When I was a child, Sunday was a day of rest or play. I don’t remember my parents ever doing any activity that could have been construed as work, and they didn’t allow us children to do anything of the sort, either. Meals were prepared and the kitchen was cleaned up but no other household chores were done—no laundry or cleaning. And certainly, there was no outdoor activity permitted that could be seen as manual labor, no gardening or lawn mowing, for example.
If we drove a distance to visit relatives in the summer as we often did, my dad would comment at the first tractor he saw out in the fields, that they were Lutheran or Catholic, certainly not Mennonite. Sundays were special. After church, and family meal around the table, the afternoon was spent quietly, reading, or napping, or listening to a baseball game on the radio. Sunday evenings, it was back to church, or if we were lucky, to our grandpa’s house. He had a TV and we loved to watch Bonanza or the Ed Sullivan Show.
I remember living in Boston in the mid 80s when Massachusetts finally ended the old blue laws and allowed stores to open on Sundays. The transformation was immediate and the peace of the streets and sidewalks of Boston and Cambridge on Sundays gave way to the normal frenzy of activity and the awful traffic of weekdays.
Thinking about the way I used to experience Sunday is a reminder of how much I and our culture have changed over the last fifty years. I’m still inclined to take a nap on Sunday afternoon, but later in the day, I wouldn’t have a second thought about throwing a load of laundry in the washer or going out into the garden to weed or clean up. And shopping? Of course! I’m grateful for the convenience of being able to purchase beer or wine on Sunday in Wisconsin, unlike other states where I’ve lived over the years.
My parents’ attitude toward the Sabbath, and the blue laws are both vestiges of a time when America widely observed the fourth commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” I think most of us who remember those times experience restrictions on activity on Sunday as oppressive, unnecessary, old-fashioned and that colors the way we hear today’s gospel stories.
As Americans, we have been acculturated to value individualism, and personal freedom above almost everything else, so the idea that we might not be able to do whatever we want, whether it be a load of laundry or going grocery shopping, on a particular day of the week, elicits visceral, negative responses.
Thus, when we hear the Pharisees complain about Jesus’ disciples picking and eating grain on the Sabbath, or their criticism of Jesus’ for healing a man with a withered hand, our reactions are in part shaped by all of those deeply ingrained cultural attitudes, as well as by two millennia of Christian anti-Judaism which contrasts pharisaic morality and legalism with the freedom offered by Jesus.
What we see here is not a conflict between rival religions but a conflict within Judaism; even a conflict within a particular movement in Judaism. Jesus and the Pharisees are not disagreeing about the Torah, they are disagreeing about its interpretation. Both would acknowledge the importance of the commandment “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” The question they are debating is what does it mean to keep the Sabbath day holy. Jesus says, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath.” It’s quite similar to statements from rabbinic literature a century later (perhaps preserving earlier traditions): “The Sabbath is handed over to you, not you to it” and “Profane one Sabbath for a person’s sake, so that he may keep many Sabbaths.”
But what did Jesus mean when he said, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath?” We might be inclined to think that the Sabbath then is dependent on human interpretation, or human desire for keeping it, but it’s likely Jesus meant something rather different.
To get at this question, it’s worth going back to the commandment. There are two versions of it in Hebrew scripture, and we heard the less familiar one, from the book of Deuteronomy, not from Exodus 20:8-11 where the commandment to keep the Sabbath holy and to rest on that day is connected with God’s actions in creation—creating the universe and humankind on the first six days and on the seventh resting, blessing the seventh day and hallowing it.
It’s not only that God created, blessed, and sanctified the Sabbath; God also blessed and sanctified rest itself. Indeed, we can see that in addition to being a God who creates, God is also a God who rests and in so doing, offers us the gift of blessed and sanctified rest. Imagine that. In our frantic world, when we have made ourselves slaves to our devices, to our email and texts, when so many of us are never disconnected from our jobs, God offers us the gift of blessed and sanctified rest. We can disconnect, slow down, and stop—and, most importantly, we don’t need to feel guilty about it, because God has given us the opportunity, the gift, of sanctified and blessed rest.
The reason for keeping the Sabbath day holy and for resting is rather different in the Deuteronomy version: “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.”
To put it bluntly, here observance of the Sabbath is also connected with God’s nature and God’s actions. But in this case what is emphasized is God’s act of liberation of God’s people—the deliverance of the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt. So Sabbath is partially an act of remembrance of what God has done, and who God’s people are, but it is also liberation or freedom, in the sense that on this day, God’s people do not have labor and toil as they did while they were slaves in Egypt; or to use a contemporary metaphor, slaves to the almighty dollar.
But Sabbath is not a day of rest, remembrance, and liberation for myself alone; it is also a day of rest for everyone—male and female, slave and free, and even one’s animals. The day of rest extends to all of creation! In that sense, the commandment to rest on the Sabbath connects up with the commandment to love one’s neighbors. It is an act of love of others to allow them to rest, as well.
In his wonderful little book, Sabbath as Resistance, Hebrew Bible scholar Walter Brueggeman takes it a step further. Noting that we are caught up in a consuming and commodity culture, where our value is based on what we have and buy and where we are bombarded by advertising, made anxious when we don’t accumulate enough stuff, or enough for retirement, Sabbath is also an act of resistance against that anxious and acquisitive culture. He writes:
I have come to think that the fourth commandment on Sabbath is the most difficult and most urgent of the commandments in our society, because it summons us to intent and conduct that defies the most elemental requirements of a commodity-propelled society that specializes in control and entertainment, bread and circuses … along with anxiety and violence.
To be sure, I am preaching to myself as well as to you. I find it enormously difficult to take a Sabbath, even when the Sabbath I take is on Monday, not Sunday. I routinely take emails, or texts or phone calls from staff or lay leadership. My thoughts on Monday as they are throughout the week, on matters at church. I go shopping, I do all the chores that I don’t have time to do on other days of the week. But I see the beauty and importance of that rest, and resistance. I see and sense the sanctity of blessed rest, for myself and for the world; and when I break away from the rat race of consumption, acquisition, and anxiety, be it for a whole day, or for an hour of yoga, or a bike ride, or ballroom dance. I experience the joy of rest, the sanctity of separation from the concerns of the world. And I like to think that it helps to give me perspective on my work and on the world. I encourage all of you to look for ways of bringing Sabbath into your lives and the life of your families, whether it be for a day, a half-day, or even an hour; to enjoy the blessed and sanctified rest of a restful God, and to experience the freedom in a God who liberates us.