In this midsummer month, my thoughts turn to the ancient idea of sabbath.
I suspect that, of all the Ten Commandments, this may well be the most frequently ignored and broken. We understand the seriousness of offenses like murder, idolatry and adultery, but we have relegated the commandment to rest to the realm of good advice rather than law. I suspect, however, that the cost of breaking the sabbath law is extraordinarily high when measured by the quality of our physical, mental and spiritual health, and the state of our relationships.
What is sabbath? Sabbath is imbedded in God’s relationship with Israel. According to Exodus, it’s the fourth commandment given to Moses on Sinai. In both versions of the Ten Commandments, God even gives reasons for this requirement: In Exodus the sabbath command is warranted because even God rested on the seventh day of creation: “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.” If God takes time off, why do we think we’re so important?
Deuteronomy reports a different emphasis, where the commandment is warranted by the Exodus from Egypt: “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.” Keeping sabbath time is a statement to the world that you are not a slave!
It may be that our difficulty with the commandment to keep the sabbath is that it is difficult to apply to the culture. We live in a world that worships productiveness, busyness and progress. Resting seems to go against these modern idols. Taking a day a week to “do no work” sounds lazy and counterproductive. Again, it is treated as a “good idea,” but this just may be the least utilized good idea of them all.
My clergy friends and I are not exempt from the problem. For 40 years I have worked on Sundays. My Saturdays are often filled with weddings, memorial services or workshops. I call Thursday my “day off,” but board meetings in the community interrupt even those. So I publicly confess: I am a sabbath breaker. Mea culpa. God forgive me.
So I guess we’re in this together, you and I. Sabbath Breakers Anonymous. “Hi. I’m Blair, and I’m a sabbath breaker.” I must admit that my Jewish neighbors in the North Dallas Eruv put me to shame, as they walk to Temple on a sabbath evening, careful to stay within the area where one can at least carry a water bottle or push a stroller. Yes, they are careful, full of care, knowing that there are good reasons for sabbath time, and that we break the commandment at our own peril. Not that I think God will punish us for driving on the sabbath, but that we punish ourselves when life constantly drives us.