What must be done on the Sabbath in order to keep from violating it? This is an important question to first century Jews. Exodus 20:8-11 states,
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
The Sabbath is a day of rest; no work is to be done. But at some point clarification is necessary. What does it mean to work? Can I draw water from a well? Can I cook? How far can I walk? By Jesus’ day the religious leaders had become experts in the Law of Moses defining the boundaries, the parameters for Torah observance. When a faithful Jew wants to know what can and cannot be done on the Sabbath, the religious experts must give guidance because the Law of Moses does not get into specifics.
So, what can be done on the Sabbath? The short answer is– It can be done on the Sabbath if it cannot wait until the next day. If your child is sick and cannot wait to see a doctor, one may travel farther than a Sabbath’s day’s journey in order that she may receive treatment. Animals must be fed, so feed them. The answer to this question is generally a reliable guide to Sabbath observance.
Jesus enters the synagogue on the Sabbath. A woman enters to worship. She is not named. In that world, women were mostly anonymous. And how much more so this women who has a physical condition that keeps her bent over so she can hardly see in front of her without having to strain her neck upward. She goes unnoticed. But Jesus, who always noticed the anonymous folks in his midst, sees her, calls her over and heals her. How can she not be noticed now? Standing up straight with her head held high without having to work at it?
One would think that everyone in that place of worship would be thrilled at the work of God that has restored the abundance of this woman’s life, but not everyone is happy. The leader of the synagogue, a position usually reserved for an upstanding individual in the community, has a complaint: “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.” If it can be done the next day, it must not be done on the Sabbath.
Could Jesus have waited twenty-four hours to heal her? Could he have called her over and said to her, “See me tomorrow?” much like setting up an appointment with a doctor? Probably. What’s one more day after eighteen years? But why must she wait? One of Jesus’ criticisms of the religious leadership in his day was that they treated the Sabbath as an end in and of itself, and not a means to the end God had in mind when he gave Israel the Sabbath. In another place Jesus says to the Pharisees, “The Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). The leader of the synagogue had made Sabbath about what one shouldn’t do in order to keep the Holy Day with integrity. His focus was on the Sabbath itself. Thus he had forgotten that the Sabbath was God’s gift of weekly re-creation for God’s people. Sabbath was the day to rest from labor for God’s people to center themselves, to be reminded of their identity and their purpose in the world. It was a day to worship God, to spend time with family, to remember that life does not consist in daily labor, that work does not give God’s people their identity, but that just by being Israel, they were God’s beloved children.
Thus for Jesus, Sabbath was not the wrong time to heal; it was the perfect time to heal. What better time to offer this woman re-creation, a restored life, than on the one day set aside for such re-creation? His focus was not on the Sabbath as an end in and of itself, but as a means to an end that offered wholeness to humanity.
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?”
Unlike the leader of the synagogue, Jesus refuses to see this woman as less than a domesticated animal. Even a donkey would get better treatment on the Sabbath by this synagogue official than he was willing to offer this “daughter of Abraham.” I can imagine the joy this woman felt, not only in being healed, but in Jesus’ recognition that she too is a beloved child of God. She is a daughter of Abraham.” She is not anonymous in the eyes of God. She could once again walk down the street with her head held high both physically and emotionally with pride. She was a daughter of Abraham.
Throughout the four Gospels, if we are reading them carefully, it is clear that Jesus does not reject the Law of Moses, he intensifies it. Yes, that sometimes means certain regulations are no longer required, such as kosher laws, but Jesus sees the Law as spurring us on to do more than is required. He is not concerned with the “it’s perfectly legal” excuse. In Jesus, Law and Grace come together. J.D. Walt writes,
When it comes to the relationship between the Old Testament Law and the Gospel of grace people are all over the map. People go so far as to make the untenable assertion that the God of the New Testament is different than the God of the Old Testament.
Grace holds no meaning for a fallen humanity apart from Law. And we must understand “Law” does not mean “the rules.” The Law is the Covenant, which means the structure and substance of relationship. The Old Testament is filled with grace as is the New Testament with the Law.
The law and the gospel meet one another at the intersection of Holy Love. They are two sides of the same coin. The law explicates the holiness of love. The gospel empowers the love of holiness.
A wise theologian once explained it for me as follows: “The law was given so the gospel might be desired. The gospel was given so the law might be fulfilled.”
Because Jesus does what is beyond what the Law requires, he fulfills the Law by healing on the Sabbath. In his act that day, Jesus reminded all those gathered for worship what the Sabbath was truly about– re-creation, and for– human beings in need of restoration.
The synagogue official had focused on the love of the Law; Jesus, on the other hand, had embraced the Law of love. Both views are not a rejection of the Law, but only the latter can fulfill the Law that God gave to us.
In his ministry, Jesus was always doing more than what the Law required– and so must we.