TEXTS: Isaiah 58:1-14 and Luke 13:10-17
Now [Jesus] was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. 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. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.
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.”
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? 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?” 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.
Last week, I told you about this book I’ve been reading. It was written by two Christian psychologists—Henry Cloud and John Townsend—and it is entitled, Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No, to Take Control of Your Life.
Now, when Cloud and Townsend talk about “boundaries,” they mean those things which define us as individuals. Just as physical boundaries declare the limits of private property, our personal boundaries mark out our domain—our spiritual property: who we are, how we feel, what we believe, what we will or will not do. As the authors point out, God himself has very well-defined boundaries, and—in the Bible—he lets us know what they are. And we need to know that, if we want to be in relationship with him.
Time and again—throughout the pages of Scripture—God reveals his likes and his dislikes, what he will allow and what he will not tolerate. For example, one of the Lord’s boundaries—which he wants his children to respect—is this one, from the Book of Exodus: “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work …” (Exodus 20:8-10).
Sounds like a pretty firm boundary, doesn’t it? God’s boundaries seem clear and solid—and he wants us to have well-defined boundaries, too. According to Cloud and Townsend, that is the hallmark of a mature and well-adjusted individual. In fact, well-defined boundaries are what we need in order to live our lives properly.
A person with poorly-defined boundaries has great difficulty resisting the control, pressure, and demands of others. Usually, such people defer to the wishes of those around them, regardless of how they themselves feel about the matter at hand.
Not wanting to rock the boat, they bow to external pressure—and wind up harboring bitter feelings. As Cloud and Townsend put it, “they passively comply but inwardly resent.”1
Well, that’s not what we see happening in today’s gospel lesson, is it? Presented with an opportunity to heal a woman who had been crippled for 18 long years, Jesus grabs it—seemingly without caring that:
(1) it was the sabbath day; and
(2) he was actually inside a synagogue, teaching in front of the gathered assembly!
Seeing this poor, bent-over figure hobble into the room, Jesus interrupts his own sermon, calls her up to the front of the room, lays hands on her and declares: “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” And, Luke tells us, “immediately she stood up straight and began praising God” (Luke 13:12-13).
What gives? As an observant Jew—never mind as a rabbi—Jesus would certainly have been aware of the fourth commandment: “Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy.” How? By not doing any kind of work, that’s how! Everybody knows that. It’s always been that way, and it is still that way. In synagogue on the sabbath, you’re not even allowed to bring a pen and paper to take sermon notes. No wonder the synagogue leader was indignant!
“There are six days on which work ought to be done,” he says, “come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” Actually, it sounds like most of those present were dismayed and disapproving, because Jesus—ever tactful and diplomatic—responds by calling them all “hypocrites.”
I think Cloud and Townsend would identify this as a boundary conflict. The folks in the synagogue believe they understand the boundaries of holiness—the limits of acceptable behaviour before God. But Jesus clearly has a different set of boundaries.
“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?” he asks. “And ought not this … daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from [her] bondage on the sabbath day?” (vv. 15-16)
Now, up to this point, there’s been a lot of dramatic tension building. It looks like the precursor of a riot inside the worship space. But when Jesus says that … everything quickly calms down: “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” (v. 17).
So often in the gospel accounts, we hear that Jesus does something to enrage the good religious people, and as a result they try to lynch him. But not this time. This time, they listen to his words and are immediately ashamed of themselves. Their anger turns into rejoicing, and—in the blink of an eye—Jesus goes from being a heel to being a hero. What happened?
Well, what happened was that Jesus—lucky for him—was addressing a group of Jews who understood the spirit of the Torah. More than that, they had been paying attention over the years, when the scrolls of the prophets were opened and expounded upon. When Jesus argued that it was right and proper to do good on the sabbath, they might very well have remembered passages like chapter 58 of Isaiah. It warns against “trampling the sabbath” and “pursuing your own interests on [the Lord’s] holy day”—but it is actually part of a much longer treatise on religious observance.
The first part of Isaiah 58 deals with fasting, and reports the frustration of some who feel that God is ignoring their noble acts of self-denial. “Why do we fast, but you do not see?” they ask. “Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” (Isaiah 58:3a)
I can understand why they’re upset, can’t you? Here they are, doing all this great religious stuff, trying hard to obey all the rules and put on a good, sober face. Why, they even make a point of fasting—depriving themselves of food and comfort—to show how devoted they are to the Lord, how serious they are about self-denial …
And what do they hear from God? Nothing! Not a word. Not so much as a thank-you card. So they raise a protest against God, upbraiding him for being so impolite and ungrateful. “How come you haven’t acknowledged the depth of our piety?”
