If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.
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.
Take off your yoke! Banish your extended finger! Throw away your evil words! These three commands are what our scriptures ask of us today. Three things which are presented as foundational to the basic work of our life. If we want to serve Christ, to live the life abundant, then we have to do away with three basic things. Our dependence on self, our criticism of others, and the words we use as weapons. A yoke, a finger, and a harsh voice – three symbols that transcend time.
We begin our discussion with our voice after all this message is delivered through speech. The scriptures are meant to be read aloud, the voice of God is a proclamation not the inclination of a mind. Words have immense power, and if we are not careful how we use them then we can cause unimaginable harm to one another. Today in a world where so much communication occurs away from one another, written out and thrown into a void of social media or else plastered across streaming sites, we must guard our speech more than ever before.
The command which is given in scripture today is not translated as it should be. “Throw away the speaking of evil things…” What does that even mean? Does that mean that we should not talk about problems in the world? Does it mean that there are some subjects we can never bring up as if God is waiting to pounce on us the moment we touch upon a forbidden topic? No. The command here is not against, “speaking of evil.” It is against, “evil words.” More specifically it is against, “harmful words.” Isaiah puts before us something to guide how we speak, but not a means to censor ourselves. All things are lawful to talk about, but the way we talk about them can be quite damning.
To give us an idea of what we are not to say, we must look to linguistics. A statement which excites me, and bores most everyone else. The word which is used in Isaiah for, “Evil” or “harmful” is a play off of a different word. “Ah Ven” means “harmful” but “Ah Vown” means “to grow strong.” And in that comparison, we are given the guideline for how we are to speak. The words of Proverbs comes to mind, “Knowledge puffs up, but wisdom builds up.” We are forbidden from speaking in demeaning ways as a Christian. We cannot speak of people in ways that tear them down, but should always look to edify them.
This is not to say we can’t be frank with people, but it means we have to speak to others how we would want to be spoken to. When we do wrong, do we want people to be snide about it? Do we want passive aggression? No! Then why are we ever that way with someone else? To put away our evil words is to treat one another with the dignity and respect that we would want for ourselves. Put another way, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Honestly is not cruelty, and gentleness is not in any way neglect.
Jesus in our parable is clearly not giving a gentle answer to the Pharisee, and there is a reason for that. When we are dealing with the world, there are those who claim the authority of God to do evil. This is a fact as old as time, and it only persists because good people are silent about it. Jesus speaks in a frank way to the leader of this Synagogue because he is being harmful to others. “How dare you seek God on the Sabbath!” is a ridiculous statement, and Jesus is right to be harsh to the man for it. It should not surprise us that, for those who use words to abuse others, it is sometimes necessary to intensify our reaction to them. We can not be gentle about hate, we cannot be gentle about the abuse of power, and we cannot be gentle when God is being withheld from people.
The difference between righteous speech that happens to be frank, and evil speech that pretends to be righteous, is tied up in the second command of our text. Put away your pointing finger. Another translation, perhaps a bit more poetic, “banish your menacing hand.” The text is telling us plainly, among all our sins there is the tendency to push blame elsewhere. If not blame, then to diminish others so we feel bigger. To quote the late, great Toni Morrison, “If you cannot be tall without someone else being on their knees, then what do you have?”
Toni Morrison was speaking of racism in that quote, a subject we talked about at length earlier this month, but I think there is a truth to it that extends beyond this. There is a tendency in our hearts to look outside us for things, after all, that is where our eyes are pointed. We find ourselves sad, or mad, or feeling inadequate and a natural posture comes about. Our hands curl, as if by magic, and point to something other than ourselves. We cannot stand feeling small, and so we make something else smaller.
We are aware of our sins, but rather than just dealing with ours, we take on someone else’s. Not that we become a sin eater or anything, but we point to them and say, “At least I don’t do that.” The amount of time that is spent in Christian circles talking about people outside the church is exhausting. Not that we shouldn’t think of mission, or pray for those outside the fold, but my oh my we love to swivel our finger around. “The movies these days! The Video Games! The Television! These things are degrading us.” There are a lot of problems in media, trust me, but there are only so many hours in the day, and if all we do in our time is point out other problems so that we don’t have to deal with our own… I just don’t think that’s healthy.
Consider our Gospel lesson again. The Leader of the Synagogue tells Jesus, “How dare you heal this woman on the Sabbath! There is not to be any work today!” Jesus looks to this complaint and says, “Yes, but when have you ever kept the Sabbath truly?” Jesus is not here looking for a gotcha moment. It is not the perfect Son of God saying, “Well you’re not perfect either.” No, this is Jesus saying that he has fundamentally missed the point of the commandment.
When Jesus points out the Leader’s hypocrisy he is not justifying his own behaviors through another person’s failings, he is pointing out that the leader has almost grasped the truth of it all. “You would care for an animal on the sabbath, but not a person?” The idea is to intensify the belief of the leader, not to shame him for shame’s sake. The Sabbath is holy and to be kept, but if a creature is hurting you should help it. God asks us to cease on the Sabbath, to put away the burden of the rest of the week. God does not ask us to hurt others through inaction on the Sabbath.
The Leader of the Synagogue felt threatened by Jesus’ use of the Sabbath to heal. It shifted the orientation of the day so that, if it was not challenged, the Leader would be exposed as the second most holy person in the room. The accusation of the Leader was in response to a greater righteousness than his own, and when we oppose a righteous thing because it makes us uncomfortable than we have transformed ourselves into a self-righteous person.
The person who is constantly speaking evil of others. The mocking tone of a Holier Than Thou Person. This is what we of the Church constantly risk becoming. We are surrounded by other people who are pursuing a Godly life, and we can feel insecure if we perceive ourselves as not measuring up. When we feel insecure we get defensive. Our finger goes out, our mouth opens up, we try to diminish what we see in someone else because it does not line up with what we see within.
Sin oftentimes bubbles out of hurt. We in the Methodist Church describe sin as a disease, it is something which seeps into our bones and corrupts us from the inside out. And if you’ve ever been sick, really sick you know how bad it can be to get hurt while you’re healing. Cancer patients are most at risk when they get Pneumonia, and so too the sin-sick soul is in danger when it faces hurt. Maybe someone said a cruel word, physically hurt you, maybe you were fired, in these moments we can lock up, become defensive. Assume our old posture.
That’s the thing of it. If we are concerned with how we look. Not our self-esteem, because we should like ourselves. As we discussed last week, feeling valued and important is not a sin. However, being obsessed with what other people think can sure contribute to some sinning. As a minister once told me, “The speck of sawdust in my eye may be small, but it sure feels like a log when it’s in there.” We see our small failings and make them define us as if we have been consumed by our negative features and have therefore lost our good ones.
The Gospel tells us another thing though. The Gospel tells us that if we cast of the yoke we have built for ourselves, one that is loaded up with our expectations of what life should be like, if we throw that off and put on Christ’s – then we will find peace. Christ who looks to the sin-sick soul and says, “Be healed!” To those who have suffered for eighteen years and says, “You will now be like you were before!” Christ’s burden is light because Christ expects nothing from us – but us.
Does that mean we do not work? No! We do good work because Christ has freed us to do it. The pretenses of the world – the love of money and of pomp, of looking better than other people around us – once we cast these off the natural outpouring of the soul is in love and compassion. When we remove the harmful expectations, we have for ourselves then we will freely, “offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted.” In the Light of God’s affection, the darkness of our life is swept away. A God-centered life tends toward perfection, and we are all on our way. Sabbath finds its way into our lives, rest produces mercy, and love blooms in the desert of our souls. Let us give up our yoke and put on Christ’s. – Amen