If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in. If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.
The Holy Gospel according to Luke. Glory to you, O Lord.
Now [Jesus] was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 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?”
When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.
The Gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer. (Psalm 19:14)
“If you finish your chores by 4:00, then you can go to town with me.” Parent.
“If you get over 90% on the test, then you will receive an A,” Teacher.
“If you finish in the top three, then you will move on to the district rally,” Coach.
All of us are familiar with “if-then” propositions—especially those from our childhood and schooldays—when various authority figures used them to motivate us. As we move into adulthood, the formula is usually a bit more veiled and carefully phrased, but the dynamic is the same.
- “We expect steady and regular work performance from our employees,” means, “If you want to get paid, then do the work.”
- “There are openings coming up and we’ll be keeping an eye on the numbers,” means, “If you want a promotion, then get your production up.”
Since we are so familiar with this simple “if-then” dynamic, sometimes calling it “the way the world works,” there is little wonder that we assume the same equation applies to the “way God works with the world;” especially the way of God works with us.
- “If you give generously to the church, then God will bless you financially.”
- “If you live a clean, righteous, moral life, then God will take you into heaven.”
- “If you live a self-centered, immoral, hedonistic life, then God will send you to hell.”
Now, most of us have reached a level of emotional and spiritual maturity that prevents us from saying things like that out loud, or even consciously thinking that way—but, sometimes, when life is hard, when we have failed to be our better selves, in the middle of sleepless and hopeless nights, we begin to wonder: “What did I ever do to deserve this?” which is a backwards form of the equation. Or perhaps, in desperation, we begin to bargain with God, propose an “if-then” deal of our own,
- “If you let my child live, then I’ll stop drinking.”
- “If you get me out of this financial mess, then I’ll never try to cheat my partners again.”
- “If you can stop her from leaving me, then I’ll start back to church.”
The challenge of our prophetic text from Isaiah on this day is to translate the very transactional language of the text and get at its intent: that of gift.
If/then language is so pervasive in our world today, and so destructive in many ways, particularly theological ways. If/then is the language of Capitalism and an economy of merit. God dwells in an economy of grace and gift.
The crux of the lens-shift here has nothing to do with the text, but rather with how we hear it. God does not make the righteous light “rise in the shadows”, but rather that’s just the natural consequence of eliminating finger pointing and evil talk in a community. The reward is not given by God, but rather is a product of the goodness produced when these sorts of manipulative tactics are removed in a community.
The Divine does not reward people who “refrain from trampling on the Sabbath,” but rather they are afforded a time not attached to production that allows them to simply be! And though the verse ends in God promising to help the adherents of the Sabbath “ride upon the heights of the Earth,” it is only in keeping with how God has kept all the blessed ones since the days of Jacob, the great ancestor of the Jewish faith.
The language of the Divine is not if/then, but rather because/therefore.
- Because you are my Beloved, I pour out my spirit upon you.
- Because you are chosen, you are deeply and endlessly loved.
- Because you are worth it, my child, the Sabbath is worth taking. You need a break to just be with me and not produce, produce, produce!
Because we are meant for a fuller life than the one an evil tongue can give us, God desires the wisdom that falls from our lips to be that of encouragement, not slander. God wants us to speak into the loveliness you are, not the envy or greed the world encourages you to speak. When seen through the lens of because/therefore, the Isaiah text becomes one of gospel grace and gift, not demand and reward.
There are a number of potential pits that we can fall into with our Lukan text. One of the mistakes that we can make quickly and unintentionally is automatically spiritualizing the healing stories presented in the Gospel. But what about the things that “bend us into ourselves” in this world? Our own Martin Luther often talks about navel gazing as the primary sin of humanity.
But for those in our community with back ailments, or those with stooped shoulders or physical disabilities, automatically dismissing the somatic healing indicated in the story might trample over our very obvious pain. But that is a reality that many of us face: Lord, we wish that so many of our physical issues were as simple as being healed with a touch! I do want to acknowledge massage therapists, chiropractors, or muscle/bone specialists on this day, too, giving thanks for your healing arts…thank you for your healing touch.
Once this truth is noted, we can begin to explore the things that hunch us over in this world.
- How about that we are always staring at our phones?