Well, beginning in verse three of chapter 58, the Lord tells them why:
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?
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? (Isaiah 58:3b-7)
The Lord continues speaking, and he makes plain his genuine concerns. What pleases him is not fasting, or strict religious observance, or public displays of self-abasement. No. The kind of sacrifice that pleases the Lord—and that will make him want to reward those who offer it—is quite different:
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
The LORD will guide you continually
and satisfy your needs in parched places … (Isaiah 58:9b-11a)
This is how you can avoid “trampling the sabbath” and “pursuing your own interests” on that holy day. As Jesus would say, “Love God with all your heart, and your neighbour as yourself; this is the entirety of the law”—on the sabbath day, or any other day. 2
So many of the “good religious people” whom Jesus met seem to have missed the point of it all. Whether it was their almsgiving, or their strict sabbath observance, or their exhibitionistic devotion, much of their piety was actually intended to improve their status in the community. Their real concern was to impress others with their holiness—not to honour God.
However, the synagogue congregation we heard about today was different. They must have been, or Jesus’ rebuke would have had no effect upon them. While they understood what God had said in Scripture about where his boundaries lay, they also understood that those boundaries belonged to God—and he could shift them as he saw fit.
The Old Testament contains several examples of that. Jesus himself refers to one of them in chapter 12 of Matthew, when his disciples are criticized for plucking and eating some heads of grain on the sabbath day. He draws the accusers’ attention to the story in the First Book of Samuel, where David and his men—desperately in need of sustenance—ate the consecrated bread, which was only supposed to be consumed by the priests.3
Anyway, the point—as Jesus also says in Matthew 12—is this: “it is lawful to do good on the sabbath” (12:12). Religious laws have their place, but God permits exceptions.
Or to put it differently, God gave us ears to hear his Law, but he also gave us brains—and he expects us to use them! To be sure, that takes a measure of courage, sometimes, to risk stepping over a boundary. But—as Cloud and Townsend explain in their book—the goal of boundaries is to learn to love in freedom and responsibility. “This,” they say, “is the true self-denial of the New Testament.”4
It is also the true self-denial of the Old Testament, as underscored by our passage from Isaiah. If many Jews in Jesus’ time seem to have forgotten this point, well … let’s face it: many Christians in our time seem to prefer religious form over spiritual substance.
In some places, the Sunday experience appears to be focused primarily on entertaining the worshippers. In others, it seems to be mostly about getting the service over with in an hour or less, so those present can congratulate themselves on doing their bit for God by staying awake through it all. I’m not sure which is worse!
But I suspect the distraction of a bent-over woman—or anybody in genuine distress—would be most unwelcome in either context.
Those first-century Jews, at least, were trying to respect God’s boundaries. Their hearts were in the right place. When Jesus reminded them that the responsibility to show compassion overrides the fine points of the Law, they got it. And their anger about the trespass quickly evaporated as their joyful gratitude caught fire.
Satan had bound this sister of theirs for 18 long years, but now—in this synagogue, on this sabbath—Satan has been defeated! What could be more appropriate? What could possibly be more honouring of the Lord’s holy day? And it all happened because Jesus was willing to shift some boundaries.
So, what’s the lesson here, for us? As we listen to this gospel story—and to the prophet’s words—what does the Lord require of us?
Perhaps the best thing we can do is examine our own hearts—taking a long, hard look at the quality of our faith, and daring to ask some probing questions.
Are there rules and regulations, doctrines and conventions and habits, which impede our ability to love and serve our fellow human beings?
Do we have boundaries which are so firm, and so rigid, that they cannot be shifted to include our society’s outcasts?
Are we prepared to welcome seekers, with all their doubts? All their fears and apprehensions? All their woundedness?
If it meant we could include a new generation of believers, might we be willing to change some of our cherished ways of doing “church”?
These questions might be disturbing—but I think they are the right kinds of questions for us to be asking at this point in our history, as we contemplate the future of the North American church.
Here’s how I see it: one way or another, our boundaries are going to shift. Either they are going to expand to include new possibilities, new people, and a new century … or else they are going to shrink—rapidly, and drastically.
Personally, I’ve never been a fan of shrinkage.
1Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend, Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No, to Take Control of Your Life(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), pp. 36-37.
2 See Matthew 22:36-40; also Mark 12:28-34 and Luke 10:25-28.
3Matthew 12:1-8, referring to 1 Samuel 21:1-6.
4 Cloud & Townsend, p. 172.