Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 25, 2019
Luke 13:10-17 Commentary
When the truth humiliates you, you are humiliated indeed. Worse, when a truth so obvious that it can be stated in a sentence or two humiliates you, then your shame is profound. It’s one thing if a philosopher builds an elaborate argument to disprove some point you had made but it’s another thing if a simple and swift observation of the facts does you in. Sometimes it is the proverbial getting hoist with your own petard, trapped by your own words.
It reminds me of a moment in an episode of the TV show M*A*S*H in which the perpetually squirrely but somewhat dim-witted Major Burns claims (falsely) that he was not the person who had been anonymously squealing on his comrades. Through a series of verbal give-and-takes, suddenly Burns gets backed into a corner, prompting Col. Potter to ask,
“So why’d you do it?”
“I thought it was my patriotic duty.”
“I thought you said you didn’t do it,” Col. Potter rejoins.
“I thought I did, too . . .” is Burns’ sheepish final comment.
In Luke 13, Jesus is said to have humiliated his opponents. I don’t think humiliation was his main goal, however, so much as his thinking-out-loud incredulity over the fact that some people can be so incredibly obtuse and, in their obtuseness, be also so downright cruel.
Jesus routinely did things on the Sabbath that got the religious authorities hopping mad at him. And in every case Jesus took the opportunity to remind them that despite their pious intentions, they had rather significantly misunderstood the very purpose behind the Sabbath.
The Sabbath was meant to be a day of delight, rest, enjoyment. In the Hebrew Scriptures the Ten Commandments are given twice with virtually no difference between the words in Exodus 20 and the words in Deuteronomy 5. Only the commandment on the Sabbath day shows a significant variation. Whereas Exodus 20 grounds the practice in creation (“. . . for in six days the Lord God created the heavens and the earth . . .”) in Deuteronomy 5 it is grounded in redemption (“. . . remember that you were slaves in Egypt but that the Lord your God led you out of that land . . .”).
Sabbath has something to do with both creation and redemption.
On the creation side is that fact that after six days of creating according to the Genesis 1 account, the Lord God rested on the seventh day, not because he was exhausted and in need of an afternoon nap. No, what God did on the seventh day was the same thing Adam and Eve were to do on what constituted their first full day of existence: viz., revel in and delight over the creation.
On the redemption side, the Sabbath day is a reminder that God has liberated us from all that is evil and injurious to human flourishing. We take joy in remembering that God is redeeming the creation, salvaging all that evil has sullied so as to return it the glory God intended in the beginning.
The fourth commandment lists just one Sabbath caveat: no work. But over time the devout in Israel took that one injunction and ran with it. Somewhere around 613 other rules and regulations were larded on top of the fourth commandment all in an effort carefully to define work and to help people avoid even a hint of performing work on the Sabbath. What was supposed to be a day of joy in both creation and redemption became a frightening day in which people worried the whole day long they might screw up and perform a deed of work after all.
Among other things Jesus made a point in his ministry to say “No, no, no” to all that. As the Lord of creation and the Savior aiming to redeem that creation, he was in the perfect position to tell us what Sabbath was supposed to have been all along. But mostly he just illustrated the point through his own deeds, in this case healing someone. It was an act of redemption, liberating her from all that had ailed her, and it therefore tied in with the integrity of the original creation, too, in that it restored her to the kind of health and vitality God desires for all his creatures.
Creation. Redemption. Jesus had both Sabbath themes up and running at the same time (and also, both constitute the two major themes of the entire Bible!).
However, things had fallen far from any kind of a Sabbath vision such as the one Jesus possessed. It had gotten so bad that and ox or donkey had a better shot at being treated well on the Sabbath than did a human being. Since no one wanted to see an expensive piece of livestock die of dehydration on a Sabbath, someone had long ago put in a proviso to the Sabbath day regulations that untying an animal for the purpose of getting it to a watering trough was not an act of work. But since no one had thought to add a proviso or a caveat about helping a human being on the Sabbath, what Jesus did that day to this hapless woman did not meet with approval.
