Luke 13:10-17 (online here)
Stories like this week’s Gospel reading tempt us to overlook how thoroughly Jewish Jesus was.* Here he gets in an argument with a synagogue leader over how to observe the Sabbath. And almost 2,000 years later, those of us who are not Jewish may be tempted to think that the synagogue leader represents Judaism, while Jesus represents something radically new. Not so.
The view Jesus defends is just as Jewish as the synagogue leader’s view. Both of them welcomed the Sabbath (Saturday) as a day of rest, a day when even a servant could not be forced to work. People were coming up with clusters of rules about what you can’t do on the Sabbath, but their purpose was mostly to protect people who might wind up being forced to work. If you’ve ever worked in retail, you know about how companies keep whittling away at employees’ holidays—you might have to finish Thanksgiving dinner early because you have to go back to work that evening. Rabbis in Jesus’ day were trying to prevent that sort of thing from happening. One rabbi would come up with one set of rules, while another would come up with a different set, and then they would argue about it. But the intent was always to protect people from being forced to work.
Jesus gets invited to teach at a synagogue on the Sabbath, and while he’s there he heals a woman from a chronic illness. The synagogue leader, basically a lay person, not a rabbi, argues that Jesus should have waited until sundown to heal her. Jesus thinks that’s silly. He uses a rabbinic argument: “from the lighter to the greater”: if you already do X, then you should surely do Y. If you can water your livestock on the Sabbath (and you’d better!), you can surely heal somebody (especially when in this case all the healing requires is touching that person). And the majority of Jews in the synagogue agreed that Jesus had the better argument.
So this is not “Jesus versus Judaism.” This is two Jews arguing over the best way to protect people from being forced to work on their day of rest. That sort of argument is Judaism at its best, in fact, any religion at its best.
And Jesus had lots of support from other Jews, not just the ones who were present that Saturday, as Amy-Jill Levine points out (p. 33): “Commenting on Exodus 31:14, ‘For the Sabbath is holy to you,’ the Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 85b) interprets, ‘The Sabbath is given to you; you are not to be delivered to the sabbath,’ and then adds, ‘Profane one Sabbath for a person’s sake, so that he may keep many Sabbaths’.”
Instead of focusing on how Jesus and one Jewish leader disagreed on how to observe the Sabbath, we would do better to focus on their common passion to preserve the meaning of the Sabbath: a time to celebrate not having to work. Our surrounding society keeps trying to rob us of that time. That’s robbing us of our human dignity. We should be asking how we can defend the most vulnerable among us, as well as ourselves, from these oppressive market pressures.
*A couple of book plugs: Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (New York: HarperOne, 2006); Ronald J. Allen and Clark Williamson, Preaching the Gospels without Blaming the Jews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004).