There are two sides to every story, and that includes this one. Maybe especially this one in Lk 12:49-53. One way to preach a meaningful sermon on this passage might be to help us spend more time and sympathize with each of the two characters with whom Jesus interacts.
Let’s start first with the leader of the synagogue. That may be challenging, both by habit and because of the way the story runs. But inviting a sympathetic reading of this character is crucial to inviting people into this story. Why? Because what he offers is a clear and compelling reading of the law. He is, in other words, right: you are not supposed to do any work on the Sabbath.
Sabbath is a day for rest and renewal, and the rather negative view we take toward the various “restrictions” associated with the Sabbath would have been very foreign to the Israelites. Keep in mind that the law—including laws about the Sabbath—were given to the Israelites after their Exodus from Egypt. You remember Egypt—where the Israelites were slaves and worked whenever their masters commanded them, likely never getting a day off. And so when they receive a command to rest—to actually set aside one day of the week to rest their bodies and their livestock and retreat for a time of renewal and prayer—trust me, they heard this only as good news.
Law helps order our world, but grace is what holds the world together.
Sometimes I wonder if we wouldn’t be better off taking Sabbath more seriously. We aren’t slaves, certainly not in the way that the Israelites were or some people still are, but certainly plenty of our folks have to work long hours and sometimes more than one job to make ends meet. And many more of us have a harder and harder time disconnecting from work—from emails or texts or the endless grind of a 24/7 world that never stops. Life, for people at all levels of the economic ladder, is both hectic and demanding. Might we also benefit from a proscribed time of rest?
Which is what the leader of the synagogue is worried about. Once you start making exceptions for this reason or that, pretty soon no one is really keeping the Sabbath and it’s lost its point altogether. And it’s not just the Sabbath. The whole law is like that—keep making exceptions and it’s not really a law anymore; it’s more like a suggestion, with little or no power to protect and preserve us.
Truth be told, we regularly agree with this leader. Perhaps not about the Sabbath, but most of us have laws that we think are particularly important and we get nervous if we see people not respecting them. Maybe it’s little things like eating only organic foods, our children’s bedtimes, refusing to take any calls on our day off or not singing Christmas carols during Advent—OK, maybe for some that’s not so little. Or maybe it’s a much larger issue, like traditional gender roles or human sexuality. Whatever it is, there are some laws we feel you should just keep. Period. And if you don’t, who knows what will unravel next?
And that’s exactly what this well-intentioned, law-abiding leader of the synagogue believes. But his isn’t the only perspective.
So now let's turn to the woman, she who has viewed the world from waist level for years, she who hasn’t been able to look anyone in the eye for as long as she can remember. She is, I imagine, also a faithful, law-abiding member of this very synagogue. After all, she’s right there that Saturday, in spite of her condition, worshiping with her community.
And who knows, perhaps she also harbored concerns about keeping the Sabbath. Perhaps she was downright conservative in her approach to the law more generally. Yet whatever principles or resolutions she may have entered with, I have to imagine that they all took a back seat to a sense of overwhelming relief and gratitude when Jesus approached and healed her, when he called her a daughter of Abraham and restored her to full health. What were those first breaths of air like, taken in by lungs no longer cramped from stooping over? And whose eyes did she first meet, as she stood up straight for the first time in anyone’s memory?
Or maybe, more importantly, what happened to all those laws and rules and concerns and regulations? Did they fall away, as if they were of no importance? No. They were just suspended, perhaps temporarily forgotten, in those first few moments of sheer grace and gratitude.
Which is always the way it is with law. The law matters because helps us order our lives and keep the peace. The law matters because it sets needed boundaries that create room in which we can flourish. The law matters because it encourages us — sometimes even goads us — to look beyond ourselves so that we might love and care for our neighbor.
But as important as law is—and notice that Jesus doesn’t set aside the law but rather offers a different interpretation of it—it must always bow to mercy, to life, to freedom. Law helps us live our lives better, but grace creates life itself. Law helps order our world, but grace is what holds the world together. Law pushes us to care for each other, but grace restores us to each other when we’ve failed in the law.
Jesus came preaching the kingdom of God, and while the law helps us make sense of and get more out of life in the kingdom of the world, it must always bend to the grace that constitutes the abundant life Jesus proclaims. For above and beyond all the laws ever received or conceived, the absolute law is love: love God and love your neighbor. Or, perhaps, love God by loving your neighbor.
And so, of course, Jesus heals on the Sabbath. And of course she gives thanks. And of course the crowd rejoices. That’s what always happens when grace invites us simultaneously to value the law and at times suspend it out of mercy, compassion and love.
So invite your folks to sympathize with both of these characters, Working Preacher, whether through imaginatively retelling this story from the perspective of each, or inviting them to role play or simply identify with one or the other character.
But then also announce to them the good news, the good news that:
1. God gave law out of love to grant us freedom from the tyranny of all manner of slavery, whether external or self-imposed;
2. God forgives us when we fail in the law and invites us to try again; and
3. Finally, God insists that the law does not and will not have the last word, for there will always be times when law must bend to compassion and love.
And then, from this place of good news, also challenge us, Working Preacher, challenge us to look at those around us as children of the same heavenly Father, to resist the urge to assume we know the law better than others, to sympathize with those who are living with very different realities than we are, and to wonder how Jesus is inviting us even now to release others from bondage and set them free, even if it means suspending or revising our sense of the law.
I know this last part is scary. When to insist on law and when to suspend it? For whom? Will things fall apart if we get it wrong? And all the rest. That's the way it is with love: no guarantees, no assurance of having it turn out the way you thought it was supposed to, no absolutes. Except this: the God who gave the law out of love continues to love us and all the world, no matter what.
So there it is, Working Preacher: Commands and promises, good news that comforts and challenges, law and gospel. This is the stuff of our proclamation, and I am so grateful that you will once again dare to speak it into being. Blessings on your life and ministry.