September 29, 2013
William R. Clough
This vignette is virtually unique in Jesus ministry see if you can discover why as you read it:
10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. 11 And 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. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 But 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.” 15 But 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? 16 And 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?” 17 When 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.
Catch it? What’s unique in this event (unique in Sabbath healing miracles and arguably in all Jesus’ healing miracles) is: Jesus called herl. No “Lord have mercy,” “Heal my child/servant,” friends tearing a hole in the roof, pushing her way through the crowd to touch Jesus, arguing on someone’s behalf. Jesus called her, which is pretty confrontational, pretty “in your face” for Jesus’ Sabbath miracles.
The thing is, Sabbath miracles and the conflict they produce, are not primarily about the Sabbath. They’re a confrontation between living according to the Spirit and legalism; the religious mistake of reasoning from Scripture or principle drawn from Scripture, to a mandate to do something wrong. That’s a particularly unfortunate error on peoples’ part and basing an action on Scripture doesn’t automatically make it right. I know a lot of Christians who would side squarely with the Synagogue leader if this miracle weren’t in the Bible.
The Synagogue leader is right, after all, the Fourth Commandment is one of the ten things that we owe to God. In fact, it’s in the top five. For many Christians I know that would be enough. God said it; that settles it. And it’s also one of the more explicit commandments. It’s not like those one-liners like “You shall not kill” which cries out for clarification (which makes me sympathetic with those who feel the need to fill in the blanks, to interpret). This one is spelled out pretty clearly and, in Exodus 31:15 adds, “For six days work is to be done, but the seventh day is a day of Sabbath rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day is to be put to death.” On a purely logical level, this problem has gone on for eighteen years, why do you choose to heal it today? What’s a few more hours? And the Synagogue leader points out that God is only asking for 1/7 of your time – you get six days out of seven to do your work, one for God is pretty reasonable. But still, there’s something wrong with withholding help for someone who is suffering.
Sabbath keeping was probably, on one level, a harder sell in the first century than it is in the 21st. In 21st Century America “work” connotes two things, neither of which is necessarily good: it’s something you don’t enjoy and you do it for the money. For example, you’ve heard the saying: “If you do something you love you’ll never work a day in your life.” What does that say about work? After people stop working for money they may be very active, very productive but people often ask, “What are you doing now that you aren’t working?” In the ancient world, “work” was inherently good. The Greek word Luke uses is a tense of ergon (ἔργον). One’s “ergon” is one’s function in life, at its best virtuous service. Since virtue is what you’re made to do, what makes you happy, one’s ergon leads to happiness.
From a Jewish point of view the idea is even dicier. Think about what God stopped doing – creating this wonderful world. In Hebrew the sort of “work,” related to the Sabbath, melakhot (מלאכות) has two connotations. It’s good, creative action parallel to God’s Creation and work in support of the Tabernacle. There are some 39 categories of action which, while good, are forbidden such as: Carrying, Burning, Extinguishing, Finishing, Writing, Erasing, Cooking, Washing, etc. Medical treatment comes under the prohibition against Grinding, as for the preparation and administration of medicine. Medical intervention to save a life is acceptable, even required, on the Sabbath but intervention which merely alleviates suffering is generally not. And this, I think, is what makes healing on the Sabbath such a big deal. Through a series of decisions, each reasonable in its own right, it is possible to end up equating refraining from doing good with fulfilling the will of God. And that is a danger of literalism and logic – which is not just a danger inherent in religion. One of the cruelest, most vicious forms of withholding good is Rick Warren’s hate mail on the occasion of his son’s suicide. It came from non-Christians and took two major forms: “You believe something I think is wrong and you have the effrontery to defend your point of view after I have enlightened you, therefore you are both stupid and stubborn. Or you disapprove of me therefore you’re cruel. In either event you have forfeited your humanity, your right to be treated with basic human compassion.”
So, for Christians (who, unlike rationalists and activists, have a tradition of self-examination and repentance) do we find a biblical mandate or other mandate to withhold good? What do people say or do that makes them sub-human for you? (Figuring out how best to do good is a different and very important question but the problem raised by this conflict is: do we find a mandate from God to withhold kindness, justice, love, gratitude, help?)
A Scripture that makes the same point is Proverbs 3:27-28 with an interesting little note about translation. The Hebrew reads:
Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act.28 Do not say to your neighbor, “Come back tomorrow and I’ll give it to you”— when you already have it with you.
But one of the oldest translations of the Old Testament the Septuagint (LXX) (so named because, the story goes, 72 scholars each translated the Scriptures independently and, when they came together, lo, they discovered that they were all identical!) translates the Hebrew into Greek as:
Do not withhold good from the poor (people who are encumbered or lacking) when it is in your power to act.28 Do not say to your neighbor, “Come back tomorrow and I’ll give it to you”—when you already have it with you. For you do not know what tomorrow will bring.
But finally, Jesus makes the point that our purpose is to do things that contribute to the Glory of God and the benefit of our fellow human beings. We may have to figure out how best to do that but there is no Biblical justification for not doing it. As it is written, “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”