21st Century Sabbath

The folks over at WorkingPreacher.org spent the vast majority of their weekly podcast this week dealing with the issue of Sabbath for the 1st century Jew.  They pointed out that there are two very different rationales given for the commandment to keep the sabbath holy in Exodus and Deuteronomy.  In fact, the “intention clause” for the sabbath is the only real difference between the two lists.

In Exodus 20, as Moses gives the 10 Commandments for the first time, the reasoning behind the sabbath commandment is Creation. “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, 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.

In Deuteronomy 5, our second go-round with the 10 Commandments, the reason for sabbath is the Exodus and God’s having restored the Hebrews to the fullness of their humanity by allowing a day of rest. “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.

Note that in both cases, the commandment for sabbath applies to everything that does work in a pre-modern agricultural society: landowners, slaves, and animals.  This is all well and good, for the first century near east, but what role does sabbath play in 21st century America?

There are scant few places where Sunday is kept as a true day of rest.  The most famous company that is closed on Sunday is Chick-fil-A, but there are many others.  Here locally, Hoods, a sort-of home improvement Big Lots, is closed on Sunday’s and the sign reads, “because the day is worth more than the dollar.”  Realistically, however, with smartphones, soccer schedules, and a service based economy, we live in a 24 hour a day, 7 day a week, 365 day a year world.  How is one to keep a day of rest, a day of remembrance of the mighty acts of God, in such a world?

Perhaps this is our entrance to the Gospel lesson for Sunday.  Maybe we are bent over by the weight of our sheer busyness and in need of some time to remember all the good things God has done for us.  Maybe we need to be set free from our bondage to the swiftly moving clock.

I say “we,” but what I really mean is “I.”  Maybe I need to be better at sabbath in order to set an example for our congregation.  Maybe I need to be more fully present to my family.  Maybe we need a 21st century theology of sabbath.  It won’t be easy, and I’m not advocating for Pharisaical understandings of rest, but what would it look like if Christians were reintroduced to sabbath and to its underlying call to worship, thanksgiving, and mercy?  I imagine health costs would diminish, and the world just might be a better place.

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