Sermon on the 50th Anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Second Baptist, Evanston, Illinois. The text for the day is Luke 13:10-17.
On this weekend when the Nation remembers the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom we gather as disciples of Jesus to remember his March on Jerusalem 2000 years ago. The small story that we will study here in Luke 13 may seem far removed from the thousands that gathered before the Lincoln Memorial fifty years ago this week or from the lives that preoccupy our hearts and minds as we sit here this morning so far from Washington, DC – so far from Jerusalem.
But it is not so.
A Woman Healed in the Synagogue on the Sabbath
This is a story that is unique to Luke’s gospel. It includes only eight verses and can be told fairly simply:
- Jesus goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath to teach
- A woman comes who has a physical disability
- Jesus heals her
- Some of the people get mad
- Some of the people think its wonderful
That’s it. Nothing too complicated here but let’s go a little deeper.
First of all, Jesus comes to the synagogue on the Sabbath. This is Jesus’s last recorded visit to a synagogue and his first since Luke 4 when he proclaimed the fulfillment of Isaiah 61.
So Jesus goes to the synagogue to teach and a woman comes in. Luke says she “suddenly appears” which implies that she was not a regular attender. Dr Luke tells us that she was “bent” or as the KJV says “bowed together.” She had been in this condition for 18 years and Luke tells us this to indicate that this was no passing thing. This was not a temporary complaint but a permanent condition. She was not able to stand up straight.
Jesus sees her.
This is crucial to this passage. Even though the men and women are standing in different parts of the synagogue and Jesus would have been towards the front and the woman would have been towards the back, Jesus sees her. Nothing else happens in this situation unless Jesus sees her. She does not speak to Jesus. She does not cry out to him. There is no indication that she has come to meet him or that she has any hope that her life will be changed by coming to the synagogue on this day. Nothing else happens in the synagogue on this Sabbath morning unless Jesus sees her.
Jesus calls her over. Jesus heals her. He specifically says that she has been “set free.” The announcement comes before the healing. It’s interesting that he doesn’t say she has been made whole, or that she has been restored to health, or that she has had a demon cast out of her, but instead she has been “set free.” He repeats it again in verse 16.
Then he puts his hands upon her. She immediately stands up straight. This is not a gradual healing. Though the condition had lasted for 18 years suddenly it is gone in an instant and she begins to praise God.
What is the Will of God?
This all happens in the first four verses (Luke 13:10-13). In the next four verses (14-17) things begin to get tense. The synagogue leader stands up and addresses the crowd. The synagogue leader was an elected position and it was always held by a man. This man is angry that Jesus had performed a healing on the Sabbath. The woman straightens up and the leader is bent out of shape!
But notice he speaks to the crowd, not to Jesus nor the woman. The man tells the crowd that there are six days a week to get healed but it is unlawful for this to happen on the Sabbath. The leader says that “it is necessary” that this law be obeyed, that it is the will of God that it should be so.
Jesus defends the woman’s honor and publicly rebukes not only the synagogue leader but all of those who agreed with him. He calls them hypocrites. He gives an example from the Torah proving that there are exceptions to the sabbath law. He argues that if these exceptions hold true for animals how much more so for human beings!
Furthermore, this woman is not just anyone but Jesus identifies her and names her a “daughter of Abraham.” By giving her this name he indicates that she is heir to all the blessings of Abraham’s descendants and those blessings are are being dispensed through Jesus’s ministry.
Contradicting the man who says that it is a necessity to obey the law because it is the will of God Jesus insists that it is the will of God that this woman be healed and it is necessary that it be done even on the Sabbath.
What is the Dream of God?
But the key to this entire passage is the issue of Sabbath. The word Sabbath occurs five times in these 8 verses:
We are told that Jesus went to the Synagogue on the Sabbath.
The synagogue leader is angry because Jesus healed on the Sabbath.
“There are six days to be healed but not on the Sabbath”
Jesus points out that there are exceptions to this rule about the Sabbath
The Sabbath day is an appropriate for someone to be set free from that which binds them in captivity.
