Unwrapping the Gift of Sabbath

This post is adapted from a sermon I gave at Nauraushaun Presbyterian Church in Pearl River, NY on Sunday July 20, 2014. It’s part of a series on the Ten Commandments or the “Ten Words” (as they’re actually referred to in the text), a conscious attempt to rediscover them as words of life and freedom rather than statutes or requirements.

I’m just going to say it: Sabbath is weird for Christians. I mean, everybody likes a day off, but Sabbath raises all kinds of questions. Are Christians required to observe a Sabbath? How precisely should we do it? Does it matter which day it is? What constitutes “rest”? What constitutes “work”? How do I know when I’ve Sabbathed enough? And while we’re at it, does God actually get tuckered out and need a break? Is that a thing? And how does “take a nap” make it into the Top Ten commandments right along with “don’t murder” and “honor your father and mother”?

Thinking about Sabbath makes me tired.

Why is Sabbath so tricky for us? I think the problem is, as with so much biblical material, that we’re so far away from the mind and heart of the world that produced these ancient texts and we’re just filling in the blanks with our assumptions. We inherited this thing called “Sabbath,” but we don’t really know how it works. It’s a fun day off, but it’s also a commandment. Relaxation and ritual are two flavors that taste weird together, so we’ve embraced the one and ignored the other. We’re left with a “holy day” that means almost nothing to us. And we never talk about it.

Jesus To The Rescue!

In First Century Judaea, according to the gospel authors, they had quite a different problem. Everyone talked about Sabbath. A lot. There was no shortage of opinions as to the meaning and mandate of Sabbath. By Jesus’ day, endless rules and clarifications and customs and traditions had been piled on top of the original Sabbath commandment, and debate raged concerning every possible detail and loophole. For his part as a teacher himself, Jesus’ contribution was not to layer on more opinions and restrictions and customs, but in fact to defy and reject them. Jesus didn’t reject Sabbath as an idea or institution, but he quite cavalierly stepped on the toes of the self-appointed watchdogs of proper Sabbathkeeping. He broke the many rules of Sabbath, and did so frequently and publicly.

When confronted with his transgression, Jesus gave his famous reply, “Sabbath was made for people, not people for Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Sabbath, says Jesus, is supposed to be a gift and blessing for humans, not a master to rule over them. Jesus gives us permission to go back to the drawing board and rediscover Sabbath as a “word of life” rather than a religious prison.

Unwrapping the Gift of Sabbath

So we have some homework to do. Here’s the original Sabbath “word” from Exodus Chapter 20:

8 Remember the sabbath day and keep it special.
9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work,
10 but the seventh day is a sabbath of YHWH your God: you shall not do any work — you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements.
11 For in six days YHWH made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; therefore YHWH blessed the sabbath day and made it special.
(Exodus 20:8-11)

I believe that, taken in proper context, this ancient “commandment” constitutes an invitation to us (after Israel) to become synchronized with God’s own time, a divine sort of rhythm, in which we discover a treasure trove of good gifts. I want to highlight three of them: IDENTITY, JUSTICE, and EQUALITY. Not words we typically associate with Sabbath, but hear me out:

1. The Gift of IDENTITY

Exodus is a story of salvation and identity. God plucks his people Israel out of the cauldron of oppression and slavery, and then restores her dignity by giving her a name and a new identity. We like the first part of the story, the rescue, because it’s easy to follow and makes a great movie. But then we get into all of those laws and feasts and commandments, and we lose the plot. Boring! Except, that’s the real heart of the whole story. That’s the life-giving stuff that turns wandering ex-slaves into a people and a nation. To the Israelites, Torah is not a prison of religious obligation, it’s the boundary that reveals the shape of a new kind of life.

And Sabbath is a primary feature and expression of that new life. The six-day work cycle and Sabbath observance are a way of integrating the Hebrews’ unique understanding of creation into their daily existence, and a way of setting them apart from their neighbors (and their oppressors – ancient Egypt observed an uninterrupted ten-day work cycle). Sabbath is a tangible, livable marker of their new identity as the people of the Creator, a countercultural statement of who they are.

2. The Gift of JUSTICE

This is an aspect of Sabbath that has rarely been explored by Christians, but one that is both transformative and crucial. In the creation poem, the song of Genesis 1, God pauses (“rests”) when the work of creation is complete, and sees that the work is “good.” Sabbath, then, is an occasion to look at our work and world and determine whether or not what we see is good. If it’s not good, it would stand to reason that it should be made good. Sabbath provides this opportunity on a regular basis, and without it we might forget to stop and self-assess.

This principle is greatly amplified in another Torah institution called Jubilee (see Leviticus 25). Jubilee is a sort of Sabbath year, a “rest” year after years of business as usual. It’s not a whole year of sleep (though that would be amazing), but a year when wrong things are to be set right: debts forgiven, slaves set free, and property restored. Human schemes are interrupted, and society re-synchronizes itself with God’s time, and justice is accomplished.

Biblical historians doubt whether a true Jubilee was ever actually observed in ancient Israel, but the concept is incendiary and it illuminates Sabbath in a profound way. If Jubilee is the opportunity for justice at the national or societal level, then Sabbath provides the same opportunity in the neighborhood, the household, the relationship. It represents the hope that our plans and schemes might be interrupted, and things put right.

3. The Gift of EQUALITY

For the third gift we turn our attention to the list of those affected by the Sabbath ordinance:

10 …You shall not do any work — you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the alien who is within your settlements.

This is one of those bits which locate the Ten Commandments firmly in their historical setting. Not only does it describe the lifestyle of nomads who are becoming settled farmers, it reflects something of their (rather regressive) notions of social hierarchy. (Slavery is assumed, and note how livestock ranks higher than foreigners!). Once we get over the culture shock, however, we notice the extraordinary defining feature of this list: its egalitarian nature.

This gift of Sabbath, this gift of God’s own IDENTITY and God’s own JUSTICE, is not only for male heads of households. It’s not only for members of households. It’s not even only for those who call themselves the “people of God.” It’s not even only for humans! The gift of Sabbath is for absolutely everyone. The safety and opportunity of God’s own day of rest and restoration is not the exclusive property of any special group.


So Sabbath need not be a ritual or a burden. In fact it really is a gift, the gift of God’s own rhythm, a divine sense of time, a rest that is meant to bring freedom and justice and equality to every single corner of creation. Oh, and one more thing: Just as the “days” of creation are symbolic of the order and goodness of God’s work and need not be understood as literal 24-hour periods of time, so it is with Sabbath. Sabbath isn’t a magic day, it’s a state of mind. It’s a moment of self-awareness, of repentance, of empathy. It’s an invitation to live in harmony with the good creation of the good God.