Ruthanna Hooke: Set Free on the Sabbath Day

Come, Holy Spirit, and kindle in us the fire of your love.

People were coming to him who could not see, people were coming who could not hear, people who could not speak. There were lepers coming to him, and people who were paralyzed were brought to him. But in this whole flow of desperate humanity coming to Jesus for healing, this woman who is bent double captures my imagination and my sympathy. Her ailment was certainly no worse than these others, but to me it seems particularly cruel. Maybe it’s because I teach voice to preachers, and the first step is always learning how to stand – in balance, in alignment, with your spine long and your head floating up on top of your spine – so that you are open and free and strong and present and able to let breath into your body to fuel your voice. Able to see, able to breathe, able to speak. And so, when I contemplate this woman, I ache for how little of this she can do.

You’d understand her situation better if at this moment you could stand up – and I urge you to do this if you can – to stand up from your chair and find the position she’s in at the beginning of this story: bent double and quite unable to stand up straight as the text says. Try getting into this position for a minute, and then see what it’s like to be there. Notice how little you can see, how hard it is to breathe, how hard it is to speak, the sense of constriction, powerlessness, the inability to look anyone in the eye and then the pain that starts to shoot up your legs and your back. And then imagine standing this way for 18 long years, as Jesus says.

While this woman’s condition has all of these physical symptoms and sensations, at its root it’s not a physical ailment but a spiritual one. Luke describes the woman as having a “spirit” that keeps her crippled, echoing earlier descriptions of those who come to him with maladies that are described as evil spirits. And later, Jesus describes her affliction as being bound by Satan. Her affliction is spiritual, she’s in bondage to the powers of evil that corrupt this world, captive to these powers and principalities. And so, Jesus does not use the language of healing when he removes this affliction from her. Instead, he uses the language of setting free: “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” And later, arguing with the leader of the synagogue about whether it was right to cure her on the Sabbath, Jesus says, just as you would unbind an ox or donkey to lead it to water on the Sabbath, “Should not this woman, whom Satan bound for 18 long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?”

Jesus tells us at the beginning of his ministry that his work in this world is all about freedom: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me… to proclaim release to the captives…to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18). This mission propels him throughout Galilee and now even toward Jerusalem, to take on the burden of the powers and principalities in his own body. So, when he sees this woman who is bound, who is captive, he does not delay a minute before calling her over, laying hands upon her, and declaring her free. It might seem that the leader of the synagogue has a perfectly reasonable point in saying that there are six days of the week when work ought to be done, so can’t this woman, who after all has had this ailment for 18 years, wait one more day to be cured? But for Jesus, the answer is clearly no – the mission to bring freedom is so urgent that it cannot wait even one more day.

What are the burdens that you carry? What is it that keeps you bound? What is it that makes your back bend and your shoulders hunch, that prevents you from breathing, from seeing, from speaking? Maybe it is worries and cares. Maybe it is addiction. Maybe it is the expectations of others, or your own expectations of yourself, that cause you to live a life that is not really your own. Maybe you are simply bent double by exhaustion, after two years of a pandemic. Maybe you are bowed low by the suffering of this world, the scourge of racism, a deepening environmental crisis, political polarization dividing our country to such an extent that increasingly we do not share a common sense of what is true.

Whatever your burdens may be, Jesus’ urgent desire is for your freedom, and he reaches out to you, to me, even now, to offer that freedom. The freedom that he offers is not freedom in the way we think of it in the American context. For us, freedom most often means being left alone, or being able to do whatever we want. But in the Bible, and theologically speaking, freedom means to be able to choose not whatever we want to do but what we most want to do. Freedom, in other words, means being free to choose God, to choose to worship God, to follow Christ, to be led by the Holy Spirit, and in doing all of this, to choose to be the particular person God has created us to be. That is true freedom, the only true freedom. Freedom is the reorientation of our lives back to God, the spiritual freedom that is the antidote to the spiritual captivity by the powers of evil that bind us as they bound the woman Jesus set free.

