by Ellen Sims
texts: Matthew 11: 28-30; Exodus 20: 8-11
When my grandmother was a child, Sundays were observed strictly by her church-going family. After the worship service and the Sunday dinner, she and her brothers and sisters spent the rest of the day in circumspect boredom. “Keeping the Sabbath” meant the children could not play or do any activities resembling work because that would violate the Fourth Commandment. For instance, my grandmother was not allowed to use scissors to cut out paper dolls, her favorite entertainment, because scissors were a tool, so using them was considered work. The children’s only approved diversion was reading the Bible. They were not permitted to read the Sunday comics in the newspaper. That was frivolous. Observing the Sabbath was an act of piety, and the commandment to “remember the Sabbath and keep it holy” was, they believed, given to Moses’ people to keep them soberly cognizant of God’s supremacy.
But Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for [humans]”, not [humans] for the Sabbath” (Mark 2: 27). In other words, Sabbath time was intended to serve OUR needs; we were not created to serve the Sabbath. The Sabbath is not to be a burden but a blessing; it’s not meant to be drudgery but delight; not a means of suppressing human freedom but of supporting human flourishing; not a way to limit the human experience but a way God teaches and blesses us. Sabbath, to put it succinctly, is for rest, not restriction.
Jesus invites us into rest in today’s gentle Gospel text: “Come unto me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). Although Jesus was often criticized for violating the Sabbath, he was actually consistently living in the spirit of Sabbath. To heal the sick on the Sabbath was consistent with the Sabbath’s purpose for restoration. To allow his followers to glean grain from a field on the Sabbath was supportive of human health. The intention of the Sabbath is to foster our well-being. As the creation story says, on the seventh day of creation “God rested” (Gen. 2: 2-3). If God needs rest, we do, too.
A person doesn’t have to be religious to acknowledge the need to rest from work. But we have at the beginning of our holy book a story about creation followed by rest. We remember that earlier in this creation story God created the alternating pattern of day and night before creating humanity, perhaps a sign of our absolute need for both creativity and rest. The act of creation did not happen only once in the history of the universe. Creation recurs. That means growing seasons are followed by fallow times—for corn fields and human beings. Many a sermon could be preached about how much we in this frenzied culture need rest, deep sleep, time away from electronic devices and the work we bring home from the office as well as the incessant drive we have to do more to have more. Our mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health cries out for soul-deep rest.
Wayne Muller, in his book titled Sabbath*, claims that the universal refrain in our culture is “I am so busy.” He observes that, sadly, “despite [our] good hearts and equally good intentions, [our] work in the world rarely feels light, pleasant, or healing. Instead, as it all piles endlessly upon itself, the whole experience of being alive begins to melt into one enormous obligation . . . . We say [“I am so busy”] to one another with no small degree of pride, as if our exhaustion were a trophy, our ability to withstand stress a mark of real character. The busier we are, the more important we seem to ourselves and, we imagine, to others. To be unavailable to our friends and family, to be unable to find time for the sunset, to whiz through our obligations without time for a single, mindful breath, this has become the model of a successful life.”
But, he adds, “Our lack of rest and reflection is not just a personal affliction. It colors the way we build and sustain community, it dictates the way [communities] respond to suffering, and it shapes the ways in which [societies] seek peace and healing in the world.”
I agree that Sabbath can help us heal from this violence we do to ourselves and our community. Again, I stress that Sabbath rest is not merely a physical need nor an individual necessity. Sabbath must be practiced in community and has consequences for the entire community.
Which is why “worshiping at the altar of nature” does not, in my opinion, fully substitute for corporate worship. The person who says, “I take long walks in the woods with my Golden Retriever instead of going to church” expresses a limited experience of Sabbath. Those walks with your dog are healthy, but Sabbath, again, is communal. Now if 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. on Sunday is truly the only hour in your whole week when you can spend time in nature or catch up on sleep, I might surprise you by recommending that you spend that hour on the sands of Gulf Shores or in your bed at home.
