I’m off to a small country primary school shortly to talk with children, a great pleasure, so the blog has to be brief this morning. As usual it’s based on the Episcopal daily reading along with a headline from world news:
Ghana pastor prophesies death of President (other pastors say he lies)
Jesus Heals on the Sabbath
5After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
2 Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew* Beth-zatha,* which has five porticoes.3In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralysed.*5One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years.6When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be made well?’7The sick man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.’8Jesus said to him, ‘Stand up, take your mat and walk.’9At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.
Now that day was a sabbath.10So the Jews said to the man who had been cured, ‘It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.’11But he answered them, ‘The man who made me well said to me, “Take up your mat and walk.” ’12They asked him, ‘Who is the man who said to you, “Take it up and walk”?’13Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had disappeared in* the crowd that was there.14Later Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, ‘See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.’15The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well.16Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the sabbath.17But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is still working, and I also am working.’18For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.
I want to focus on two matters in this passage.
1. Jesus’ terrible question. Here’s a man who’s been ill for thirty-eight years, and Jesus has the impertinence to ask him if he wants to get well! Of course he does! But, then, if he knows hanging about the pool doesn’t work for him, why’s he still doing it? Perhaps like many suffering people, he’s begun to identify with his disability. So Jesus question is relevant, as is his command. Perhaps the man is not sure if he wants to get well, but he’s given the choice. Will he stand up? Given courage by Jesus’ faith in him, he becomes well.
There is an alcoholic person who is dear to me. In spite of suffering this illness for many years, she is not sure whether she wants to get well; and so, for the moment, she remains ill. Such uncertainty about wanting to be well is not limited to people with obvious illnesses. In this passage Jesus confronts me in my habitual sin and weakness, asking, “Do you want to get well?” And if I say, yes, he’ll tell me to stand up and move on.
2. Jesus’ irreligious statement about the Father. There was no custom more sacred to the Jewish people than the Sabbath, with its profound insight that human beings had been given a day of rest, which God himself also enjoyed as he finished his labour of creation. When the religious authorities criticise Jesus for healing on the sabbath, he cuts through the cackle with the assertion that his father is still working and he is therefore working too. Did Jesus mean to abolish the Sabbath and its basis? I don’t think so. He’s just recognising that after all the Sabbath is part of a human story about God, a good story, which asserts the importance of one day in seven in which people can enjoy the company of each other and of God. But there are limits to all stories about God; none of them fully encompass the divine character. So when the Sabbath story is used to criticise an act of healing, Jesus puts
forward a scandalously different story: of course the Sabbath rest doesn’t mean that God has stopped caring or that he wants human beings to stop caring. That kind of “work” has to go on. Indeed, this saying is a foretaste of how the first day of the week, the day of resurrection and new life, will be the distinctively Christian holy day. “God is still working” is a suitable motto for the God who raised Jesus from death, and who according to cosmologists, has never stopped creating new stars and galaxies.