I typically listen to a couple of different podcasts when I’m walking our dog in the evenings. (Dogs are great, but they are not great conversation partners.) Once a year, one of my favorite podcasts takes a break from its usual topic and drops a “Conundrums” episode. The three journalists step back from discussing the issues of the day to consider fun conundrums submitted by listeners.
A couple of examples... Would you rather be attacked by 20 horses who are the size of ducks, or by one duck who is the size of a horse? Or how about this one: Would you rather stop aging at 30 and live for 30 more years, or stop aging at 70 and live for 70 more years?
These are fun conundrums, fun for ice-breakers at parties, fun to discuss when you’re just shooting the breeze.
But here’s a serious one. What should be the highest priority of our legal system? Should we prioritize not accusing innocent people of crimes, or should we prioritize justly accusing guilty people of crimes? If we make the protection of the innocent our highest priority, then a few guilty people will probably slip through the system. But if we make justice for the guilty our highest priority, it’s likely we will be jailing a few innocent people. Despite our best intentions, our top priority will always have a potential downside.
I may not have the same answer to that conundrum as you do. That’s what makes it a conundrum: nobody has an answer that makes everybody happy, because every answer has a downside.
Jesus of Nazareth made a decision in the midst of a conundrum, and this time, as his followers, we are, well... strongly encouraged to accept his answer as the right one. This morning we find him teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath, and almost immediately he gets into trouble. (What else is new?!) Here’s the conundrum Jesus considers: What is more important—keeping the Sabbath, or helping a woman stand upright? This is an old, odd conundrum from outside our 21st-century U.S. culture, so it may take us a moment to really understand the dilemma at the heart of this question. So let’s unpack both sides of it.
First, we can imagine that some of the people around Jesus, even though they rejoice at this healing, are sympathetic with the leader of the synagogue. They know that Sabbath matters. The Sabbath arose in the culture of the liberated Israelites while they were in the wilderness, having escaped slavery and oppression in Egypt. Breaking the Sabbath was a capital crime; keeping the Sabbath is one of the ten commandments. This is because Sabbath is something God kept, something God keeps: When we proclaim in Genesis 1 that God rested on the seventh day of creation, I want to suggest that we are saying that Sabbath rest is inherent to the creative energy of the universe. Sabbath rest is woven into everything that is. The liberation of slaves, in turn, is a creative act of God, and so keeping the Sabbath is vitally, existentially important for a liberated people who praise God.
Even when we look at the Sabbath casually or lightly, we recognize that in their discovery of the Sabbath, the ancient Hebrew people gave the world the weekend! It was an astonishing idea: every seventh day, everybody rests. It was—and for our Jewish siblings, it is—a prophetic proclamation of liberation: liberation for workers, liberation for families, liberation for slaves, liberation for the whole face of the earth. Even fields need to follow cycles of rest, to invigorate the soil and make it ready for better crops. And finally, we Christians have taken the surprising step of setting aside one seventh of the year as a whole season of Sabbath celebration: Eastertide, we call it. Even Christians know that Sabbath matters.
But this bent-over woman also matters, and her healing is a powerful form of liberation. This second part of the conundrum might be easier for you and I to see, and to understand. After all, we see plenty of suffering women in our own place and time. Women in this country enjoy the right to vote, but they have only done so for the last 100 years, and they had to fight hard for it. In some countries, even now, in the early 21st century, women barely have any legal rights at all. Men who are prominent in business, politics, and entertainment have been brought down in recent years by scandals involving their mistreatment of women. Our political arena often debates issues of critical importance to women, but does not always include women themselves in the debate. We can appreciate the powerful witness of Jesus, who made this woman his top priority, despite the Sabbath prohibitions.
And isn’t this what Sabbath was about, in the first place? When he raises up this woman, Jesus tells her, “You are set free from your ailment.” She had been oppressed, enslaved, by this physical ailment for “eighteen long years,” Jesus said. Sabbath arose as a creative celebration of freedom and justice, the practice of freedmen and freedwomen in the wilderness, who were struggling for many long years to understand who God is, who they were, and what “freedom” really means. Therefore, setting this woman free is something one should do on the Sabbath, even though there is a downside to it: it’s inconvenient, and confusing, and disorienting, to help this woman on the Sabbath. It might imply that the Sabbath doesn’t matter, that Sabbath is just another weekday at the health clinic.
So let’s give that indignant leader of the synagogue a second look. His frustration grows while Jesus takes it upon himself to disrupt the Sabbath. Would we welcome this troublesome preacher and teacher directly into our midst, today? If he came up here and disagreed with me, interrupting my sermon with his own better idea of what Sunday means, what church means? If he called me a hypocrite, no less? I don’t have to wonder whether I would be irritated by this man. I would be. But like that synagogue leader, I wouldn’t be able to just write Jesus off as a kook, a weirdo, a discipline problem. He’s not just starting trouble. He’s really pushing me and the whole congregation to look again at what we are doing here, and wrestle with the conundrum at hand.
This is the conundrum: do we do “church” like we always do, setting aside one day a week for people to come and be washed in Baptismal waters, hear the Word of God, pray for the world, embrace one another, gather around a table of thanksgiving, be nourished and strengthened for life in this challenging world, and then to be sent right back into that world as God’s renewed and forgiven people? Or do we interrupt all those good things for the sake of one person who needs help? She has had this ailment for eighteen long years. Would one day more really be all that much? Can’t we help her after church?
Jesus says, yes: one day more is too much. Help her now. Leave church right now if you must, if somebody’s life and health depends on it. Take action right now to be reconciled to someone; reach out right now to help your neighbor. As good as it is, as glorious as it is, to gather around font and book and table, to embrace one another as beloved siblings in Christ, something else is better, something else is more good: choose the woman, Jesus says. She has been bent over for eighteen long years. Enough! Let’s help her now. Because that’s what church is all about.
Who is that suffering woman, for you? She might be your daughter, or the children of others, of any gender identification. She might be a whole city in the path of a hurricane, or teachers and staff and students in the path of a school shooter. She might be far across the world, or she might be living right next door, fretting about the health and safety of her kids. She might be you yourself.
Whoever she is, Jesus teaches us that the Sabbath rest is Good News for her, and when she receives this Good News, then that is how Sabbath rest is Good News for all of us. When that woman stands upright, then we all stand upright to rejoice gladly in what Jesus is doing. Later in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus describes his return at the end of all things, and he says, “When these things begin to happen, stand up straight, lift up your heads, for the time of your liberation has come.” When your neighbor stands up straight and lifts up her head, you and I, we will lift our heads too, and celebrate the liberation of all people in God’s sight.
And that is what church, and Sabbath, and following Jesus, is all about.
Preached at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Burke, Virginia, on August 25, 2019.