My friend John M was about to begin work on his doctorate in mathematics at Columbia University many years ago – the very school where Wren B will begin her doctorate very soon and the very school where my own daughter StrongOpinions is studying – and he discovered the big surprise about going to school in New York. Finding housing is very hard and very expensive.
John also needed to augment his scholarships by working, and that was a challenge, because jobs that allow you ample time to study and do research and think big thoughts are hard to come by.
After a frustrating search, he finally found the one job that was absolutely perfect for him, and it even came with housing!
He was a goy.
No, not a guy, a goy. A Shabbos goy. The Yiddish word “goy” refers to a non-Jew. And John was most definitely a non-Jew. Tall, blonde, blue-eyed, from Texas, he was about as goy-ish as they come. A cradle Episcopalian. And he was a Shabbos goy. A non-Jew who was a helper to observant Jews so that they might keep the Sabbath.
He was hired by the orthodox Jewish dormitory on campus to be the one who – on the Sabbath – turned on and off the lights, answered the doorbell, turned on and off the oven, answered the phone, and generally did all the things that the good men of that dormitory were forbidden to do on the Sabbath by Jewish law. All the things that might be labeled “work” or that might involve touching machinery of any type.
It was, frankly, a sweet gig. He got a nice room, a small salary, great food, no wild parties to disturb his studies, and he only had to work for one twenty-four hour period a week, except during the High Holy Days, which required that he do a bit more than a single days’ work per week.
John wasn’t the only person who did this. There is a long tradition of Shabbos goys, some of whom might surprise you. Colin Powell, Mario Cuomo, and even Elvis Presley served as Shabbos goys for their neighbors who were Jewish!
I tell you this story not to suggest that Wren or my daughter go look for a job as a goy in New York – they’re shiksas, not goys – only guys are goys, so they wouldn’t qualify – but to explain a little bit about what the Sabbath really means, because to understand today’s Gospel, you’ve got to understand what the Sabbath really meant to the Jews of Jesus’ time.
Sabbath is, of course, the remembrance of the seventh day in the creation story, when it is written that God rested after his labors creating the Heaven and Earth (Gen 1:1-2:3). In the siddur, the Jewish prayer book, it is said it also commemorates the release of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt, and it gives a foretaste of “Olam Haba,” or the time when the Messiah will come. In Jewish law, Sabbath runs from sundown on Friday until when the first three stars appear in the sky on Saturday sunset. It is considered a time for family and God, with festive meals and services in the synagogue. To preserve that time for these things, there are 39 melakhot, or prohibited activities:
Ploughing earth, sowing, reaping, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, selecting, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking, shearing wool, washing wool, beating wool, dyeing wool, spinning, weaving, making two loops, weaving two threads, separating two threads, tying, untying, sewing stitches, tearing, trapping, slaughtering, flaying, tanning, scraping hide, marking hides, cutting hide to shape, writing two or more letters, erasing two or more letters, building, demolishing, extinguishing a fire, kindling a fire, putting the finishing touch on an object and transporting an object between the private domain and the public domain, or for a distance of 4 cubits within the public domain.
Now most folks don’t do many of these things any more – many of us don’t even write two or more letters – we text or type them! But all of the laws that were in place in Jesus’ time, and even in the present day for Orthodox or Conservative Jews, are derived from this list of prohibitions. And the ultimate punishment for desecration of the Sabbath is stoning – the most extreme punishment in Jewish law.
The Sabbath is a big deal.
Another story that will give you an insight into what Jewish law and Sabbath meant is to look at the cult classic film, “The Big Lebowski.” Great movie – Jeff Bridges plays a very laid-back guy called “The Dude” who seems to have no visible means of support but is a pretty darned good bowler. One of his sidekicks is Walter, played by John Goodman, who is just as intense as the Dude is mellow. A key event in the story occurs on a Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. Walter reacts, characteristically, very intensely. A dialogue between them runs something like this:
Walter Sobchak: Here we are, it's shabbas, the sabbath, which I'm allowed to break only if it's a matter of life or death...
The Dude: Will you come off it, Walter? You're not even Jewish, man.
Walter Sobchak: What are you talkin' about?
