Sunday 25 August 2019
Celebrating the Sabbath
By Trevor Jamison
Minister of St Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields
Context: a congregation of 20-25 worshippers in a town in the West of Scotland
Aim: to rediscover ‘Sabbath’ as resource for just and joyful living, not as a deadening weight of regulation
‘Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath’ (13:10).
A female church member once told me about her experience of observing the Sabbath day. In Liverpool, prior to 1939, she and her sister were forbidden by their father from knitting on a Sunday. He deemed that such activity constituted ‘work.’ When the war came, they successfully lobbied him to be permitted to knit for the troops on a Sunday, redefining knitting as charitable action. Perhaps they referenced Jesus’s healing of the woman on the Sabbath in support of their request. Moreover, after VE and VJ Day in 1945, they just quietly carried on with their Sunday knitting, and nothing more was ever said.
Perhaps, like her, many of us have memories of twentieth-century Sabbath observance; stories of religious and social rules and regulations that limited what we could or could not do on a Sunday.
Back in first century Palestine, teaching in synagogues on the Sabbath day was not controversial. It was a laudable activity. What occurred on this occasion, however, was very controversial. Jesus decided to bend – or break – several of the rules so that a woman could straighten her back. His healing work done, the woman straightened up and praised God, but the synagogue ruler was ‘indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath’ (13:14). ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done,’ he says, ‘Come on those days and be cured and not on the Sabbath day’ (13:14).
No doubt he had in mind the Fourth Commandment, about keeping the Sabbath day holy: ‘Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour 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 … for in six days the Lord made heaven and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested on the seventh day; therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it’ (Exodus 20:8-11).
The world of first-century Palestinian synagogues seems a very long way away from ours today. In fact, even the Sabbath observance practices of the mid-twentieth century seem firmly located in the past. Yet, today I want us seriously to consider observing the Sabbath. To be clear, though, this is not a call to reimpose the sort of social and legal regulations which many found deadening to life. No! We should observe the Sabbath day as being about everyone getting the chance to enjoy life to the full within and as part of God’s creation. And we want to do this in freedom and with justice.
Had the synagogue leader recalled the image of God resting on the seventh day it might have occurred to him that keeping the Sabbath in the way that God does is less about rules and regulations of religious decorum and more about enjoying creation. Rather than the seventh day in the creation story being an add-on it is in fact the crown of God’s creative activity. Perhaps, dare I suggest it, enjoyment of creation, not making us human beings, is the purpose of God’s six days of work. If so, then for us creatures said to display God’s image in their life and being, Sabbath is for rest, for recreation (re-creation) and enjoyment!
But such a Sabbath can only be fully enjoyed by all if it is equally available to all, and Jesus is prepared to bend or break several formal and informal rules of his time in order to make this so. He is prepared to ‘work’ on the Sabbath by healing another human being. Additionally, as a man, and contrary to social expectations, he publicly notices a woman, even interrupting religious teaching to talk to her. To top it all, he touches her, ignoring concerns of his day about ritual defilement.
These social rules, which so restricted the lives of women and others in Jesus’ day, are not the rules of our day. We have different rules, though women and others might contest whether all of these provide equality for all before God. Even were we to respect or accept all such rules, which then or now weigh down women, in addition to the physical back condition which weighed down this woman, all such rules are trumped by understanding that God’s Sabbath is about joy and freedom.
People are not to be weighed down by human regulations that prevent them standing up straight, so they can enjoy life within and as part of God’s creation: ‘should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham … be set free on the Sabbath day?’, Jesus asks. There’s no better day in all God’s world to do that very thing.
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