A hardening of the oughteries

The Revd Dr William Lamb
Tenth Sunday after Trinity


Sung Eucharist

Isaiah 58.9-14     Luke 13.10-17

Driving over the plains in the Vendee in Western France the other week – I was on holiday – something caught my eye in the distance, and I was so surprised that I must confess I almost drove off the road. Fortunately, there wasn’t any traffic around. But from a high bank of maize, a wild boar suddenly emerged, and proceeded to trot across the plain.

Now I’ve never seen a wild boar before, but it was a stunning sight. It was evening, and the sun was beginning to set, and this wild and majestic creature just trotting along in the warm sunshine over these huge expanses of fields gave to me at least an exhilarating sense of freedom. Now it could just be that I was on holiday and in a good mood, and feeling fairly chilled out. And it didn’t necessarily have to be a wild boar – it could have been anything really – the fact that I was on holiday and feeling rested made all the difference. Something about that incident allowed me to break out of my seasoned, cynical, ‘I’ve seen it all before’, frame of mind, and restored in me a capacity for wonder.

Now I begin with this little parable, because I think it sheds some light on what is going on in the gospel reading today. Jesus is teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath, and he sees a woman in pain, as Luke puts it, ‘she was bent double and quite unable to stand up straight’, and he says to her, ‘You are set free from your ailment.’ But of course, it’s the Sabbath, and people are not meant to work on the Sabbath, so controversy ensues. There’s a blazing row. The leader of the synagogue says 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.’

For Jews of that time, as today, the observance of the Sabbath was one of the principal works of the law. It was a day of rest. Just as in the story of creation in the Book of Genesis, God rested on the seventh day, so those made in his image should also rest on the seventh day. And just as the Sabbath is a day of rest, it acts as a kind of interruption in the whole cycle of creation, to provide a moment of recreation, of re-creation. And I guess that’s what I experienced on holiday, looking out over the fields, feeling rested, I discovered that same re-creation.

Observing the sabbath is one of the ten commandments. And although Sabbath observance is a specifically Jewish practice, we should not read this story in the gospel as a conflict between Jews and Christians. The idea that Judaism is just about rules, while Christianity is about love, joy and peace, is pretty offensive to Jews and a pretty inaccurate description of many Christians. Christians have lots of rules and are expected to observe all sorts of commandments. Think of the ten commandments. 

But this is an argument going on within the synagogue. Jesus appears to question the practice of observing the Sabbath. First, he says, ‘The rules don’t appear to be as clear-cut as you’re suggesting’ – ‘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 then he says, ‘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?’

There’s the motif of freedom again. It’s a motif which we find again and again in Luke’s gospel. Think of the Benedictus, the Song of Zechariah, ‘Blessed is the Lord the God of Israel, for he has come to his people and set them free.’ Think of the Magnificat, Mary’s great song of praise, which speaks of the mighty being cast from their thrones, and the lowly being lifted up. Jesus suggests that there may be more to life than just keeping the rules. Perhaps the rules are not ends in themselves. They point to a greater purpose. 

One of the things that the contemporary Church is in danger of forgetting is that moral theology is about much more than rules. Indeed, if you look at some of the most significant work of moral theologians over the centuries, we see that they had a lot more to say about virtues than about rules. In the devotional works of the Middle Ages (take for example ‘The Imitation of Christ’ by Thomas a Kempis), or the Rule of St. Benedict, the purpose of Christian discipleship was simply to be Christlike, and being Christlike was more about imitating the virtues which were characteristic of Christ than following the rules. And I guess this is what we see in this gospel story today. Jesus shows us that following the rules is not always sufficient if we are to fulfil the demands of virtue.

So the basic point of contention in this story is that Sabbath observance is not simply a matter of sticking to the rules. As Jesus says, The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. And the purpose of the Sabbath is to set us free so that we may experience a moment of re-creation, and discover the exhilarating sense of freedom which is God’s gift to us. 

And yet, whether we speak of ‘rules’ or ‘virtues’, there is always an ever-present danger, a danger which Jesus vehemently condemns when he challenges his hearers. The danger is what one writer has described as a ‘hardening, not of the arteries, but of the oughteries’. Sometimes, we can become so hidebound by a sense of what we ought to do, by a sense of duty, discipline and responsibility, that we forget the sheer joy of experiencing that exhilarating sense of freedom that I described earlier. That’s perhaps one of the things that we see in this story, ‘a hardening of the oughteries’, people have become so obsessed with the rules, that they have forgotten that the purpose of the sabbath is to enable human beings to rest and to flourish.

If you ever look at the Psalms, you’ll see that the longest psalm in the psalter is Psalm 119. It’s a psalm which is about our capacity to delight in God’s Law. Now, Law doesn’t sound like something we should delight in. Law is something which we tend to perceive as something which restricts our freedom. When we think of Law, we tend to think of the endless strictures of the Health and Safety Executive. But, for the Psalmist, the Law is not simply about rules and regulations which must be mechanically obeyed in every single detail. The Psalmist is referring to something that is much more like the law of gravity, or the laws of physics, something which is entirely natural and essential to human flourishing. A rabbi once wrote that it is in the practice of prayer that we come to ‘what is right in so powerful a way that we feel commanded to do it. There is no real choice. The knowing is too strong.’ I guess what he was saying is that when we place more emphasis on ‘virtues’ than ‘rules’, we begin to discover that in the end, law and love are not so different. They are not opposed to each other.

For as Jesus reminds us, the whole of the Law can be summed up in two simple commandments: Love God and love your neighbour. And that is why, on the Sabbath of all days, he can say to the woman in this story, in spite of the shock and horror of the onlookers, ‘You are set free.’ And in that moment, she is re-created. She is made whole. This is the law of Love, in which we find freedom and grace. And this grace is the source of all our wonder.