I. Theme – The universality of God’s invitation to wholeness and the difficulty of responding to it.
Woman set free from ailment
The lectionary readings are here or individually:
First Reading – Isaiah 58:9b-14
Psalm – Psalm 103:1-8
Epistle – Hebrews 12:18-29
Gospel – Luke 13:10-17
Today’s readings remind us of the universality of God’s invitation to wholeness and the difficulty of responding to it. Isaiah identifies some characteristics of the right relationship with God. The author of Hebrews reminds us that the trials we undergo, though painful, come from the hand of a loving Father who is training us in holiness. Jesus’ words and actions reveal the tension between God’s desire for healing and our need for genuine conversion in order not to hinder God’s plan.
We are all too often concerned about rules—either rules such as the Ten Commandments, which throughout tradition we have assumed were passed down from God—or unspoken rules in society, such as who is in and who is out, who gets to speak and who must be silenced. We become so consumed by rules that we forget the original reason for them. The Sabbath was a gift from God to the people, but some leaders had forgotten and made the Sabbath into following rules. Jeremiah didn’t think he could speak because he was only a boy, and only elders (being men) could speak in public, but God called him to do so anyway. God shows us time and again there is another way—when we love one another, show compassion, have mercy, and do justice for others—we are following God’s ways much more than following a list of rules. The writer of Hebrews shows us that Jesus fulfilled a rule—the rule of sacrifice—in order to break it forever. And so must we follow the rule—the law—of love, in order to break the chains that keep us from loving our neighbors as ourselves.
First Reading – Isaiah 58:9b-14
Isaiah 58:9b-14 is from our second thread, showing how God’s promises are fulfilled through God’s covenant even when the people fail
Offering a classic example of empty religious ritual, this passage addresses Israel’s reliance on external practices of piety. Isaiah points out that many religious activities had become a form of manipulation. Through fasting, the people hoped to gain God’s approval even though the pious facade masked a mire of injustice and oppression.
Today’s verses are part of a longer section in which God redefines the role of fasting. An expression of humility, fasting offers the people an opportunity to do for others what God has already done for them. God had chosen to free the captives (52:1-3), feed the hungry (55:1-2) and bring Israel’s homeless back to their homeland (49:8-12).
True spiritual practice attracts God’s attention and results in a new exodus. Verse 8 is reminiscent of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. Isaiah would have us put into our mind’s eye the situation at the Red Sea, with God serving in the pillar of fire before Israel, and serving not only as the one who leads, but also as the one who takes up the rear guard. Given that context, Isaiah sees the remnant returning to the ruined and dark places of the past, which are now illuminated by God’s light.
The attitude of the heart and use of the tongue must also reflect charity. The people are bidden to “rebuild”, “raise up”, “restore,” and “repair”. The people must give more than food, clothing or shelter: they must give themselves. Instead of seeking their own pleasure, they must first satisfy the desires of the needy, finding their own desires satisfied by God (v. 11).
Light shines through us, and we become witnesses of what God is blessing, when we bless others. When we bring healing, we are known as “repairers of the breach” (vs. 12). God will bring restoration to the people who have faced utter destruction, when they bring restoration to others.
This is a description of God’s work that apparently supersedes the normal observance of the Sabbath. It is more than the community’s work; it is God’s work. It is a completion of the return from Egypt.
Psalm – Psalm 103:1-8
Psalm 103:1-8 sings of God’s justice and blessings for those who seek God’s justice. God is the one who brings goodness, and God is the one who works all things towards justice for the oppressed. The psalmist sings of God’s blessings of love and mercy, the one who redeems life.
This hymn of thanksgiving is cast in very general terms, but verses 1-5, in which the psalmist speaks to himself, indicate that it may have come from an individual situation, perhaps of recovery from illness (vv. 3-4a). In verse 4, “the Pit” refers to Sheol, the place of the dead, who retain only a semblance of existence.
The psalmist compares his deliverance to that of Israel in the exodus (v. 7). He affirms the lord’s steadfast love for the covenant people and invites all of creation to join his song of praise.
