Trouble and grace, commandment and covenant. At their best, they work together for the good of God’s people and the glory of the one who loves us, forgives us, corrects us, makes us good. In the little drama enacted at the synagogue by Jesus and the other religious leader on the Sabbath, we are not witnessing the opposition of Law and Gospel, Old Testament and New. Christianity has not been invented yet, and Jesus was a Jew, so for heaven’s sake let’s not make the mistake of opposing those. Instead, what we see is the perennial conflict between a human being who insists on seeing the world in black and white, and the one who admits to the full spectrum of colour, of nuance, of grace that God has created for us to live out.
The laws of the Sabbath were made for us and for our delight. They were made for us to share, for a moment, in the satisfaction of God who made all things and saw that they were good, and rested in their shade for a while, as the old story goes. The Sabbath laws were made for us to understand that the world does not turn at our command, nor by our labour; that our work, our product is not the only good purpose for our lives; that breathing itself is a miracle to be wondered at and savoured.
The leader of the synagogue had been teaching his congregation these lessons rightly for generations, to keep the Sabbath sacred, and he was angry when this upstart Jesus came into their midst and, ignoring the rabbi’s preaching, intervened where he was not invited, and straightened the back of a woman whom others had learned to overlook. The liturgical leader was angry, and he was afraid. He was afraid that he might lose influence, that he could lose control, that he might have neglected something that Jesus now provides to his people hungry for healing.
See how he doesn’t address Jesus directly, but instead appeals to his congregation, even blaming the woman herself for being healed, for presenting herself for mercy on a day of rest – does he even hear himself? Yes, he does, and he is afraid of losing face before Jesus, before his people, before his God.
This is not an argument about the Sabbath, but about power and influence. Jesus is not dismantling the Sabbath. Instead, he is perfecting it, releasing this woman from the burden and work of her constricted body; setting her free to enjoy the miracle of breath, the wonder of rest, the satisfaction of the Sabbath.
In August of 1619, a pirate ship landed at Comfort Point in Virginia. Four hundred years ago this week, the trans-Atlantic slave trade was born out of the sale of some twenty or thirty kidnapped women and men from Angola. In one of the most abject and cynical blasphemies ever committed against the Holy Spirit, people created in the image of God were bought and sold as goods, their humanity denied by slavers whose own humanity was crippled by their sin.
By the time, more than a century later, that the colonists decided to make for themselves a country, the use of people as commodities, with all of the abuse, the carelessness and callousness that such a concept implies, had become so second-nature that the men who wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” were themselves so hidebound by their pursuit of power and wealth that they deliberately and willfully crossed their fingers as they wrote the Declaration of [their] Independence, of their freedom, and pretended for all the world not to see the dreadful irony in their words.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
In her essay for the 1619 Project, a series of essays, podcasts, and other materials examining the legacy of that pirate ship and the horrors of its hold, Nikole Hannah-Jones writes,
The United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie. Our Declaration of Independence, signed on July 4, 1776, proclaims that ‘‘all men are created equal’’ and ‘‘endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.’’ But the white men who drafted those words did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of black people in their midst. ‘‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’’ did not apply to fully one-fifth of the country.
I don’t know. I think that Jefferson and the others who crafted the Declaration did believe their words to be true for the people they held hostage; they just chose not to apply them. Those white men, most of whom held slaves in an unequal, unliberated, life-sapping, unhappy state, knew the truth, the goodness, the rightness of what they proclaimed – that every person is equally created in the image and goodness of our loving, liberating, life-giving God; that the prophets have proclaimed liberty for every captive and that Jesus has confirmed their words through his defeat even of the ultimate jailor, death; that the pursuit of happiness, the relief from work, the enjoyment of the life that God has created us – the laws of Sabbath, drawn from the blueprint of creation – apply to all people.
Those men knew what they were saying, but they allowed the interests, the influence, the greed of White nation-builders, White nationalism, to override the very principles of equality, liberty, and life that they were articulating. They held these truths to be self-evident, but they blinked. In the moment that they signed their Declaration, like the leader in the synagogue, they would rather hold on to their own power and influence than apply what was right to those over whom they held the most sway.
Then, as in the synagogue, Jesus, with his liberating influence and indiscriminate healing power, was an inconvenient voice of conscience, too easily ignored, talked past, silenced. Yet, Hannah-Jones continues,
Yet despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, black Americans believed fervently in the American creed. Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals. And not only for ourselves — black rights struggles paved the way for every other rights struggle, including women’s and gay rights, immigrant and disability rights.
Like the right of the woman in the synagogue finally to be set free from affliction, to enjoy fully the satisfaction, the ease, the rest of the Sabbath.
This afternoon, at three o’clock, our church carillon bell will toll for one minute, remembering, honouring, lamenting, and giving thanks for those twenty or thirty women and men traded by pirates to English settlers on the coast of Virginia. Their legacy still calls us to account, to do better, to live more broadly, deeply, honestly into the promises that we made to ourselves as a nation, to make evident the truth that every person is created equally in the image of God, and that everyone is deserving of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
The people of God have always struggled with commandment and covenant, and the people of this nation have had trouble with our promises from the start, and we struggle with them today. Still, powerful people cross their fingers behind their backs, rewriting the poem on the Statue of Liberty, redlining history to make it more appealing, less troublesome.
But do not listen to me. The leader of the synagogue had the pulpit and he talked right past Jesus, and he was wrong. The people – the people had more sense – they saw what Jesus was doing, bringing release to the captive and rest to the weary, spreading the grace of God thick on the Sabbath bread, and they rejoiced at his incendiary kindness, his audacious mercy, his lawless love.
They heard Jesus say, “You are set free,” and they were jubilant.
Go, then, and do likewise.
Nikole Hannah-Jones, “Introduction” to The 1619 Project, in the New York Times Magazine, August 18, 2019, retrieved online August 24, 2019 at http://pulitzercenter.org/sites/default/files/full_issue_of_the_1619_project.pdf