In 1971, an obscure rock group had a song that hit the top 10 for a few weeks. It was called “Signs”. The chorus was:
Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind
Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?
The song was all about the rules we impose on the world and on each other- whether you have to have a shirt and tie to be served, who can park where, what the fines would be for littering; yield signs, stop signs, all kinds of signs telling us what’s acceptable and what isn’t; what the rules are. This week’s Gospel is about keeping rules- and about when it’s right not to keep them.
Why do we have rules? I think they’re usually put in place either for a good reason-(like driving on the correct side of the road, and like not allowing children to play with matches), or they’re put in place to control others and maintain a position of power (like having rules about which drinking fountain a person could drink from, or limiting voting rights to just men, or earlier, to just men who owned land). You may recall the time when the law said that margarine had to be left uncoloured (so it was the original colour of margarine: white, not yellow, like butter). The dairy industry pushed for that law to protect their market.
Some rules are made at a time when they make sense, but they’re kept in place long after they no longer serve a useful purpose. Until the 1960’s the City of Baltimore had on its books that if you drove an automobile (a horseless carriage) in the city, you had to have someone walk in front of you with a lantern or a bell, warning the drivers of horses that you were coming.
But even the rules that are still valid and that are for a good purpose can sometimes be unhelpful when situations arise where stepping outside them makes more sense. Like the driving example: if you come across a truck parked in the single right-hand lane of Georgina Point Road, and no one’s coming and you can see around them, it’s probably ok to drive across a double yellow line to pass the stopped truck.
And there’s the celebrated case in law of the Donner Party. For a very good reason, the rule (the law) was that you couldn’t eat human flesh. It was a capital offense. But the Donner expedition had walked into the Donner Pass in the winter and had been snowed in so badly that they couldn’t make their way any further until Spring. After being there for months, they ran out of food and were starving. Some of the party died of starvation and hypothermia. So those who outlived the others decided that even though the law said they couldn’t, they would do what they had to do to survive. In the trial that was held after they got out the next Spring, the defense lawyers successfully argued that the greater good was served by breaking the law, creating in the Common Law what’s called the “defense of necessity”.
Even when a law or rule makes sense in most situations, there are times when there’s something more important at play and the rule needs to be set aside.
And so, we come to the Gospel story we read today. Jesus was in the synagogue, preaching. He was keeping the Sabbath. But when he looked out over the assembled people, he saw a woman who was severely bent over with some physical malady. And he considered the balance between the rule of keeping the Sabbath and the woman’s need, and chose to heal her.
We could read this story as a slam on the Pharisees and Jewish elders who were being all rule-bound, but I wonder if that’s fair. As with so many of the Gospel stories that set the Pharisees against Jesus, I’d like to think I would have been a follower of Jesus and would have acted in the way he was teaching, but if I’m really being honest, it’s the Pharisees whose behaviour and choices I too often see in myself. They weren’t being horrible people- they didn’t say to Jesus that he shouldn’t heal her at all. They were saying that he shouldn’t heal her on that specific day. After all, they might have reasoned, she had been bent over for 18 years, what was the urgency?
Why did he have to do it on a Sabbath, rather than wait for a few more hours and then be able to both keep the Sabbath and heal the woman? And I have to admit, that reasoning might have persuaded me if I’d been there that day.
And why choose that particular woman to heal? It’s more than likely that at synagogue that day there were a number of people who needed his healing touch. So, it makes me wonder if Jesus wasn’t trying to make a deeper point.
Maybe he was pointing to something even more significant than telling the Pharisees that their particular rule about the Sabbath took a back set to his healing. Could his point have been that whatever the rule, whatever the law, we need to consider how we live out that rule in light of the bigger question of how we’re loving God and loving our neighbour as ourselves?
I don’t think Jesus was saying we shouldn’t worry about keeping the Sabbath. Keeping the Sabbath is all about being intentional in our lives and our faith. As we know, it was established in the Ten Commandments. It’s an article of faith- not a cultural or legal rule. It’s one of the things God asks of us that I think it was put in place for a very good reason.
Without setting aside a specific time to stop the busy-ness of our daily lives to rest and focus on our relationship with God, we can very soon lose sight of what’s really important.
