When compassion trumps law

July 22nd, 2016

Luke 13:10-17

During Jesus’ day, the temple was still the main place for Jews to congregate and worship on important religious holidays; however, the synagogue was the place where people would gather for the reading of the Law. It was a house of study. Apparently, Jesus was a regular attendee of the local synagogues (Luke 4:16). Picture him sitting among other teachers of the day, listening, asking questions, reading, and interpreting Scripture.

The stooped woman had come to the synagogue for reasons unknown to us. Maybe she wanted to hear Scripture read or interpreted? Maybe she was looking to be healed? Maybe a family member had simply brought her along? Who knows? Whatever her reasons for coming, it’s interesting that the woman makes no request of Jesus to heal her. She is not the one who approaches Jesus. He sees her and calls out healing to her. In other places we hear that someone’s faith has helped to heal them. It is intriguing that nothing is said of this woman’s faith before or after Jesus heals her.

Jesus takes the initiative and says to her, “Woman, you are set free from your sickness.” But when the woman straightens up and begins to praise God after Jesus lays hands on her, the synagogue leader immediately calls foul! His objection is based on the fourth commandment, to remember and rest on the Sabbath.

In Jesus’ day, there were certain codes of conduct and laws of appropriate behavior for the Sabbath. The Ten Commandments had been given after the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt. These laws were meant to help the new and free Israelite nation become the people of God by living in ways that honored God and built good human relationships. Through the centuries, the teachers of the law added and interpreted the commandments so that they became legal requirements. By Jesus’ day, there were many things that one could or could not do on the Sabbath. The synagogue leader reminds Jesus of the rabbinic principle that healing on the Sabbath is allowed only in critical cases, not for chronic conditions. Jesus dodges the whole issue of healing on the Sabbath and focuses on the issue of meeting human need rather than the issue of healing. Jesus focuses on releasing someone from bondage and suggests that in doing so, he honors the Sabbath and keeps the fourth commandment.

Jesus asks those who question his actions to reason with him. He basically says, “If you’d do something for your animal, would you not also do it for another human being? If an animal were bound, would you not untie it from the manger and lead it to water on the Sabbath?” Surely what they would do for an ox, they would do for another human being.

Jesus plays on the Greek words for “bound” and “loose.” If the law permitted the loosing of a bound animal for watering on the Sabbath, should it not be permitted for this woman—this daughter of Abraham—who has been bound for eighteen years? Can she not be loosed from Satan’s bond? God delivered the Israelites, who had been bound in Egypt as slaves, so isn’t the unbinding of this woman also a good thing?

Concern over the suffering of fellow human beings takes precedence over obligations related to keeping the Sabbath. Compassion always trumps law! Jesus challenges the religious community to think about what keeping the Sabbath really means. Does it mean just following the prescribed order of worship each week? Does it mean following the ceremony to the letter of the law no matter what happens? Jesus knows that religious people can be the most rigid kinds of folks when it comes to following a prescribed way of practicing their religion.

Jesus isn’t abolishing the Law of Moses, but helping the people in the synagogue have a better understanding of how to apply the law. The laws were given to help enhance life, not stifle it. Compassion will be the rule for all who follow Jesus. Jesus performs an act of service for this woman that was overdue for eighteen years. The announcement of the good news is an invitation to celebrate. Jesus confers on the woman a status of dignity by calling her a “daughter of Abraham.” The laying on of hands was a conferral of blessing.

We have our own written and unwritten laws. Christian churches have made rules, laws, regulations, and other prohibitions to try to protect the Sabbath. Laws have even been passed to force people to go to church. But what Jesus suggests is that the real idea behind the Sabbath is positive affirmation of humanity. We confuse the intent of Sabbath-keeping with our own ideas of rest or with that which makes the Sabbath restrictive and unpleasant.

Jesus reminds us that Sabbath is made for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath. The commandment to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy does not give us exact instructions on how to do it, but Jesus reminds us that the command was not given to stifle life. God’s concern for Sabbath-keeping is for the health and well-being of God’s people.

Jesus is bold in taking the initiative to release this woman, knowing he will be questioned. We may wonder if we would do something that we knew was right, even if in doing it, we knew it would probably create a crisis or a controversy. Whether we admit it or not, every church has procedures and protocols for what is supposed to happen at church. Breaking with these and doing something to loosen the bonds for human need is not always popular, but it seems to be Jesus’ way of remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy.

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