What brings you here?
That might be two questions: what brings you to church on a Sunday? and what brings you to Puari Huinga, Aldersgate, Durham Street Methodist Church, however you think of this place?
A place to meet God? To meet friends? Somewhere to find calm amidst the storm, or somewhere to be shaken up? There is no “right” answer to this question, by the way!
And in our bible reading from Luke’s gospel today, what brought the woman to the synagogue? She may simply have come for the regular prayers, to listen to the reading of the Torah; she may have come because of friends or family; perhaps she had heard about the radical itinerant teacher passing through. If we look back to a reading which we heard earlier in the year, Luke’s Gospel structures the chronology of Jesus’ ministry to open with his preaching at a synagogue on the sabbath (“as was his custom” Luke 4:16) at his home in Nazareth, reading from Isaiah: 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Luke 4:18-19). In another passage (Luke 6:6-11), Jesus is again teaching at a synagogue on a sabbath and heals a man with a withered hand. That healing is paired with the story of Jesus and his disciples being challenged by the Pharisees for gathering grain on the sabbath.
As Jesus travelled through Galilee and the regions towards Jerusalem, word may well have spread of miracle healings and we could speculate that the woman in today’s reading has come to the synagogue hoping for healing. Indeed, a modern interpretation of the story might be that the woman came to hear Jesus, and that his healing touch removed her burden of sin which was weighing her down. But that would incorporate several later theological overlays. To the writer of Luke’s gospel, the important point was that it was the sabbath. In our gospel story, the leader of the synagogue is not upset that a woman is present, or interacts with the preacher. Evidence from archaeology and historical literature suggests that women were fully involved in synagogue life in 1st Century Palestine, so there is nothing strange about her presence. Nor is he upset that she receives healing there – the synagogue was not just a place for worship; it was a meeting place, and a place which might provide for physical as well as spiritual needs. No, he is upset that the healing has occurred on the sabbath.
Of the ten commandments described in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, the 4th commandment is one of the longest: (here from Ex20:8-11) “8 “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 Six days you shall labour and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. 11 For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (a reference to the Creation Story (Gen 2:3) “And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy.”)
The sabbath is also defined earlier in the Exodus story, while the Israelites were wandering in the desert after leaving Egypt: on the sixth day they were instructed to gather manna (bread) enough for 2 days because there would be none on the sabbath, and the people were to rest (Exodus 16:22-30).
Taking a day of rest was extremely unusual in 1st Century Palestine (in 1st Century anywhere most likely) when having enough to eat meant working all the hours God gave you, often largely for some overlord’s benefit. No-one today would dispute the mental, spiritual and physical value of a day’s rest from work, but in ancient times, leisure was for the wealthy and the ruling classes only, never for the servant or labouring classes. On any other day the woman in the story would most likely have been at home preparing food, doing housework, keeping an eye on the children, and all the other 1001 tasks of women in a patriarchal society!
So, rest on the sabbath. What exactly did that mean? No food preparation amongst other things, but plainly people had to eat so they prepared food the day before. But what about the work of eating? And so, generations of Jewish scholars and “lawyers” (in the sense of interpreting the law) worked through what might be acceptable to God and what might not. Much of what we know today is what was written down in the years following the destruction of the Temple by the Romans and the change from temple to synagogue-based Jewish worship – in a body of work known as the Talmud. Much of the basic list of 39 types of “melachah” (essentially creative work, which cannot be undertaken on the sabbath) seems archaic to us, e.g “binding sheaves”, “winnowing”, “scraping hide”. Others are simply peculiar – “making two loops”, “writing (or erasing) two letters”, or downright dangerous – “extinguishing a fire”. And questions must have arisen at the time – so, for example, winnowing becomes separation of food from a more complex form, hence taking fish bones out was work – so only filleted fish could be eaten on the sabbath. The Talmud goes on to develop 613 “commandments” which included 248 positive (“thou shalt…”) and 365 negative commands – that’s one “thou shalt not” for each day of the year! The writers of the Talmud were well aware of the complications of the sabbath law – a quote from one part of the teachings, the Mishnah, observes that “the laws of Shabbat … are like mountains hanging by a hair, for they are little Scripture but many laws”.
The Pharisees get a bad rap in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, who portray Jesus railing against their focus on external appearances and petty details of the law. For example, in Luke 11:42, “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.” And in Luke 11:46, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.” So the description in our story of the woman being released from bonds in connection with the sabbath laws could have been a barbed comment which would be recognised by Luke’s listeners as reference to the Pharisees and law makers.
And yet the Pharisees and the early Christians had much in common theologically. When Paul was taken before the Sanhedrin (the Jewish Law Court) Paul proudly proclaims, “My brothers, I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees. I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead.” (Acts 23:6) Their belief in the resurrection of the dead was a commonality which divided them from the Sadducees, who had been powerful before the destruction of the Temple. The Pharisaic understanding of resurrection, as described by John Dominic Crossan, was an event in which God intervened in the normal order of the world and brought all peoples of the world, both the living and the dead, to face judgement.
