Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Sabbath, Satan, and Sickness

Here is the transcript of my latest podcast, 'Sabbath, Satan, and Sickness'. It is based on the Gospel reading for the Tenth Sunday after Trinity.

The Tenth Sunday after Trinity 2022

Reading: Luke 13:10-17

Our reading begins simply:

‘Now he [Jesus] was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath.’ (Luke 13:10)

This sentence brings together two things that were important for both Jesus and Judaism: the synagogue and the Sabbath. The synagogue was central to the life of the Jewish people. There were even synagogues in Jerusalem while the Temple was still standing and functioning (Acts 6:9). I say this because many think of the synagogue as a Temple substitute for Jews who lived outside of Jerusalem. The synagogue may have started this way, but by the time of Jesus it had become a focus of Jewish community life alongside the Temple.

The Sabbath was not only a fundamental part of a Jewish person’s observance of God’s Law, it was also fundamental to their identity as a Jew and marked them out as a Jew in the Roman world. The fact that Jews didn’t work on the Sabbath was something that was commented on by Roman writers, not always favourably!

We don’t appreciate just how important Sabbath observance was for the Jewish people. In God’s Law, failure to keep the Sabbath is a capital offence (Exodus 31:4-15; 35:2; Numbers 15:32-36). The Jews themselves had to learn how seriously God took Sabbath observance. The prophets emphasized the importance of keeping the Sabbath holy, condemning the people of Israel for their failure to do so. In our first reading this week, the prophet Isaiah tells God’s people that if they keep the Sabbath holy and honour it, not going their own ways, serving their own interests, or pursuing their own affairs, then God will bless them (Isaiah 58:13). The Pharisees had understood this and were trying to be faithful to what God had commanded and the prophets had told them.

God’s Law commanded the observance of the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11; Deuteronomy 5:12-15)) and an important part of that observance centred on the synagogue. Then, as now, Jews went to the synagogue on the Sabbath. Jesus was himself a Torah-observant Jew, who attended synagogue on the Sabbath.

St Luke describes how Jesus, after his time in the wilderness, begins his ministry by teaching in the synagogues (Luke 4:15). St Luke opens his account of Jesus’ ministry with a description of Jesus’ visit to the synagogue in Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth, even though St Luke knows that Jesus has already been active in ministry before then (Luke 4:23). It seems appropriate to St Luke to begin his account by giving the details of Jesus’ sermon in the synagogue where he had spent every Sabbath while he was growing up. The sermon is programmatic for Jesus’ ministry. It includes the phrase:

‘He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives …’ (Luke 4:18)

After describing what Jesus’ message is, St Luke tells us that Jesus continues proclaiming the message in the synagogues of Judea (Luke 4:44).

In chapter 12 of the Gospel, St Luke describes how Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for liking the best seat in the synagogue (Luke 11:43). In chapter 6, St Luke writes how Jesus comes into conflict with the Pharisees in a synagogue over the Sabbath (Luke 6:6-11). The conflict begins outside in the grain fields when the Pharisees criticize Jesus for allowing his disciples to do something that the Pharisees see as not being lawful on the Sabbath (Luke 6:1-5). The disciples have been plucking the grain and eating it! Jesus defends his disciples, making a breath-taking statement that is the basis of his approach to the Sabbath. Jesus says:

‘The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.’ (Luke 6:5)

Jesus is claiming authority not only to decide what can or cannot be done on the Sabbath, but authority over the Sabbath itself. He is, in this sense, ‘above the Sabbath’. But the Sabbath is God’s Sabbath, the day God rested from his work of creating. The command to rest is one of the Ten Commandments. The Sabbath commandment is a fundamental part of God’s Law. Claiming to be able to interpret the Law is one thing: claiming authority over it in such an absolute way is another altogether. Jesus is claiming a role and a position that belongs to God.

