Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: O God, mighty and immortal, you know that as fragile creatures surrounded by great dangers, we cannot by ourselves stand upright. Give us strength of mind and body, so that even when we suffer because of human sin, we may rise victorious through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
The Third Commandment calling us to honor the Sabbath was actually the first commandment God gave. Unlike the rest of the commandments, this one was given to all of humanity at the dawn of creation and not only to the people of Israel. At the climax of the creation story in the first two chapters of Genesis we read: “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.” Genesis 2:1-3. Of course, God does not grow weary and God needs no rest. But God knows we need rest and so this provision for rest is woven into the very fabric of creation.
This statute was again repeated in the Ten Commandments given specifically to Israel, a people just liberated from slavery. God’s Sabbath honoring community called Israel was intended to be an alternative society to that of the surrounding empires in which the life of common people was characterized by never ending, back breaking, soul destroying labor-all for the benefit of the ruling class. Such was the life Israel experienced in Egypt, “the house of bondage.” In Egypt, non-Egyptians were enslaved, oppressed or driven out. Egypt was for the Egyptians-and mostly for Egyptians of the imperial household.
Life under Israel’s covenant with her God was to be a very different arrangement with a radically different view of labor. Elaborating upon the Third Commandment in Exodus 23, Moses declared: “For six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your home-born slave and the resident alien may be refreshed.” Exodus 23:12. Sabbath rest is commanded not only for people and animals, but for the land as well: “For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat. You shall do the same with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard.” Exodus 23:10-11. Aliens and sojourners in the land of Israel were to be treated with the same consideration as citizens. Thus, Moses admonishes his people: “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Leviticus 19:33-34.
The commandment to honor the Sabbath is as relevant now as ever. It is a word spoken for the sake of men and women working three jobs at wages that barely allow them to make ends meet. It was designed for workers who are fearful of taking what little vacation they have because it might reflect poorly on their devotion to the company and hurt their chances for promotion. Sabbath was made to liberate an earth groaning under the strain of ruthless exploitation and pollution by human consumption and waste. Slavery is what happens when work gets out of hand, when a person’s right to eat and find shelter is determined by the labor market, when profits become more important than people, when the work is worth more than the workers whose lives and limbs are sacrificed to get it completed on time. Bondage to hunger, poverty and ecological ruin result when we cease to view the earth as God’s garden and instead treat it as nothing more than an inanimate ball of finite real estate and resources to be fought over and controlled by competing nation states. God gave us the Sabbath to check our human inclination toward just such bondage and slavery. We need to be reminded that the earth is the Lord’s; that it keeps on turning without our completing all of our very important projects; that labor is a gift given by God enabling us to serve our neighbors, not a tool of the rich and powerful to exploit in feeding their insatiable greed.
To observe the Sabbath in our culture of frantic busyness might be the most radical and subversive act the church can perform. No, I am not talking about reinstating the blue laws or boosting church attendance. I am suggesting that believing workers begin living as though their jobs were less important than the families they support and unite in speaking a firm “no” to the ever expanding reach of the office into all other areas of life. I am suggesting that employers who claim to be disciples of Jesus pay their workers a living wage-whether the law compels it or not. I am suggesting that discipleship involves finding ways to live gently in the land, giving back more to the biosphere than we consume. The Sabbath observance to which God called Israel and to which Jesus calls his disciples involves far more than refraining from work on a single day of the week. Sabbath observance is a way of life. Such a life honors creation, serves the neighbor and leaves behind a legacy of healing, growth and renewal instead of scars upon the land.
Here is a poem by Mary Oliver about John Chapman, the historical figure behind the legend of Johnny Appleseed. Oliver describes a beautiful life that comes as close to genuinely honoring the Sabbath as I have ever seen.
He wore a tin pot for a hat, in which
he cooked his supper
in the Ohio forests. He wore
a sackcloth shirt and walked
barefoot on feet crooked as roots. And everywhere he went
the apple trees sprang up behind him lovely
as young girls.
No Indian or settler or wild beast
ever harmed him, and he for his part honored
everything, all God’s creatures! thought little,
on a rainy night,
of sharing the shelter of a hollow log touching
flesh with any creatures there: snakes,
racoon possibly, or some great slab of bear.
Mrs. Price, late of Richland County,
at whose parents’ house he sometimes lingered,
recalled: he spoke
only once of women and his gray eyes
brittled into ice. “Some
are deceivers,” he whispered, and she felt
the pain of it, remembered it
into her old age.
Well, the trees he planted or gave away
prospered, and he became
the good legend, you do
what you can if you can; whatever
the secret, and the pain,
there’s a decision: to die,
or to live, to go on
caring about something. In spring, in Ohio,
in the forests that are left you can still find
sign of him: patches
of cold white fire.
Source: American Primitive, c. 1983 by Little, Brown and Co. Mary Oliver was born in 1935 in Maple Heights, Ohio. She was deeply influenced by poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay. Her work received early critical attention with the 1983 publication of a collection of poems entitled American Primitive. She is a recipient of both the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the National Book Award. You can read more about Mary Oliver and sample some of her other poems at the Poetry Foundation Website.
