Remember the Sabbath day and treat it as holy. Six days you may work and do all your tasks, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. Do not do any work on it—not you, your sons or daughters, your male or female servants, your animals, or the immigrant who is living with you. Because the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything that is in them in six days, but rested on the seventh day. That is why the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
— Exod 20:6-11, CEB
Consider the Ten Commandments. I doubt many people would argue with the commandments that rule out murder, theft, or adultery. But when it comes to the Sabbath commandment, which is the longest and most complex of the lot, even believers may respond with relative indifference.
Don’t get me wrong. I know people who grew up with highly restrictive Sabbath traditions and hated it. As kids, they had to sit moping in their bedrooms while they watched the neighbor kids playing outside, and never understood why. I’m not about to propose anything of the sort.
But we may be a bit mystified by the stories of Jesus being persecuted for healing on the Sabbath. What’s wrong with those Pharisees, anyway? Jesus just miraculously changed this person’s life for the better. And they want him to stop doing that for the sake of some religious rule? Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath, and he can do whatever the heck he wants.
My concern is this: if we think that way, then we may not be taking the Sabbath seriously enough. In the Old Testament, honoring the Sabbath was one central way the people marked themselves as belonging to the God of the exodus, the God who gave them freedom:
Remember that you were a slave in Egypt, but the Lord your God brought you out of there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. That’s why the Lord your God commands you to keep the Sabbath day. (Deut 5:15, CEB)
In Exodus, we rest on the seventh day because we’re following God’s lead. But in the parallel commandment in Deuteronomy, we rest because we remember that God was the one who freed us from slavery.
What might that mean for us?
Think about what happens when we make small talk with strangers. One of the first things we ask each other is, “So, what do you do for a living?” We define ourselves, we locate our place in society, by our work. Work leads to consumption, which leads to more work… On and on it goes in the modern circle of life.
And in such a society, it’s tempting to think of Sabbath as an extended coffee break, a day off of work. But here’s the problem: even if we take an entire vacation from work (let alone one day), our identity may not change a whit. We have our day off, then go back to the grind, still defined by what we do, and not by our relationship to God. In this way, suggests Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, we’re still slaves under the old Egyptian regime, making bricks, bricks, and more bricks, as if the exodus never happened.
What should we do on the Sabbath? First, we remember who God is. The God who grants the exodus from slavery, the God who commands a day of rest, is also the God who heals the lame and restores sight to the blind. Yes, it’s work — but it’s the work of freeing people from oppression.
Second, we remember who we are in relationship to that God.
We are not brick-makers short on straw. We are free, not slaves. We are healed, not lame.
And whatever we do to honor the Sabbath, it should immerse us in our true identity as children of the one true God.