If Jesus wanted to get along with the religious leadership of his day there were two things he should not have attacked: the Temple and the Sabbath. He attacked both.
Jesus deliberately disobeys the Sabbath law. The complaint of the synagogue leader was a legitimate one. There were six other days when people could come for healing. There was no reason to do this on the Sabbath. Luke has indicated that this woman had a long-standing condition of 18 years and so there was no danger that she would be any worse in 24 hours. The woman did not draw any attention to herself or cause any public disturbance, she did not make a scene. NO ONE WAS ASKING JESUS TO DO WHAT HE DID!
This gets us to the very heart of what I want you to take away from here this morning: not just what Jesus did, but why Jesus did what he did.
There were two main traditions of Sabbath teaching: The priestly tradition linked Sabbath to the creation of the world. After God created the entire cosmos in six days on the seventh day God rested. Sabbath.
The prophetic tradition linked Sabbath to the deliverance of Israel from captivity in Egypt. Deuteronomy 5:15 says “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.”
Jesus consistently chooses the prophetic interpretation. He chooses the tradition that sees the sabbath as a day connected with loosing, releasing, delivering, and healing. This tradition sees the sabbath as connected with the sabbatical year and the year of Jubilee.
Jesus understood that his actions on the Sabbath in terms of preaching good news to the poor, binding up the brokenhearted, proclaiming freedom to the captives, and release to the prisoners was what Sabbath was all about. For Jesus what was true during the every 50th year Jubilee should be true every Sabbath. Each and every Sabbath should be a mini-Jubilee!
The synagogue had missed the Sabbath’s freedom core. Sabbath had a liberation center that agitated against any control by the established powers who would use it to protect their own interests. This liberation center advocated for the deliverance and release of any and all who were oppressed and held captive by that control. Jesus deliberately performed an act of religious disobedience in order to underline, highlight, and draw attention to this difference.
Like Dr King, Jesus also taught that the arc of the moral universe is long and it bends towards justice. But sometimes you have to take hold and pull on it. Sometimes you have to take hold of it with both hands and pull hard—and then hold on.
The arc of the moral universe is long and it does bend towards justice, but sometimes brothers and sisters you have to take hold of it with both your hands and pull hard—and then hold on.
There is a huge difference between that March in the summer of 1963 and the march that took place yesterday. The 1963 March was part of a great freedom movement that had already been underway for several years and had not yet reached its ultimate goal. It was a March and movement on behalf of those who were bent but not broken. Dr King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech was perhaps the highlight of that day, and out of all that will be said this week about that event and about that speech I want to underline one important point.
In the “I Have a Dream” speech which is so familiar to all of us we must underline his perception that if this country is to change into the country we wish it to be then we will need a bigger dream. The American Dream as we have known it is not big enough.
Dr King’s Dream was as he said “deeply rooted in the American Dream” but it could not be equated with that Dream, nor could it be contained by it. We need a bigger Dream.
The American Dream is for those who can sleep well at night. But where is the Dream for those who can’t sleep? As the great poet Langston Hughes wrote “America has never been America to me.” Where is the Dream for those for whom America has never been America?
God’s freedom dream is bigger than the American Dream because it is a Dream for those who cannot sleep. God has a freedom dream for those who cannot sleep because of unemployment, housing foreclosures, and exorbitant medical bills. God has a freedom dream for people mourning the loss of loved ones to gun violence, police brutality, and racial profiling. God has a freedom dream for undocumented youth born in this country but not recognized by this country. God has a freedom dream for those who are bound by the past and needing to hear the word of divine forgiveness and be welcomed back into the community of freedom dreamers.
The Freedom Dream of God is for those who cannot sleep. We are the messengers of that Dream. The Dream of God spoken to Abraham and through the prophets and embodied in Jesus still enlivens all of our Dreams today. It is the Dream of God spoken from the heart of the universe. It is the Dream of God manifested in the midst of each one of our daily lives. It is the Dream of God that we see at work not only in the fate of nations but in the feet of courageous, freedom-filled individuals and freedom dreaming communities, those dreamers who cannot sleep, and who refuse to stop marching until that Dream is fulfilled.