Sunday, June 6, 2021

The Liberty of Rest

Had I a time machine, I might take us this morning to the foot of Mount Sinai. Not to witness the fire and hear the thunder – no, I don't know if we could bear it. But I would love to interview an Israelite in the camp – just anyone. Think of the story you might hear. Things had been fine, when their ancestors first came to Egypt, for Joseph was their protector. In those days, Egypt was ruled of men not of its soil, men who looked not so unlike the Hebrews. But then the Egyptians rose up and cast out their foreign rulers. The new dynasty, coming from far up the Nile, knew nothing of Joseph and his service. In their foreign wars, they took many prisoners from Canaan and the lands of Asia, and soon they could tell no difference between the sons of Israel and the prisoners of war. They treated them alike, enslaving them to the state to work on state projects. Some were sent to toil in the fields. Others made and carried bricks. As the latest pharaohs turned their focus to the northeast Nile Delta, many of the sons of Israel had been tasked there, making bricks and building storage facilities for a massive capital city bigger than Babylon. The quotas were set too high, and ever higher as Pharaoh's ambitions grew. It was exhausting and unrelenting, eight or more days a week. Workers in other camps appealed for religious holidays here and there, time off to offer to their gods. But the Pharaoh would hear nothing of the sort from his Hebrew slaves, lest his ambitions grind to a halt. So the sons of Israel slaved away. But then came the night of deliverance; the rush, the chase, the march to the sea; the fear, the awe, the passage on dry land; the dancing, the walking, the storm on the mountain; and then the word of the LORD who'd turned the gods of Egypt to mush.

When he speaks, God absolutely grants where they've been, he acknowledges their painful and strenuous past: “You were a slave in the land of Egypt.” But, God says, those days are over now, because he has become their Great Emancipator: “The LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” And that change in status, from slave society to the light of liberty, is going to have some consequences on how they must live: “The LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day” (Deuteronomy 5:15). What God is saying here, in laying down this commandment, is: “You were treated as slaves, but that's not who you are! You were never made for slavery, never meant for slavery. So slave no longer! Live free!”

God forbids them, here, from working in their new society in the same tired way they used to in the old society. To be sure, for up to six days in a row, they can work as hard as they need to in order to get their tasks done: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work” (Deuteronomy 5:13), so long as they pray and rehearse the LORD's testimonies in the morning and at night (Deuteronomy 6:7). Between those prayers, for six days they can achieve all their achievements, accomplish all their accomplishments. But then comes that seventh day. Now, in slavery in Egypt, they would have always had to work seven days in a row. But not any more. On the seventh day, their economy grinds to a halt, their production reaches a standstill, their creativity pauses, the endeavors of earth fall silent: “The seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 5:14). And that word 'Sabbath' is like a stop sign. When they see it, they aren't to build, they aren't to farm (Exodus 34:21), they aren't to create (Exodus 16:23; 35:3), they aren't to collect (Numbers 15:32-36), they aren't to carry things from here to there (Jeremiah 17:21-27), they aren't to buy or sell (Nehemiah 10:31; Amos 8:5), they aren't to pursue personal projects or mere pleasure or pointless conversation (Isaiah 58:13), they aren't even to wander too far from place to place (Exodus 16:29). There are six days for those. Sabbath stands apart from them.

Now, down through the ages, outsiders have thought this was weird. Plenty of Gentiles thought that this was a bad way to live. We know Romans in particular scorned the Sabbath and mocked the Jews as lazy cowards for living like this. They scorned the Sabbath as “an excuse for laziness,”1 saying the Jews were “led by the charms of indolence” into “inactivity,”2 so that they “gave up every seventh day to idleness.”3 But that's not what it's all about. This commandment contains a striking wisdom: If we don't stop, then our work will burn us up; but in one way or another, we won't stop until we're forced to stop. If an Israelite keeps working himself the way he worked in Egypt, then it's like he never left: he's enslaved himself. And if an Israelite works his brother to that same breaking point, then he looms over him like Pharaoh's very phantom. So God speaks.

