In Luke 13, Jesus heals a woman who was crippled by an evil spirit for eighteen years. The problem, at least from the perspective of the local synagogue official, was that the healing took place on the Sabbath. The official remarks to the people, “There are six days in which work should be done; so come during them and get healed, and not on the Sabbath day” (Luke 13:14). His statement has a clear allusion to Deuteronomy 5:13: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work.”
Now it must be understood that the official’s complaint seems reasonable. The woman could have found Jesus the next day. After all, if she has been troubled by this spirit for eighteen years, then what is one more day? And if healing someone is indeed a work, and there is no absolute standard to say that it is or it isn’t, then Jesus’ healing was a violation of the Sabbath.
What many Christians attempt to do at this point is to justify Jesus’ actions on the basis that healing someone is not “work” and, therefore, He didn’t violate the Sabbath. Is this, however, the best way to read the passage? Was Jesus quibbling with them over the definition of “work.”? No. In fact, His reply seems to suggest that He was working, but so were they.
On another occasion, Jesus unequivocally acknowledges that He was working on the Sabbath. The Gospel of John notes, that “the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because He was doing these things on the Sabbath” (John 5:16). Jesus, then, replies, “My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working” (John 5:17). Instead of quibbling over what is work and what is not work, Jesus’ defense is that they do not understand the purpose of the Sabbath.
Thus, in Luke 13:15-16, Jesus replies to the official, “You hypocrites, does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the stall and lead him away to water him? And this woman, a daughter of Abraham as she is, whom Satan has bound for eighteen long years, should she not have been released from this bond on the Sabbath day?” (Luke 13:15-16).
Note that Jesus’ reply alludes to Deuteronomy 5:14—recall that the synagogue official had cited Deuteronomy 5:13 in his exhortation to the people. Jesus was, in effect, saying that he should have kept reading. After all, according to Deuteronomy 5:14, the Sabbath also applies to one’s ox, donkey, and cattle: “but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant or your ox or your donkey or any of your cattle.” Jesus is pointing out that they were willing to untie a donkey and lead it out to water on the Sabbath so that it may drink—something that was not life-threatening. If they are able to do so for an animal, and the Sabbath applies to their animals, then shouldn’t He be able to set this woman free on the Sabbath?
Now, if Jesus were merely arguing, “well, I am working but so are you,” the official might well respond by acknowledging: “yeah, you got us. We probably shouldn’t be leading our animals to drink on the sabbath. Thanks for pointing out our inconsistency.” This would leave Jesus in a corner. He would then have to submit to the Sabbath regulations that prohibit work; including healing. Clearly there is something more going on in Jesus’ argumentation. And discerning such, will help us determine our theology of the Sabbath.
Towards a theology of the Sabbath
In order to discern a theology of the Sabbath, we must first understand that the Sabbath was pointing us to Christ. Paul affirms this directly in Colossians 2:16-17, “Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day—things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.”
In saying that the Sabbath was pointing us to Christ, we mean that the nature and purpose of the Sabbath finds its fulfillment in Jesus. It is important to note that in saying that the Sabbath finds its fulfillment in Jesus does not mean that it is eradicated. Instead, it means that the very purpose for which the Sabbath was established finds its fulfillment in Jesus. What, then, is the purpose of the Sabbath? Is it not simply a day for rest? The answer is that the Sabbath is much more than that!
The key for understanding what Jesus was doing in healing on the Sabbath, as well as, for our understanding of the nature and purpose of the Sabbath, and, consequently, for our discerning a theology of the Sabbath is that the Sabbath rest is a matter of justice. The Sabbath, along with the rest of the ten commandments, was established in accord with creating an economy of justice. All one has to do to understand this point is to ask: who wants the workers to work seven days a week: the owners of the field, or the workers in the field? The Sabbath was established in order to protect those who were most likely to be exploited: namely, the working class.
That the Sabbath was intended to create an economy of justice—i.e., it was designed to protect those who were most vulnerable—is why, after the Sabbath law is stated in Deuteronomy 5:14, the next verse reminds them that they were slaves in Egypt: “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out of there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to observe the sabbath day” (Deut 5:15). The Sabbath, then, is a way of saying “you will not exploit your workers; after all, you should remember what it was like when you were exploited.” The Sabbath law, then, points us to the time when injustices and oppression will cease!
 It is intriguing that the official does not address Jesus.
 The plural “hypocrites” suggests that Jesus was addressing more than just the official.