Keeping Sabbath Wholly

Audio is available here: Keeping Sabbath Wholly

It is one of my fun jobs to teach confirmation classes about the 10 Commandments. One of the exercises we sometimes do with them is arrange the commandments thematically. My confirmation kids (and adults) usually catch on to the fact that the first three have to do with God and the last six have to do with other people. No other Gods; No images; honor God’s name. The first three commandments are vertical. They are focused on Israel’s corporate relationship with the God who had rescued them from slavery in Egypt. Then come the rest: honour your parents; do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not lie; do not covet. These last six commandments are horizontal. They are focused on the people of Israel’s relationships with their neighbours, whether far or near. The emphasis here is on relationship. The 10 commandments, I try to teach at least, are not about abstract legal principles, but about how people are to live together harmoniously. To life together well is to live together in right relationship with God and with each other.

This then allows to talk about why there are 2 tables of the Law and why Jesus summarized the entire Law, indeed the entire Hebrew Bible, as contained in Deutueronomy 6:5—Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. Jesus’ point is not, of course, to reduce the lived shape of covenant life to warm fuzzies, but in a pithy way, to invite us to call to mind the first three and the last six, to set them in the context of relationality, and then to bring those relations under the umbrella term, love. Love has to do, when it comes to Jesus (and the Old Testament’s) understanding of the Law, with responsibilities and actions and very little with emotion. When I was a teenager, the Christian songwriter Steve Camp once penned a song that included this lyric: “Love’s not a feeling. We’ve got to learn to get past our emotion to the meaning of the word.” Not stellar poetry (rhyming learn with word?). But true, nonetheless.

Now here I want to pause and ask you a question. Have any of you noticed a problem with anything I’ve said thus far? 2 Tables of the law. Commandments addressing a right relationship with God and commandments addressing right relationships among people. So far so good. Three and six. Ah! Three and six. Nine commandments! That’s what’s wrong: the fourth commandment has been omitted. Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy. Well, you will be glad to know that I omitted it on purpose. And if we want to get to grips with Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath, we need to talk about Sabbath a little further.

I left Sabbath out on purpose because Sabbath fits in both tables. Listen to how the Sabbath commandment sounds when it is written in the book of Exodus:

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

Here Sabbath keeping belongs in the First Table. It has to do with the community’s vertical relationship to the God who had called them from Egypt. By resting on the seventh day, God had set it apart—God blessed and consecrated it. Sabbath was written into the very fabric of the universe. The Children of Israel were to keep Sabbath as part of keeping covenant with God, and indeed, keeping Covenant with God’s creation.

Listen again, however, to the Sabbath commandment as it arises in the book of Deuteronomy.

Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

Same commandment, but very different rationale. Now, the Sabbath commandment has to do with keeping covenant with neighbor. You were a slave in Egypt. You are no longer. To remember that you belong to me, and are therefore a free people, I command you to rest and not to rest in such a way as to require others to work on your behalf.

Well, which is it? Does Sabbath belong in the first table, the commands having to do with loving God or with the second table, the commands having to do with loving neighbor? And of course, the answer is both. The Sabbath command is the hinge. The command that belongs in both tables. The command that, indeed, expresses all the commandments because it incorporates both love of God and love of neighbor. To keep Sabbath is, indeed, to come close to the heart of the Law, the Covenant, and the God who gave all Ten Commandments not  as an imposing list of arbitrary rules to be obeyed, but as a gift that enabled human life to flourish.

Which is why Jesus’ relationship to the Sabbath is a very serious matter. It comes up at several places in Luke’s Gospel. The first place is Luke, chapter 6. Here we have two stories. In the first, Jesus is rebuked by some Pharisees for allowing his disciples to pluck heads of grain on the Sabbath. He responds by pointing them to a place in the Scriptures where David violated the tabernacle for the sake of food and then tells them cryptically, “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” In the very next story, Jesus’ lordship over the Sabbath is enacted in the synagogue on the Sabbath, when he restores a man’s withered hand to full function, much to the anger of the synagogue leaders.

Our Gospel lesson for this morning is the second place in Luke’s Gospel where Sabbath keeping is confronted. The story follows the same plotline as that of the man with the withered hand. Jesus is found teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath. A woman crippled by a spirit—that’s an odd turn of phrase that need not detain us—appears. She is some distance away, for Jesus sees her and calls to her to stand up straight. And in full view of everyone, she does. Again, the leadership—this time personified in the synagogue leader—is outraged. Again, Jesus charges the synagogue leader with hypocrisy and ignorance of the larger biblical narrative, which includes apparent “exceptions” to the rest commanded on the Sabbath, which included care for livestock.