In chapter 6, after making this claim to be Lord of the Sabbath, St Luke describes how Jesus puts it into practice in what seems to be a deliberately provocative way. Jesus enters a synagogue and teaches. There is a man there with a withered hand. The scribes and Pharisees, knowing that Jesus is prepared to do things on a Sabbath that they don’t approve of, watch to see whether Jesus will heal the man, so they can accuse him (Luke 6:7). Jesus says to the man to stand in the middle of the synagogue. Jesus asks the scribes and Pharisees:

‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?’ (Luke 6:9)

Jesus is aware of what they are thinking and not only heals the man, but makes a point of doing so, looking around at the scribes and Pharisees as he does so. This infuriates the scribes and Pharisees, as Jesus must have known it would, and they discuss what to do with Jesus.

The Gospels are all agreed that arguments over the Sabbath are at the heart of Jesus’ dispute with the Pharisees. We find this hard to understand; we can’t see why healing someone on the Sabbath could be seen by anyone as wrong.

In our reading this week, Jesus is again in a synagogue on the Sabbath and again, very pointedly, he heals someone. This time it is a woman who is bent over and cannot straighten up. She has been like this for 18 years. Jesus calls her over and lays hands on her, healing her. The leader of the synagogue explains what the problem is. He says:

‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured and not on the Sabbath day.’ (Luke 13:14)

Jesus doesn’t just heal people on the Sabbath, he makes an issue out of doing so and seems to want to make sure that everyone knows what it is he is doing. So, he makes the man with the withered hand stand in the middle of the synagogue where everyone can see what is happening. He calls the woman over to him. There is nothing private about all this. It is very public and open.

The leader of the synagogue has a point. The woman has been like this for 18 years; would it really make that much difference to her to wait one more day? If this sounds hard, let me ask any doctors listening: if I were say to you on your way out of church one Sunday that I have a pain in my back, rather than examining me there and then, wouldn’t you suggest I come to see you in your clinic sometime in the week? You wouldn’t think you were being uncaring in saying this, and I wouldn’t take it that way. Doubtless, if I had a heart attack in the pulpit, you would rush to help, but for non-urgent problems, you would think that you shouldn’t have to deal with them on a Sunday. So why does Jesus make such a fuss about healing on the Sabbath?

Jesus is deliberately provoking the scribes and Pharisees partly because he wants to expose their faulty understanding of God’s Law, their hypocrisy, and their indifference to human pain and suffering. Jesus points out that they themselves would look after their animals on the Sabbath, why then do they have a problem with Jesus looking after a ‘daughter of Abraham’?

More than that, as far as Jesus is concerned, it is not only permissible to heal on the Sabbath, it is particularly appropriate to do so. In God’s Law, in the book of Exodus, we are told that the reason for the Sabbath command is that on the seventh day God rested from his work of creation (Exodus 20:8-11). In the book of Deuteronomy, we are given another reason. Moses says:

‘Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.’ (Deuteronomy 5:15)

The Sabbath is not only about rest; it is about liberation. Jesus has come ‘to release the captives’, and, as Lord of the Sabbath, what better day for him to do that than on the day which celebrates Israel’s release from captivity in Egypt? Jesus says:

‘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?’ (Luke 13:16)

It is because we don’t believe in the existence of the Devil that we miss the significance of what Jesus is saying here. We understand Jesus’ words as being just a colourful way of speaking, not meant to be taken literally. The phrase, ‘Bound by Satan’, we take to be a metaphor for being in a bad way. With these words, however, Jesus is claiming not only to be Lord of the Sabbath, but also, as Lord of the Sabbath, to be the One who has the authority to do what the Sabbath celebrates, that is, to liberate people from what binds them and from the one who binds them. Behind all human bondage, Jesus sees the presence of the Devil. The Devil for Jesus isn’t just a metaphor or simply a personification or symbol of evil, but a Being who has people in his power. Sickness and disability is one of the means that Satan uses to keep people in his power.

