Sabbath Peace

How long does it take for a woman to bend under the weight of her life?

I saw the picture of a teenage girl carrying an enormous bundle of branches on her back. The bundle looked like a solid column, eight feet long; it reminded me of the rolls of carpet I have seen sticking out of the backs of trucks. Only this wasn’t a truck, it was a girl. I read the caption: “My name, Amaretch, means ‘the beautiful one.’ I am the youngest of four children in my family. Today, I spent from 3 in the morning to 3 in the afternoon collecting the branches of eucalyptus trees which people use as firewood. I will sell this big bundle at the market and with the money we can buy food for my family for a couple of days.”

Amaretch, ‘the beautiful one’ lives in Ethiopia, and every day, girls and women like her from the shanty towns of the capital Addis Ababa climb the mountain to gather firewood and carry it back to the city. Even the younger ones have little time for school. How long does it take for a girl to bend under the weight of her life until she is quite unable to stand up straight?

I once sat in a circle with a group of colleagues, at a nice conference center, far from anything resembling a shanty town. We sat in a circle, all of us facing to the middle, where a young woman sat alone on a chair. We were to name the spirits that bend human beings, and we were supposed to do it not in the abstract with names like poverty or colonialism. Instead, we were to recall words we had heard and images we had seen over the years, some blunt, others very subtle; we were to recall the small, daily things that cast shadows on the divine declaration that we are creatures made in the image of God.

There were baskets with shawls, and every time one of us named one of the spirits that bend us, he or she placed a shawl over the young woman’s head. The shawls were light as gossamer, almost weightless, but there were many. Layer upon layer covered her head, her arms and shoulders, and soon she began to bend under the weight, unable to see and breathe. She disappeared. We could barely hear her voice from behind the thick veil. She was no longer present as a person, but as a barely visible body, bent by crippling spirits.

The woman who appeared in the synagogue where Jesus taught that day had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. We don’t know how old she was, if she was in her 20’s, 30’s or 50’s. We don’t know if she was married or not, if she had children or not, if she came from wealthy home or if she had to beg for food. All we know about her is that for eighteen years she was bent over and quite unable to stand up straight. Whatever it was, it controlled her; it burdened her, bent her double, and blocked her. She could not walk upright. Her horizon had narrowed. She could direct her gaze only to the ground below. She knew people not by their faces, but by their feet. Had her neighbors gotten used to her being bent? Did they take notice of her or did she always stay below their line of sight? What nicknames had the children made up for her? Did they tease her from across the street or whisper behind her back? Was she in constant pain? Eighteen years of this had redefined normal for her, perhaps she could not even imagine any other way of seeing or being in the world.

But Jesus could and did. When she appeared in the synagogue he saw her and called her over. Perhaps you wonder why he called her to come to him rather than going to her. Did he do it to make sure everybody took notice? How long did it take her to make her way through the congregation, shuffling all the way from where she was to where Jesus was sitting? Did the crowd part before her, or did she have to say, “Excuse me” again and again? And Jesus, did he get up from his chair or did he get down on his knees so he could see her face?

I can’t imagine him standing there and declaring above her bent body, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” He could have done that from across the room. Everything I know about Jesus tells me that he looked into her face when he spoke to her; that he held her hands in his when he declared her free from her crippling bondage; that he rose slowly, raising her up with him until she unbent and stood up straight – and immediately she began praising God. Her lips spoke words of wonder, perhaps she shouted, perhaps she sang, her whole being became praise – but none of her words were remembered, no part of her witness to God’s liberating grace in Jesus was written down. Not one syllable.

Instead of the joy of life restored we get an argument. Joy must wait. Not that the objections of the leader of the synagogue are more important than her witness, but they are serious. “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” The seventh day was set aside by God for rest, and keeping it holy meant refraining from work. The sabbath day was a day of rest for human beings and even for their farm animals. For one day each week, God’s people were to live not by the work of their hands, but solely by the gifts of God. For one day each week, God’s people were to experience the freedom of complete dependence on God. Thus we must not assume that the leader was an obstinate contrarian; he had the holiness of God’s commandment and the holiness of God’s people on his mind and in his heart.

It was fine for Jesus to study and teach on the sabbath, but healing was a more complicated topic. The common understanding of the sabbath commandment was that medical emergencies could be and even had to be attended, but that chronic illnesses were a different matter. Non-emergencies could wait. In the leader’s mind, Jesus could have said, “Woman, come and see me tomorrow.” After eighteen years, what’s one day, after all?

But Jesus didn’t wait. And that doesn’t mean he became an advocate for a more relaxed attitude toward the sabbath and for opening the day of rest for business. He added his voice to the ongoing debate about sabbath observance: Who wouldn’t untie their ox and donkey from the manger on the sabbath in order to lead them away to give them water? Untying farm animals and leading them to the water on the sabbath was common practice, and not only was it considered permissible but necessary for the animals’ well-being. If we can see the need to untie a thirsty animal, how can we not see the need for a human being to be unbound and released? 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?

At the beginning of his ministry, in his hometown synagogue, Jesus read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And then he said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:18-21). Today, he said. His coming marked the beginning of the today of fulfillment. It was time for every child of Abraham to taste the sweetness of sabbath. It was time for every daughter and son of Abraham to be set free from bondage: releasing the captives doesn’t taint  the holiness of the sabbath day – on the contrary, it finally brings the sabbath peace to the bound and the bent.

The sabbath is a day of rest and remembrance, but also of promise. The sabbath is a foretaste of that seventh day when humanity is at peace in God’s creation. The sabbath is day of rest for the weary and forgetful, but also a day to immerse ourselves in God’s promise.

The sabbath is a day to stand up and raise our heads and lift up our eyes and lift every voice and sing – in the great company of those from whose shoulders the yoke of oppression has been lifted. To sing, even though our own lives are still weighed down with worries, cares, and fears. To sing even though lovelessness and injustice still bend the world into oppressive structures. To sing with the woman whose name and witness never became part of our sacred tradition, but whose healing and redemption is also ours.

Jesus held her hands in his when he declared her free from her crippling bondage, and rising slowly, he raised her up to her full stature and dignity as a daughter of Abraham and a child of God. We sing, our hands in his, rejoicing because he lifts up all who are bent by unbending ways. With her we sing of the One who bends toward us with great tenderness and the power to make whole.