What’s going on here? Is Jesus taking liberties? Is he really talking about rules and exceptions to the rules? No. What’s going on both in Luke 6 and in Luke 13 is something far deeper. This is a series of stories that has to do with Jesus relationship to the Law as a whole, and not just the Sabbath day.

One way to read this story—a desperately wrong way I must emphasize—is to read it as Jesus relativizing the law, as Jesus saying that the law is simply irrelevant to the lives of his disciples. That is false and pernicious.     Jesus it is calling his followers not to break the law, but to break with one particular interpretation of the Law that had gone off the tracks so desperately off the rails that it had become the exact opposite of that God had intended the law to be. God had intended the law to be a gift that allowed human flourishing; the Pharisees, out of zeal to keep the law, had turned it into a burden that left a man’s hand withered and a woman crippled for eighteen years, they had turned the law into an instrument of death.

So it is that this is a story about the Law, about its right keeping, and about Life! In the re-telling of these stories, Luke, first of all, wants us to grasp not that Jesus allows us to flout the law, but that, as the Lord of the Sabbath, he shows us how to keep it. We keep the law rightly when we do not turn it into a burden, but when we keep it as a gift that God intends for our flourishing, for our Life, and for the flourishing and Life of our neighbors.

Which brings me back to Sabbath. I’ve spoken to different groups about Sabbath keeping before and the commentary afterwards seems to fall into two camps. The first is a nostalgia for Sabbath keeping that looks awfully like that of the Pharisees, who in their zeal to keep the law managed to miss its point entirely, turning it into a burden, into an instrument of death.  The second is a hostility for any suggestion that Christian discipleship requires behavioral change of any sort. How dare I suggest that Sabbath might involve specifically not doing certain things?

I don’t resonate with either side. Instead, I am drawn through Jesus’ Sabbath actions—he heals—and identity—he is Sabbath’s Lord—to the commandment itself, which is profoundly liberating, it seems to me. In a world where leisure was a gift only for kings and queens, God said to his people, leisure is written on the fabric of creation; to take one day in seven to rest is to imitate me. To work all the time is to rebel against my rule and indeed to rebel against the very world in which I have placed you. To a people who were once slaves, God said, you are now my people. You are slaves no longer. You are free. To remember that you are no longer slaves, you shall NOT work one day in seven. Do you hear the life in those words? Do you hear the gift of Life and Leisure that God intends for his people as they rest? God says to his people, you live in covenant with me, you live in tune with creation, you live as free people and not as slaves, when you rest!

What more powerful counter-cultural Gospel command could there be? Think about it. I know people who, between the two jobs they must hold down to feed their families, are modern-day slaves. That’s loaded, isn’t it? But I mean it. I am not being hyperbolic. I know people for whom there is no day where there is no work. We have people who claim our parish as their home who cannot—not will not, but cannot—join us for worship because they have almost no space in their lives for reflection, and when some precious space does open up, husbands and wives want to be with their children as much as possible. Keeping Sabbath for us means not simply saying, “God in Christ as claimed you as his own and set you free,” but also adding, “now, how can I live my life such that you are not a slave?”

Another example. All of us remember the collapse of the garment factory in Bangladesh. Keeping Sabbath means living in such a way that my well-being is not dependent upon the slavery of others.  Dare we ask, in obedience to the Lord of the Sabbath, how we might order our lives such that we are not dependent upon child labour or inhumane working conditions as conditions for my prosperity?

My friends, the call to keep Sabbath is not stale and old and out of date. Still less is it a call from which Jesus sets us free. The call to keep Sabbath is at the heart of the Law, and the Gospel which frees us to keep that Law rightly. Jesus calls us not away from the Sabbath, but to live into it. Jesus, as Lord of the Sabbath, has come to restore our withered hands, to straighten our bent backs so that we may fully and freely keep Sabbath, so that we may fully and freely find our rest in him. He has come to free us to Live—really Live—God’s law not as burden that brings death, but as a gift that leads to life—for us and for our neighbors. Will you follow the Lord of the Sabbath into that deep fidelity to his Law?

One thought on “Keeping Sabbath Wholly

  1. Interesting insight into Sabbath.
    This is a topic that I have been researching lately.
    Here’s something else that I found helpful in understanding this.

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