The conclusion to Jesus’ healing is that his opponents are put to shame, and the entire crowd rejoice at all the wonderful things that are being done by him. The problem is that his opponents are not going to give up until they have silenced him, while the crowds don’t understand the significance of what Jesus is doing.

So, what is the significance of this for us?

1. Sabbath

At first, it’s not entirely obvious what the significance of this week’s reading is for us, as we don’t have a problem with Sabbath observance. We see it as being one of those things that we can be completely indifferent about. We may think having a day-off work is a good idea, as long, that is, as it doesn’t stop us doing anything we want to do. Given how big an issue Sabbath observance is in the Gospels and that all the New Testament writers were Jews, the New Testament has a surprisingly relaxed attitude to the Sabbath. It nowhere insists on Sabbath observance or makes it an issue for believers.

St Paul, for example, writes that it is OK for a believer to observe the Sabbath if they want to, but they don’t have to if they prefer not to (Romans 14:5-6). This is quite shocking given St Paul’s background as a strict Pharisee. During Jesus’ ministry, St Paul would have been one of those Pharisees who would have insisted that nothing even resembling work should be done on the Sabbath. For Jews brought up to observe the Sabbath in a certain way, this relaxed attitude must have come from somewhere, and, surely, that somewhere can only be from Jesus himself?

The Early Church transferred their ‘holy day’ from the Sabbath to the first day of the week, the Day of Resurrection. Over time, ideas that traditionally had surrounded the Sabbath were also transferred as well, and Sunday became a Christian version of the Jewish Sabbath with similar ideas about what could and could not be done on it.

Protestant Christians, in particular, became very Pharisaical about Sunday observance, and this was reflected in the laws of the lands where Protestants had influence. Growing up in the UK, Sunday was a truly awful day, and I am glad that Sundays are no longer like it. It wasn’t just that you couldn’t work on a Sunday; there wasn’t much you could do. Spending time with Orthodox Jews in Israel, however, helped me see how Sabbath observance need not be boring and legalistic. The key was that for Orthodox Jews synagogue attendance and being part of the synagogue community is at the heart of sabbath observance in a way church attendance and being a member of a church wasn’t when I was child.

Plenty of people will tell you how important it is to have a day of rest, but rest is about more than physical recouperation; we need to refresh ourselves spiritually as well. I would not want to go back to Sundays as they were, but I think we would all benefit from taking church attendance on a Sunday more seriously than we do. But perhaps, as a Vicar, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

2. Satan

These are just my own admittedly somewhat random reflections on the Sabbath. Where, I think, today’s reading is especially challenging, however, is in what it says about Satan. The Gospels portray Jesus as being in constant conflict with Satan and demonic powers. Before he begins his ministry, Jesus is tested by Satan in the wilderness (Luke 4:1-13). Jesus’ reputation during his ministry is not only as a teacher and healer, but also as an exorcist. Jesus is shown in the Gospels, as he is in this week’s reading, freeing people from the power and possession of the Devil.

One of the reasons that popular presentations of Jesus and his teaching go so wrong is that they utterly fail to take seriously this dimension of his work. Popular presentations assume that Jesus sees people as fundamentally good and able on their own to do as he commands. Jesus is seen as the prophet of niceness, and we certainly don’t want him being mixed up with all this Satanic stuff.

Nowadays, the Devil is either simply ignored or the idea of his existence dismissed. The Devil may be good for movies and horror stories, but he has little to do with real life. Not believing in the Devil might not be so serious were it not for the way that very often rejection of the Devil can also lead to a rejection of the power of evil itself. I can understand why people may not want to believe in the Devil, but to reject the reality of evil in the world seems incredible and to fly in the face of all the evidence.

