When I was a child, one of the laws of the Catholic Church was: “No unnecessary servile work on Sunday.” That meant that the laundry, ironing and cleaning house had to be done on Saturday in order that we might turn our minds to thoughts of God and church attendance on Sunday. We never forgot the adjective unnecessary, however, because it was clear that sometimes emergencies arose and something needful superseded the law. When I entered the convent, silence was the highest law of the night. We didn’t talk much anyway, but at 9:00 PM strict silence began and at 10:00 it became “Grand Silence.” The only cause for breaking the silence after that was a dire need of someone for help – serious illness or accident in the night. Even then, as novices, it took courage to break the silence, so well was “the law” drilled into us and so fervently did we wish to be obedient to God.
This morning’s gospel tells of Jesus having dinner at the house of a leading Pharisee (often a “teachable moment” for the others in attendance). It couldn’t have been a comfortable meal for him because, as Luke says (LK 14:1-6), “the people there were observing him carefully.” It was the Sabbath and the Mosaic Law was clear about Sabbath practice. There was a man there who suffered from “dropsy” (edema, probably from heart disease) and Jesus, knowing the crowd was just waiting for a chance to catch him breaking the law, gave them an opportunity to accuse him before he did anything. He asked them (in some translations the lawyers among them), “Is it lawful to cure on the Sabbath or not?” When no one spoke up he healed the man and dismissed him. Knowing that the story of his actions would probably reach the whole town by morning, he asked them a further question. “Who among you,” he said, “if your son or ox falls into a cistern, would not immediately pull him out on the Sabbath day?” The gospel says that “they were unable to answer his question.”
There are lots of applications of this gospel. The point is, of course, that the law of God, which in its most basic form is all about love, is the highest law and everything else is subordinate to that. Extreme behavior in either direction of total disregard or rigid following does not work for those who live in “God’s house.” We see in our country today both extremes when it comes to Sabbath practice. The question for me today is about how I remember God – not only one day a week, to be sure. It is good, however, to set aside one day of the week (not necessarily the traditional Sabbath, especially if we work for our livelihood on that day) or to create another way to focus our attention on God and the things of God, to reflect on our relationship and give thanks for the blessings and the challenges of our lives that bring God clearly into focus for us. How do you spend your Sabbath? How do I?