Posts Tagged ‘keeping the sabbath’

Scripture in service of abuse

August 24, 2019

Pentecost 11 – 2019
Luke 13:10-17
Marian Free

In the name of God, Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer, Life-Giver. Amen.

Here’s a question: “Did you know that there are two versions of the Ten Commandments and, if you did, did you realise that they differ in regard to keeping the sabbath?”

As you know, the Ten Commandments are given to Moses when the Israelites are wandering in the wilderness. When at last they are about to enter the promised land, Moses reminds the people of all that has happened since God led them out of Egypt. In this second version, Moses changes the fourth commandment and provides a different reason for “observing the sabbath and keeping it holy”. Unless it is pointed out to us, we might not notice the difference because, apart from a slight rearrangement of words the two versions are the same apart from the justification. So, when Moses receives the commandments the creation story is given as the basis for sabbath keeping. “For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.” (Exodus 20:8) Moses’ farewell speech as recorded in Deuteronomy emphasises the liberation of Israel from Egypt: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.” (Deut 5:15)

The two explanations complement rather than contradict each other. Genesis tells us that on the seventh day of creation God blessed and hallowed the day. We are not to understand that God was exhausted, but rather that God was taking the time to revel in all that God had made. The sabbath was intended to be a day of delight, a time to appreciate God’s gifts and to allow oneself to be held in and by the presence of God.

Deuteronomy recounts the tale of liberation– from Egypt, through the wilderness to the present – and God’s role in bringing the people from slavery to freedom in the promised land. Not surprisingly, the sabbath is associated with redemption. It is set aside as a constant reminder that God has set the people from free from slavery – from everything that limits or prevents human flourishing.

The sabbath is God’s gift to God’s people – a day in which to delight in God’s blessings or to remember with gratitude the freedom God has won for them. “Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy”.

So far so good, but around 613 BCE it seems that people began to worry about what it meant to keep the sabbath holy, in particular what did it mean to “do no work”. The attempt to define “work” produced rules and regulations that were so detailed and unwieldy with the result that, rather than being a day of rest (of delight or redemption), the sabbath became a day of anxious concern that one or other rule might inadvertently be broken.

It is in this context that we have to read this morning’s gospel. What appears at first glance as a healing story is in reality a story that primarily serves to illustrate the disagreement between Jesus and the leader of the synagogue with regard to the observation of the sabbath. (A debate that is very much in the public domain as we can see through the reaction of the observers). It appears that the synagogue leader views the sabbath commandment through a very narrow and literal lens. He believes (as Jesus points out) that an ox or a donkey can be unloosed and led to water on the sabbath, but because the law has nothing to say on the matter, he refuses to accept that a woman who is bound can similarly be set free on the sabbath in order to be able to make the most of her life.

Jesus has no such difficulty. Informed by both versions of the fourth commandment and by using the refinements that have been added to it, Jesus looses the woman from that which binds her. He liberates her from her ailment, from the ungodly power that has her in its thrall and he sets her free to stand tall and to live life to the full. Surely on this day of redemption, this is the way in which to understand the commandment. The woman is freed to delight in creation – which she does by immediately standing and praising God. The sabbath is the perfect day on which to set someone free!

It is no longer the sabbath law that is misinterpreted and misused. During the course of my own lifetime the church has been forced to acknowledge that our inherited laws had become laws that had power to oppress and even to destroy the lives of many. Battered women were sent home to abusive husbands because of Jesus’ injunction against divorce. Children have been subject to abuse because they were taught not “to talk back” to adults or worse that they had to “honour their father and their mother”. Gay men and women continue to be denigrated and excluded and denied the comfort and joy of being in relationship with one another because the bible says one thing or another.

We must always be on our guard against rigid interpretations of our faith that limit rather than encourage others. It is my belief that scripture should be read through the lens of God’s love and compassion, God’s inclusion of the marginalised and God’s desire for all people to be made whole. The lesson to be learned from today’s and other controversy stories in the New Testament is that scripture can be used as much to bind as to liberate and that the bible can be used as a tool of abuse as readily as it can be used as an instrument of compassion and respect.

Scripture is a tool for liberation and not for oppression. Let us pray that we will never find ourselves guilty of using scripture to limit, to bind or to repress, but only to encourage, to set free and to enliven.


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