Lectionary 9B, June 3, 2018
Deuteronomy 5:12-15, Psalm 81:1-10, 2 Corinthians 4:5-12, Mark 2:23—3:6
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
The conflicts between Jesus and the Pharisees are often categorized as conflicts between the Pharisees’ hidebound blind obedience to the law, and Jesus’ setting the law aside or abolishing it. That’s not actually the case. In the first place, there is nothing the Pharisees enjoyed more than debating the meaning of the teachings of the Bible. Like Jewish people today, their faith is formed by debating about what the Bible says and how best to apply it to daily life. Second, Jesus himself said he had come not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. It’s not that the ancient teachings of God contained in the Old Testament were to be cast aside as no longer relevant; rather, that we see new meaning in them because of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. In the third place, have you ever noticed how much time Jesus spent with Pharisees? Walking with them in our Gospel lesson today, talking with them, eating dinner with them—they spent a lot of time together. See, Jesus’ interpretations and the Pharisees’ interpretations were actually very similar in a lot of respects. They were part of the same conversation. Although they ultimately diverged, it wasn’t because of Jesus’ interpretation of the law; it was because Jesus insisted that he was the Son of Man, the Messiah, which they did not accept. That’s what they got mad at, in our Gospel lesson today. Not that Jesus disagreed with them on exactly what was permissible to do on the Sabbath, but that he called himself the Son of Man and lord of the sabbath, a title reserved for God.
I truly hope that everyone here believes that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of Man, the Lord of the Sabbath. So we don’t need to explore that any further. But I think we do need to talk about the sabbath, what it is, why God gave it to us, and why it matters in our modern world today.
In the Ten Commandments, God ordered us to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Now, a lot of the time, we tend to think about “keeping the sabbath” as meaning “going to church.” And, sure, I hope you always go to worship once a week or on a regular basis. Regularly worshipping with other people helps deepen one’s faith and carries us through spiritual dry spells. It is very good for us. But that is actually not what keeping the sabbath holy means. You see, the sabbath is not primarily a day of worship. It is a day of rest. What was the first sabbath? The seventh day of creation. God created the universe in six days, and on the seventh God rested. This is the model that God intends for humans, too.
In Deuteronomy, God commands God’s people: “Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor 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.”
The Israelites had been slaves in Egypt. As such, they had worked from sunup to sundown, each and every day, and sometimes longer. There was no rest, no weekend, no vacation. You worked every waking moment until the day you dropped down dead. And that was what was expected of poor Egyptians, too. Rich people, meanwhile, spent almost no time working. They lounged around enjoying the fruits of the labor of their servants and slaves. That was what the Israelites were used to.
That is not the way God wanted them to set up their society, and it’s not the way God wants us to set up our society. Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy. In other words, everyone gets at least one day a week that is free from labor, free from worry, free from work. One day where you don’t have to do anything except rest and relax. To people who had been slaves, this was an incredible gift. A whole day to yourself! A day to recover from all the cares of the workday! What a blessing.
Did you know that modern science backs up how important rest is? When people spend too much time working, their body begins to break down. They are more likely to get sick. They are more likely to have mental health problems. They are more likely to have heart attacks. They are more likely to make bad decisions. Their relationships with family and friends crumble. People who don’t have time to physically and mentally rest are more anxious, more depressed, more accident-prone, more sick, and more likely to use drugs and alcohol as a crutch to get through the day. There are huge, long-lasting negative consequences for people who don’t have enough time to rest and recover, even if they enjoy the work they’re doing. I have a friend who absolutely loves her job, and so threw herself into it and taking on more and more responsibilities until she was always working. But she loved it and found it rewarding! Then she started breaking out in nasty rashes. Turns out, those rashes were caused by stress. No matter how much she loved that job, she could not live and breathe it every waking hour. She had to stop, learn to take time off. She had to learn how to take sabbath. We were not created to do nothing but work. God designed us and created us so that we would have a good balance between work and rest. And it shows.
