Sabbath, Law, and Liberation: Beginning an Academic Year

4th century sarcophagus, Vatican Museums
"And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”

Some of you may have heard, or may even have preached, that in this Gospel passage Jesus shows himself to be unconstrained by, or even contemptuous of, the legalism of Jewish law and custom (or just "the rules"). It’s one of a few such places in the Gospels where scripture, or at least its exposition in the mainstream of Christianity, gets leapt upon by interpreters eager to proclaim freedom from whatever forms of institution and tradition we may properly want to criticize, and present Jesus as the exemplar of such freedom. We find however, after taking our hermeneutical buckets to draw deeply from the wells of liberative prophetic proclamation, that we actually walk away slopping anti-semitism all over the floor of the Church.

When Jesus heals a woman who had suffered from an infirmity for eighteen years he encounters opposition from a synagogue leader. This is entirely plausible historically, but what Luke assumes but does not tell us in this story unique to the third Gospel is that Jesus is not actually critiquing Jewish practice, but participating in a well-known Jewish debate about what constituted the proper way to observe the Sabbath.

Although “Sabbath” has recently been appropriated by Christians, or at least some Christian ministers, to mean something like “day off” - we seem to do stuff like this with Jewish tradition rather often, don’t we - "time off” was not, and is not, the meaning of Sabbath. In scripture there are two accounts of the purpose of Sabbath rest, and neither of them is for the purposes of "work-life balance"; one is to commemorate creation itself, after which God rested, and the other is to commemorate the Exodus and the covenant with Israel. Sabbath involves rest, but it is not about rest; it is about memory, and celebration of creation and liberation.

Last Saturday - Shabbas - I was in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where (I was informed) there are more orthodox Jews than in Israel. My path from the subway to preach at a largely West Indian parish involved ducking and weaving through a veritable flow of orthodox Jews on their way to celebrate the God who creates and redeems. Otherwise, the world went on its way,  exercising its freedom by jamming the traffic on Eastern Parkway, and filling the stores for little purpose. Where do we think Jesus would have been?

When Jesus engages in his act of healing and liberation, he is not expressing indifference to the Sabbath; quite the contrary. He contests a view held by some opponents - and not, we know from other ancient evidence, among all Jews or even all Pharisees - that forced inactivity was itself the point.  Jesus in this act of healing not merely commemorates but performs the twin realities of creation and liberation to which the Sabbath points. The woman becomes a new creation, freed from her bondage as Jesus puts it, evoking the Exodus.  But this isn’t done despite the Sabbath, it’s a crowning of the law of Sabbath. Jesus here is not opposed to Judaism but embedded in it, a faithful Jew contesting and embodying the meaning of Sabbath, and rejoicing in God’s creative and liberative act which the Sabbath represents.

Of course Sabbath and any other pattern of embodied practice, any discipline about time or food or the body, can be oppressive as well as liberative; time will not save us, nor food. But the false claim of freedom from structure, tradition, and practice as in itself liberative is just that, false. Show me a claim that freedom from the disciplines of time and space, from symbol and sacrament, liberates, and I will show you just as quickly how those making the claim will insert new forms of power, while masking what they do.

This is particularly so for time, whose structures have been erased for many of us by the creep of consumer capitalism, which essentially claims to have abolished time. The inexorable systems of accumulation and dispossession are no respecters of time. There are no longer times not to consume, most obviously, but if this were not oppressive enough in itself, the eternal consumer also finds there is no time when not to work. The supposed freedom and flexibility of a world where structures of time, both for restraint and for celebration, have been demolished by capitalism and its ideology, is a false freedom, and workers and the poor in particular pay the greatest price. And the refusal of markers of time and culture are also the stuff not just that antisemitism is made of, but what racism in general, the refusal and rejection of difference, works by.

The curious history of Christian origins means that the Church emerged from its Jewish origins without the Sabbath, but rather with Sunday, as well as other markers of time; not thereby with indifference to time, as some may assume, but rather with a different set of practices concerning time, less definitively marked perhaps than the Sabbath, but still with a shape that suggests the core of our salvation story, just as the Sabbath still marks Jewish identity.

For Christian time, in its daily and weekly and yearly forms, is always Paschal time. By this I do not mean that cliche about being "an Easter people” with fixed smiles, but rather the acknowledgement that the whole of our being is caught up in the Paschal mystery - daily and weekly and yearly, we move through the passion of Christ, from waiting and uncertainty to redemption and new life.

We mark the day with morning and evening prayer - not an Anglican or Episcopal peculiarity by the way, but a universal tradition marking the coming of morning and evening as signs of resurrection; we mark the week with the observance of Sunday, a Christian Sabbath in some ways, commemorating not the seventh day of rest but the eighth, the day of the new creation; and we mark the year with the Paschal feast at its centre, a reminder that this is for us the character of the world, this redeemed cruciform existence. No, time will not save us, only Jesus will, but time does matter; like the body itself, like food and the other practices of our embodied selves, time is a palette from out of which our discipleship is depicted.

What then are we to do with our precious time? What will you do with this new academic year? With Jesus, we grasp time as the opportunity for celebrating creation, freedom, life. We enter time as Paschal mystery, seeing each morning and evening, each week, each year, not as arbitrary or empty, nor as times in which not to act, but times in which the reality of God’s creative and redemptive power can be made known. As we start this new year together, may it all be for us meaningful time, shaped by curiosity, by acts of love and service, and openness to the God in whose hand are all our times, and in whose mystery all time is redeemed.

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