day, doing nothing, although some people find that restful and refreshing. I knew someone who would do carpentry and go on 20-mile bike rides–very much not for me, but he loved it. I’ve known people to get a prayer group together, but also to just not clean their house that day. It doesn’t even have to be a full day, not really. I’ve always found that the best approach is flexibility: there’s an emergency and you have to work, it’s sleeting when you wanted to go for a hike, or maybe what you thought would be restful is actually anything but.
The day of rest is a day that is holy, not because of the rules, but because we remember that God has given us freedom. We remember that God has loved and saved us. We remember that God gives us life.
Alleluia, and Amen.