One of the most important words in the Bible is the word: Holy.
It represents the mystery, the majesty of the Divine. The word Holy appears very early in the first book of the Bible: Genesis. God speaks Creation into being. God creates the Earth, the planets, the stars, the sun. God separates the land from the water and creates living creatures. Then there is something that we are told God blesses and makes holy. What is it that God makes holy? Is it a great mountain? An altar? A holy land? It is a day. God blesses the seventh day and makes it holy. On the seventh day, God created the Sabbath.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel is the author of a great book, The Sabbath, in which he teaches about what it means to have holiness exist in time rather than space. He said that the Sabbath is ‘architecture in time.’ The Sabbath is a sanctuary which can be entered—a sanctuary that cannot be damaged by the passage of time, or profaned by destruction. The Sabbath is a sanctuary that we can enter every seven days.
One of the ten words God spoke to Moses on Sinai—what we often call the Ten Commandments is:
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Ex 20:8-11)
In the Gospel passage from Luke, Jesus is teaching in the Synagogue, on the Sabbath. He is not trying to overthrow the religious tradition of honoring the Sabbath. What we hear is a dispute between Jesus and the Pharisees over what is appropriate to do on the Sabbath—whether or not healing is work which shouldn’t be done on the Sabbath. The Pharisees were trying to bring awareness of holiness into the lives of ordinary people; holiness was not reserved for the Priests, or the Levites, or people in the Temple at Jerusalem. Holiness was something that God gave to the whole of God’s people, and they had the right and responsibility to honor the Holy in their own lives.
There are many accounts in the Gospels of Jesus healing, and healing on the Sabbath. Tradition tells us that that author of the Gospel of Luke was a physician, so it follows that he was especially interested in stories about healing. He tells us that as Jesus was teaching in the Synagogue, on the Sabbath, a woman appeared. We don’t know her name—we know the names of few if any of the people Jesus healed. Let’s give her a name, for now. Let’s call her Chaya. I’ll tell you later why I think that is a good name for her. Chaya appears in the synagogue bent over. We don’t know the full nature of her illness. What is her diagnosis: is it scoliosis? Parkinson’s? Is she burdened by grief? Despair? Is she so oppressed by life she can no longer stand? Is the problem physical? Emotional? Psychological? Maybe that isn’t where we should be looking. Maybe the author of the Gospel wants us to see something about her, rather than diagnose her illness.
We don’t know Chaya’s age either. It is easy to imagine her as an older woman, as we picture her bent over and unable to stand up, but all we really know is that she has been troubled with this condition for 18 years. Is she old? She could be 18! Do you wonder about that number?
In the Bible there are numbers that appear in several places. We can accept them as literal descriptions, exact quantities, or we can look at them as a form of teaching. Certain numbers appear consistently in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Gospels. For example:
- 40—the number 40 appears in a number of places. Moses was on Mount Sinai with God for forty days, when he received the Ten Commandments. The people of Israel were in the wilderness for forty years before they reached the Promised Land. In the New Testament, Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days after his Baptism, before he began his ministry. Forty is a number that signifies transformation; it tells us a big change is occurring.
- 12—Jacob had twelve sons, which gave rise to the twelve tribes of Israel. Jesus had twelve disciples, his closest followers. Twelve signifies totality, wholeness, and the completion of God’s purpose.
- 18—to understand how the number 18 fits into this, we need to understand that there is a spiritual tradition that assigns a numerical value to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The letters chet (like a small “n”) and yod (like a comma) together add up to 18, and spell the Hebrew word: Chai. Chai is a very important word—you may have seen a Chai worn as jewelry. What does Chai mean?
Have you every seen the movie or play “Fiddler on the Roof”? Do you remember the joyful song: L’chaim? It is a toast—to life! The root word—Chai—means life. The name Chaya, which can be translated as ‘living one’, a popular name in Israel, seems fitting for the woman Jesus healed. The number 18, the years that she suffered, points to her life—a life that Jesus healed–on the Sabbath. The number 18 might mean that she had been ill for a lifetime, no matter her actual age.
Jesus described Chaya as a daughter of Abraham (and Sarah). When he healed her on the Sabbath, he showed that her life was holy. She was one of God’s Chosen people, one of the holy people of God. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.” These are the words God spoke to Jeremiah, telling him that his life was holy. In healing Chaya on the Sabbath, Jesus was showing that her life was holy. The moment she was freed, Chaya stood up straight and began praising God—which was the meet and right thing to do on the Sabbath, in the Synagogue. And here we are in this place of worship on the Lord’s Day to praise God. Remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy. Remember that your life is a gift from God. Before God formed you in the womb, God knew you, and before you were born God consecrated you. Remember that you are God’s blessed child, and your life is God’s precious, holy gift.