At least two theological themes emerge from this pericope. On the one hand, the kingdom of God breaks into the life of a woman who had been bound by her disability for eighteen years. She is healed and experiences redemption. On the other hand, opposition to the kingdom of God arises in response to her healing on the ground that Jesus violated the Sabbath. This provides an opportunity for Jesus to interpret the significance of the Sabbath. The Sabbath is the backdrop for both of these stories and functions as the unifying theological root question: what is the meaning of the Sabbath?
The Sabbath is not an incidental referent in this story. There is something incongruous with Sabbath and the fact that a disabled, apparently pious, woman was present in the synagogue. Despite her disability she is present in the synagogue on the Sabbath, but the Sabbath reminds us that God rested within the creation on the seventh day. Originally, Sabbath is the communion between God and humanity in the Garden of Eden. But the “curse” of the “Fall” marred that communion as creation itself was filled with brokenness.
Jesus initiates a reversal of that curse. He makes the first move and through him Sabbath—in a theological sense—is renewed for this woman. She experiences the renewal of creation through the redemptive act of healing. Healings are no mere testimonies of power or ability. Neither are they mere proofs of Jesus’ messianic role. They are ultimately the intrusion of eschatological healing—new creation—into the brokenness of the present creation. Jesus reverses the curse and restores Sabbath for her. He breaks the reign of Satan in her life. He looses what binds her. The eschatological kingdom of God is revealed in this moment. She recognized the “God-moment” and “glorified God.”
The ruler of the synagogue recalls creation’s relation to the Sabbath, but his interest is polemical. Rather than thinking theologically about the implications of Sabbath and creation, he reminds the people of the legalities of Sabbath-keeping. He pours the tradition of the elders into the creation account to protect the Sabbath, but he thereby subverts the intent of the account itself as well as the meaning of the Sabbath. Indeed, the tradition—as Jesus notes—valued the health and wholeness of their domestic livestock more than a daughter of Abraham. The ruler turned the Sabbath into a legality rather than rejoicing over the intrusion of the eschatological Sabbath into the present.
The Sabbath is where humanity rests in the healing and loving presence of the Creator. Sabbath supports healing and redemption. It is an abuse of Sabbath to use it to hinder wholeness in human life and exalt the legalities of the ritual over the mercy the day represents. The Sabbath is itself a gracious gift of God to the creation; it is now a divine mercy in a broken creation. The meaning of the Sabbath is grace and thus mercy in relation to creation’s groans. The Sabbath promotes gracious healing and it is a subversion of the Sabbath to use it to hinder mercy.
This story calls us into the ministry of Jesus as we take up the mission of reversing the curse instead of hindering the renewal of the Sabbath in the lives of people. It cautions us that we should not use legalities to subvert the divine intent. The story asks us whom will we follow. Will we follow the ruler of the synagogue or will we follow Jesus?