In Deuteronomy, however, God isn’t content to say “yeah, you need to take breaks” as a rule for individuals to follow on their own when it was convenient to them. God goes on, commanding them what they are supposed to do as part of the new society they will be creating in the Promised Land. Keeping the Sabbath is not just about individual choices; it is also about designing the way society is going to work. Sabbath is for everyone. Everyone in society, from the highest to the lowest, needs time to rest, and so God commands his people to see to it. Everyone, male and female, old and young, rich person and slave, stranger and community member, everyone gets at least one full day of rest each week. No exceptions. That is what it means to keep the Sabbath. It is actually the world’s earliest labor law. If everyone gets a day of rest, that means that no employer or owner can demand more than a certain amount of work. Keeping the Sabbath requires that everyone guard their neighbors’ sabbath. It’s not just about an individual resting; it’s about creating the necessary conditions so that EVERYONE gets to rest.
This is a great gift, but especially it is a gift to the poor, the outcast, the ones society would rather work to death. Rich people don’t need it, since they could choose to rest as much as they wanted. This is a gift for the ordinary guy on the street and the poorest worker in town. And that’s why the Pharisees guarded it so closely. Because it’s easy to find reasons to fudge it. For example: hungry people should get food, right? In those days, to keep the Sabbath, you would cook food the day before and eat leftovers on the sabbath so that even the cook got a day off. But what if you didn’t quite get the stuff done ahead of time? Then you have to work on the Sabbath so that people can have food, right? But if that happens often enough, guess what. Whoever’s doing the cooking doesn’t get a sabbath. If it’s just once in a while, that’s not a problem. But if it becomes a regular thing, if it becomes normal, well, then, guess what. You’re not keeping the Sabbath holy any longer. It’s real easy for that to turn into a slippery slope. Once in a while becomes often becomes always. And before you know it, the sabbath is meaningless.
We Americans are absolutely TERRIBLE at keeping the Sabbath. We used to be good at it; the old blue laws that required businesses to be closed on Sundays meant that few people worked then. But even when you factor that into the equation, Americans are working more than we used to. The average American worker works 47 hours a week—seven more than full time. Some of that is white-collar workers who are working longer hours; 60% of people working a full-time job work more than 40 hours per week on average. And a lot of people are expected to be on call and reachable 24/7. Not just in case of emergency, but for every little thing. Then you have poor people working part time jobs. They can’t get a full-time job, since so many employers these days only hire part-time workers, so they have to get two (or maybe even three) part time jobs, and when you add it all up, they work every day and it adds up to well more than 40 hours a week. They have no time to rest. They have no sabbath.
Then there’s how we raise our kids. We have filled their lives with so many sports and extracurricular activities and homework that they don’t have time to be kids. They don’t have time to rest and relax and just be. We have filled their lives with so many things that are good for them that one more will kill them. One of my friends works with youth, and one day she had a conversation with one of the middle-schoolers in the program. He asked what she did on Saturday. Nothing, she said. She’d lazed around in her jammies all day listening to music and resting after a week that had been particularly stressful. The kid was shocked and horrified. A whole day where you did nothing? Where you rested? He’d never heard of such a thing. He wasn’t aware that resting was something a person could do. He kept trying to suggest things that she could have done, ways of being productive or active. He had no idea how to rest, or that it might be good for you.
We expect people to work constantly, even kids, and call them lazy when they object. And then we wonder why people get sick all the time, why loneliness and depression and anxiety and addiction are all skyrocketing. Now, obviously, the blue laws are a thing of the past and aren’t coming back. But keeping the sabbath is important, and not just for Christians. So I wonder: what should sabbath-keeping look like in the 20th Century? What are ways we could shape our economy and our labor laws and our expectations that would give all people, rich and poor alike, the time to rest that God created us to need? I don’t have the answers, but it’s a question worth pondering. May God guide our hearts and minds.