When I learned to the 10 Commandments as a child, I remember thinking that this one—“Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy”—was the easiest to keep. After all, it just meant, “Go to church on Sunday” right? As a pastor’s kid, I wasn’t given a choice, so it didn’t take much effort to keep that commandment. My adherence to the commandment was reinforced in my teen years in Mississippi, where “Blue laws” meant businesses were mostly closed on Sundays, so there wasn’t much temptation to do anything resembling work after church, unless you count homework.
But what if this commandment is about more than that? After all, honoring the Sabbath pre-dates all the other commandments, going all the way back to the story of creation, when God set aside a day to rest after creating everything. But the writer of Deuteronomy does not say we are to keep the Sabbath because it’s what God did—though that’s certainly a good idea. Instead, the reason given is that we keep the Sabbath in remembrance of how God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. The Jewish prayer offered before and after the Sabbath meal includes this phrase, “Once we were slaves in Egypt, now we are free people.”
The command that everyone rest from work—including male and female, slave and free, human and animal, citizen and alien—was radical for its time; it is essentially the first labor law ever written. The people of God were supposed to remember their own labor under Egyptian taskmasters and to make sure they never perpetuated that struggle. It was the job of God’s people to ensure that all of creation got time to rest, reflecting on God as a God of freedom, not of slavery. It is still a radical idea that we should rest and make sure others rest, as our culture tends to value people for what we DO.
But, like all of the commandments, the intention of this one is not just keeping God happy by following one more rule. As is the case with all 10, this commandment is for our own wellness. God’s people are called to remember that God sustains and nurtures us, to reflect on how God has acted in the past and continues to act on our behalf now. The point of keeping the Sabbath is to recall our dependence on God and to improve life for all living beings.
Of course, by the time we get to today’s story in Mark’s Gospel, there has been plenty of time for the Pharisees, the Biblical scholars of their time, to get tangled up in the letter of the law versus the spirit of the law. It’s only the beginning of Jesus ministry—we’re only on chapter 2, just 79 verses into Mark’s Gospel—but already the religious leaders are already angry with Jesus. How dare this carpenter from nowhere travel the countryside doing miracles and teaching in God’s name! The Pharisees heard him offering legal and religious insights, acting as if he had authority, and so were quick to jump on him when it appeared that Jesus and his disciples were dishonoring God’s law by picking grain and traveling on the Sabbath.
Jesus proceeds to teach the teachers, audaciously interpreting Scripture for them. He interprets the scriptural law of Sabbath by referencing another text, demonstrating his understanding of God’s word, despite the fact that he is not a Pharisee. Jesus suggests that when David ate consecrated bread supposedly reserved for priests, the priest who offered it to him didn’t do anything wrong. The priest’s action was to sustain a weary, hungry traveler who eventually became Israel’s greatest king. Jesus argues that the demands of the law can be set aside if such an action promotes a person’s well-being. According to Jesus, the purpose of observing the Sabbath is to make life better for all humans and other creatures, rather than to keep a religious principle for its own sake.
The next Sabbath-keeping showdown occurs when Jesus encounters a man in the synagogue with a withered hand. Everyone watched to see what he would do. Jesus is furious that the Pharisees are willing to use this man as a pawn in their efforts to entrap him. He asks them whether it would be more in keeping with a liberating God to heal the man or to refrain from working on the Sabbath. They are silent. Jesus asks the man to stretch out his hand (which means Jesus didn’t actually DO anything that might be construed as breaking the Sabbath law). In that moment, Jesus makes it clear that the chief objective of the law—any law—is to save and preserve life. Perhaps this man wasn’t exactly on the verge of death, but his withered hand would have made him unable to work or perhaps to provide for a family. Jesus restores him to wholeness. What better day than the Sabbath for such a demonstration of God’s commitment to the well-being of all? As Christians, we celebrate the Sabbath on Sundays in honor of Easter, and we consider each one a mini-resurrection day. So of course it seems right and good that Jesus extended new life to this man on the Sabbath day. It’s one more indication that in Jesus, the kingdom of God has come near. Everywhere Jesus went, he left behind liberty and dignity.
So what does all of this mean for us? How do we honor the Sabbath day in light of this story? If keeping the Sabbath is about more than just showing up for worship on Sunday, what does it mean for us to observe it and keep it holy?
One thing it means is that we have to acknowledge that God is God and we are not. Which sounds simple, except that it means we have to stop acting as if the whole world would stop spinning if we rested a bit. Even God rested after creation. But I don’t want it to sound like this is one more rule to keep—you must have a nap!—although, as rules go, it wouldn’t be the worst. No, I mean sometimes we have to pause and breathe, to let go of the reins we grip so tightly, so that we can remember that God’s got this. God’s got us. God is bigger than our biggest concerns, and holds all of creation in the palm of God’s hand. Rest.
But this isn’t just God’s arrangement with you personally for your own well-being. It’s that too, as I can attest from having had a lovely sabbatical last summer. I came back to you, feeling more like myself, feeling more creative and capable, than I did when I left. But sabbaticals and sabbath-keeping in general are not only a nice break. Keeping the Sabbath, deliberately letting God to be God while we step back, is also about caring for all of creation.
It’s important for all God’s people to be renewed and refreshed so that we can face our callings with new energy and stamina. When we return from sabbath-keeping, we can re-engage with the world, looking around see who else needs rest, whose exhaustion is going unnoticed, unaddressed. We are strong enough to fight again for the world go so loves—to rail against fear and domination and for joy and freedom. This commandment in particular is one that constantly refers to God’s hating slavery. With fresh eyes, God’s children can see who needs restoration to new life, and ponder how can we keep working to make sure they get it.
These days I can’t imagine suggesting that all that is required to keep the Sabbath is to show up in worship, though I am glad we do that. But if I said that, I’d be doing a dis-service to children who are being taken away from their parents and lost. I’d be misleading you about the urgent need for sane gun legislation. I’d be turning my back on senior citizens who can’t afford their medication. I’d have abandoned the fight for black lives and queer lives and women’s lives to really matter. If keeping the Sabbath is nothing more than not mowing the lawn on Sunday, then we turn our back on God’s beloved, groaning creation. No! Christians need to return again and again to recalling God’s gifts of freedom and wholeness for all. We require a reminder of Jesus’ resurrection as the ultimate Sabbath-keeping, and of resurrection in our own lives. These reflections provide us with the grounding and energy to passionately pursue renewed life and hope for all of creation. Amen.
~Pastor Susan Schneider