Honor the Sabbath

Robert S. Turner
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 21, 2016
Isaiah 58:9b–14; Luke 13:10–17

I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid in Sunday School, learning about the Ten Commandments, some of them just didn’t seem as important as others. I knew what killing and stealing and lying meant, so I understood why “Thou shalt not kill” and “Thou shalt not steal” and “Thou shalt not bear false witness” were in there. I knew a little something about what it meant to honor my parents, even if I didn’t necessarily do it all the time. And once it was explained to me, the concept of covetousness felt like a natural for this big list of dos and don’ts.

But why the Ten Commandments told me not to make a graven image—whatever that was—I hadn’t a clue. And if there is only one God, as I had always been taught, why tell me to have no other gods before God? It made no sense to my grade-school mind.

Then there was the one about the sabbath. “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.” I knew the story of creation, how God had worked for six days and then taken a break on day seven, and I understood that we were supposed to rest in imitation of God, but beyond the logic of “Because I said so,” the whys and wherefores escaped me. Besides, when you’re a kid, rest is not really what you’re looking for. Insofar as we did observe the sabbath in my family, and to the extent that law and custom still restricted our activities on Sundays, the commandment to keep the sabbath day holy seemed like a meaningless burden. But I figured that’s what commandments are all about, so what’re you gonna do?

It wasn’t until much later that I discovered what the commandment about honoring the sabbath is really all about. It turns out it’s about justice. Listen to the commandment in full, as recorded in Exodus 20:

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 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 (Exod 20:8–11).

The concept of sabbath is rooted in creation, as these verses make clear. Because God rested upon completing creation, so we must also rest from our labors. Rest is as much a part of the cycle of creation as work is, and those who neglect rest not only put themselves in danger of burning out or making themselves sick, but they are also acting in disobedience to God. Refusing sabbath is really an act of hubris, when you think about it. The belief, whether conscious or unconscious, that we can’t take a break because our jobs are too important, or that the world or the church or our business can’t get along without us, is a mark of egoism run amok. I once wrote a song about my own tendency to take on more responsibility for the world than was my due. I called it “Amateur Atlas.” The only one whose shoulders really bear the weight of the world is God, and if God is confident enough to take a break, what’s our excuse?

If the version of the Ten Commandments we find in Exodus tells us that Sabbath is rooted in creation, the version in Deuteronomy tells us that it also has to do with redemption. Listen to the fourth commandment in Deuteronomy 5:

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 (Deut 5:12–15).

Have you ever noticed that both versions of the commandment mention slaves, animals, and resident aliens? The sabbath is not just for us, but for everyone. In a world that accepted the practice of slavery as a given, the commandment provided protection to slaves. In a world of clannishness and tribalism, the commandment provided protection to those who did not belong to the tribe or clan. It turns out that honoring the sabbath is not only a passive matter of refraining from work but also an active call to do justice. And here in Deuteronomy, the rationale has to do with redemption. Because the Israelites themselves had been slaves in Egypt, and God had redeemed and liberated them “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm,” they were prohibited from treating their own slaves and the immigrants in their midst the way Pharaoh had treated them.

Unfortunately, it seems that as time wore on the connection between sabbath and liberation had faded, and some of those who had returned from the Babylonian exile had set themselves up as mini-pharaohs. The prophet who speaks to them in today’s reading from Isaiah 58 paints a picture of the blessings that will come their way if they “refrain from trampling the sabbath … [and] honor it” (v. 13): He says, “You shall take delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob” (v. 14).

These promises of blessings, however, contain within them an implicit warning. One gets the impression that the people have not been measuring up. The prophet uses conditional phrases—“if you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted” (vv. 9–10); “if you refrain … from pursuing your own interests on my holy day” (v. 13); and so on—that lead one to suspect that the abuses the prophet tells them to refrain from are the very ones they are perpetrating on a regular basis.

This suspicion is confirmed when we look at the verses that precede today’s reading, in which the prophet presents the people’s complaint and God’s response. The people say, “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” (Isa 58:3). God answers, “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high” (Isa 58:3–4).