The reading from the Hebrew Scriptures comes from Third Isaiah, the designation given by biblical scholars to the anonymous preacher who addressed the Jewish people after their return from the Babylonian exile around 530 B.C.E., but before the second temple was completed around 515 B.C.E. This prophet’s oracles are found at Isaiah 56-66. The verses constituting our reading need to be set in context. This oracle begins at the head of Chapter 58 with a command for the prophet to declare to Israel her transgressions. The people complain because God does not answer their prayers for Israel’s restoration. They pray and fast to no avail. But the prophet points out that even as they fast and pray, the wealthy and powerful among the people pursue their own commercial interests and oppress their workers. They quarrel and fight among themselves even as they offer prayers. Such fasting does not reflect repentance and a change of heart. So the prophet, speaking on behalf of the Lord, declares:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
Isaiah 58:6-9. The reading for Sunday further develops this theme promising that if the people will show compassion to the poor and the afflicted, remove the yolk of oppression and cease their hateful quarreling, the restoration for which they pray will be given them. “Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”Isaiah 58:12.
Hebrew Scriptural scholar Claus Westermann suggests that vss 13-14 of our lesson come from a different prophetic source. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library, (c. SCM Press Ltd, 1969) p. 340. This conclusion is based on the fact that the prior verses all have to do with turning toward one’s neighbor, whereas verses 13 and 14 focus strictly on Sabbath observance. Ibid. However that might be, the text as we have it in the cannon clearly joins Sabbath observance to compassion for the oppressed and the afflicted. As pointed out in the introductory remarks, this is quite in keeping with the understanding of Sabbath reflected throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. Divorced from its goal of providing relief from oppression and poverty, Sabbath becomes an empty ritual that is itself oppressive. Jesus will make this very point in the gospel lesson.
I frequently encounter people within the church who hold a very negative view of the Hebrew Scriptures. At the extreme end are folks (most of whom have not read extensively in the Hebrew Bible) who reject these scriptures as archaic, barbaric and contrary to “the God of love” revealed in the New Testament. In the first place, this characterization is inaccurate. The greatest biblical bloodbath with the highest body count is found not in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament book of Revelation. Moreover, the God Jesus calls “Father” is none other than the God of the Hebrew Scriptures. The New Testament does not introduce to us “a kinder, gentler” God. Moreover, the Hebrew Scriptures are filled with expressions and testimony to God’s love and compassion. The psalm for this Sunday is a testimony to God’s mercy and capacity for forgiveness as clear and beautiful as any found in the New Testament. Unfortunately, verses 9-13 are not included in our reading. They point out that “[God] does not deal with us according to our sins, nor requite us according to our iniquities.” “As far as the east is from the west, so far does [God] remove transgressions from us.” “As a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear him.” The psalmist is a man or woman who has experienced firsthand God’s tender loving mercy.
This psalm begins not with an address by the psalmist to God, or with a declaration from God to the psalmist. The psalm begins with the psalmist addressing himself/herself with a command to “bless the Lord.” If you read Psalm 103 in its entirety (which I encourage you to do), you will discover that the psalmist proceeds almost imperceptibly from his opening soliloquy to declaration of God’s eternal love contrasted with human mortality. The psalm concludes with the psalmist calling upon the very angels and the entire universe to join in his/her song of praise. This marvelous opening out of a soul to the praise and Glory of God is a wonderful paradigm for prayer. St. Augustine felt much the same way:
“Bless, is understood. Cry out with your voice, if there be a man to hear; hush your voice, when there is no man to hear you; there is never wanting one to hear all that is within you. Blessing therefore has already been uttered from our mouth, when we were chanting these very words. We sung as much as sufficed for the time, and were then silent: ought our hearts within us to be silent to the blessing of the Lord? Let the sound of our voices bless Him at intervals, alternately, let the voice of our hearts be perpetual. When you come to church to recite a hymn, your voice sounds forth the praises of God: you have sung as far as you could; you have left the church; let your soul sound the praises of God. You are engaged in your daily work: let your soul praise God. You are taking food; see what the Apostle says: Whether you eat or drink, do all to the glory of God. I Corinthians 10:31. I venture to say; when you sleep, let your soul praise the Lord. Let not thoughts of crime arouse you, let not the contrivances of thieving arouse you, let not arranged plans of corrupt dealing arouse you. Your innocence even when you are sleeping is the voice of your soul.” Augustine, Expositions on the Psalms, Psalm 103, New Advent.
For my take on Hebrews, see my post of Sunday, August 7th. You might also want to take a look at the summary article of Craig R. Koester, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary on Enterthebible.org.
Thus far the author of Hebrews has argued extensively that Jesus is the new Temple of God that supersedes the temple in Jerusalem that had been destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. In Chapter 11 s/he compared the life of discipleship to the lives of the patriarchs and the people of Israel as they wandered in the wilderness. Like them, disciples of Jesus are to live as aliens in a hostile world. They willingly forego the comfort and security that comes from having a place to call home or a temple to which they can point and assert: “there is the dwelling of God.” They must believe that Jesus, the “pioneer and perfecter of their faith” goes with them and before them surrounded by that invisible cloud of witnesses who have died in faith and hope. Now throughout Chapter 12 the author comes to the point: encouragement. The Hebrew disciples must run their race with perseverance knowing that their journey has an end not at the place of judgment, but with a festal gathering of angels and saints.