As former slaves, Israel has exactly the background needed to really appreciate the magnitude of this gift. Each time Sabbath comes, they're reminded to celebrate that their slave life is over. They think back to the exodus, to God's daring rescue through the waters. They get a whole day to just bask in the reality of their accomplished emancipation. And this regular day of luxuriating in their liberty is a mechanism for interrupting daily drudgery with divinity on a predictable and regular basis. It's a day of healing. It's a day of reconnecting. It's a day made for regaining a healthy distance from the world's cares. For we have it on good authority that “the Sabbath was made for man” (Mark 2:27). That is, the Sabbath is engineered for the interests of human welfare. It's given us for our health. Sabbath is the satisfied silence that cuts off the drumbeats of slavery.

From that slavery, Israel has been set free; and not just set free, but set free into the life of God. For in keeping the Sabbath, Israel is being invited to imitate him. Sabbath is rooted in the rhythm of creation, the first bloom of the universe. God labored, syllable after syllable, for six days. But then he stopped. He wasn't tired, wasn't bored, wasn't weary: God is inexhaustible. No, he stopped and enthroned himself over his creation and basked in the accomplishment of his rule. And so he “rested on the seventh day” (Exodus 20:11). Now, Israel could have taken this as their cue to slave away, to ensure that God has the leisure to rest. The Babylonian creation story imagines one god declaring his idea to create humanity “on whom the toil of the gods will be laid, that they may rest,” so they made humanity “on whom he imposed the service of the gods, and set the gods free.”4 But Israel's story reasons the exact opposite way. God didn't create us to offload his responsibilities so he could live leisure. He created humans, he rested, and he now invites us to rest with and in him!

And so keeping sabbath was a gift – a gift meant to train Israel in the art of faith. For six days at a time, through the busiest harvests and most tumultuous storms, with demand after demand coming to their attention, a family in Israel would have to juggle their tasks like so many pins in the air. But every seventh day, no matter how many pins were in the air, each house would abruptly, in unison, drop their hands to their sides. They would not juggle. They would simply have to trust God to catch the pins and throw them back when the day was done. To live like this, stopping the juggling once every seven days, was a living declaration of their conviction that God is still enthroned in heaven, and from his sovereign throne, he'll watch over all the works of our hands while we simply bask in his goodness and his love. And so this special day was a chance to thrust away from us all our striving, and instead to lay claim to refreshment we haven't earned – just resting in God's own freedom.

Keeping sabbath was Israel's declaration of faith, a tutelage in the imitation of God. But it didn't just mean his pattern of work and rest. It also meant imitating his justice and his mercy. It isn't just the powerful householder who gets to enjoy sabbath. No work from “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 livestock or the sojourner who is within your gates, so that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you” (Deuteronomy 5:14). The poorest pauper gets the same sabbath guarantees as the prince or prophet. A daughter stands in the same freedom as a son, a servant the same as the master. A friendless immigrant, vulnerable to abuse, has all the same protections as the most Israelite of Israelites. No one would harass them, tell them to work more to prove themselves. They rested. Even animals received their rest! All the other days, they were employed for tasks around the farm. But come Sabbath, no humans made any demand on them. No horses would be pulling buggies that day. No ox would be yoked to the plow. Reflecting on the gift of Sabbath, one modern Jewish writer says it like this:

He who wants to enter the holiness of the day must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil. He must go away from the screech of dissonant days, from the nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness and the betrayal in embezzling his own life. He must say farewell to manual work and learn to understand that the world has already been created and will survive without the help of man. … Labor is the means toward an end, and the Sabbath as a day of rest, as a day of abstaining from toil, is not for the purpose of recovering one's lost strength and becoming fit for the forthcoming labor. The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life. Man is not a beast of burden, and the Sabbath is not for the purpose of enhancing the efficiency of his work. … The Sabbath is not for the sake of weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of Sabbath. It is not an interlude but the climax of living.5