Without even realizing it, the authorities had granted a higher status to a donkey than to the average human being!! This was a truth hidden in plain sight but sometimes it takes a fresh set of eyes to spy that obvious truth. Enter the eyes of Jesus.
It is a sad thing when religion—however piously intended—becomes a tool to prop up the views of a few no matter who gets hurt by such efforts. The Sabbath day was all along intended to be a day of joy and creation revelry. When such a basic fact gets forgotten—and then when this gets pointed out—those of us who get caught up in it all cannot help but feel humiliated. But that is not part of what God desires for us on the Sabbath, either!
The kicker in this story is Luke’s revelation to us that what ailed this crippled woman was not your run-of-the-mill spinal disorder. This was no slipped disc or arthritic growth along the spinal canal. This condition was caused by an evil spirit sent by Satan himself. True, even had her condition been the result of a fall from a ladder two decades earlier it still would have been fitting for Jesus to heal her, Sabbath day or no. But that her situation was attributable to the forces of evil makes Jesus exorcism of the demon and the consequent healing of her physical frame all the more praiseworthy and all the more fitting a deed for a Sabbath day.
The last line of this text says that although the authorities walked away muttering into their beards over their slam-dunk humiliation the people “were delighted.”
Ahh, now that is what the Sabbath should be all about: DELIGHT!
I recently read the new book Breakfast with Einstein. Among other things it reminds us of one of Einstein’s most important insights. Before Einstein, people assumed that whatever time is, it is constant. “Time marches on,” the old saying goes, and before Einstein we assumed that time marches ever and always at the same pace. It does not matter who you are or where you are or what you are doing, you cannot affect time. If your battery is running out, then your watch may run slow but the actual time that passes around you can never slow down or speed up.
But Einstein realized that time is a truly existing dimension. Time is as real as a hunk of wood or a bouquet of flowers. And it is not constant. Time is affected by motion and position. It is relative. Einstein’s classic illustration has to do with a train. Picture yourself riding on a train. Picture another person sitting on a bench alongside the train tracks watching the train go by. Now imagine that two bolts of lightning strike the train tracks, one just behind the moving train and one just ahead of the train. To the person sitting on the bench it is clear that these two bolts of lightning struck the tracks at the exact same instant. They were simultaneous. But the person riding 60 MPH on the train would not perceive it that way.
If you were riding on the train, you would see the bolt of lightning ahead of the train before the one behind the train. At one time it was thought that this could be explained the same way you can deal with sound waves. We all know about the Doppler Effect: as a car blowing its horn passes by you, the pitch changes from higher to lower. The sound waves coming at you get scrunched up, raising the pitch. As the car pulls away from your stationary position, sounds waves get stretched out, lowering the pitch. So perhaps the same thing happens with the lightning bolts when you are on a moving train–you just get to the light waves of the one bolt quicker since you’re moving toward it (and away from the other one).
But it doesn’t work that way. The phenomenal insight of Einstein was that you cannot explain this difference in perception by fiddling with the speed of the light because the speed of light is constant. Light always goes the same speed–you cannot get light to come at you faster. So Einstein realized that what accounts for the person on the train seeing the lightning bolts differently than the person on the bench is that time is different for the person on the train. Time is relative. It can be affected by motion. Scientists have even discovered that if you take two very sensitive nuclear clocks, synchronize the time on both, and then place one at the top of a skyscraper and one at the bottom and let them tick away for a few days, it turns out the clock on the bottom runs slower because it is closer to the earth’s center of gravity than the one at the top!
Well, it took an Einstein to figure that all out but there is a sense in which the importance and impact of time is something Jews and Christians have known all along. The Bible itself lets us know that time can affect us but also that we can affect the time around us. That’s why there is such a thing as Sabbath. God took care to weave Sabbath rest right into the richly embroidered tapestry of his creation. As such, Sabbath is not just a human technique for stress reduction, it is a way to take hold of time and make it serve the cosmic purpose of glorifying God by paying attention to the rhythms God himself instituted.
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