So, for four thousand years our Abrahamic forebears have taught that our spiritual health requires that we set aside time for God, that we keep the Sabbath free. It isn’t just another rule- it’s one that’s essential to our well-being.
The Sabbath was traditionally on the seventh day- which the Jewish faith counts as Friday night to Saturday night and the Christian faith usually counts as Sunday. But I don’t think the need for a Sabbath is really about a specific day on the calendar, it’s about setting aside a specific time in which to deepen our relationship with our Creator. A time for renewal and refreshment.
As you might imagine, for a priest, setting aside Sunday as a day of rest and quiet reflection would be a bit difficult. Sunday’s a work-day for me. But having said that, do I set aside any other day? A day when I turn off my cel phone, my iPad, my email, my television, and try to focus on my relationship with God? And I wonder if very many of us do that. It’s hard to keep a Sabbath.
When I feel guilty about that, I begin to make excuses and prevarications in my head. I ask myself if there’s any real value in keeping a Sabbath- whatever day of the week it is? The Israelites had a very different context in which to live. The 21st century is a frenetic, information age, not at all like the agrarian society of the first century. And anyway, I read scripture and think of God every day. I write sermons and consume articles and books by celebrated theologians all week. Isn’t that enough?
And then I think of today’s Gospel and my contrary inner voice tries to argue that I’m being like Jesus, addressing more important things than keeping the Sabbath.
But what’s the “more important thing”? How do we identify it and still faithfully and intentionally set aside time to think and pray and listen to God? How should we measure what’s more important? And what’s just a distraction, an excuse to let the Sabbath slide?
So that little voice in my head changes its tune and begins to nag me. It reminds me of my obligation to make time for God. It points me back to the rule that I need to honour God. I hear it reciting in my ear the first part of the Shamah (the “Hear O Israel”): I need to love God with all my heart and all my soul and all my mind and all my strength. It reminds me to honour God.
As many prophets have written, you can’t honor God out of some sense of obligation. It has to come from your heart. Otherwise, I think, the list of restrictions of what you can and can’t do on the Sabbath takes the focus off of God and places it on keeping the rule.
I think that’s what Jesus was talking about. Not that keeping the Sabbath was wrong, but that keeping it just in order to be pious is really not the point.
And when Jesus says we need to love God and love our neighbours as ourselves, there’s three in that equation: God, our neighbour and ourselves. One of the ancillary gifts of setting aside a time to be with God is that we’re also feeding ourselves- loving ourselves. We give ourselves permission to hit the reset button and let go of the challenges of our daily lives, even for an hour or two.
I wonder what it might look like to intentionally keep the Sabbath in today’s busy world. Might it be faithful to set aside a specific time – say 3 hours twice a week- that you turn off all the distractions of this world and read, and pray and listen to the universe whispering to you? I know that I find it hard to set that time aside, but I also know that if I do, my relationship with God will be richer and that in honouring that relationship, my life will be far better than it would be if I spent the same time on Facebook.
In today’s Gospel story, I think there are two very different values that Jesus is holding in holy tension: first, keeping the Sabbath- to be renewed and re-energized – and second, remembering that it’s not about the rule, it’s about loving God and loving your neighbour as yourself. The holy tension asks us to hold both of these in our hearts and find a healthy balance between them. That’s why it was right to heal the woman on the Sabbath. And it’s why it’s right to allow yourself time to be fed.
So my prayer for each of us is that we’re aware of the holy tension between keeping the Sabbath and helping our neighbours and ourselves, and that we try, even just for the week, to set aside a specific time in which to be with God. To create a Sabbath time. Not out of obligation, but because we’re honoured to do so, because we want to love God, just as he loves us.
Because if we do, we also get the added advantage of allowing ourselves- for a moment- to let go of the trials and challenges of life and to hit the reset button. And if we’re interrupted in our Sabbath to help a neighbour, that’s ok. We just need to find another time to be with God. A time, as the psalmist said, to rest in the Lord and wait patiently for him.
The old song, “Signs” was about signs that limit us. The Gospel story’s about a different kind of sign- a holy sign that points us toward our Creator. It’s a sign worth paying attention to.