In fact, so beautiful was the sabbath to Israel that they projected it, like a signal in the clouds, until from this one bulb it dwarfed the year. And so we read that, just as each seventh day was a day of rest for man and beast, so each seventh year was its own kind of sabbath. But it was a sabbath for the land beneath their feet – for the soil itself. “For six years you shall sow your field, and for six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its fruits, but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath to the LORD (Leviticus 23:3-4). To do that takes the same sabbath faith. If, week in and week out, they can learn to trust God to catch all their pins for twenty-four hours, then on the seventh year, they can be ready to trust God to feed them with the overflow of his blessing, even when the land doesn't work for it: “The Sabbath of the land shall provide food for you” (Leviticus 23:6). Now, sadly, in practice, Israel didn't live up to that call of faith. Down through their settled history, they almost never gave the land its sabbath rest. And in fact, that was one of God's motivations in exiling them later on: “The land shall enjoy its Sabbaths as long as it lies desolate..., the rest that it didn't have on your Sabbaths when you were dwelling in it” (Leviticus 26:34-35; cf. 2 Chronicles 36:21). They cheated the land so long that God stepped in and gave the land space for sabbath.

But not only was the seventh year a sabbath for the land. After each sabbatical year, all the debts between the people of Israel were cancelled out. “At the end of every seven years, you shall grant a release, and this is the manner of the release: every creditor shall release what he has lent to his neighbor. He shall not exact it of his neighbor, his brother, because the LORD's release has been proclaimed” (Deuteronomy 15:1-2). Just think of that: every seven years, all debt was predictably wiped away as a clean slate! And the purpose of legislating the cancellation of debts was so that “there will be no poor among you,” Moses says (Deuteronomy 15:4). That too was the goal of sabbath: they just had to write sabbath over years in order to hear it. Training in greater mercy.

But that's not all. Every seven clusters of seven years, after the debt release at the end of the seventh seventh, would give way to a special year. Each sabbath cycle of seven sabbath-year cycles would give birth to a year of special liberty, called a 'jubilee' (after the yobel, the kind of ram's horn blown to announce it). And on the Day of Atonement, that year would be a proclamation of “liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his clan” (Leviticus 25:10). It meant a greater celebration of their freedom from slavery. It was like a massive reset button on Israel's society. Real estate went back to its rightful family: the old homestead came home. Families torn asunder were reunited. An Israelite, living a full life, could be guaranteed to see at least one jubilee in his or her lifetime. And that's what capped off the beauty of Israel's sabbath life. It said: “Let freedom ring!”

America, like Israel, has given at least lip service to all these ideas. You might recognize those words of jubilee as the inscription on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. It took a long time to appreciate that liberty and sabbath were for all the inhabitants of the land. In the 1800s, we have record of one woman who whipped and tortured her slaves before church, and when questioned by her pastor, she said, “If I were to whip them on any other day, I should lose a day's work; but by whipping them on Sunday, their backs get well enough by Monday morning.”6 That is no sabbath. That is no liberty. And even now, like the pagans of old, we've developed a culture where we tend to judge restfulness as if it were laziness. We too easily mock debt relief as a hand-out. We boast that we're the people of liberty, but we don't want the liberty of rest. We enslave others and ourselves. We pride ourselves about how busy we can be. In 1930, a leading economist predicted that, by the time we're now living in, Americans would have just a 15-hour workweek.7 That has not happened. Not even close. The average full-time American paid laborer works at their job for almost 1,800 hours each year.8 That's not as bad as it was in the thick of the Industrial Revolution, when the average exceeded 3,000 hours each year.9 But it's serious, especially when you consider that back then, about half the population wasn't doing paid labor. We work more hours than the British, the French, the Germans, even the Japanese. When we do work, we're more productive than ever, but a lot of that is driven by the rising workaholic class and our increasing demand that a job be not just a career but a calling, a fountain of meaning. And so, in practice, we often reduce ourselves to Mammon's handpuppets, to tools of industry, slaves even of our own goals and purposes.

To make matters still worse, a substantial number of American paid laborers – whether part-time workers doing shifts on scattered schedules they learn just days in advance, or people trying to get by in the gig economy – have no way to reliably predict when they'll be working, which means they can't know when they're secure to rest. And we can't forget that paid labor is just one of the many forms of work in our lives. There's housework. There's commerce. There are chores. There are all kinds of personal projects we set ourselves to, in what we claim is our 'down time.' Demands press on us from all sides. The taskmaster, whether outside of us or in our own minds, rules the roost. Every moment of our lives becomes economized. Everything is open for toil or exchange. Time is remarkably transubstantiated into money. And so American lives bleed away.

