Thursday, February 23, 2012

Sabbatical (Pt. 2)

In answer to a friend's questions, I wrote on Tuesday about the Sabbath year that I'm taking right now, and about what it might mean to "cease from work" and "let the land lie fallow" for present-day non-agrarians in the USA. I'm a bit embarrassed that I'd already written quite a long post before I got around to looking up the Bible passages that command the Sabbath. When I did, I realized my post so far had ignored a key part of what Sabbath is about: caring and providing for the poor and powerless. This aspect of Sabbath is the topic of today's post.

"Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy," says the fourth of the Ten Commandments (which, to my knowledge, is the only one of them whose validity for Christians gets debated). Here's the original explanation of what it means to keep the Sabbath:
Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 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, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the 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.  (Exodus 20:8-11, NASB)
What struck me about this passage is the injunction that no one--not the servants, not the animals, not the foreigners--is to work on this holy day. Yes, it's about rest, but it's not just about my rest. It's about the rest of my servants, my cattle, the illegal immigrants, everyone. In a century and a country where CVS is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,-- where McDonalds is there for you at midnight or even at 3am,-- where Thanksgiving dinner can be bought the day of,-- where Walmart opens at 9pm the evening before Black Friday--when do those workers rest? Vacation and holidays have become luxury goods here, and part of the reason for that shift is that consumers expect to be able to buy goods and services at every hour of the day (and night) and on every day of the week (and year). When O. and I eat out on Sunday, I get to rest from cooking, but the waiters and waitresses and cooks and dishwashers at the restaurant do not rest. They are working. This is something we don't usually think about: the cost of our conveniences. But God thinks about it.

So another aspect of Sabbath rest is protecting the rest of people around you, people over whom you have economic power. When we buy things on Sunday, we are using our money to push other people to work on Sunday. Obviously that's not the intention behind our purchases, but it's an effect anyway. Or rather, it's a statement about our values: I value my ability to buy things on Sunday after church more than I value the right of the people working at A&P to have Sunday as a day of rest. Ugh. So that's something to think about.

It's complicated, of course. Just because I stop buying things on Sunday, those stores won't consequently stop being open on Sundays to give their workers the time off. And what about people for whom Sunday isn't religiously significant? (Although maybe they're included in the text, among the "sojourners among you"...) Why should it be Sunday? Etc. But those are implementation questions and they are best resolved in prayer. My point here is that one of the goals behind the Sabbath commandment is for everyone, regardless of social or economic status--heck, you don't even have to be human--to have rest. Rest should never be a luxury good. It should be accessible to all.

Thus, the commandment to keep the Sabbath holy is in part a commandment to look out for those who are less materially and socially fortunate. There is a social justice emphasis here!

This comes through even more clearly in Exodus 23, which commands the Sabbath year and again discusses the Sabbath day:
You shall sow your land for six years and gather in its yield, but on the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the needy of your people may eat; and whatever they leave the beast of the field may eat. You are to do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove.
Six days you are to do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and the son of your female slave, as well as your stranger, may refresh themselves.
Now concerning everything which I have said to you, be on your guard; and do not mention the name of other gods, nor let them be heard from your mouth. (Exodus 23:10-13)
"So that" shows up twice in these instructions.
  • The reason the land is to lie fallow is so that the needy can eat. 
  • The reason there is to be no labor on the seventh day is so that the needy can rest.
According to this passage, providing for the poor and powerless is a key reason for the Sabbath! (I don't think I've ever heard this discussed in a sermon on the Sabbath, which is odd. But perhaps it's not so very odd, considering that this reason shows up most clearly in the instructions about the Sabbath year, and I've only ever heard preaching about the Sabbath day.)

So if the Sabbath, day and year, is about social justice, then what about all those reasons I wrote about yesterday? What about keeping the Sabbath in order to keep God as your only Lord, fast from planning and control, rest in God's provision, etc.? I think these ideas about the internal significance of the Sabbath do show up in Exodus 23. They are implicit in the last verse in the passage (third paragraph as I quoted it above).

This verse (Ex. 23:13) appears to switch topics abruptly, commanding obedience and forbidding idolatry. What does this have to do with the Sabbath? The transition makes sense if you read into the meaning of the Sabbath and see that it is about relying on God, even in ways that do not make sense from a worldly standpoint, and serving God only (not idolizing our own control and productivity). Self-reliance is a false god, control and productivity are false gods, selfishness is a false god. Observing the Sabbath will keep us on our guard against them. When we obey God in the spirit of the Sabbath, resting and trusting in him alone, then the names of those false gods will depart from our hearts.

Thus, the Sabbath is meant to set right both our relationship with God and our treatment of our fellow creatures. It's not obvious how we ought to observe it today, but if you prayerfully consider the purposes for which God originally commanded it, I believe God will guide you into the right interpretation for wherever you are, and you will be blessed in obeying.

One more note for this post: I think the Sabbath is also connected to stewardship, of the land and of our bodies. On the seventh year, it's not just the people and animals who rest, but the land itself. Ecologically speaking, this is good advice. Stewarding the land well means letting it rest so that it won't be depleted of resources and die. The Sabbath day also makes provision for us to steward our bodies better, by sleeping. God made us to need sleep, but many of us don't like to admit this (college students especially). We see sleep as a sign of weakness--which it is, but it is a God-built weakness, a physical representation of our spiritual weakness. One of the ways to live out trust in God is to enter that state of physical vulnerability and total non-productivity. "Rest," God is telling us in the fourth commandment. "Sleep. I've got you."

I still haven't answered all the Sabbath questions my friend asked, but I'll write more tomorrow. :)

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