What we are bidden to do, in this psalm, is not merely an external act of praise, but a deeply internal (Bless the Lord, O my soul) realization of God’s blessing. The reasons are rehearsed, “he benefits,” “he forgives and heals”, “he redeems”, and “he satisfies” as the list of God’s interactions continues. Verse 8 repeats Exodus 34:6, when God passes before Moses, shielding God’s glory,
Epistle- Hebrews 12:18-29
Hebrews 12:18-29 contains a powerful metaphor, a blazing fire that cannot be touched. Recalling the burning bush in which God spoke to Moses, and the pillar of smoke that traveled with the Israelites out of the slavery of Egypt, we remember that the presence of God is near us and yet untouchable; beautiful and terrifying. Jesus has given himself for us, for a new covenant with God, bringing us closer to God and yet this action can never and will never be repeated. Jesus was a sacrifice we desired by taking him to the cross, and yet death was conquered through this act. The act of sacrifice is removed from worship forever. Jesus’ sacrifice ends all sacrifice.
The author presents us with two distinctly different visions. He contrasts the revelation given to Moses at Mt. Sinai with the revelation given through Jesus, on Mount Zion, which represents the heavenly Jerusalem. The first transports us to Sinai that rumbles and shakes with the divine presence. What is seen and felt there is not touchable for it is the abode and presence of God. The revelation at Sinai is characterized as one of fear, darkness and dread
The contrasting vision is that of Jerusalem, and not just the earthly city, but the heavenly presence of promise. If Sinai recalls the presence of sin and judgment, then Jerusalem is a sign of acceptance and righteousness. They join with angels, with “the firstborn enrolled in heaven” (perhaps the whole communion of saints, living and dead), with “the spirits of the just made perfect” (perhaps the pre-Christian saints). In this revelation of a new covenant, Jesus’ blood speaks of redemption rather than vengeance, which the shedding of human blood usually demanded.
A brief comparison in verse 24 is a delightful literary construct where the blood of Abel is compared with the blood of Jesus. The results are the difference of condemnation and redemption. The vision is continued with a sense of “words of warning”. One is earthly, Sinai, and the other is heavenly, Jerusalem. The author wonders, which one will we hear, which one will renew life and our praise of God?
As earthquake was an important sign of the revelation at Sinai, so it was also expected as an indication of the end of the world-order at the lord’s return. Thus the author quotes Haggai 2:6, emphasizing the Hebrew notion of the end of the universe (v. 26) against the Greek conception of its eternal and indestructible nature. God who is “a consuming fire” will purify the people.
Gospel – Luke 13:10-17
In this reading, we discover the tension between God’s bountiful gift of salvation through Jesus and the human desire to control it.
The center of concern is the Sabbath, and the situation is one that used to be found in Galilee – teaching in the Synagogue Both of these elements are combined here as a dramatic confrontation of Satan (the situation of the woman) and of the prevailing attitudes regarding the Sabbath.
Luke 13:10-17 contains the account of one of the healings on the Sabbath that Jesus conducts. Jesus is teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath and heals a woman who is bent over, setting her “free” from her “ailment” (vs. 12). The woman is bent over – she is a disfigurement of the perfection of creation, and as such becomes as sign of what Jesus intends to do about both sin and Satan. Jesus’ compassion for the ailing woman, whom he identifies with the surprising description as a “daughter of Abraham,” spurs him to initiate a cure before she can even ask. The woman stands up and praises God.
But the leader of the synagogue can only focus on the action of Jesus that happened on the Sabbath, not the result of that action that was in healing and freedom for this woman. He is unable to understand that the healing is just as much a cause of praise as the religious observance required for the Sabbath day.
Jesus’ rebukes the man and reminds him that God’s desire for our freedom from bondage knows no limit and can never be restricted to times that we find convenient. Jesus’ healing acts invite us to see every place as a healing place and every moment as the right moment for creative transformation. Providence is broadcast everywhere without limits or exclusion. To participate in God’s saving work on the Sabbath cannot violate the restrictions forbidding human work
Jesus doesn’t soften his warning that a time will come when it will be too late, too late to start caring about the kingdom, too late to come in. Those who have spent their lives dispassionately witnessing Jesus’ work, hearing Jesus’ call and benefiting from Jesus’ teaching without identifying themselves with him will be shut out. It is not enough to eat and drink at his table; it is not enough to hear his word.
When we take rules to the extreme, they are no longer about God but about control and power. Rules such as not having women speak in church, which was probably a specific cultural context for the early Christians in certain communities—rules like these are not about following God’s ways but rather about controlling who gets to preach and lead in a church. We’ve lost the meaning behind them completely. We become so concerned about rules we fail to actually do the right thing.