Into our day, the commandment reaches from Israel's distant past and whispers its wisdom that we've forgotten. It bids us halt. Don't be so caught up in your projects and works, your to-do lists and chores, that they catch you and won't let you go 'til they've sucked you dry. The whisper reminds us we weren't made for slavery (we need release!); we weren't made for relentless toil (we need rest!); we weren't made for crushing burdens (we need liberation!). The whisper begs us to give rest to others, to withdraw our demands on them, to hold ourselves back from commerce one day a week, however we can. It reminds us that on this one day, the economy must be reminded that it isn't God, and neither are we. Cashiers, cooks, and clerks need sabbath as much as anyone else. It was in obedience to this whisper that, for so many decades, we fought the uphill struggle against secularizing Sunday. The whisper bids us dream of a society where workers' rights are protected, where stability and security are on offer, where clear boundaries keep work from bleeding into the whole of life or from casting its darksome shadow over all our delights. And the whisper bids us forgive debts financial and ethical, offer release, and extend a fresh hand of friendship that wipes all slates clean.

The wisdom of this whisper, this commandment of old, is far from dead. We all need it now as much as ever. And we should live by it, we most of all, because we've fallen in love with the Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:28). Just as in ancient times God emancipated Israel from their slavery in Egypt, so has God in Christ emancipated us from the slavery of sin in the world (Romans 6:17). We passed through the sea of baptism, we came to the mountain of the Spirit, we are an exodus people no less than they. Because we once were slaves but have been summoned into the light of liberty, we Christians have as much reason as Israel of old to no longer slave away our lives. Jesus came to earth to declare the jubilee of his Father's favor (Luke 4:19, quoting Isaiah 61:2).

This same Jesus invites us to receive his sabbath gift, and to pass it along to others. He will not whip us to our breaking. He is gentle. He is humble. If we bow the neck to bear his yoke, if we pull the plow for him in the fields of the world, then he promises us rest. And we safely take that rest as we rest in him. Jesus, crucified and risen, has ascended to his Father's throne of rest. And he is no less faithful to catch the pins now when we, accepting his invitation, pause our juggling. Jesus is on his Father's throne of rest, and he delights to see us snap the chains of the worker, defending the right to rest and to all that's needed to live well. Jesus is on his Father's throne of rest, and as he forgave our debts, so he calls us to surrender to jubilee and forgive the debts of others (Matthew 6:12). Jesus is on his Father's throne, and he names us his Body on the earth. If we will not embody the spirit of sabbath, if we will not be gentle and humble of heart here, if we will not lead the peaceful and quiet life for him (cf. 1 Timothy 2:2), then who will lead the way? And so, says the Lord of the Sabbath, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). And in him, the day will come when, as we persevere in Christ's rhythms, all our sabbath practice now will lead us into the full sabbath rest that still awaits us, stored up in heaven, to be revealed in the new creation. For, we are promised, “there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God … Let us therefore strive to enter that rest” (Hebrews 4:9-11). Amen.

1  Perception reflected in Hellenistic Synagogal Prayers 5.14 (see translation in Old Testament Pseudepigrapha 2:683).

2  Tacitus, Histories 5.4

3  Juvenal, Satires 14.106

4  Enūma elish 6.8, 34 – translation in W. G. Lambert, Babylonian Creation Stories (Eisenbrauns, 2013), 111, 113.

5  Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (Noonday Press, 1994 [1951]), 13-14.

6  Quoted in Theodore Dwight Weld, et al., eds., American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses (American Anti-Slavery Society, 1839), 178.

7  John Maynard Keynes, Essays in Persuasion (W. W. Norton & Co., 1932), 369.

8  “Average Annual Hours Actually Worked Per Worker,” <>.

9  Juliet B. Schor, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (BasicBooks, 1992), 45.

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