God’s Sabbath Rest

churchDistanceBlossoms - CopyJesus’ healing of the woman who had been crippled for eighteen years (Lk. 13: 13–17) is one of many healing miracles where the Evangelist emphasizes its occurrence on the Sabbath. These healings were provocative to the Jewish leaders because they interpreted the Sabbath law to preclude any kind of work. Jesus clearly intended to challenge that interpretation but there is a deeper teaching about the Sabbath that he wants us to learn.

We see hints of this deeper teaching in these stirring words from Isaiah about the Sabbath:

If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath,
from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the Sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;
then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. (Is. 58: 13–14)

For the prophet, one dishonors the Sabbath by grimly pursuing one’s own interests instead of delighting in the Lord. In healing the crippled woman, Jesus was not pursuing his own interests, but that of another. More important, the healing caused much delight in the Lord on the part of the people who witnessed it except for the Leader of the Synagogue. A bit earlier, before speaking specifically of the Sabbath, Isaiah expressed God’s commendation of those who offer food to the hungry and “satisfy the needs of the afflicted.” ( Is. 58: 10) Jesus obviously thought that satisfying the need of an afflicted woman is a way of honoring the Sabbath.

Psalm 95 refers to God’s “Rest” to mean both entry into the Promised Land and the Sabbath Rest as God’s intended end for humanity. The rebellion of the Israelites in the desert threatens to prevent the Israelites from entering God’s “Rest” on both levels. (Ps. 95: 11) The author of Hebrews picks up this theme in its eschatological dimension, noting that Joshua had not led the Israelites into the ultimate Rest when we cease from [our] labors as God did from his.” (Heb. 4: 10)

The author of Hebrews returns to this eschatological theme at the end of the letter when he contrasts the frightening dark cloud of Mount Sinai that the Israelites came to with our coming to “Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (Heb. 12: 22–24) Once again, we have corporate rejoicing. More important, we have the “better word” of Jesus, the Forgiving Victim in contrast to Abel’s blood that inspired vengeance from which God had to shield the murderer.

The Psalmist’s warning that those who murmur against God and Moses will not enter into God’s Rest and the author of Hebrews’s use of the same threatening tone for those who refuse the warning from Heaven sound vindictive but the “better word than Abel” suggests otherwise. I think we do better to realize that God’s Sabbath Rest isn’t so restful as long as we grumble like the Leader of the Synagogue. Nobody was casting him out of God’s Sabbath Rest; he just wasn’t having any part of it.

Inspired by Jesus’ resurrection on the first day of the week, most Christians celebrate the Sabbath on that day when we celebrate the Paschal Mystery of Christ at the altar. Since the Resurrection points to the ultimate meaning of the Sabbath, I would think it is not too much to see this healing by Jesus as one of many foretastes of the Resurrection, an encouragement to celebrate new life from the bondage of illness and injury and social oppression. The healing of just one person seems a small thing compared to the heavenly crowd in Hebrews but the whole crowd rejoiced in the healing, indicating that healing one person entailed healing the whole community. This group rejoicing suggests that the Sabbath Rest is hardly a boring, static existence but a dynamic rejoicing in the interests and healing of others which leaves no room for murmuring and rejecting God’s blessings. We should be too busy rejoicing for that.

Seeing with More than the Eyes

churchDistanceBlossoms - CopyJesus’ healing of a man born blind in John’s Gospel (chapter 9) is much more remarkable than fixing the eyes so that they can see. In order to really see, the healed man would have needed a radical overhaul of his neurological system so that his brain could grasp what was being seen. John didn’t know about neurology but he did know that really learning to see involves at least as radical an overhaul of our human system to heal our deeper levels of blindness.

John shows us the blindness surrounding the blind man when the disciples ask Jesus if it was the man’s own sin or the sin of his parents that caused him to be born blind. The notion that the poor guy sinned before he was born should be enough to show us how blind this attitude is. This blindness was compounded by excluding the blind man from the religious practices of Judaism because he was blind. Neither the Jewish leaders nor even Jesus’ disciples could see any potential worth in the blind man.

That Jesus would take the man’s blindness as an occasion for revealing God’s work rather than for blame is to put mud on everybody’s eyes to recreate the world for us. The Jewish leaders react to the healing with anger. They seem determined from the start to discredit the healing rather than change their own way of seeing. Their search for blaming was rewarded when they discovered that the healing was done on the Sabbath.

It is important not to let Gospels stories such as this discredit the Jewish practice of the Sabbath. It was a great gift for Jews and for Christians who treat Sunday in a similar fashion, a day for renewal. That is the key: a day for renewal. The use of mud paste clearly refers back to the creation of humanity out of moist clay. The blind man is being recreated. In sharp contrast to the paralytic in John 5 who remained as paralyzed as he ever was no matter how much he carried his mat, the formerly blind man shows himself to be renewed at a very deep level. The clever way he handles the hostile questions from the Jewish leaders reveals a man with sharp intelligence and wit. Meanwhile, the Jewish leaders make it clear that their initial judgment that the blind man was a sinner and an outcast was immutable. As long as he was blind he was an outcast and once he could see, he was cast out for being healed by the wrong person in the wrong way. There can, of course, be no renewal, no re-creation if we insist on being immutable, neither can we see renewal or re-creation even when it takes place right under our noses.

But the man shows even more. James Alison’s concept of the “intelligence of the victim” suggests that the blind man had insight into what life was about and what God was about because he was blind and an outcast. He was given the opportunity of repudiating Jesus the way the paralytic did, which would have brought him approbation from the community, but instead, he staunchly defended Jesus, which landed him in the precise place of blame and expulsion as Jesus himself. It is in this place that the man really sees.

The disciples fade from the story after their question about who sinned, but far from really disappearing, their circle expands to include all of us who read and hear the story. This expansion forces us to choose: will we let Jesus re-create us in the place of shame shared with the man born blind, or will we hop out of the circle so that our lives will continue to be etched in stone?