In those days Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And behold, there was a woman who had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years, and was bent over and could in no way raise herself up. But when Jesus saw her, He called her to Him and said to her, “Woman, you are loosed from your infirmity.” And He laid His hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and glorified God. But the ruler of the synagogue answered with indignation, because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath; and he said to the crowd, “There are six days on which men ought to work; therefore come and be healed on them, and not on the Sabbath day.” The Lord then answered him and said, “Hypocrite! Does not each one of you on the Sabbath loose his ox or donkey from the stall, and lead it away to water it? So ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound — think of it — for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath?” And when He said these things, all His adversaries were put to shame; and all the multitude rejoiced for all the glorious things that were done by Him.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit!
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ!
In today’s passage, we hear about the miracle of healing of an infirm woman on Saturday. In the beginning of the passage we hear that Jesus is preaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. Synagogue is a Greek word which means “the House of Assembly,” and the Jews came on that day to honor the Sabbath, to pray together, read the Scriptures and glorify God. The Jewish service in the synagogue has some similarities with our Christian services of Matins, Vespers, and the liturgy of the catechumens, because these Christian services have developed from the services in the Jewish synagogues. The service in the Jewish synagogue included reading prayers and psalms, reading Scripture, and preaching. Reading Scripture and preaching were the central part of that service, and we can see the same today even in our Orthodox services. The ruler of the Jewish synagogue was the head of the community who was elected by the community to perform this ministry. This person didn’t have to be a Levite or a priest. At the same time, any Jew, any man who was 30 years or older could preach in the synagogue. Jesus, when he came to the synagogue, was asked to preach, and He used this privilege to proclaim the Gospel of the Kingdom.
In the middle of the service, when Jesus was preaching the Kingdom of God, He suddenly noticed a sick woman who had been suffering from her illness for many years. He stopped his sermon to heal the woman. For many people in the synagogue, it was difficult to understand this action. In fact, we can ask ourselves why did Jesus need to interrupt the service to heal the woman? Why did He need to do it at that time and on that day? Why did He decide to do this on Saturday, during the service, when everyone came to pray and praise God? Why couldn’t He do the same on a different day? Why did He violate the rules? The woman had been sick for 18 years. Her life was not in danger. Couldn’t she wait for one more day to be healed of her illness? This was the question that the ruler of the synagogue asked Jesus, and other people who came to pray in the synagogue on that day were likely asking themselves the same question.
Now, we can ask ourselves: What is the Sabbath? Why is the Sabbath so important for the Jewish law, and why did healing the woman on the Sabbath cause an argument between Jesus and the Jews?
We can read about the Sabbath in different parts of the Old Testament. For example, here is a quote from the chapter 20 of Exodus that speaks of the Fourth Commandment:
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your manservant, or your maidservant, or your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates; for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it (Exodus 20:8-11).
Here is another quote from chapter 35 of the book of Exodus:
Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a holy sabbath of solemn rest to the LORD; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death (Exodus 35:2).
As we can see, according to the Jewish law, a person who does not celebrate the Sabbath shall be put to death. This is a very serious statement.
The Sabbath is the day dedicated to God. As we just read, the Sabbath is established to remember the creation of the world, to remember the fact that God himself rested on the seventh day from all His work, and therefore He blessed and hallowed this day. By celebrating the Sabbath, people resemble God. God commands His people to set aside one day of a week on which they shall not do any work. This day is the day of the Lord, the day to remember the Creator who gave us life and who is the source of our life. This is also the day to meet the community, to meet other people of God’s holy nation, and to remember together their mission, to remember that they all are chosen by God and freed from slavery. The Sabbath should be the day of reading and studying the Scriptures. It should be the day to remember the Covenant with God and give thanks to God. This day should be fully dedicated to God, to study His law, and to have fellowship with other members of God’s household. This is the day that is given to people to free them from vanity and earthly cares, to give them rest from their work. The commandment about the Sabbath is applicable not only to work, but to everything that can distract one’s attention. In Judaism in our days on Saturday it is also forbidden to use a cell phone, to work on a computer, watch TV, listen to the radio. All of that is done to remind people that they are God’s Holy Nation. If people don’t remember that every week, over time they can forget about their holy mission.
