A Sabbath Life

This weekend I heard part of a This American Life episode. I think it was about competitions or something. The segment I heard was from a Jewish guy telling about a “Blessing Bee” he was in when he attended an Orthodox Jewish school. What was fascinating to me was to hear him talk about the Sabbath at his house. I don’t remember all the details but I remember him repeating a few times that his father would get drunk and sing Sabbath songs. He also detailed what the Rabbis had determined was appropriate to do on the Sabbath. You couldn’t turn on a light because the filament got hot and that was kindling a fire and that was work. The list of do’s and don’t’s went on from there.

When I was first introduced to Reformed Christianity, one of the issues I had to wrestle with was the Sabbath. The Reformed hermeneutic is that if a command is not repealed, it is still binding. The Ten Commandments are viewed as the moral law that is written on everyone’s heart and is applicable to Christians today. Including the Sabbath. But the Sabbath comes to us not from Moses but through Christ and so it isn’t the Jewish Saturday Sabbath but a celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus on Sunday. We also call it “the Lord’s day.” The question I had to wrestle with was what the Sabbath looks like in the New Covenant. As I discussed it with other Reformed Christians, there were a variety of opinions on it.

What the two paragraphs above have in common is their focus on what we can and cannot do on the Sabbath. In this post, I’m not going to defend the perpetuity of the Sabbath. What I want to look at is more of the Bible passages that speaks to the Sabbath than just what work we may or may not do on it. It is surprising study.

Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; that your ox and your donkey may have rest, and the son of your servant woman, and the alien, may be refreshed. – Exodus 23:12

We could easily do what many others (myself included) have done and focus so strongly on the first half of this verse, trying to decide what constitutes “work” and “rest” (can I play flag football or run on the Sabbath?), that we forget the last half.  Notice who also is to be refreshed by our ceasing from labor; the son of the servant woman and the alien. Essentially, the “least of these.” It isn’t entirely about you. Yes, you rest, but you don’t do nothing, you do justice. Think I’m reading too much into this? Consider Isaiah:

Thus says the Lord:
“Keep justice, and do righteousness,
for soon my salvation will come,
and my deliverance be revealed.
Blessed is the man who does this,
and the son of man who holds it fast,
who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it,
and keeps his hand from doing any evil.” – Isaiah 56:1-2

Did you notice what is said about keeping the Sabbath? “Blessed is the man who does this…who keeps the Sabbath…[keeping] his hand from doing any evil.” And don’t abandon the context when you read this either. We can focus on ‘righteousness’ and think about obeying the law and then we’re back in the rut of “can I cook on the Sabbath?”. That’s not an unworthy question but what about the first thing commanded “keep justice”? That isn’t about watching football rather than taking a nap, it is about caring for the poor and needy. It is about defending the widow and the orphan. That is part of Sabbath keeping too. Go and read the rest of that chapter and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

Or consider the context of Isaiah 58’s injunction to “call the Sabbath a delight.” Right before it true fasting is tied to abandoning wickedness and letting the oppressed go free. In the next chapter God chides Israel for their evil and bloodshed. The Sabbath is not only what we can and cannot do on Sunday, it is about a life lived resting in God and not performing evil. We cannot go about abusing or ignoring the needs of the poor on six days and then rest on Sunday and think we’re pleasing Jesus. A “Sabbath life” includes refreshing the servant and alien as well as our own resting.

This is why Jesus had such little tolerance for the Pharisees and their quibbles about the Sabbath.  In Matthew 12 he shows how disinterested he was in whether it was ‘work’ to heal on the Sabbath. Healing the poor man was what it was all about! It wasn’t Jesus showing that he could ignore the Sabbath or that he was on the spot rewriting the rules. He was fulfilling the Sabbath by doing what the Sabbath called for: mercy to the poor.

That doesn’t mean that we should go work in a soup kitchen every Sunday, but I think it does mean that if we are concerned for the Sabbath, we should be concerned for the poor, that they may be refreshed as well.

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