Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel
by Kristin Berkey-Abbott
The readings for Sunday, August 22, 2010:
First Reading: Isaiah 58:9b-14
First Reading (Semi-cont.): Jeremiah 1:4-10
Psalm: Psalm 103:1-8
Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 71:1-6
Second Reading: Hebrews 12:18-29
Gospel: Luke 13:10-17
This week's Gospel, and others like it, is often used to show the rigidity of the religious officials of Christ's time. And indeed, the Pharisees and other temple officials were extreme in their adherence to the law. To be fair, they thought that strict observance of the purity codes would lead to the salvation of the Jews. Viewed in that light, their horror at the miracles of Jesus makes a certain amount of sense. The future of the chosen people is at stake--couldn't Jesus wait one more day to heal the woman?
I feel immense sympathy for the woman who is so afflicted that she cannot straighten her back. For eighteen years, she has suffered. It's the rare person who doesn't at least have a glimpse of what that must feel like. Our burdens can weigh us down so much that we can't look up from the floor.
Jesus makes it clear that any day is a good day to unloose people from the issues that bind them. Again and again, he tells us that we are to stay alert for opportunities to minister to each other.
Yet in our busy times, I also find myself feeling an odd sympathy with the leader of the synagogue, who says, "There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days to be healed and not on the sabbath day." The leader of that synagogue two thousand years ago couldn't have imagined the times we live in, our own age when it seems impossible to get away from work, where we're expected to be on call twenty-four hours a day.
One reason I didn't go into medicine, or some other kind of career centered around crisis, is that I didn't want to be on call twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Yet that mentality has even crept into higher education, where I am greeted with incomprehension when I tell people I don't carry a cell phone with me (it lives in my car, so that I can summon help in an emergency). We are expected to be always available, always ready to offer assistance.
It's good to remember that even Jesus had to withdraw occasionally. We, too, can start to rediscover the Sabbath. Try declaring one day a week to be your Sabbath day. It doesn't have to be the same day on which you go to Church. Many of us have to work on Sundays, after all. But once a week, can you turn off your phone? Can you turn off all your electronics? Can you focus on what's important? Jesus reminds us again and again that the things of this world aren't important; your job should be lower on the priority list than other things, like your relationship to God and your building of community and your nourishing of yourself.
Maybe you can't have a whole Sabbath day. But maybe you could declare a Sabbath evening once a week, where you turn off the TV and eat real food while you sit at a table and reconnect with your loved ones. Here we could learn a lot from our Jewish cousins. In her book Mudhouse Sabbath, Lauren Winner describes the many ways that Jews celebrate Shabbot and the ways that those rituals nourish and comfort. She reminds us, "But there is something, in the Jewish Sabbath that is absent from most Christian Sundays: a true cessation from the rhythms of work and world, a time wholly set apart, and, perhaps above all, a sense that the point of Shabbat, the orientation of Shabbat, is toward God" (page 10).
In an ideal world, you'd have twenty-four hours out of every week to re-orient yourself towards what matters, but if you can't do that, start small. Every morsel of effort that we make towards this re-orientation will pay enormous dividends. The experience of Sabbath Time is one of the primary ways that God frees us from our infirmities.