A Sermon from Sherborne

The supremacy of love

A sermon for Mattins at Castleton, preached on Sunday 25 August 2019 by the Reverend Hugh Bonsey, Associate Priest


The Second Lesson is the Gospel reading for today (Luke 13.10-17.) St Luke tells a familiar story of Jesus healing on the Sabbath and being criticized and opposed by the religious leaders of the day. In Chapter 6 (vv.6-11) St Luke relates the story in Mark’s Gospel about the man with a withered hand (Mark.3.1-6). In Chapter 14 (vv.1-6) Luke has his own story of Jesus healing a man suffering from dropsy. Such actions by Jesus highlight the question of Sabbath laws and how they relate to human need. Jesus challenges his critics by suggesting that they would pull an ox out of a ditch, or water their animals on the Sabbath day. This infers, of course, that if animals can be looked after on the Sabbath, so can human beings. Luke has Jesus claim ‘The Son of man is lord of the sabbath.’ (Luke 6.5). This echoes the words of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel: ‘The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.’ (Mark 2.27).

Being Gentiles, I think that we are often unaware of what the keeping of the Sabbath means to Jewish people. I know that we have had Sabbatarian practices in the Christian Church, whereby everything stops on a Sunday. In my life I have seen the erosion of ‘keeping Sunday special’ in our own society. You will have had the same experience. Some commentators state, wryly, that Christians will keep the Sabbath for perhaps an hour each week when we assemble for worship, and then spend the rest of Sunday as an ordinary weekday. My grandfather, who was a fairly conventional Anglican parish priest, would tell his large family that they should attend Church on Sunday morning. After that they could spend the rest of the day as they wished! There are other stories, which I’m sure we have all heard, that tell of complete absence of work or play on a traditional English Sunday in the early to mid-twentieth century. Children were exposed to endless hours of utter boredom as their parents slavishly kept the supposed Sabbatarian rules. What a change from then to the present playing fields and shopping malls of not only England, but the whole of the Western world!

Over the last thirty years, I have often been to Jerusalem. On some of those visits, I have been there on the Sabbath. Usually pilgrim tour operators make sure that clients are well away from Jerusalem on a Saturday, often by visiting Jericho and going to the Dead Sea – where pilgrims can swim – or rather float! It is the Friday afternoon and evening which are so special in Jerusalem. As the daylight begins to fade, people, usually women, are hurrying around the market stalls frantically buying the necessary food and drink for the Sabbath or ‘Shabbat’. Everything must be ready for nightfall when ‘Shabbat’ begins. It is a time when families come together to share a meal. Such a time can strengthen family ties, but also give adequate sustenance to each person to survive the following day. On the Saturday no work is permitted by orthodox Jews. Western pilgrims are particularly aware of the scope of limitations that such a lifestyle can bring. For myself, I have abiding memories of hot coffee on a Friday evening at the hotel, followed by hours of concern as the coffee served became ever colder! Oh, for Sunday morning and hot coffee! In some Jewish circles, complete absence from work involves the removal of what we would describe as everyday necessities: no transport, no cooking, not even the switching on of an electric light (which involves the effort of pressing on the light switch). Yet the scene of an entire segment of society preparing and experiencing a complete absence of work seems to me to be very precious. The hurried preparations for the Jewish Friday evening will be experienced by ourselves on Christmas Eve and by Americans as they prepare for their Thanksgiving Dinner. Imagine what such special preparations must be like when they happen every week!

It is against this background that Jesus battles with the religious leaders, who uphold the Sabbath laws to the letter. Of course, it can be argued that when Jesus healed people on the Sabbath, in each of the examples quoted just now, those people were not in life-threatening situations – Jesus could have waited until the end of Shabbat, after nightfall. This is especially so as Jesus would have been in the same town all day, not being allowed to travel on the Sabbath.

St Luke’s Gospel is many people’s favourite. I think that this is because Luke was particularly interested in the caring and healing acts of Jesus to the ‘downtrodden’ and also women, who were often disadvantaged in his society, and indeed elsewhere in the Ancient World.

This morning’s story has a wonderful thread running through it – the wonderful truth that God cares for each one of us, and longs to heal us without any precondition, without any limitations set by merely human authority. The woman is bent down, forced to look at the ground in front of her. She cannot look people in the eye and have personal contact, she cannot raise her head and eyes in praise of God. She is bound fast by the powers of evil who deny her any contact outside herself. Jesus sees the woman and the condition in which she is living her life. He calls her to him and he heals her. Notice that the woman does not and cannot ask for healing herself; she is unaware of Jesus being there. Jesus touches her, proclaiming that she is free from her ailment. The response from the woman is immediate and complete – she stands up straight (for the first time in eighteen years) and then praises God.

Even before the controversial act of healing, Jesus challenges convention in at least two ways: he calls attention to a woman in worship and he touches her, thereby risking ritual defilement. It is noticeable that when the healing takes place there is no prayer as she is healed, as well as an absence of anticipation for healing (as in, for example, the man who had an impediment in his speech when Jesus prepares him fully to expect to be healed (Mark 7.31-37). The change in her life is probably more dramatic than we might realise. Eighteen years could represent half of her life, when the shortness of life expectancy in the first century is taken into account.

So, what is the overall view that we might have of this marvellous account of Jesus’ healing? We are drawn to the closing verses in this account from St Luke. Jesus introduces the idea that animals can be set loose or freed on the Sabbath; therefore, people can also be set free. The Greek word used is luei (meaning to untie or to free). It is used in connection with the animals and the woman. A person will untie (luei) their animal so that it may drink. The powers of evil have bound the woman for eighteen years. Jesus asks, ‘…was it not necessary [for her] to be set free (luqhnai) from this bond?’ The overriding theme of the story is that of compassion. Jesus has compassion for the woman. Jesus refers to the woman as ‘a daughter of Abraham’ (Luke 13.16). This is the only time that this description is used – in the entire Bible. Not only does this phrase make the whole story very Jewish, it elevates the woman to be in the company of the various ‘sons of Abraham’ listed in the New Testament. The religious leader is wanting to uphold the Sabbath and be faithful to the Fourth Commandment, but he fails to realise that to withhold compassion on the Sabbath is to withhold the loving purposes of God for his children. A commentator has given the following reflection: If it is right to loose an ox or donkey on the Sabbath, it must be right to loose a daughter of Abraham whom Satan has bound.  It is holy work to show compassion on the Sabbath.

The crowd were delighted at the healing and rejoiced, as Luke relates: ‘at all the wonderful things that he was doing.’ (Luke 13.17). In addition to the idea that compassion is the central act of Jesus in his healing acts, there can be a focus on the identity of God himself. I conclude my sermon this morning by quoting from the Australian theologian William Loader, who writes on this passage from Luke’s Gospel: What is God really like? What if God’s chief concern is not to be obeyed, but something else? What if God’s chief focus is love and care for people and for the creation? Then the focus moves from God’s commands to God’s people and world. It is as though God is telling us to get our priorities right. Commandments, rules, guidelines, traditions, laws, scriptures are also subordinate to that purpose: love.

The Reverend Hugh Bonsey, Associate Priest 25/08/2019
The Church of St Mary Magdalene, Castleton