But what may be more surprising is to hear me claim that Sabbath is a subversive act. Observing the Sabbath is, according to Walter Brueggemann,** a means of doing justice, particularly economic justice. Brueggemann says that observing the fourth commandment is how we transform an unjust world into a world with human dignity and without poverty. The practice of keeping Sabbath is how we can resist injustice! Shabbat or Sabbath is done in defiance of a greedy culture and a voracious economy. Brueggeman makes an intricate argument based on the story of Moses and the children of Israel fleeing Pharoah to establish a new “economy”—and they create this new economy to obey the Sabbath commandment. Remember, before the Ten Commandments were given to the Israelites, they first had to be freed from Pharoah.
And that’s why in the first three commandments of the Decalogue, all of which address the identity of God, the people are reminded by God that “I am the God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” And after those first three commandments, the God of Israel who emancipated the people then commands that they rest. The people whom Pharoah had commanded to work relentlessly for his enrichment were commanded by God to cease working. In contrast with the gods of Egypt, the God of Israel requires rest. In contrast with Egypt’s exploitative economy fueled by slave labor for the sake of “insatiable productivity,” the God who freed the slaves uttered ten commandments—at the center of which is the command to rest from work on the Sabbath. For their sake, yes. And for the sake of the entire system. An avaricious, exhausting, acquisitive system is anti-God. You’ll recall an earlier story in Exodus described Pharoah’s commands to increase the production quota for the Hebrew slaves. The people were forced to make more and more bricks for the expanding empire, and those bricks were used to make storage buildings for the kingdom’s grain, which were used to build more and “more supply cities” (Brueggeman 3). The heartless Pharoah, to cut costs while increasing production, even at one point stopped supplying the straw the slaves needed to make the bricks and thus added to the slaves’ labor by forcing them to gather the straw first at the same time he increased their production quota. The task was relentless. In such a system there was no rest—for anyone, from Pharoah on down. All were “uniformly caught up in and committed to the grind of endless production.” But God heard the people’s cry, says the story of liberation, and Moses led the people out of bondage.
And in the desert the former brick makers participated in a new economy. The “insatiable gods of imperial productivity” (Brueggemann 6) were replaced by the God of mercy and faithfulness who offered a covenantal relationship instead of requiring a “commodity of bricks.” This God, who supplied manna each morning, was a God who rested, a God who required that they rest. In fact, this God was a God who broke the pattern of ceaseless work by allowing the people to gather one day’s food at a time. If they tried to stockpile the food from heaven, it spoiled. This example of rest from ceaseless production and acquisition was the distinction of the new God the people met in the desert and through the practice of Sabbath. (6) This fourth of the ten commandments given Moses to guide the freed slaves is the longest, and it’s the transition from laws about their relationship with God to the laws about their relationship with family and neighbors. Sabbath observance is therefore the bridge from love of God to love of neighbor.
And the final commandment of the ten? “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” Do you hear the economic content of the commandments? If we’ve obeyed the first nine commandments—especially if we’ve kept the Sabbath and in doing so have renounced our participation in a greedy and relentless economic system, we will NOT covet. We will not want what our neighbor has. We will not reduce our neighbor’s wife to a commodity. “We will not get caught up in insatiable desire, endless productivity, and anxious restlessness” (Brueggemann 11).
If we honor the Sabbath, we will also stop frantically striving and instead will hear Jesus calling us to trust and not be anxious and find rest in him. We’ll reject a desire for more and more for some people while others are left with less and less. If we really observe the Sabbath–as God did on the seventh day of creation–we as a people will not pursue a standard of living that is unsustainable and that “requires an expansive and aggressive military in order to control resources and markets” (15). If we honor the Sabbath, a pursuit of consumer goods won’t lead us to abuse the land and savage our environment. Because the Sabbath will lead us to right relationships with neighbor and with creation.
Sabbath is the central spiritual discipline. Or, as Brueggemann terms it, “a new social reality.” People who keep Sabbath live all seven days differently.
Sabbath is so much more than just showing up for church one day a week. It is a means of getting off the hamster wheel, if briefly. It might even be a way of disrupting the wheel itself.
Sabbath is how we rest.
And how we resist.
For our sake.
And for the sake of the world.
* Muller, Wayne. Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives. New York: Bantam Books, 1999.
** Brueggemann, Walter. Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2014.