Part of the problem, I think, is that we want to see ourselves as fundamentally good and free to make our own choices, unhindered by any external forces, good or bad. It’s easier, then, simply to play down the reality of evil altogether. So, we reduce Christian faith to a belief in our own original goodness and Jesus’ teaching to being ‘nice and kind’. Believe that if you want to, but don’t delude yourself into thinking that it is the teaching of Jesus! Jesus is clear about the reality of the Devil and evil, and of our own powerlessness in the face of it. Jesus taught his disciples to pray ‘deliver us from evil’ (Matthew 6:13).

Jesus came, he said, to proclaim release to the captives, but that implies that there is something or someone who holds them captive. We may be prepared to admit to being captive to addictions and destructive behaviours, but these are just symptoms. Behind the things that enslave and destroy us lies a personal power of evil. Jesus saw the woman’s disability as Satan’s way of binding her and diminishing her. Jesus set her free from what bound her as God set free the children of Israel from bondage to slavery in Egypt.

Some may say that Jesus was simply reflecting the worldview and way of thinking in his day. You may like to reflect on which worldview most matches the reality of what we see in the world around us and, indeed, in our own lives and experience.

3. Sickness

The obvious and, for many, disturbing question about this week’s reading is the relation between Satan and sickness and the related question of sin and sickness. Many preachers when asked this question are in a hurry to say that there is no direct relationship between sin and sickness. Pastorally, I understand this. You don’t want people to assume that the moment they get sick it is either because God is punishing them for some sin they have committed or because the Devil is attacking them. Simply dismissing the link altogether, however, won’t do.

Firstly, in our reading, St Luke tells us it is a ‘spirit’ that has crippled the woman for 18 years. The Gospels contain other examples of evil spirits causing illness. If you don’t believe in evil spirits, then this won’t trouble you, but for those of us who do believe in them, it means, at the very least, that there are questions that need answering.

Something I personally find interesting is how the language of sickness is itself increasingly being used to describe addictions and compulsive behaviour. So, for example, people will refer to gambling and alcoholism as a sickness. In the BBC radio drama, the Archers, one of the characters, Alice, is an alcoholic. Alice deliberately smashes the local shop window with a brick while drunk. Later, looking back on the incident, Alice explains that she did it because she has a sickness. In other words, she could not help herself because she was possessed by a power over which she had no control. Modern medicine would look for physical causes for her addiction, and doubtless they exist, but may not ancient medicine be on to something in looking for spiritual causes as well? Irrespective of what the cause of such addictions may be, they do call into question the myth of human freedom that our society holds so dear.

Secondly, Jesus in his teaching and actions implies that there is some connection between sin and sickness. When, for example, the man who is paralyzed is let down through the roof of the house by his friends, Jesus tells him his sins are forgiven (Luke 5:20). When the scribes and Pharisees begin to question who Jesus thinks he is that he can forgive sins, something they believe only God can do, Jesus heals the man to show that he does indeed have the authority on earth to forgive sins (Luke 5:23-24).

In chapter 5 of St John’s Gospel, St John describes how, at a pool in Jerusalem, Jesus heals a man who has been paralyzed for 38 years (John 5:1-18). St John writes that later, after the healing, Jesus ‘finds’ the man in the Temple, implying that Jesus has sought him out. Jesus says to him:

‘See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.’ (John 5:14)

In the letter of James, St James, the brother of our Lord, gives those he is writing to instructions as to what to do should anyone be ill among them. St James writes:

‘Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up, and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.’ (James 5:14-16)

At the very least St James seems to imply a connection between sin and sickness similar to that implied by Jesus in healing the two paralyzed men.

Thirdly, St Paul in the first letter to the Church at Corinth establishes a direct connection between sin and sickness. The Corinthian believers have been behaving improperly at the Lord’s Supper. St Paul tells them that by eating and drinking in an ‘unworthy manner’, they have been eating and drinking judgement on themselves. St Paul writes:

‘For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.’ (1 Corinthians 11:30)

St Paul doesn’t go into details, but it is clear that here it is believers who are being punished by God for behaving badly.

