Shabbat shalom

On July 30, thousands of people in Ethiopia got their hands dirty as the nation planted an estimated 350 million trees across the countryside over the course of only 12 hours. The effort is touted as a new world record for the number of trees planted in a single day; it was part of the nation’s “green legacy” initiative.

In the early part of the 20th century, the landlocked nation in the Horn of Africa was 35 percent forested. By the beginning of this century, however, that figure dropped to less than four percent. That’s one reason the government is sponsoring an initiative to plant 4 billion mostly indigenous trees, or about 40 trees per citizen.

Dan Ridley-Ellis, head of the Centre for Wood Science and Technology at Edinburgh Napier University, told The Guardian that reforestation of any scale can have immense benefits to nations like Ethiopia.

Trees not only help mitigate climate change by absorbing the carbon dioxide in the air, but they also have huge benefits in combating desertification and land degradation, particularly in arid countries. They also provide food, shelter, fuel, fodder, medicine, materials and protection of the water supply,” he said. “This truly impressive feat is not just the simple planting of trees, but part of a huge and complicated challenge to take account of the short- and long-term needs of both the trees and the people.[1]

The trees and the people, the soil and the climate, they are all connected in a single fabric. In 2006, William Easterly, an economist, wrote,

I am driving out of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to the countryside. An endless line of women and girls is marching in the opposite direction, into the city. They range in age from nine to fifty-nine. Each one is bent nearly double under a load of firewood. The heavy loads propel them forward almost at a trot. I think of slaves driven along by an invisible slave driver. They are carrying the firewood from miles outside of Addis Ababa, where there are eucalyptus forests, and across the denuded lands encircling the city. The women bring the wood to the main citymarket, where they will sell it for a couple of dollars. That will be it for their day’s income, as it takes all day for them to heft firewood into Addis and to walk back. I later found that BBC News had posted a story about one of the firewood collectors. Amaretch, age ten, woke up at 3:00 A.M. to collect eucalyptus branches and leaves, then began the long and painful march into the city. Amaretch, whose name means “beautiful one,” is the youngest of four children in her family. She says:

“I don’t want to have to carry wood all my life. But at the moment I have no choice because we are so poor. All of us children carry wood to help our mother and father buy food for us. I would prefer to be able to just go to school and not have to worry about getting money.”[2]

At first glance, Amaretch is bent nearly double under a load of firewood, but it’s poverty that’s weighing her down.

Jesus encountered a woman bent nearly double on a sabbath at a synagogue, a woman bent by powers that rendered her quite unable to stand up straight. “Bound by Satan” Jesus called her condition. “Bound by Satan” may still conjure up images of a scaly-skinned, horned fellow with a tail, easily dismissed as a mythical, pre-rational attempt to explain the reality of evil, but I suggest we don’t dismiss the figure entirely. It allows us to name the systemic and pervasive character of forces that wield sin like a scepter, oppressing us, fragmenting and isolating us.

The woman who appeared in the synagogue where Jesus taught on that Sabbath had been crippled for eighteen years. We don’t know how old she was, if she was in her 20’s or past her 40’s. We don’t know if she was married or not, if she had children or not, if she came from a family of wealth 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. She could not walk upright.  She could direct her gaze only to the ground below. The horizon of her world had collapsed to only a fraction of what most of us see in our mind’s eye when we hear the word – horizon. She knew people not by their faces, but their sandals. She must have been in constant pain. I wonder what nicknames the children had made up for her, if they teased her from across the street or laughed behind her back. Eighteen years of all of that must have completely redefined normal for her. Perhaps she could not even imagine anymore that there was another way of seeing or being in the world.

But Jesus could and he did. When she appeared in the synagogue he saw her and called her over. It was customary for the teacher giving the sabbath talk to sit in a chair at the front. Jesus didn’t get up and walk over to her at the end of his talk. He called her to come to him as though he wanted to make sure everybody in the room took notice.

Her presence was not an interruption of his teaching but a part of it, possibly the most important part of it. “Woman, you are set free from your ailment,” he said to her and laid his hands on her. That’s all he did, proclaim her release and touch her. And she rose, slowly, I imagine, surprised by every inch of long-forgotten movement, delighted by the sudden ease of breathing, the wonder of seeing her own astonishment reflected in the faces of the people around her, until she stood upright with her head held high, words of wonder and praise pouring from her lips. What a joyous moment it was!

Only joy had to wait. The synagogue leader was indignant; he too was bent, though not as visibly as she was; he too was unable to see far beyond where he stood:  “There are six days on which work ought to be done,” he said to the congregants; “come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” He missed the fact that the woman hadn’t asked to be cured, healed, or released.

The seventh day was holy, set aside by God for rest, and keeping it holy meant refraining from work. 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. This synagogue leader wasn’t just a joyless rule enforcer; he had the holiness of God’s word on his mind and he was committed to a life of faithfulness, in his personal life as well as in his role as a congregational leader.

Healing on the sabbath was a difficult 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 more day?

But Jesus didn’t wait. Who wouldn’t untie their ox or 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, Jesus argued, how can we not see the need for a human being to be unbound and released to her full humanity?

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, on a sabbath in his hometown synagogue, Jesus read from 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 sat down to teach, and he said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”[3]

Today, he said. It was time for every child of Abraham to taste the sweetness of sabbath. It was time for every son and daughter of Abraham to be set free from bondage: breaking their yokes and chains didn’t compromise the holiness of the sabbath day – on the contrary, it finally brought the joy of sabbath to the bound and the bent.

Yes, the sabbath is a day of rest for the weary and a day of remembrance for all of us forgetful ones, but the sabbath is also a promise, an announcement of that seventh day when creation is complete in the peace of God, when all creatures simply are what they were created to be, to the glory of God.

Today, Jesus said, not someday. Today it begins, he said in his first sabbath sermon. Healing the bent woman was not a sabbath violation but its fulfillment for her. And for the rest of us, it is the announcement of what has begun: the redemption of creation, the liberation of humanity from all that binds and bends and blinds us.

The whole world seems bent by the unbending ways of lovelessness and injustice, but today we sing. We sing, even though our lives are still weighed down by worries and fears and so much we cannot name. We sing with them who hear the news of burning forests and go and plant a tree. We sing with her who stood up tall in the synagogue, praise rising from her lips. We sing of the One who bends toward us with great tenderness and the power to make whole.


[2] William Easterly, The White Man’s Burden (New York: Penguin, 2006), Snapshot: Amaretch. The BBC story is at

[3] Luke 4:18-21

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