“Blue Laws and Sabbath Matters”
August 21, 2022
(This short reading is unique to Luke and a remarkable account of Jesus healing a crippled woman on the Sabbath. This story has multiple layers, so to save you from long a read, I’m focusing on Jesus’ unprompted act of compassion, the indignant voice of objection and what this teaches us about the Kingdom of God Jesus was bringing to the world.)
Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’ When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.’ But the Lord answered him and said, ‘You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 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?’ When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.
In American history, there were laws which banned secular activities intended to keep Sundays as sacred, as a day of rest. Known as “Blue laws” they stem back to13th century England and made their way to colonial America. The name may derive the stiff regulations these laws imposed which were printed on blue paper.
Early American settlements enacted blue laws for religious reasons to observe a day of worship and rest. They also aimed to prevent unseemly activities on the Sabbath. Early blue laws were extensive, including bans on most secular work, trading of goods and services and everything from wearing lacy shirtsleeve to using birth control. After independence, many former colonies retained these laws, and new states adopted them as they joined the union.
There are currently 28 states with blue laws. In some states, county blue laws are more sweeping. But in most states, these laws typically restrict the sale of alcohol and cars, which somehow preserves Sunday as a sacred day of rest. On that note of levity, perhaps you wish to pause and refill your coffee cup.
Growing up in Wisconsin, I wasn’t aware of blue laws, even though I knew you couldn’t buy a car on Sundays. I didn’t know that was due to some religious reasoning. Then I left for college up in the Red River Valley where many hard to miss blue laws were in effect in both Fargo and Moorhead. It was among the first things I learned in higher education. For students who hadn’t grown up in the area, the closures of shops, grocery stores, restaurants, bars and liquor outlets were unfamiliar. We were puzzled by blue laws. They were a nuisance and prompted some lively discussion about their intent, which we could only see as a holdover from a time when Sundays were held as “sacred” in America — whatever that meant.
Of course, the question of what is “sacred” and thus “sabbath” becomes a difficult one to parse. Is my Sunday somehow less holy if I am able to get chicken nuggets at the drive thru or buy beer for an NFL tailgate party? Then, what about the people whose employment provides me Sunday shopping services? Do blue laws provide a way to give workers at McDonalds or Total Wine a sabbath? Or what of blue laws that close businesses on Sundays when workers would prefer to work for income purposes? If car lots in Wisconsin were open on Sunday, would employees professing Christian faith and desiring to keep the sabbath have a choice to work or not? Then, what about Jewish or Muslim people who observe the sabbath on different days? Should they be permitted freedom from work to observe their respective sabbath?
The underlying economic, religious, and political factors that influence the existence or lack of “Blue Laws” provides a sense of the textures behind the disagreement between Jesus and the leader of the synagogue over the healing of a crippled woman. Luke begins with a typical, respectable scene:
“Now he [Jesus] was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath.” (Luke 13:10) Then a woman who has been crippled for years appears. She does not ask to be healed. She is simply there listening to Jesus teach.
What happens next is pure grace. Jesus sees this woman. Bent over and unable to stand up straight, she would have been easy to miss. Any synagogue leader could easily have overlooked her. But Jesus didn’t. He sees her with compassion. Like a parent who stoops down to raise a fallen child, Jesus reacts with the visceral response of a caregiver, seeing one in need, he touches her and she is healed.
For the first time in 18 years this unnamed woman is able to look people in the face. Imagine the reaction of the crowd. I want to believe some cheered and others praised the healer. Certainly, some in the synagogue that day had known this woman and never seen her face. Others had avoided her. Still others judged her for the “spirit” bound by Satan that had caused her to be crippled.
Luke doesn’t tell us anything of the reaction in the synagogue, except that of the woman’s first action when standing up straight. In a moment of biblical brilliance, we are given a glimpse into the true sense of what it means to praise God.
Praises are not just words — they are embodied faith, utterances of the soul, when faith is uplifting or challenging and everything in between.
Now this woman can see where she is going. For years only able to stare at the ground, looking only at her own feet or those of others and never into their eyes, now she can see faces. Now she can see that God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Not that she didn’t see that before, but it’s different when the love of God seeps into your very self. She is now able to see who and what Jesus sees and who needs to be cured.
But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had defied the rules and worked on the sabbath, could not see this. He resisted seeing how Jesus sees people — which involves more than a change of perspective. He
could not accept that when God does what the nature of God is — mercy, grace, and love — then mercy, grace, and love are how we are to see and be toward others.
Notice he doesn’t criticize Jesus directly because he remembers Jesus’ words in the synagogue earlier: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18–20)
The synagogue leader understands himself as a subordinate to Jesus. Still, he tries to exert control where he does not have it. He addresses his people: ‘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) In other words, “Take that, Jesus! Respect the rules.”
A good systems theorist today might see the beginnings of some triangulation going on. But Jesus claims his own actions and does not let the crowds take the heat. “You hypocrites!” he shouts, addressing the leader and others agreeing with him. “Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?” (v.15) In others words Jesus is saying “quit trying to exert control where you don’t have it. Quit trying to twist the Sabbath thereby denying others my mercy, grace and love based on your divisive rules.”
The time of Sabbath, Jesus says “is made for man and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). God’s time is always and only about life. Life. No matter when the sabbath is observed (for Jesus and the synagogue leader, this would have been a Saturday) and no matter how it is observed, it is always about life.
This reading reminds me that God has no time for religious rules like sabbath-keeping — and I add Bible studies, sermons, and worship attendance — when they become divorced from human health and wholeness. It is then that religion has gone very bad. Equally as important, this is a God who is bigger than the divisions over religion that people hold– indeed any division that darkens this world. Instead, God aims to inspires us to tolerance and respect for the sacred observances of people of different faiths.
Today, find gratitude for the God we learn of in this story. May knowing this God guide your contributions toward changing our world so that no matter the practices or particulars of one’s sabbath — through us, all shall see and know mercy, grace, and love.