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Our reading this week is from the gospel of Luke:
On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.
Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.”
The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”
When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing. (Luke 13:10-17)
This week, let’s begin by intentionally rejecting antisemitic interpretations of this week’s reading. This passage isn’t a Christianity-versus-Judaism argument against the Sabbath. It represents an argument within Judaism and among Jewish people about what constitutes valid Sabbath observance and what actions violate the Sabbath. Remember, Jesus was an observant Jew remember (see Luke 4:16). It’s telling that this passage ends with all the Jewish people agreeing with Jesus’ interpretation of how Sabbath observance should meet people’s needs. This story is not anti-Jewish, nor is it anti-Sabbath.
In Luke’s Jesus story, there is a social debate on what permissible actions on the Sabbath should prioritize. Judaism has always justified temporarily setting aside Sabbath restrictions for any condition that was life-threatening. So whatever people needed to survive was always permitted on the Sabbath.
In this week’s reading, we encounter a condition that is not life-threatening but that the story paints as preventing the woman from thriving. (I’ll address the ableism about this in a moment.) This story is one of the healing stories in Luke’s gospel that creates a tension of priorities, pitting people’s needs for thriving and not simply surviving against the demands of Sabbath observance. This theme recurs across the canonical Jesus stories (compare Luke 14:1-6; Mark 3:1-6; John 5:1-9; and John 9:1-7).
Within this context, there is also an important economic and labor justice component to the Sabbath. We’ll discuss that next.
(Read Part 2)