When I was 7, my parents went away for a week and left me and my two younger sisters, aged 5 and 3, in the care of an older couple. (We lived far, far away from all relatives, and the couple was, apparently, highly recommended!) Things went fairly well – until Sunday. I think they took us to their church on Sunday. I don’t remember anything about church. But I do remember the rest of the day!
After lunch (or Sunday dinner), I got out some scraps of material and scissors. I had some grandiose idea that I was going to make a costume of some sort. Well, the scissors were snatched from my hand and put away somewhere. I was scolded for “working” on the Sabbath. That was round one in a very, very long day. It seemed that no matter what we wanted to do, we were in trouble. We got out cards– probably Old Maid – a children’s game. They were taken away. When the youngest, Beth, started to cry, I decided I would blow up some balloons for her. Another no-no. We couldn’t play dress up. We couldn’t go outside. They wanted us to sit quietly with them where they could watch us.
We were, as you might guess, miserable. We were homesick in our own home. We didn’t understand what was going on – why Sunday had suddenly become such a horrible day. We were scolded for our disrespect of the Sabbath.
My parents had quite a homecoming. I don’t know if the couple said anything to them, but we had a lot to say! They came home to three little girls who were hurt and bewildered. My parents then started asking questions of those who had recommended the couple. “Well, yes, they are pretty conservative,” someone said. “But I didn’t think that would bother you.”
A few years later, mom and dad were going to go away again. They told us that they had looked for someone else to watch us, but couldn’t find anybody. So, they hired the couple. This time, however, mom and dad set some ground rules – and told us, in advance, that they had done so. Friends would take us to our church. And the couple was informed that they could not force us to follow their Sabbath rules. It probably helped that, by that time, we lived in a much larger house. It was easier for us to find our own space where they weren’t watching us. They could have their “Sabbath” time in the living room. We could be upstairs in our bedrooms. As long as we weren’t fighting with each other or making lots and lots of noise we were to be allowed to do whatever we wished.
“There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath.” That one line conjures up all the negative connotations connected with the idea of Sabbath. “No work allowed.” My Jewish brother-in-law told me about some of the practices that ensure that work isn’t done. For example, he said that in preparation for the Sabbath, they would unscrew the light bulb in the refrigerator so that it wouldn’t come on when the door was opened. “What happens if the refrigerator starts to run when you open the door,” I asked. “Oh,” he said, “You never open the door until the refrigerator is already running. That way you haven’t made it come on!”
Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Is this what God meant? Children aren’t allowed to play? You can’t grab a cold drink from the refrigerator without worrying about whether or not it will start to run? A woman who’s suffering can’t be healed of her affliction? Imagine the chaos if this “commandment” ruled our society. Firefighters wouldn’t be able to respond to fires? EMTs wouldn’t be available? Hospitals would essentially shut down?
The Christian Church often has a negative reputation. We’re the “you shall not” people! What we proclaim to the world is a life that has to be lived within strict boundaries. Life is tentative because we’re always struggling to “color within the lines,” that is, to live safely, avoiding God’s wrath that would be unleashed upon us if we broke God’s rules. That childhood experience of Sabbath keeping, of a tyrannical, life-sapping approach to faith, is what many think the church is all about.
We are familiar with the concept of the Sabbath as a day of rest. We immediately think of the 10 Commandments. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. That’s the commandment. In Exodus, the first telling of the 10 commandments, the commentary gives it a context. “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.” The story of creation provides the reason for observing sabbath. God rested. Therefore, all God’s people – and, in fact, all God’s animals, are called to rest on the sabbath. “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.”
It sounds like a justification for the rabbi’s complaint against Jesus – and for all those who rigidly observe the sabbath, forbidding any kind of “work” (including, even, the play of children.)
The Old Testament has another setting of the 10 commandments that places the observance of sabbath in a different context. In Deuteronomy, chapter 5, it says, “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.
Yes, there is a commandment to rest – but that commandment is placed within the context of God’s liberating, redeeming work. On the sabbath, they remember that God called them out of slavery. The day of rest is a day of liberation – a day to acknowledge and celebrate God’s liberating, redeeming love. Abraham Joshua Heschel, a 20th century Jewish author wrote, “The meaning of Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to the holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.”
I might tweak his reflection by suggesting that the invitation is to find what the gospel writers called “kairos,” that is, time infused with the grace-filled, redeeming presence of God, rather than “chronos,” chronological time which has its own tyranny in our lives.
The Deuteronomical interpretation of Sabbath can inform our understanding of what it means to “rest from one’s labors.” It is not rest for rest’s sake alone. It is rest in order to live into the holiness of God’s life-giving presence. It should be a liberating practice, not a limiting one.
Jesus’ healing of the woman at the synagogue is a sign of the intent of Sabbath. He liberates her from the tyranny of her illness – an illness that had enslaved her for 18 long years. Jesus shows us sabbath as life-giving, not life-restricting practice. It is intended to enhance life, not limit it. On the sabbath, God’s people are invited to remember who they truly are – beloved children of God. “And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from her bondage on the Sabbath?” Jesus asked. Sabbath is a holy gift. Jesus said elsewhere, “The sabbath was made for human beings, not human beings for the sabbath.”
There has been a renewed interest in the gift of sabbath over the past few years. I was helped by a book by Rabbi Kula who lifted up his family’s sabbath practices. Sabbath time is renewal time. It is a time for the family to connect with each other, with treasured friends, and with the creation itself. He wrote of the appropriateness of spending time in nature, going for walks, or sitting in a park. Sabbath time is a time to let go of our need to be in control and celebrate the God who created us and the world in love. It is not a restrictive practice, but a life-giving practice.
Everyone needs sabbath time – time for rest and renewal, time to just be a child of God, to be freed from the tyrannies of time and the “oughts” that rule our lives. We might, as we reflect on the Sabbath, think about those who have no free time—those who have to work two or three jobs just to make ends meet. Or we might think of those whose jobs demand time commitments that are unreasonable. Years ago, we came to Florida for a family vacation at Disney World. I remember the father who was on his cell phone as we rode from the airport to the resort. “I’m on vacation,” he said. He listened for a few minutes and then said, “I’ll call you after we’ve checked in.” Or there was the lawyer who left the profession after he realized that his hourly wage was less than that of the woman who cleaned his NYC apartment. He was expected to work 60 to 70 hours, billable hours, a week. There is a new kind of slavery in our world.
Those who are lifting up this ancient tradition are not asking us to embrace those limiting practices that fostered, at their worst, resentment and a sense of imprisonment. They are much more aligned with Rabbi Kula’s practices. The Sabbath was intended to be life-giving and healing. It is an opportunity to step back from the busy-ness of the world and remember the grace of our relationship with God. It is an opportunity to look, from the perspective of God’s beloved children, at all the things in our world that work against that identity – at all that still burdens people, that weighs them down, bows them over – ourselves included! On the Sabbath we celebrate that God is still redeeming, still healing, still calling us and the world out of that which enslaves into newness of life.