If you remove the yoke from among you . . . then your light shall rise in the darkness.
These two lines from today’s Isaiah passage shed light so beautifully on what Jesus is teaching in the synagogue on the sabbath. “If you remove the yoke,” Isaiah prophesies, then you will be free, and all shall be restored. Indeed what Isaiah is preaching in this passage is liberation, just as Jesus says to the crowds, “ought not this woman be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” Understanding the true meaning of the Jewish sabbath is crucial to our understanding of Jesus’ actions in this passage. At first glance, it may appear that Jesus is “working” on this holy day and that he is overturning the law of Torah, but upon further investigation of the tradition, we find that sabbath is based on two Biblical commandments: the creation accounts in the books of Genesis and Exodus and God’s reminder of liberation in the book of Deuteronomy. When observant Jews practice their Friday evening Shabbat service, they light two candles when three stars can be seen in the night sky. The first candle is lit for the commandment in Exodus: “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.” The second candle is lit for the commandment in Deuteronomy that recalls the exodus from Egypt: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.” Therefore, the sabbath is a day of rest, and it is a day of liberation. And surely we cannot rest if we are not free, free from pain and bodily restriction like the woman healed by Jesus as well as free from the societal yokes that we place upon one another. As Barbara Brown Taylor so eloquently writes in her book An Altar in the World, “By interrupting our economically sanctioned social order every week, Sabbath practice suspends our subtle and not so subtle ways of dominating one another on a regular basis. Because our work is so often how we both rank and rule over one another, resting from it gives us a rest from our own pecking orders as well. When the Walmart cashier and the bank president are both lying on picnic blankets at the park, it is hard to tell them apart. When two sets of grandparents are at the lake with their grandchildren feeding ducks, it is hard to tell the rich ones from the poor ones.” As Taylor reminds us, in this world we place yokes upon one another in quite subtle ways. And not only upon our human companions. Take a moment to reflect upon the many yokes, literally and figuratively, that we place upon all inhabitants of our planet: the animals, the land, the sea. At what time do we give rest and liberation to God’s creatures, the earth, and the sea? Recalling Leviticus 25, we learn of the Sabbatical year of Jubilee, the seven-year cycle of giving rest to the land:
Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untrimmed vines; it shall be a year of complete rest for the land. But you may eat whatever the land during its sabbath will produce.
Perhaps it is strange to think in terms of liberation of the land, but truly we have placed our yokes on so much of our world today, and it is crucial to our survival to begin to consider the vast expanse of human control and those living and breathing entities that are living in bondage to us each day of their existence on this planet. In this day and age, Jesus calls us to set free from bondage so much of our world, and it is overwhelming to consider the extent of yokes yet to be removed. How do we even begin? The voice of God in scripture reminds us that it is with the sabbath practice that we must begin. The practice of sabbath gives us the reverence that is needed to change our ways and to recognize our destructive tendencies. Like Barbara Brown Taylor, I have found inspiration in the following prayer which comes from the Jewish Reform tradition’s prayer book, Gates of Prayer, as it so beautifully captures the reverence we seek:
“Our noisy day has now descended with the sun beyond our sight. In the silence of our praying place we close the door upon the hectic joys and fears, the accomplishments and anguish of the week we have left behind. What was but moments ago the substance of our life has become memory; what we did must now be woven into what we are.
On this day we shall not do, but be.
We are to walk the path of our humanity, no longer ride unseeing through a world we do not touch and only vaguely sense.
No longer can we tear the world apart to make our fire.
On this day heat and warmth and light must come from deep within ourselves.”
Truly it is this heat and light rising in the darkness that will guide us to our liberation.