I am particularly moved by verse 24 in which the author tells us that the blood of Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant, “speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel.” Abel, you will recall, was the world’s first murder victim. When God confronted Abel’s murderer (his brother Cain), God told him that Abel’s blood was crying out to him from the ground. Though the Genesis narrative does not say so specifically, we can infer that Abel was crying out for vengeance from the fact that henceforth the ground was cursed for Cain and bore nothing for him in the way of crops for harvest.
Vengeance is the natural human response to wrong. Much of the law in the Hebrew Scriptures was designed to limit or curtail vengeance. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” sounds rather draconian to our way of thinking. But in a society where there was no police force, no judicial system as we know it and nothing to stop the endless bloodletting between feuding clans whose thirst for revenge knew no limits, this is actually a life-giving provision. It does not literally mean that you are entitled to break the tooth of anyone who breaks your tooth. Rather, it limits the remedy of the injured party to recompense from the wrongdoer. Retaliation cannot be made against the wrongdoer’s family and the wrongdoer’s responsibility is limited to restitution for the wrong done. Jesus, of course, directs his disciples to go beyond this statute to exterminate vengeance altogether.Matthew 5:38-42.
In our culture, vengeance is too often equated with justice. “Getting justice” for a victim of violent crime amounts to witnessing the perpetrator’s punishment. Victims often express their hope of getting “closure” from seeing the murderer of their loved ones die. Thanks be to God, I have never had to stand in their shoes. That being the case, I will refrain from judgment. Still and all, I find it hard to believe that punishment of the perpetrator brings any real sense of closure to the families and loved ones of victims. Execution of the murderer does not bring back the victim, heal the void left from the loss or quell the burning anger such crimes ignite. It only takes the object of that anger out of the picture. Retribution does not really heal. That is why it is not really justice. Biblical justice is concerned not merely with the adjudication of disputes and the punishment of wrongs, but with the reconciliation of the parties involved thereafter. In order to get the kind of justice God wants, he must forego retribution. That is what God does in Jesus. Instead of avenging his cruel death, God raises Jesus up and gives him back to us, his murderers, with an offer of reconciliation.
It is important to keep in focus the fact that Jesus died a violent death. If ever vengeance were justified, this would have been the case. If ever there were just cause for raising the sword in self-defense, the night of Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane would have been the time and place. If ever shed blood had reason to cry out for vengeance, it was the blood of Jesus shed on the cross. But herein is the victory of the cross: that God will not be goaded into vengeance. God does not need to get “closure” by witnessing the death of his Son’s murderers. Mercy triumphs over judgment. The blood of Jesus speaks mercy and so inspired the lines from the hymn: “Abel’s blood for vengeance pleaded to the skies; but the blood of Jesus for our pardon cries.” “Glory Be to Jesus,” Lutheran Book of Worship Hymn # 95.
The scene here opens with Jesus teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath, evidently with the permission of the ruler of the synagogue. Teaching on the Sabbath is not at all objectionable. But when Jesus encounters a woman “with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years,” he calls her to himself and heals her in the presence of all. Evidently wishing to avoid attacking Jesus directly, the ruler of the synagogue directs his criticism to the crowd: “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day.”
This objection follows roughly word for word the instructions laid down by Moses in Exodus that we saw earlier. In light of this, the ruler’s objection does not seem unreasonable. The woman had been crippled for eighteen years. This was hardly a medical emergency. She had only to wait a few hours until the Sabbath was over. Yet those of us who experience back pain know that when it kicks in, a few hours is a very long time. You don’t get much rest when your back is hurting and rest is, after all, what the Sabbath is all about. So from Jesus’ perspective, there is no better time to give someone rest from pain than on the Sabbath. In fact, Jesus puts the question this way: “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?” Another way to translate this would be: “Was it not necessary that this woman…be set free from bondage on the Sabbath?” As we have seen before, Luke speaks frequently of “necessity” driving Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. See, e.g. Luke 24:26; Acts 2:23; Acts 3:18. In view of the drawing near of God’s kingdom, it was necessary to break the yolk of bondage and allow this woman her Sabbath rest.
In addition to clarifying for us the true meaning of Sabbath, this story is also instructive for how we ought to read the Bible. If one goes by the simplistic rubric: “God said it. I believe it. That settles it,” then you have to side with the ruler of the synagogue. Healing is work and work is forbidden on the Sabbath. Game over. But if you think more deeply about what the Sabbath is for and why it was given, then I think it becomes clear that Jesus was right. How can you invoke the letter of the Sabbath law to deny Sabbath rest to a daughter of Abraham? This healing was not merely permitted, but demanded by Sabbath law. We don’t read biblical texts in a vacuum. We begin with the proposition that the Bible is God’s word because it is our most authoritative witness to the Incarnate Word, our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus teaches us that any interpretation of scripture that bars a person from the Sabbath rest God offers to us through Jesus has just got to be wrong.