- How about that we are always checking our bank accounts?
- How about that we are always averting the eyes of the person asking for change at the offramp of the freeway?
These realities also make us hunch over.
Another question this text brings to the forefront has to do with those things we hold untouchably sacred. The leaders of the synagogue were upset that Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, even though at stake here was a human’s health and wholeness. This seems, to our ears, to be a confusing ordering of priorities, right? And yet, humans do this all the time.
What is the thing in our community that is so sacred no one dare do anything to it, critique it, or go against it?
- Is it the red carpeting that, though aged and kind of hazardous, can’t be removed because the whole feel of the sanctuary would be different?
- Perhaps it’s the annual Christmas charity that, though support has been waning for years, can’t be changed because so and so started the project and it’s done in their honor now.
What is the sacred thing in our community that no longer feeds the health and wholeness of the assembly, and yet no one can talk about it?
Whatever our answers to these questions are, one thing is clear: Jesus frees us from those things that keep us bound, curved in on our own priorities and agendas. Thanks be to God!
With all this “if-then,” strike-a-bargain-with-God thinking going on in ours lives, it’s no wonder that when we hear a reading like Isaiah 58, we immediately assume God is proposing a deal to the people of Israel. “If you remove from among you the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.” Being translated in that way seems to mean, “If you stop doing this list of bad stuff, and start doing this list of good stuff, then God will bless you, right?” Well—not exactly.
The problem is we human beings have a bad habit of turning God’s promises into threats. We hear God’s gracious open-ended invitations as declarations to be followed. We perceive God’s offers of relationship as requirements for admission to the official “Good People Club.” None of this is what is actually going on here.
This part of Isaiah was written after the people had been in exile in Babylon, separated from their homeland, their government, their institutions, their temple. For many years they did the best they could to keep hope alive, living as resident aliens, strangers in a strange land. Finally, they were permitted to return to Jerusalem and the surrounding area. They reestablished the temple, the ritual worship, the Jewish community structure. But, something got lost in translation.
Somehow, in their years of exile and servitude, they had lost touch with the core of their faith tradition; they remembered the ritual, but forgot the relationships; they lifted up the law, but ignored the love.
Isaiah spoke to them in the traditional way of the prophets, calling them back to the true faith—the faith focused of loving God and loving neighbor. Over and over again in the prophetic literature, we hear Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Amos, Micah remind the people that worship by itself is meaningless unless it leads to and loving service to those we live with everyday—especially those most in need.
And, the bit about Sabbath observance is not a second topic, disconnected from the first. The Sabbath is not a law to be obeyed to show God we’ll do whatever God requires. No, and the Sabbath is not just a day of rest. It is an opportunity to turn one’s thoughts away from the day-to-day grind of getting by, so that we may focus on God and the ways of God in the world and in our lives. It is not an “if” to be fulfilled, but a gift to be embraced.
In the Gospel lesson, Jesus heals a woman. Several things are important here—she didn’t ask Jesus for healing, he said nothing about her faith making her well—Jesus took the initiative, her healing was pure divine gift. The woman responded by praising God, the leader of the synagogue responded by complaining that the rules had been broken. He was annoyed that his system of “if-then” had been violated. He says, “If you want to get healed, then come on a work day, not on the Sabbath, people!” “Follow the rules, for God’s sake!” But Jesus sets him straight.
I remember a conversation I had with my grandfather a long time ago, He was a very moral man with a very certain grasp of right and wrong behavior which he frequently shared with his children and grandchildren. One day he found me sitting on the porch crying after some violation and punishment episode (probably kicking a soccer ball against the house and breaking a window, that happened a few times.) He sat down next to me and said, “Okay, what’s wrong.” I said something like, “I don’t think I’ll ever be good enough to be your grandson.” He took me in his arms, and gave me a hug and said: “Jamie, I have loved you since before you were born and you will always be my grandson. I teach you right from wrong because I love you and want you to grow up good and happy, not so you can prove anything to me or anybody else.”
My grandfather taught me a very important lesson that day that also applies to God. As many scholars have wrote, and many mentors have quoted, “God loves you just the way you are. And God loves you too much to let you stay that way.” That’s the kind of healing we get from God no matter what day of the week it is.