The commandment of the Sabbath is not easy, and we can understand this. Even if the weather is good, even if this is the time of harvest, even if someone has a lot of work, no matter what, this person needs to lay aside on that day all earthly cares and fully rely on God.
The Jews had a strong desire to fulfill God’s commandments in the best way, and over time they developed a lot of rules how to fulfill the Sabbath. However, as it often happens in the human societies, these rules themselves over time became a part of the culture, and the meaning of the Sabbath was lost. It turned out that people, while striving zealously to obey the law, over time began to follow not the Law of God, but their own tradition, and at the same time they stopped fulfilling the will of God. It turned out that the law, while being good in its nature, if it is misunderstood and overstressed, can be harmful; it can reduce love. The ruler of the synagogue believed that Christ had violated the Sabbath. In his opinion, Jesus could have healed the woman on a different day. But according to God’s vision, the Sabbath is the best day to do such things. We remember the words of Christ: “I have come not to abolish the laws but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17). To fulfill means to bring to fulness. While preaching that the Kingdom of heaven is at hand, Jesus showed by his deeds that indeed the Kingdom of heaven has come.
To explain the Jews why He was performing the healing on the Sabbath, in John’s Gospel Jesus says: “My Father is working still, and I am working” (John 5:17). We live in the seventh day of God’s creation, and the whole human history from the Fall of man to the Second and Glorious coming of Christ is a part of this seventh day. God continues to act during the time of human history, He continues to love and take care of His creation. He builds the Church, He grants the law, He delivers people from slavery to sin, He shows mercy, He does miracles. He continues to work on our salvation and help us grow to the fullness of the image of God.
The Sabbath is the day when God’s people are called to act like God, to learn from Him and follow Him. This day is a symbol of the whole human history. Just as God creates and saves, so His people are given at least one day a week to lay aside their cares, to stop being anxious about themselves, and do the work of God. Just as God loves and cares about the world, so His people are called to love and care about the world. Therefore Sabbath is the day when people are called to do more work of love than on any other day. This day was given to people to remind them that their real treasure is in Heaven, to remind them that they do not fully belong to earth but to the Kingdom of God because they are created in God’s image.
According to the Gospels, God wants us to “seek first His kingdom and His righteousness” (Matt. 6:33) at all times, on Sunday, on Saturday, and on all other days of the week. However, even for us, Christians, if we want to learn how to fulfill God’s will at all times, it is important to learn how to seek His will and try to fulfill it during at least one day a week. The Commandment about the Sabbath is relevant to us Christians. For us, the main day of the week is Sunday, although the Old Testament Sabbath corresponds to our Saturday. In our tradition Saturday is a special day, liturgically different from any of the weekdays. Saturday, like Sunday, is a feast day that has lighter, less strict, rules for fasting, and, like Sunday, Saturday is the day when it is prescribed to serve the full Liturgy, even during Great Lent.
However, for us, Sunday, like Sabbath for the Jews, is a day of assembly, a day, when the whole community meets to worship God. This is a day of prayer. This is a day of rest from work and a day of deliverance from vanity and earthly cares which enables us to read the Scriptures, read spiritual literature, and study God’s commandments.
However, as we just heard in today’s Gospel, this is not enough. For us, Christians, this is a day of special and active service to God and our neighbors. This is a day for us to learn to deny ourselves for the sake of our neighbors. This is a day for us to learn to care for other people’s problems, sufferings, and illnesses. This is a day when our heart should become as open as possible. This is a day when we should learn to trust God and act out of love, and by doing that, to enable Him to act in us and perform his miracles.
Dear brothers and sisters! Let us try today, and also in other days of our lives, to keep our hearts open to God and to each other. Let us look seriously at the Fourth Commandment and try to apply it to our life. Let us learn to love each other and all our neighbors, and by doing that, we would fulfill the will of God and become worthy to be called the disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ!
Christ is in our midst!