It is a refrain that should be familiar by now, as it has been sounded for centuries by prophets such as Amos, Micah, Hosea, Isaiah, Second Isaiah, and now this prophet, whom scholars call Third Isaiah: worship divorced from justice is unacceptable to God. In the passage I just quoted, the prophet speaks of the people’s fast day, but it’s not much of a stretch to substitute “sabbath day” for “fast day”:

Is such the [sabbath] that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? … Is not this the [sabbath] that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; [and] when you see the naked, to cover them? (Isa 58:5–7).

In fact, the prophet makes the same connection in today’s reading, when he tells the people to “call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honorable” (v. 13). We honor the sabbath not through empty religious rituals or meticulous rule-keeping, but by observing its original intent: providing a respite for the most vulnerable members of the population. The sabbath is meant to be a delight, not a burden; it is meant to lift up, not push down; it is meant to honor a holy and just God, not with hollow religiosity but with acts of justice and kindness.

The leader of the synagogue in our reading from the gospel of Luke still had not got the memo, some three or four hundred years down the line. When Jesus sees a woman who has been afflicted for eighteen years with a condition that would not allow her to stand up straight, he interrupts his teaching and calls her over. He tells her, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment” (v. 12), lays his hands on her, and, Luke tells us, “Immediately she stood up straight and began praising God” (v. 13). But the synagogue leader objects, and tells the congregation, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day” (v. 14).

This guy knows the commandment. It clearly says that no work is to be done on the sabbath, and over many generations that simple instruction has been fleshed out with hundreds of minutely detailed embellishments—scribes and teachers with much greater knowledge and authority than he have gone over what one may and may not do on the sabbath with a fine-toothed comb. This leader apparently thinks it safest to err on the side of prohibiting of anything resembling work. Besides, the woman in question has been disabled for eighteen years already. What is one more day?

But Jesus pulls no punches in his response. “You hypocrites!” he says. “Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” (vv. 15–16). Whereas the synagogue leader plays it safe, saying, “Wait until tomorrow,” Jesus says, “Works of compassion and justice cannot wait!” God does not will the suffering of God’s children, and when faced with such suffering, to counsel patient endurance is to misrepresent the character of God. For Pete’s sake, people! Jesus says. You take care of your animals on the sabbath, but you demand that this member of the covenant community, this daughter of Abraham, remain in bondage! What is wrong with you?

In 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which he responded to a group of “moderate” white clergy who had publicly urged King to slow down, stop pushing, and allow the wheels to continue their slow grind toward justice. But King found their advice deeply troubling; after all, 1963 marked the hundredth year since Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and the advances racial justice had made in that century were negligible. The wheels were grinding awfully slowly. In his letter King expressed his disappointment with white moderates, “who paternalistically [believe they] can set a timetable for another [person’s] freedom.” A line from the letter from that cell in Birmingham became the title of the book in which it later appeared, Why We Can’t Wait.

The synagogue leader thinks he can set the timetable for the suffering woman’s freedom. Jesus says her healing can’t wait. And far from being the wrong time, the sabbath is the perfect time for such healing to take place. His act of compassion, which he frames not so much as a healing as an act of liberation—a setting free from bondage —captures the original spirit of the commandment to honor the sabbath far better than any set of rules about how many steps one may walk or how far one may carry a load on the sabbath day. The sabbath has always been about justice and liberation—the practicing of compassion by those who have received compassion themselves.

In this passage, and in the one from Isaiah, we hear echoes of jubilee. Every fifty years the people of Israel were to declare a year of jubilee, in which debts were canceled, property that had been sold reverted to its original owner, and slaves went free. Every sabbath day serves as a foretaste of this great day of liberation. That’s why Jesus can buck the conventional definition of sabbath and perform the work of healing. He knows that the spirit of the sabbath is expressed best in acts of justice, freedom, and jubilee.

Who in our day needs to experience liberation? Who are the oppressed workers? What people or groups has Satan kept in bondage? Farmworkers? Immigrants? Victims of mass incarceration? Those caught up in dehumanizing cycles of poverty, addiction, and crime? Persons with untreated mental illness? Transgender persons who regularly face ostracism, misunderstanding, and threats of violence? How can we identify these people, and how can we bring the true word of healing and liberation into their lives, the way Jesus does when he says, “Woman, you are set free”?

When we perform these kinds of acts, when we refuse to put off any longer the healing or liberation that we can help bring to suffering people, then we will have learned to “call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honorable.” We will have learned how to honor the sabbath.