Modern Torah

Homily 479 – 23rd APE
Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church, Ames, Iowa
November 28, 2021
Epistle: (220) Ephesians 2:4-10
Gospel: (71) Luke 13:10-17

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, One God.

It seems like the most trouble Jesus had with the religious establishment was activity on the Sabbath.

His disciples walked through a field and crushed a few grains of wheat to eat – but that was work, and it was prohibited on the Sabbath.

He healed people on the Sabbath as we see this morning. And inevitably, the religious police would grab hold of that and attack.

Working on the Sabbath was a violation of the Mosaic Law. It was clearly understood what “work” meant. It meant effort. The only effort one could expend was to walk from their home to the Synagogue, or the Temple. That was known as a Sabbath’s journey.

Work in the context of Jewish understanding of the Mosaic Law has evolved somewhat, but only in incorporating more of what we do to be work.

I’ve mentioned before that in New York and the surrounding areas, there are high-rise buildings that elevators that are programmed to stop on every floor beginning at sundown on Friday, through sundown on Saturday, so that individuals don’t have to push a button.

Or how they disable the light in the fridge, so that they can open the door. Because opening a door isn’t work, but activating the switch which turns on the light is work.

This may seem silly to us, but believe me it isn’t silly at all. It is at the heart of their belief that they follow God. Their faith is active. It demands compliance, it demands obedience.

It is serious – they understand their very salvation depends on their adherence to the Law given by Moses.

This definition of work goes all the way back to the 10 commandments – Honor the Sabbath to keep it Holy. The Law and the prophets spoke of this obedience.

I’m trying to read through the entire Septuagint version of the Old Testament this year. I ran across this passage, in Esdras B, or second Esdras.

It was about the people coming on the Sabbath to Jerusalem to transact business – buying and selling.

The Godly, obedient people said in Chapter 20 verse 31: And the peoples of the land who bring merchandise and any sale on the sabbath day to sell, we will not buy from them on the sabbath and on a holy day.

Again, we see it as maybe silly, but they saw it as essential. And honestly, up until very recently, we saw it as essential also. Some places still do.

When I was growing up in the western part of Tennessee, everything closed on Sunday. Everything. Including convenience stores. Then they relented and started allowing places to open in the afternoons. Then all day – but no alcohol sales until after 1 pm.

Salt Lake City, because of the Latter Day Saints heritage there, will not have any professional sports on Sunday. No professional football or soccer. Their basketball team, the Utah Jazz, which they adore, by the way, only plays away games on Sunday evenings. Because people simply won’t go. It is important to them.

So, this woman comes to the Temple and is healed, and Jesus is roundly criticized for it. Very importantly, we note that Jesus didn’t invalidate the commandment. The Sabbath was to be kept holy.

But the definition of work had gone too far, and Jesus pointed that out – we all expend effort on the Sabbath. In keeping the letter of the Law, though, the Jews had lost track of the spirit of the Law. He calls the religious police “hypocrites.”

Jesus said, in effect, effort is fine on the Sabbath if – and only if – it contributes to the Holiness of the Sabbath. Helping others on the Sabbath is fine – even expected of us.

It contributes to the holiness of the day. But helping one’s self on the Sabbath? Being selfish on the Sabbath? That would bring condemnation.

Even in the Old Testament, while the Children of Israel wandered in the wilderness and were fed from the hand of God Himself with manna from heaven, they collected two days’ worth of food on the day before the Sabbath, and the manna didn’t spoil.

So that they wouldn’t need to work.

What is the impact on us? What does this account tell us about living the life Christ desires for us?

We need to remember that the principles of love and mercy are always in play. We need to remember that the rules and disciplines apply to ourselves, individually, and not to other people. The quotation in Esdras doesn’t say “keep them from selling on the Sabbath” it says “we refuse to buy on the Sabbath.”

That is the level of commitment we need to have about our behavior as we live out our discipline. It really doesn’t matter to us what others do, or don’t do. We are God’s people and we will be obedient.

Not because we gain anything as a result – St. Paul is clear on that point in the epistle to the Ephesians. God will forgive us of our transgressions of the Law and of our own efforts at discipleship and discipline. His salvation is our freely-obtained gift from Him.

Yet, in accepting that gift, we must recognize our obligation to Holiness. And in that recognition, our obligation to others.

By reflecting God’s good into the world, God’s love into the world, we bring ourselves by God’s grace closer and closer to holiness.

And that is what our obedience is designed to help us do.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, One God.