SABBATH rest is both a gift and a command from the Lord. As Walter Breuggemann explains, it involves the “cessation of feverish anxiety and control” and therefore a reminder of the ultimate sovereignty of God (Westminster Bible Companion: Isaiah 40-66).
The people addressed by Isaiah have become “strangers to the sabbath”. As we see from the earlier verses of Isaiah 58, they have oppressed their workers (v.3), imposing a “yoke” of “exploitation” (v.6). In Brueggemann’s words, the true purpose of the sabbath regulations is to summon God’s people into “the disciplined act of finding life outside feverish acquisitiveness”. There is a “communal conditionality” to God’s promises of blessing in this passage (vv.9, 10, and 13). Through keeping the sabbath, the people of Israel will learn that their neighbours are “not a detraction or an inconvenience”, but “the means through which community with the Lord is on offer”.
Whereas Isaiah addresses a people who have turned away from sabbath-keeping, the religious leadership of Jesus’s day has fallen prey to a subtler temptation. They enforce the sabbath regulations in a way that subverts God’s purpose in issuing them. Far from relaxing the “yoke” of oppression, the sabbath rules are being interpreted in a way that further burdens the weakest and serves the interests of those with status and power.
The woman whom Jesus heals is marginalised and oppressed by the wider culture. Her disability prevents her “fully partaking of the usual social roles for women, including marital, parental and household roles” (Mary Ann McColl and Richard Ascough, “Jesus and People with Disabilities: Old Stories, New Approaches,” Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling). The sabbath was exactly the right day for Jesus to heal her. In doing so, he lifts a yoke of oppression and thus ends Satan’s “bondage”. Jesus condemns the “hypocrites” who criticise this healing. Their selective application of the sabbath law makes their own lives easier (v.15) and yet turns it into a burden for the very people whom it is meant to liberate.
Jesus calls the woman whom he heals a “daughter of Abraham”. Judith Lieu explains that the term is used to indicate someone who is “among the pious in the best sense of the word” (cf. 4 Maccabees 14.20, 15.28, 17.6). It is, therefore, striking that Jesus applies this “honoured epithet” to someone who has been “a victim of Satan, for long excluded from full participation in life” (Epworth Bible Commentaries: The Gospel of Luke). This is a source of delight for the crowd, who were “rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing”.
St Ambrose writes that this miracle is a sign of the eternal sabbath, when “we shall by the mercy of God put off the toils of this weak body.” This eternal hope — and its anticipation in the life of the Church — is the theme of our epistle. Its descriptions of “blazing fire” and “darkness”, the “tempest and gloom”, and the “voice” refer back to the giving of the Law on Sinai, when sinful humanity stood in “trembling” and “terror” before the holiness of God (cf. Exodus 19, Deuteronomy 4).
In contrast, the “sprinkled blood” of Jesus brings us to “Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem”. The sacrifice of Calvary enables sinful human beings to offer the all-holy God “an acceptable worship with reverence and awe”. United by the Spirit with Christ, we now participate in the eternal offering of praise and love which flows from the Son to the Father.
Peter Abelard’s much-loved hymn speaks of “those endless sabbaths the blessed ones see” while we continue to “yearn and sigh” during our “long exile on Babylon’s strand”. Our epistle reminds us that, even as we struggle in Babylon, the Church’s worship raises us to the heavenly Jerusalem. Verse 22 says that “You have” — rather than “you will” — “come to Mount Zion.” The worship of the Church brings its members to the heavenly city because it unites us with the eternal sacrifice of Christ. We have come to “Mount Zion” because we have come to “Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel”.
Jesus’s healings pointed forward to the freedom of the eternal sabbath. We, too, receive a foretaste of that sabbath through his presence, by the Spirit, in our midst.