When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” (Read the whole passage)
I know a pastor who tells his congregation the following about his day off: “if you want to see me on Monday, you have to die.” A dramatic statement, with some humour, to make the point. There is only one exception for which he will give up his personal time, imminent death.
Boundaries around time, work and family, leisure and hobbies are sometimes hard to navigate. We live in a world that is always challenging boundaries. The boundaries of national borders, the boundaries of science and technology, the boundaries of social convention, of workers personal and private time, of online privacy and security.
And so to leave our time and place to listen in on a scene from Jesus’ time and place, we have to understand that boundaries were not so easily pushed and broken. Boundaries and rules and limits were hard and fast, exceptions were rare.
Yet, like that pastor I know who makes a joke about having to die if you want to see him on a Monday, Jesus outlines a similar exception today. He encounters a bent and crippled woman in the synagogue, and without hesitation offers her healing. As the community of faith gathers in God’s house, the place of healing, nourishment and renewal, this crippled woman is touched by God and granted new life. Now she can look her friends and neighbours in the eye, instead of the feet. It is not only healing of a crooked back, but a healing of community. Jesus’ compassion seems to make perfect sense.
Yet, before there can be any celebration, the leader of the synagogue scolds Jesus in front of the crowds. Healing and curing illness is work, and it is the Sabbath day. A day for rest and relaxation. Surely one more day would not make a difference after 18 years. The leader is worried that this exception will lead to other exceptions, and then the day set apart for no-work will be just like any other day of the week.
Jesus’ exception to the no-work rule on the Sabbath seems pretty obvious to us. The healing only took a moment, so why not heal the crippled woman? To the people of Israel, working on the Sabbath was a much bigger deal that it is to us. The Israelites had left slavery and 7 day work weeks in Egypt. In the wilderness, Yahweh then gave them the 10 commandments, including the one to rest on the Sabbath. No work for one day a week was very good news. Keeping the sabbath for rest was very important for the Israelites. The leader of the synagogue’s objection to Jesus doing work was an honest attempt at reminding the people of this good news. Taking Sabbath time was one of the most import things the Israelites did.
For us, the importance of a day of rest is… well not that important. We hear the story about Jesus today and say the healing only took moment, but we also answer those extra emails at midnight, answer those after hours phone calls, stay that one extra hour of work even though we should go home. We find it much more acceptable to give up rest time for extra work, and we celebrate those who work too much. We live in a culture of busy… rest is simply not a priority for us. And because we relax on our own boundaries, we often feel comfortable to infringe on the boundaries of others. How often have we slipped into a store minutes before it closed? Made a phone call or sent a text later than we should have? Parked in a parking spot for people with disabilities?
Of course the problem is not about measuring out how much work is okay on the Sabbath day, but how we live with the rules that govern our lives as community. How many exceptions do we make to a rule before it stops being a rule? In the Church, we have had to deal with rules and exceptions for a long time. It used to be that women and members of the LGBTQ2SIA couldn’t be pastors or serve in other leadership roles. Divorces were not permitted except in cases of infidelity. Children were not communed until confirmed. Marriages, baptisms and funerals were not performed for non-members. Sometimes those who weren’t of a certain ethnicity or skin colour were not welcome to worship.
Both keeping the rules and allowing exceptions has always been a difficult process to navigate for us. And today Jesus doesn’t actually make it easier. Jesus heals a woman on the Sabbath in a 1st century synagogue. Today, Jesus might be inviting his drug addict friends to church, or tweeting with non-church goers during the sermon, or playing soccer in the sanctuary with the youth, or hosting Islamic prayer on Friday nights, or serving meals to homeless during communion.
Jesus bends the rules wherever he can, and if Jesus were busy doing all these things we would certainly protest like the leader of the synagogue, and with good reason. Yet, despite our protests, Jesus often seems to find the exceptions that we cannot see. Jesus is often more concerned with the 1 than the 99.
Still, sometimes our rules and exceptions have no obvious way around them. We can see that our rules are hurting some, but breaking them would hurt others. It feels like our only alternative is to choose the lesser of two evils. One more day of suffering for one person is the best we can do without giving up everyone else’s day off. Or so it seems. But for God, the exception is where mercy and compassion are given. And God is all about the exception:
God is giving up godly power to be intimate with powerless creation.
God is giving forgiveness to sinners who deserve condemnation.
God is preaching Good News to those who are too poor, too sick, too unclean earn it. God is going to the cross and dying when God shouldn’t die.
God is coming back to life when death should be the end.
We struggle with the rules, yet God holds all the exceptions within Godself. We cannot see the way to compassion and mercy, but God does. And God sees people before God sees rules. God values us more than the rules. We are judged and found imperfect under the rules, under the Law, but God loves us perfectly as we are.
The rules are supposed to help us live together peacefully, but eventually they serve only to condemn. And God finds the exceptions, when the rules push us down, God finds us and lifts us up. Lifts us up with mercy and compassion.
When the rules lay us low, and we are weighed down with the burden of keeping the law, when we cannot imagine exceptions without chaos, God find us in the rule bending Christ.
Christ who touches us with mercy and compassion,
Christ who holds all the exceptions in God,
Christ who is God’s exception, sent to be with us.
Christ who sets us free.