Nonetheless an argument was underway very soon after Jesus’ death on the cross among the Jewish communities who comprised the early Jesus followers – if Jesus had heralded the end of the old Age, did the Gentiles have to convert to Judaism before they could be accepted into the new? Paul’s letters to the early churches show immense frustration with those who were insisting that Gentiles should first become Jews. Luke is thought to have been a travelling companion of Paul for much of his ministry and must have picked up Paul’s side of the argument. From the very start of his Gospel, Luke places an emphasis on welcoming the Gentiles, as in Chapter 2 Simeon blesses the baby, “32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.” (Luke 2:32).
In Luke’s second volume, the Acts of the Apostles, he describes a Council at Jerusalem at which Paul and Barnabas reported the “signs and wonders” God had done among the Gentiles, and argued against the need for them to be circumcised and keep to the Law of Moses. Their opposition come from “some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees” (Acts 15:5). So the divisions were not between Christian and Jew but within Judaism, as what was essentially a Jewish sect was diverging from the mainstream. The conclusion reached by the Council was a compromise – Gentiles were not required to become Jews, but were required to follow a number of Jewish laws.
If someone tells you that the bible is clear that we don’t need the law because we have Jesus, that faith alone is enough, tell them to read the rest of the bible. Paul wrestles with the concept in his letter to the Romans, for example: Romans 3:27-31 “27 Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. 31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.” The scholarly understanding of Paul has varied dramatically over the past century, and interpretation of his theology is still highly controverted.
We see differences of opinion about the importance of the Law even between the authors of the gospels. We have Matthew’s lengthy account of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew Chapters 5-7), in which Jesus is a rigorous proponent of strict Torah observance even to the point of intensifying the personal demands of the Jewish law (“You have heard it said…. But I tell you…”). We have John’s account of Jesus as the embodied “word” of God, in which Jesus himself is the route to God. And, as in our reading today, we have Luke re-writing the story for a Gentile audience, with Jesus transitioning between the observance of the Law and the universality of God’s love in the post-resurrection new era.
And if it was not a clear picture in the early Christian communities, neither was it simple amongst the Jewish communities either at the time Jesus was teaching, or afterwards. The Pharisees debating the law were not trying to make life harder as often portrayed, but to make things more practical. My story to the young people of the teacher who summarised the Torah as saying “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow; the rest is the explanation; go and learn” is a reference to Hillel the Elder. Hillel was the leader of the Pharisees and Jewish Sanhedrin (Law Court) at the time of Jesus’ birth and childhood, through to about 9CE. Although the authors of the New Testament often have harsh words for the Pharisees, those words of Hillel are very similar to a teaching we hold at the core of Christianity: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ (Luke 10:27). Who said those words: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’? Well, it depends which gospel you read. In Mark 12:31 and Matthew 22:39 it is Jesus. In Luke’s version, the legal expert who poses the question also provides the answer, and Jesus simply praises him for it! Hillel’s grandson was Gamaliel, leader of the Sanhedrin 30-50CE, probably the same Gamaliel who Paul claims was his teacher in Acts 22. Perhaps Luke, through Paul, knew something of the origins of this particular teaching and perhaps being fundamentally fair-minded thought to put it in the mouth of a Pharisee.
So, returning to our Gospel Reading of healing on the Sabbath, what is the story about? I don’t think it was about showing Jesus as Lord of the Sabbath, nor an allegory for Jesus removing our burden of sin, nor an argument that the new “law of faith” was superior to the old law of Moses, i.e. that Christianity was better than Judaism. I think that Luke frames it as part of the debate about inclusion of the Gentiles in the Jesus movement – was the Law required of Gentiles as well as Jews, and what did Jesus have to say about it? And at the heart of that argument, from both Luke and Paul, is the question of what were the Laws for? If we assess the Laws by the Hillel/Jesus Golden Rule, the principle of treating others as you want others to treat you, then we can see that the principle of resting on the Sabbath (valuable though it is for setting aside a time for spiritual recharge and growth) is trumped by the principle of healing someone of an illness or infirmity.
This Golden Rule is found in various expressions in the tenets of most religions and creeds through the ages. It should be the foundation of all laws, and we can assess the justness of most rules by its standard. Humans are quick to slip into a reliance on tradition and forget the original intent of the law. If we look online, great arguments continue in the present day about whether the Sabbath is Saturday or Sunday, and what one should or should not do on that day. Find a Christian who is adamant that we are now justified by faith, not by law, and not far away will be one who lays great emphasis on specific verses from Leviticus.
Whatever brought you to church today, even if it was just because it was Sunday and you felt you ought to, I hope that by coming along you will have found somewhere where love conquers tradition, where learning conquers prejudice, and somewhere your spirit can always sing.