Fourthly, in chapter 9 of St John’s Gospel, Jesus and the disciples come across a man who has been blind since birth. The disciples ask Jesus:

‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ (John 9:2)

The disciples are reflecting a popular belief at the time that illness and disability are a direct consequence of sin. Jesus rejects the link in this man’s case, but what Jesus does say raises other questions. Jesus answers:

‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.’ (John 9:3)

Commentators are keen to explain that Jesus is not saying that the reason the man was born blind is so Jesus could heal him. The purpose of the man’s blindness is not to make possible Jesus’ healing. Jesus’ healing, they say, happens as a result of the man’s blindness and in response to it. The man’s blindness, they argue, provides the opportunity for God’s works to be revealed in him. It isn’t God, they claim, who has made the man blind. Whether the commentators are right or not, Jesus is certainly saying that God can bring something positive out of the man’s suffering. Jesus says something similar when his friend Lazarus falls ill (John 11:4).

St Paul also writes of how God can use sickness positively. St Paul tells the Corinthian believers that in order to prevent him from becoming too elated by how many spiritual revelations God was giving him, he was given a ‘thorn in the flesh’ that he describes as a ‘messenger of Satan to torment him’ (2 Corinthians 12:7). St Paul says that he asked God three times to take the thorn away, but God would not. Instead, St Paul writes, God said to him:

‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ (2 Corinthians 12:9)

St Paul does not tell us exactly what his ‘thorn in the flesh’ was, but most interpreters think it was a chronic sickness of some sort. Whatever it was, it is important here to see that St Paul does not describe his ‘thorn in the flesh’ as being itself a good thing. The thorn is a ‘messenger of Satan’; it is rather what the result is of St Paul having the thorn that is good. God, St Paul believes, can bring good out of evil, including out of sickness.

What is clear from this all this is that the relationship between Satan, sin, and sickness is a complicated one. The bottom line is that sickness itself is seen as a negative thing and ultimately as a result of sin, though not necessarily as a direct result of sin. Sickness in general may be as a result of human sin, but an individual’s sickness may not be as a result of their own sin. Sometimes, however, it might be. We don’t like this thought, but it is inescapable that human behaviour can result in sickness. Furthermore, Satan can use sickness to enslave people and hold them captive. God himself can use sickness both as a judgement on people and as a means of revealing his grace to them.

What should be clear from this all too brief summary of the New Testament is that God does not prevent believers from getting sick or that he always heals them when they do. Sometimes he does, but often he does not. As St Paul wrote, ‘Trophimus I have left ill in Miletus (2 Timothy 4:20).’ Sadly, we have to leave many people ill and seek to comfort them in their sickness instead.

Sickness is part of the fallen and sinful state of this world, and Satan as the ‘god of this world’ (2 Corinthians 4:4) can and does use it. As believers, we look to the day when all sorrow and suffering will pass away and death itself will be no more (Revelation 21:3-4). Until then, we cannot say that God will heal all those who are sick, or even that in the present world that he wants to. Not all were healed by Jesus at the pool in Jerusalem. But one person was. Jesus did heal people during his ministry, and there is no reason to suppose that he doesn’t still heal people today.

There are, then, two equal and opposite dangers: saying Jesus never heals today and saying he will always heal if we ask him. What Jesus always does do if we ask him is to give us grace and forgiveness. That is why here at Christ Church we offer prayer at the altar rail during Communion. Jesus thought it was especially appropriate to free the woman in the synagogue from her bondage on the day which celebrated Israel being set free from captivity in Egypt. In the same way, when we share in the Lord’s Supper, it seems appropriate to pray for God’s deliverance from sickness, as we celebrate being set free from captivity to sin. We pray for those who ask us to that God will heal them of their sickness or give them the grace to bear it, and that he will release them from the hold their sickness has over them.

May we all, like the woman in the synagogue, experience his grace and release ourselves.


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