The Dude: Man, you're Polish Catholic...
Walter Sobchak: What are you talking about? I converted when I married Cynthia! Come on, Dude!
The Dude: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah...
Walter Sobchak: And you know this!
The Dude: Yeah, and five years ago you were divorced.
Walter Sobchak: So what are you saying? When you get divorced you turn in your library card? You get a new license? You stop being Jewish?
The Dude: It's all a part of your sick Cynthia thing, man. Taking care of her dog. Going to her synagogue. You're living in the past.
Walter Sobchak: Three thousand years of beautiful tradition, from Moses to Sandy Koufax...
[shouting] You're right I'm living in the past!
Walter is stating very clearly what Sabbath means: it is an ancient tradition, a beautiful one, to cease all work for one day. To honor God, to honor our families, to honor ourselves. We stop, and nothing should get in the way of that. It is sacred. That is certainly how the Pharisees, those men who were so zealous for the law, feel about it.
And when Jesus heals the poor woman who was crippled and bent over – it sounds like she had terrible arthritis or severe scoliosis, doesn’t it? – and he does it on the Sabbath, you can understand why the Pharisees, those keepers of the law, were so horrified. NOTHING is supposed to happen on the Sabbath. A complete and conscious cessation of work. As Walter said in another memorable moment in “The Big Lebowski, “Saturday, Donny, is Shabbos, the Jewish day of rest. That means that I don't work, I don't drive a car, I don't ***** ride in a car, I don't handle money, I don't turn on the oven, and I sure **** don't **** roll!”
When he says “roll”, Walter is talking about bowling. I’m not sure which of the 39 melakhot bowling falls under, but Walter is very clear that bowling is another of the prohibited activities, just as the Pharisees are sure that healing is one of the prohibited activities. They see Jesus’ act as a terrible violation of the sanctity of the Sabbath.
Jesus, of course, sees it differently.
For Jesus, the need of the woman outweighs the need of the law. He sees the law as fulfilling a purpose: to honor God and to honor family and to honor our own need for a break. But he also sees his work, the healing of the crippled woman, as fulfilling the prime purpose of honoring God by caring for one of god’s children. Remember how I mentioned that the siddur says that one of the purposes of the Sabbath is to remember the Israelites being freed from enslavement by the Egyptians? Jesus points out that this crippled woman has been enslaved by her illness, and that she deserves to be freed from it as the Israelites deserved to be freed from the Egyptians. As Jesus tells them, it is entirely consistent with the spirit of the Sabbath for him to do this work of healing, just as it is consistent for any of them to provide water for their flocks on the Sabbath. Once again, he is saying to the Pharisees that they have made the law their gospel, rather than making the gospel their law.
But what does this mean to us, in these days when there seems to be no Sabbath rest?
First, we do need a Sabbath rest. We do need a time to honor God, to refresh ourselves, to enjoy our family. But we also need to recognize that sometimes the need to honor God takes different forms. For me as your priest, it means that I often go home and take a Sunday afternoon nap – many of us clergy do. But if there is someone who is unable to come to church or who is hospitalized, I may go visit them and bring them the sacraments. For you it may mean you take a dinner over to a neighbor who has been ill, or you may phone someone who you’ve been worried about, just to check in. We offer God’s love and honor God’s love. We don’t stop doing it on the Sabbath.
The Pharisees got it wrong. The faithful practice of religion should not get in the way of doing good for those in need. We don’t need to be Shabbos goys to help our neighbors on the Sabbath. We don’t need rules to tell us how we should be of help, or to whom we should be of help. Jesus has shown us the way. He has healed those who were untouchables, he has dined with outcasts, he has taught those who were considered the enemy. And he has done it on the Sabbath as much as he has done it on the other days of the week, because the work of God is love, and love knows no calendar, no rule.
Sabbath: we can use it to sit at home and read the Sunday papers and eat a sweet roll. We can use it to go bowling with our kids, even. But we first and foremost use it to honor God. We use it to do the work of God, in prayer, in service, in love. Love knows no calendar and no rule but itself.
Go love one another, whatever the day, in whatever way necessary. You know what to do.