Receiving Christ’s gift of freedom does not mean that the realities of racism, of environmental crisis, of our own personal cares and concerns go away, right away. When the woman was set free and stood up straight, she was still a woman living in a patriarchal culture; she was still a daughter of Abraham, living like the rest of her people under imperial occupation. These realities had not gone away, but she was made free in relation to them. She was no longer crushed by them, because God’s power and presence had come upon her, and this divine power, working in her, could do so much more than she could ask or imagine. This freedom that transformed her in her very bones was an initial sign of the breaking in of God’s realm, like the mustard seed that Jesus talks about right after this story, which starts so humbly and then grows into a magnificent tree, or the small lump of yeast that leavens the whole loaf. This realm takes root in humble ways, in the freedom in one woman’s body, but then expands outward, more and more, to transform the whole cosmos, to set it free from its bondage and give it the liberty and the glory that God intends for it.

This freedom is the ultimate destiny of all creation, the goal for which God created it, and toward which the Spirit is drawing us. But it can be tasted right now in our lives today, sometimes in small and humble ways, like the mustard seed or the grains of yeast. It can be tasted, first of all, in Sabbath. When Jesus cures this woman on the Sabbath, it is not only that he cannot wait one more day to bestow his gift of freedom. It is that the Sabbath is itself all about freedom. The Sabbath was given to the people of Israel as one of the ten commandments, and God bestows the commandments beginning with these words, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” It is God the liberator who gives all of the commandments, including the Sabbath commandment, as a gift of freedom. The Sabbath sets us free because it reorients us to God. In laying aside work, we remind ourselves that it is God who is in charge, not we ourselves. We rest in order to come to know, in our very bones, that God is God and we are not God, that everything we do is done by God’s grace, and not by our own power alone. We set things down, we let things be, so that we can learn ever more deeply that we are valuable not because of what we produce or the work we do, but simply because we are children of God. “I am the Lord your God,” says the God who gives the Sabbath, “you shall have no other gods but me.” In our very being, in our creation, we were made to be in relationship to God. This is the foundation of our identity, and the Sabbath is when we take the time to recognize this, to return to this, and, in this true identity, to be free.

Even though keeping the Sabbath is not a suggestion, but a commandment, in our culture we tend to be pretty terrible at keeping the Sabbath. Long gone are the days when all the stores were closed on the Sabbath; there is little sense culturally of marking this day as any different from the others. More than this, we live in a society and an economy that defines human value by how hard we work, how much we produce, how much money we make, and the Sabbath is profoundly alien to this whole way of assigning value. For this reason, to stop, to rest, to keep the Sabbath is deeply counter-cultural. It might seem like keeping the Sabbath is a privilege that only people with a certain degree of affluence can afford, that for those working two and three jobs just to stay afloat, it’s impossible to observe Sabbath. But even in these cases it is possible to find a few minutes in the day just to be, to rest in God’s presence, to taste the freedom that is your birthright. Even to take this little bit of time is a political act of resistance to dehumanizing economic forces, the powers and principalities that seek to hold us in bondage.

In addition to keeping Sabbath, if you want to taste God’s freedom right now in the midst of your life, there’s something simple that I recommend: to stand. To stand as the woman did once Jesus set her free from her bondage. To stand and feel your feet under you, your spine long, your head floating up on top of your spine. To feel your strength and your openness. To feel your divinely given freedom in your very body – that you are free to breathe and to see and to speak. Free to praise God, as the woman did as soon as she could stand up straight. Free to participate in Christ’s work of bringing freedom to this burdened and bent-over world. Free to be like the mustard seed that grows into a tree that shelters others in its boughs. Free to be like the yeast that transforms the dough into something that can feed multitudes.

God’s freedom is as close to us as moments of rest, as near to us as our bodies. Jesus does not want to wait any longer to give you and to give me this freedom. “Ought not this woman, this man, this child of God, who has been bound for far too long, be set free on the Sabbath day?”

Please pray with me.

Liberating God, we give you thanks for sending Jesus among us, to bestow upon us the freedom that is life with you. Open our hearts, our minds, our bodies, and our souls to receive this freedom and to live it, to stand boldly as witnesses of your abundant life to a world bowed down in suffering and brokenness. Give us grace to be seeds, to be yeast, to be bearers of your transforming reign, that this world may be drawn more and more into your peace and your glory. In the name of Jesus Christ our savior we pray, Amen.